Eddie Iroh: Ekiti as template for change

by Eddie Iroh


But there is one person who probably more than all of us, deserves the greatest plaudits for what has happened in Ekiti. It is Senator Ben Ndi Obi, the Special Adviser to the President on Inter-party Affairs. Obi is a master of his brief as a unifying force in a politically volatile nation like Nigeria

In the next few days I imagine there will be countless column inches and many miles of editorials written on what happened in Ekiti State last Saturday. And that is as it should be because a new moon appeared over the horizon in the Progressive State of Ekiti, an uncommon occurrence in our nation after many eclipses in the firmament of our body politics and elections.

Although today all Nigerians can proudly claim to be indigenes of Ekiti, I have a personal stake and a special interest in what happened in that state. Just four weeks ago, I was one of a number of Nigerians invited to an All-Party Summit in Ado-Ekiti by the auspices of the Office of the Special Adviser to the President on Inter-Party Affairs. As many who know me will testify, although I believe I understand politics pretty well, especially its interface with my own media profession, I am definitely not a politician. I believe therefore that, apart from whatever intellectual input I could make, my other qualification for being asked to present the lead paper at the Ekiti Summit must be because I belong to that sole and unique political movement which every Nigerian should belong to, namely the FRN – Federal Republic of Nigeria. In addition, I was attracted by the theme which the Special Adviser, Senator Ben Ndi Obi, had designed for the summit. The objective of the gathering was to find how the contending political parties can collectively ensure that the gubernatorial polls were “peaceful, free, credible and successful.

” The summit further wanted to ensure a peaceful atmosphere, not as a one-off achievement but also “before, during and after the elections.” I felt that the latter objective was just as important because as writer Paul Collier once said, “elections determine who gets power but it does not determine how power is used.” With agenda like this, Ekiti promised to be a ground-breaking event. And indeed it has turned out to be so in more ways than one. If you suspect that I am gloating, you are right. I am gloating, but not for myself alone but for Ekiti State in particular and Nigeria in general. I mean how often does Ekiti happen in our politics? Where else has it happened before?
But let me share my personal reason for gloating. In my lead paper entitled “Democracy and the Politics of Elections,” I told the contestants: “The opportunity for leadership and greatness is within your grasp if you can rise above self, group, political, ethnic and religious prejudice. You can do it if you can stand up for Nigeria. I will like to experience for the first time, a Nigerian political leader who can stand up in Ekiti State, look at the election results, find the courage to concede defeat, and the magnanimity to pick up the phone, call his opposite number in the other political party and congratulate him.”

Now you can see why I am gloating for Ekiti State, for Nigeria (and oh yes for myself!). If I were a pastor I would have claimed that I prophesied it! But is there any full blooded Nigerian who is not gloating that what was once thought unhappenable in Nigeria has just happened before our own very eyes? In many minds, Ekiti was to be a test-run for electoral killing fields, vote rigging and the politics of do-or-die as Nigeria approaches 2015. But in a single act of uncommon courage, one man, John Kayode Fayemi (JKF), has re-written the doomsday script and written his name into a unique page of Nigerian history, among statesmen of which we have very few.

Governor Kayode can be excused if he changes his initials from JKF to JFK! Fayemi reached beyond himself, beyond his party, religious and other interests to reach a level of statesmanship that few if any of our leaders had ever attempted in our political history. In his defeat, Fayemi scored a unique kind of victory, a victory for Ekiti State, for Nigeria and for democracy. Fayemi met head-on one of the challenges that Chinua Achebe posed for Nigerian leaders – “the responsibility of personal example.”

There is another group of Nigerians who are entitled to gloat. It is our corps of hardcore columnists and commentators who daily engage our nation in soul searching, challenging her conscience, and advocating a day like last Saturday; for change that can enthrone politics without bitterness as preached by the late Waziri Ibrahim. I know that most of the time it appears as if we are merely whistling in the wind or at best engaged in the dialogue of the deaf. Now Ekiti raises a ray of hope that perhaps, just perhaps the message may be getting through. For one of the greatest challenges of public engagement in Nigeria is the perennial question of whether anyone is listening; whether anyone really cares? In answer to this troubling question we are forever searching for signs of hope, for building blocks of the change that this nation so desperately needs in order to reach its destination of greatness.
But there is one person who probably more than all of us, deserves the greatest plaudits for what has happened in Ekiti. It is Senator Ben Ndi Obi, the Special Adviser to the President on Inter-party Affairs. Obi is a master of his brief as a unifying force in a politically volatile nation like Nigeria. His is a delicate brief where whatever move he makes, however bi-partisan or tri-partisan it is, it could still be seen by rival political parties as advancing the agenda of the president and the PDP. But the former senator has deftly and successfully criss-crossed the Grand Canyon of Nigeria’s often bitter political divide with the exceptional skill and sense of balance of a tightrope walker, in the belief that Nigeria wins when her politics is tolerant and accommodating, whatever the differences between the various political parties. But the greatest quality that Obi brought into his job is his own personal disposition as a genial gentleman; someone who provokes no unnecessary disputation, no distrust even among those on the opposite side of his political fence.

