by ‘Gbénga Sèsan
I sat on the floor of my son’s room, in tears. It was supposed to be a good day because I had invested resources in an election that meant a lot to me and the numbers coming in meant change — electoral defeat of the incumbent President — was certain. “That’s just the beginning of change,” I whispered in my soliloquy. “This new president must not mess up, we can’t afford to go through this again soon,” I heard myself say as I tried hard to keep my sobs as quiet as possible.
Days later, we are seeing a similar scenario in many states across Nigeria. In fact, in one of the states, the incumbent was so thrashed people were suggesting he hand over immediately. Even though we half-jokingly announced a #TrollingWindow, an opportunity for those who invested heavily in change to celebrate the hard-earned victory, supporters of the former ruling party accused us of gloating. It was fun(ny) but in the midst of the 140-character euphoria, there was the constant reminder that work is only just starting.
Our preferred candidates, who have promised to work for change, have been ushered into a different era by the words of the incoming President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd): “We will not be a ruling party, but a governing party.” In states across Nigeria, and in Abuja, the Governing Party (and fast-depleting former largest party in Africa) will inherit a divided country and weak economy. The work of rebuilding Nigeria will be so tough that they’ll ask themselves from time to time: “why did I work so hard to inherit this ____?”
At the end of the day, elections happen to be a game of numbers, and thanks to the Independent National Electoral Commission, Permanent Voters’ Cards slashed what used to be padded numbers off the final result sheets. What looks like a further decline in voter apathy can actually be traced to a cleaner voter register, threat of punishment for PVC-related offences and the fact that previous voter turnout percentages included fraudulent numbers that danced to the tune of rigging machines. INEC’s card reading machines sang a different tune in 2015.
It must also be said that while citizen interest did not translate into voter turnout as much as would be expected for 2015’s all-important elections, it shaped opinion. As eloquently described by Oby Ezekwesili, “the Office of the Citizen is now the highest office in Nigeria”. Social media, which has been praised by enthusiasts and knocked by others, was a major battleground for Nigeria’s 2015 general elections. We sadly lost some lives, no thanks to the philosophy of “win by all means necessary” but most of the battles were fought on social media timelines, on air and, to some extent, in debates (including proxy debates).
At the end of the day, the message of change rang through and in states where the governor (or party) showed competence in the past 4 to 8 years, they have been rewarded with victory. However, while winning an election would make a politician occupy office, only performance will keep them there. The Nigerian electorate is maturing and the 2019 elections will see upsets for those who win today but refuse to move a muscle towards required work. The likes of Muhammadu Buhari and Nasir El-Rufai, who rode the wave of change and promise of competence, know to perform or face electoral defeat in 2019. The same goes for the likes of Akunwunmi Ambode, who benefited from the hard work put in by the outgoing governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola.
The new opposition is not PDP because, like the crude opportunists that many around here are, they are emptying into the new governing party instead of making the colours of democracy shine through a vibrant opposition. Rather, citizens are the new opposition and that explains why many of us will now shed the cloak of partisan party and candidate support to assume our role as watch(wo)men of the republic. We must insist that performance is beyond building roads and tokenistic commissioning exercises. Performance measurement must now include effective communication and citizen engagement, and no politician will be promised Nobel prizes for doing the work they fought hard to occupy office for.
For the president-elect, his honeymoon is already over and the choice of team members will be the first signal to show us if he is here to work, or to reward political affiliates. As I told my soon-to-be Commander-in-Chief, to his face, I say again him — and to every elected office holder: “…we will do this, but we ask for one thing: please, don’t disappoint us. We’re resting our hope on your shoulder. People have said different things but we’re saying only one thing: please do not [disappoint us]. Many of us will put our personal resources on the table to make you president. Please, do not disappoint us. We believe in a New Nigeria and we are anchoring that on your shoulder, and that of your team. Sycophants will come around you, please ignore them. Contractors will want to get your attention, please [don’t let them derail you]. Nigeria is bigger than any personal interest. In fact, if Nigeria becomes a better country that we want, many of those who are running around and chasing contracts will not need to chase them because your work will speak for you. We give you our votes in exchange for a New Nigeria. If you disappoint us, WE’LL COME ALL OUT AND REMOVE YOU WITH OUR NEXT VOTE. I trust that you will not disappoint us. We’ll vote for you on one condition: you will lead us to that New Nigeria we’ve cried, we’ve laughed, we’ve clapped and we’ve done everything… we’ve even prayed to get. Congratulations, in advance, Mr. President!”
Government, including members of the National/State Assembly, and even special advisers, must be afraid of the people! For many of us, our role was to ride the tides towards the enthronement of change. That job has been done. At least, the first phase of it. As for me, I now return to lighting a candle, through our work at Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, and cursing darkness in governance, through every democratic channel available. My support for any candidate or party is a guarantee of sharper eyes and tougher judgement of their work. I join other citizens to remind everyone that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. A New Nigeria will not be delivered by just one set of elections; it requires our active role in raising the bar of expectation and constantly reminding temporary office holders that they work for us!
‘Gbénga Sèsan is the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria. He tweets from @gbengasesan