Campaign spokesmen and a no-winner contest
By Lasisi Olagunju
POLITICS DIGEST- I do not know how many people still remember that Dr Tai Solarin was here. He was one of the most decent human beings ever created for Nigeria. Dr Solarin was a columnist with the Nigerian Tribune for most of his active life. Some 52 years ago (in 1970), he penned a piece with the title: ‘My Name, My Good Name.’ In that column, Tai wrote that after the first military coup (of 1966), he “suddenly realized that everybody in Nigeria was taking note of everything being said and being done by everybody else.” He held that no big man anywhere was safe from whatever he had said or done. Only the poor yokel had salvation from the wages of careless utterances. Solarin addressed that issue so well that you would have no problem agreeing that this was one instance of poverty being a blessing. In this wise, Tai said, “the village farmer is very lucky; he lives an absolutely quiet and undisturbed life…all he says is to his wife and his children…”
Then he went on to dwell on what he called “unforgettable utterances” of the elite, the big men of Nigeria. He wrote: “Not so the man who practises politics or writes for a newspaper or shows his face on the television screen or makes use of the radio. He is so well known and whatever he says is taken notice of. After that first coup (of 1966), several people spoke and got reported to the effect that Nigerians would henceforth be very careful in what they did or said for they would so quickly realize that the soldiers in the barracks were keeping diaries and tagging people to their utterances.” Then he cited some of the “unforgettable utterances” of First Republic politicians: “£800 is nothing to me”; “If you rig the election, I will kill you; if you don’t rig the election, I will not kill you”; “Be the government in power saint or sinner, it would be foolish for a person not to be in it.” Dr Solarin went on and on to cite what politicians said and did at a time they thought they had climbed the tallest tree to the top and had seen the beginning and the end of life.
Not crazier than now but crazy. A prominent politician was asked how many houses were being built for him at a certain point in time, he replied that he didn’t know and could not say. “Looking back at those days, I certainly do not think that he intended to lie. He just didn’t know how many houses were going up for him…” Dr Tai Solarin wrote while also naming one politician who built a palace and inserted in each room a bed that carried a £2,500 price tag. “But long before K.O. opened his ‘Operation Fantastic Palace’, a friend told me about the palace. He told me that it was, indeed, a palace. He told me that the swimming pool in K.O’s palace cost £140,000 and that £100,000 went for the swimming pool itself and £40,000 went to supply the water. When this water was being supplied and his friends were having a jolly good swim, there was no water for the common man across a radius of five miles.” The rains started beating the vulture of Nigeria a long time ago.
In 1970, Dr Solarin was certain that given what our First Republic big men suffered at the hands of their soldier-successors, “Nigerians would henceforth be very careful in what they did or said.” He was wrong. From 1970 to 2022, the elite wreaked a billion times more havoc than Tai Solarin witnessed. Today, unlike in Solarin’s age, there is no keeping diaries again; no ‘soldier’ keeps records and tags anyone to whatever anyone says or does. That duty is now painstakingly that of something called the Internet with its noisy platforms of instant justice. Politicians and their spokespersons have been having their fingers charred lately by bowls of pounded yam prepared by them (or for them) some thirty, forty, fifty years ago. The New Media is the curator; it exhumes skeletons and mummies long buried in vaults of long lost cities. Yet, those who rule us, and those plotting to rule us, do not care. Chameleon is called Alagemo in Yoruba. Alagemo is asked why he walks so carefully, slowly; he answers that he does so so that the ground would not cave in. That wisdom is lost on our Toads who pound the ground with their bodies. It is because of today that we are asked to take very good care of yesterday. For Nigeria, nothing is remembered; nothing is forgotten; nothing will happen.
Everyone desires a good name no matter what deed they do. Politicians and political office seekers want it and, thus, they armour themselves with spokesmen and image makers whose brief is ostensibly to study George Orwell and to always give “an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have many who speak for them. I don’t think they themselves know how many they have. But, here, I am interested in Tinubu’s men because they and their boss are the men in the news for the wrong reasons. The biggest man in APC has around him some very good gentlemen; but he has the very toxic too in equal measure. A toxic person is “anyone whose behaviour adds negativity and upset to your life.” That is a medical expert’s definition of toxicity in people. If a politician must talk and do things; tell him to say and do what he would be proud of twenty, thirty years from now. But because the politician is a human being who cannot walk without his head shaking on his neck, he is likely to commit errors and make gaffes. That is where (and why) he needs at least an image purifier. If a politician must have a spokesman, tell him the person must have an image of trustworthiness, of being credible and competent – and without any air of arrogance. An image maker cannot be credible if he had said in the past the very opposite of everything you are hiring him to come and say for you. You cannot say Adégún (the crown fits) today, and, tomorrow, move to the other side of the town and say Adéògún (the crown does not fit). You do that and have your words come back unsold from the market. Tinubu has them; and the internet does not forget. In this age of social media and its lack of respect for the irreverent, uncouth spokesmen are hanging apples; they invite clubs and stones to the tree that fruits them.
