2019 Elections and the Battle for the Soul of Nigeria -By Simbo Olorunfemi

Filed under: Political Issues |

The characteristic vice of the utopian is naivety; of the realist, sterility” – E.H. Carr

The reality of the 2019 elections battle is finally dawning upon us. The contestation for power is becoming heightened. Alignments and re-alignments are taking place. Some of the early birds who took the assurance of a ticket on some platform for granted are beginning to realise their mistakes. The party that was in power yesterday has now become a receiver of presidential aspirants of all shapes and sizes, who have come to the realisation of the folly in nursing such ambition within the fold of the governing party, with the incumbent favoured to pick the ticket. Port Harcourt has become the de facto headquarters of the party. There is a new godfather in town, and people are trooping in to pay obeisance and genuflect before him in the name of condolence visits. It is the way of our politics. The contestation for power is usually high-stakes. The godfathers of yesterday have become irrelevant. The man who sits on oil money now calls the shots. The governors have the structure, the resources and other evident elements of power. They have the advantage.

But then, they strategise for their return to power in the mistaken belief that 2019 will be like 2015 and that all they need to do is conjure a CUPP in the name of a coalition and simply self-medicate on a potion brewed by a different set of people for a different ailment. Party A, born of an amalgam of three-and-a-half legacy parties, shoves the ruling party out of power. Three years down the line, Party B assembles a long list of briefcase parties along with some weather-beaten men from some other parties, expecting that this assortment of paperweights will replicate the act of Party A. Self-medication. That it worked for A, we simply assume that it will work for B. Political engineering is like medicine. Accurate diagnosis is critical to a successful course of action. Proceeding with medication without proper diagnosis is fraught with error, if not danger. That is why a diagnosis of what the problem is must be the first step in political engineering, for you to attain power.

There is a different face of the battle going on for the soul of Nigeria that they are only at the fringe of, even if they are paying attention to it and attempted to embrace or hijack it in the name of a poorly-cobbled together coalition that predictably collapsed before it could even take off.


Simbo Olorunfemi


The real battle for the soul of Nigeria is at the other end of the spectrum. A gap has been rightly identified, interpreted by some as the need for the ‘Third force’. Early this year, there was much fuss about such force. The excitement was palpable in some camps – avowed opposition forces to the present leadership were beyond happy at the coming of the Third Force. Some, yesterday-supporters of the present, unimpressed by the performance of the government embraced that as the possible alternative.

Indeed, we had predicted the birth of a third force far back. Early in 2016, I submitted that “The contradictions within the PDP resolved itself in favour of Nigeria, leading to a paradigm shift towards a little to the left. If contradictions within the governing party are not speedily resolved to the satisfaction of its progressive tendency, it will only hasten the birth of a strong opposition outside of its control. The APC will then find itself pushed to the right, for the opposition of the future to take its place, further to the left of the spectrum.”

Not sure if the APC will still end up to the right as I had projected, as the left-leaning side might have pushed the right-leaning side out, I had thought the left-leaning tendency within might be forced out. But the defections happening now are largely right-leaning, which might just help post-2019 to push the party towards the left, for the new aligned forces to take to the right.

I had wanted the progressives outside to team up with the remnants within APC to shape its thought and philosophy with a view to causing a paradigm shift within, but I am not sure many of them see that as the way to go. Even outside, the progressive tendency is simply unable to coalesce, to die to the self, forge a consensus to take advantage of the vacuum to the left. Each one thinks it is all about forming a new party, not realising that it only splinters progressivism and weakens the collective.

So, rather than the right as we used to know it to die now, it is being handed another chance at life, courtesy of the contradictions within the left and an apparent lack of foresight and strategy. The political space abhors a vacuum. Since the left will not take its place, the right sees the gap but it is misreading the opportunity. Yet, I maintain, on the strength of a dialectical extrapolation, that the future is still to the left, even if the form it would take remains unclear, for now.

When the Third Force was launched, we were quick to let it out that this was not the real thing and that we were only dealing with a different face of a single force. Of course, the idealists had some other version and then there was the red card joke. My argument was simply that there was really nothing in our recent history to support the optimism some reposed in a Third Force, as was being touted as a vehicle for upturning the cart. If anything, the coming of a Third Force, in the manner we are seeing it, can only favour the fortune of the incumbent more than it can ever benefit the opposition, as the incumbent’s base is often largely left intact in such a scenario, while the opposition further splinters. It is telling that the Third Force could not even muster enough force to take off, talk less of sustaining its flight, while grounded by the absurdity of the circumstances of its birth and the quality of thought of the promoters.

Some do not recognise that politics is like marketing, in a way. It is not enough to see a gap in the market, the question of the viability of the market in the gap that must inevitably follow. Many of the proponents of the Third Force, idealists and rabble-rousers, might not have critically considered the latter. That explains the tacky responses we have had towards taking advantage of the gap. That is why the Presidential Aspirants Coming Together (PACT) that was supposed to bring together alternative presidential aspirants could not achieve much. PACTs such as this fall apart when you put the cart before the horse.