Obi is not abrasive in the manner of many Nigerian politicians. He is a diplomat, a mediator, conciliator and yet a core politician, all rolled into one to disguise a deep and rigorous intellect. Hence I have never heard any political group in Nigeria raise any issues about Obi and the way he carries out his brief. I believe that Obi should gloat more than the rest of us for masterminding a victory for the politics of tolerance and maturity. Obi’s series of All-Party political summits has provided a platform for contending political forces to learn to forswear violence and accept that in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “elections belong to the people.” It is the people who should decide and their decision should be accepted by all as final, provided the contest has been judged to be fair and credible. It was also Obi’s advocacy that the political class has a major responsibility in ensuring these objectives.
The role of INEC in Ekiti belongs right there in the pantheon of great electoral achievements. The electoral umpire, often the whipping boy of past electoral calamities, appears to have agreed with former Vice-President Al Gore that “all votes must count, and all votes must be counted.” The usual and really avoidable logistical nightmare of delivering ballot papers on time appears to have been overcome. Thus there is very little room for complaint against INEC and its operations.
Now, I can well hear wiser and more sober voices whispering to me, to us, to go easy on the gloating. I could hear a note of caution that it is not yet Uhuru. These gnawing, annoying and persistent voices are saying to me that one tree does not make a forest. They are mocking me, mocking us, asking whether what happened in Ekiti can be replicated elsewhere and more importantly in 2015. These voices are asking how many John Kayode Fayemis in the country who can be floored with an electoral uppercut and then pick themselves up to pick up the telephone and, bloodied but gracefully concede defeat? How many would not point fingers of blame at their opponents, at INEC, the security forces (who may not all be blameless mind you), and/or head for the tribunal thus prolonging the post-election acrimony? Therein lies our challenge for the future; whether Ekiti State will end up as an aberration, a flash in the pan, a blip and a blimp from an airship that lost its way, or a template for future elections and indeed politics in Nigeria. Have we witnessed a model for a new direction in Nigerian politics or just the uncommon courage of an individual?
Let me quickly provide what I consider the conditionalities not merely for a reprise of Ekiti but a roadmap to future success, as I made clear at Ekiti. First is the need to re-define the meaning of opponent in politics. The great sage Chief Obafemi Awolowo once reminded Nigerians that in nearly all our vernacular, the nearest approximation of opponent is enemy. The first task for us therefore is to accept that our opponent is not our enemy. We must devise a new lexicon for communicating to our less literate constituents that our opponent is not our enemy but a rival seeking to serve them through different means and beliefs. It is when we succeed in this challenge of redefinition that we will have tackled the ignorance which nourishes the intolerance that leads to political violence. Then we can begin to find our way to a new politics of accommodation. This is only easy in theory especially after more than five decades of prejudice and animus in a country where even those who lost their deposit in elections still go to court to challenge the results. But as Barack Obama said, it is difficult until it is done. JKF has proved it.
The other road map for Nigeria in trying to reach the final destination of peaceful elections is to look at what is happening around her, not in the old democracies of Europe and America, but in her fellow Third World countries. A little over a month ago, South Africa, a mere 20 years into her democracy, conducted yet another peaceful and credible multi-party election. A fortnight after South Africa, India, the world’s largest democracy, held its own general election.

It was such a mammoth enterprise that lasted all of five weeks in which 551 million people voted, that is the entire population of the USA, the UK, Canada and Germany combined. 270 Members of Parliament were elected out of 8,000 candidates that contested in 120 constituents, and a sitting political dynasty was voted out of power. A new government has since been sworn in and all these have been accomplished without any significant squeak of protest.  But in the same week that these electoral feats were being achieved by fellow developing countries, we provided our critics with fresh reason to fear for us in 2015. A mere local government election in Kano State produced the usual embarrassing harvest of violence, vote rigging, ballot box snatching and late or non-arrival of voting materials, followed by the arrest of dozens of people for all manner of electoral malfeasance.
But one man and his state have given us something to crow about; some cause for optimism. John Kayode Fayemi and Ekiti State have given us reason to dare to hope that one day this troubled land can achieve politics without bitterness.  This is now a time to look ahead and see how best we can make this temporary miracle to become what my friend, the banker and economist, Dr. Cas Anyanwu, called “a good miracle for Nigeria.”


This article was published with permission from Thisday Newspapers


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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