I don’t want to join the hullabaloo of Tinubu’s “balabloo bloo blu bulaba.” I have scanned the contours of the seabed for the lost city that speaks those words. I found no clue. The closest I got is in Ngugi wa Thiongo’s ‘Wizard of the Crow’, a satire on demons of power. The protagonist in that story is the Ruler. Sick and seeking cure, the Ruler belches after every meal, “sometimes counting from one to ten, and chanting ka ke ki ko ku aloud.” Hundreds of Tinubu’s unpaid lovers were strident that the “balabloo bloo blu bulaba” campaign scare was from a manipulated video clip, but a spokesman on overdrive validated it with a witless tweet. He said it was real but was fun. How could kingsize incoherence be pleasure and pleasurable? Contesting a presidential election in an age of social media is enough self-inflicted trouble; adding excess stress from bovine spokesmen provides the killer punch. It is not a surprise that Tinubu, in a viral video, bemoans what social media does to him: “I don’t read social media anymore. They abuse (the) hell out of me. If I read it, I get high blood pressure; I get angry. I don’t read it…”, he said in the video. I pity him. But you can’t plunge into the deep sea of presidential election politics and think you would come out dry, spick and span.
But the complainant is also an abuser. You heard what Tinubu said of his opponents in Delta State at the weekend. He called them people without shame and reminded us of what those ones said and did in a moment of commotion almost twenty years ago. “They publicly accused each other of using PTDF funds to buy cars for girlfriends,” he shouted and his people clapped for him. About four years ago (February 2019) when two bullion vans were filmed entering his Bourdillon home, was it the abundance of shame that made Tinubu claim ownership of the errant vans and call the bluff of poser raisers? He roared: “Excuse me, is it my money or government money?…Who are those watching my house and looking for bullion vans? They must be mischief makers…” He didn’t deny it. The campaigns are just starting. We are already seeing so much stress and strains; so much breaking of bones and cracking of skulls. We will see more and hear more from small and big men and women. They will “abuse the hell” out of one another. My own is to sit in my corner, whistling, smiling and taking notes.
It is not only politicians who are saying weighty things today which may be used against them tomorrow. Even the impartial referee is also talking. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) hinted on Friday that the 2023 presidential contest may not produce a winner at the first ballot. INEC’s spokesman, Festus Okoye told the media in Abuja that his commission had printed twice the number of ballot papers needed for the polls. This, he said, was in preparation for a possible second ballot to resolve a jam: “If no candidate emerges on the first ballot, only two candidates are going to be on the second ballot…You may have a situation where one candidate in the election secures 10 million votes and the second candidate secured 9 million votes and the third candidate secured 7 million votes but that third candidate secured the majority of votes in the highest number of states. The constitution says it is that third candidate that will be on the ballot with the first person.”
Students of Mathematics will have something to play with here. Their skills in permutation and combination; inclusion and exclusion may come to play. There are eighteen presidential candidates in this election but there are many more others. A friend called those ones the unlisted candidates. They are not on the ballot but they are very much in the race. They are more dangerous than the listed because their lives hang on the success of their respective candidates. But among the listed, it should not be difficult to predict the three in INEC’s permutation. They are Atiku, Tinubu and Labour Party’s Peter Obi. It is no brainer that both Atiku and Tinubu will have no problem of electoral spread across the 36 states. Their parties have candidates in virtually all constituencies in all the states. Peter Obi’s LP may not have as many candidates as the behemoths but Obi has people large enough in numbers to assail the Bastille of the two big candidates. This is where problem lurks. What do you think will be the consequence of any of the big three having the second highest number of votes and not being on the second ballot? Go quietly into the night, sulk or endorse what they loathe? Here, I pity the Obi people; their bird can only fly and get the trophy at the first ballot. Let them work hard and see their candidate roar to victory in the very first ballot or forget it. A second ballot is potentially troublous. It will tear the nation along the Lugardian fault lines. Atiku and Tinubu are most likely running their last race; they are in their seventies; they are old, but they insist they are not spent. They brought into the race the Shakespearean resolve of “bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible.” Their 2023 aspirations, therefore, come with some urgency.
Politicians already know that the words from INEC call for vigilance. If they are not eating the yam of vigilance because of palm oil, they take palm oil because of the yam. A contest of no-winner is a deja vu, especially for the Hope ensemble. George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty Four wrote that the best books are those that tell us what we already know. Why do you think INEC had to inform us in November 2022 that there may be no winner at the first ballot in February 2023? I suspect that Nigeria is about to happen again. “The Ruler is pregnant. What he will give birth to, nobody knows.” Ngugi wa Thiongo wrote that line of sorcery in the ‘Wizard of the Crow’ cited earlier. And, in case you like asking too many questions and wonder who the pregnant ruler is, Ngugi says what he did was to “substitute the word ‘ruler’ for the ‘country’” because the ruler is ‘the country.’ He has to be the country because his reign has no beginning and it has no end. We have him and we will soon have him. You should know we will have more of the past of greed and indiscretion now that kingmakers from eternity ruthlessly scheme to be king. And when our country is blessed with such a leader, men, women, children will line the streets; they will join Ngugi to sing for the sovereign as he “walks the earth like a leopard/lights the path with the eyes of a tiger/And roars with a lion’s fury.”
Nigeria is pregnant. If you know what it will give birth to, please tell us.
Dr. Lasisi Olagunju is an editor and columnist with the Nigerian Tribune