In fashioning solutions, we must take into account our strengths and weaknesses. We must recognise who we are as a people and work around our frailties. I have repeatedly lamented our lack of capacity or interest in working or even thinking as a collective. When the movement to go a new direction began to gain momentum in 2016, I wrote an article, querying the wisdom in setting up new political parties, identifying what I consider the fundament in the logjam and proposing what we can do to break it. I argued then that “… the problem with Nigeria is not an insufficiency of political platforms or parties through which one can ventilate one’s political philosophy or actualise the ambition for power (and that) our problem, in fact, is the ease with which we take to charting our own course, seeking to singularly take on a new path rather than joining hands to build one house and not dissipating energy in different directions.” PACT falling apart is part-proof that we might not have been wrong in our submission.

But, one point to note is that there is really nothing new to newbies running for office of the president in Nigeria, just to make the point, as some seem to argue for, at the moment. Each of the previous elections has featured dozens of new – young and not-too-young faces, some running multiple times. So many outsiders who people do not know their names have run in the past. There is a litany of past presidential candidates who ran as outsiders, when they were even younger than some of the aspirants of today. There is really nothing new or different in what we are witnessing now. What we lack is that willingness to learn from mistakes made by others in the past in building our future.

Indeed, the real battle for the future that we seek and truly deserve is that between idealists and pragmatists. Every struggle, at some point, will throw up a spectrum. There will be different shades of understanding of what the struggle is about and how it ought to be executed. There are the ‘Purists’ who would want to go it all alone, not wanting to associate or be tainted by anything that bears semblance with the status quo.

There are the ‘Idealists’ who aim for that which is likely unattainable. They are forever betrothed to the elegance and details of the struggle, enchanted by the attention an involvement with the struggle brings, oblivious of, and unwilling, sometimes, to put in the dirty work required for a realisation of the objective.

In a way, they are like the Purists. They usually neither have the resources, nor are they concerned or conscious of the need to design a methodology for raising resources needed, seeing that without such, the execution of programme is bound to be fraught with problems.

There are also the fair-weather agitators. For them, the struggle is all about the belly. At the slightest hint of discomfort, they begin to pull back. A slight wink from the opposite side, and they cross over. They are gone. They become foot-soldiers for the other side. They repudiate whatever they once claimed to believe. They never did, in the first place.

Then, there are the pragmatists. These ones see the ending from the beginning. They have a strategy in place. They are tactical, as well. They have options in mind. They know when to engage, when to hold back, when to sit down, when to accept a compromise, having foreseen that point of compromise, even before it materialises.

Every one genuinely desirous of change starts from one point of the spectrum or the other. Most genuine agents of change start at the extreme left – fiery, uncompromising, revolutionary-idealist, who want to bring the house down.

But time and experience often mellow most. A richer perspective mould many into different people from whom they were, starting out. The man who worked and walked into the prison will sit down with the oppressor, behind the scene, to negotiate peace for the sake of the future. Every struggle needs a mix of the different elements. Some will stay true to the struggle. Some will sell out. A few will be sacrificed. Some will be fortunate to see the end of the struggle. A few will benefit from the struggle.

There is a battle presently going on to reclaim the soul of Nigeria. There is an on-going contestation between those who want the status quo to remain, there are pragmatists at work in their own way, there are idealists who believe things can work out in a particular way, irrespective of the realities and the odds, and then, there are puritans who insist it has to be their own way or no other way.

Some who were idealists yesterday are pragmatists today. Some who were pragmatists yesterday have become purists or idealists of convenience today. Some who were onlookers yesterday are purists today. Some who were in charge of yesterday are new-age idealists today. We always have a mix of the different elements at every part of the chain, from top to bottom. Knowing and accepting where each stands in the battle is crucial. Knowing the right time and what point to move from one point to the other is critical for the struggle – for the individual, the collective and the nation.

The challenge is that idealists often confuse politics with ethics, whereas it is not. We must recognise that a political party is not a gathering of saints beatified for the purpose of assisting arm-chair activists to achieve their objectives, while they sit in their corners, punching away on keyboards. Politics is about hard contestation for power. Moral sophistry is no substitute for strategic thinking and engagement, which should precipitate action on the part of advocates for change. I do not dismiss the place of ethics or morality but I argue that they must be framed around workable solutions with a pragmatic mind-set. To approach politics at the normative level with a nose-thumping attitude is naïve and unrealistic. We have to understand the system, break down the structure in our mind and strategise on how we can deploy ideas to break it, as a collective. I heard someone say that politics is not about being cool, but about tough choices.” I agree.

Bernard Crick reminds us that politics is a messy, mundane, inconclusive and tangled business that cannot be compared to the ‘world-shaking quests’ that afflict the ‘totalitarian intellectual’. “Politics is not religion, ethics, law, science, history, or economics; it neither solves everything, nor is it present everywhere; and it is not any one political doctrine, such as conservatism, liberalism, socialism, communism, or nationalism, though it can contain elements of most of these things. Politics is politics, to be valued as itself, not because it is ‘like’ or ‘really is’ something else more respectable or peculiar. Politics is politics.”

We must understand that politics is the substructure and governance the superstructure. The sub is the foundation for the super. Politics is not a “grasping for the ideal; but neither is it a freezing of tradition. It is an activity – lively, adaptive, flexible, and conciliatory.” The earlier we understand that, the better. Being a cynic or critic is the easy bit. Seeing the end ahead, understanding the contours of the journey, is the difficult thing.

If indeed the battle is for the soul of the nation and tomorrow, it should inevitably lead one in the direction of pragmatism for 2019.

Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy and publisher of Africa Enterprise. Twitter: @simboolorunfemi