On the tone of campaigns, By Kayode Komolafe

As the presidential campaigns end tomorrow midnight, a lot of what has happened on the hustings and the public sphere in the last five months ought to be scrutinised. This is irrespective of what would be the result of balloting on Saturday.

Although this may appear to be a theoretical luxury given the ferment in the land towards the elections, yet such reflections are important for the future of liberal democracy. This is more so because some young persons, who are taking part in electioneering for the first time, may have the mistaken notion that what has been on display is normal.

To start with, all the presidential candidates who have traversed the country should be saluted for withstanding the rigour of campaigns. The logistical challenges surmounted by the candidates with their respective teams and supporters moving from one state to another should not be taken for granted at all especially in the last few weeks marked by scarcity of fuel and cash. Forget about the hypocritical sermon of an ill-defined demonetisation of politics and the mechanical approach to achieve it. The role of money in a bourgeois liberal democracy cannot be wished away anywhere on the globe. It is either you have the money or you have supporters who would provide it for legitimate electioneering expenses. That is why many people who are otherwise suitable for elective office are excluded because they don’t have the means. This is a huge deficit of liberal democracy compared to popular democracy or socialist democracy. It is, therefore, remarkable that in the face of constraints that candidates belonging different generations and coming from diverse backgrounds have made so much efforts in offering themselves for service.

While blowing the whistle for open campaigns on September 28 last year, Chairman of Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) Professor Mahmood Yakubu, admonished political parties not to taint their campaigns and slogans with “abusive language directly or indirectly, which are likely going to injure religious, ethnic, tribal or sectional feelings”.

He also cautioned that “abusive, intemperate, slanderous or base language or innuendoes designed or likely to provoke violent reactions or emotions must not be employed or used in political campaigns”.

Any judicious review of the campaigns is likely to come up with the verdict that the advice of Yakubu has gone largely unheeded. The campaigns have been extremely toxic in tone and tenor. The content of some political statements is replete with hatred. Instead of a vigorous debate of issues, vitriolic attacks of opponents have rent the electioneering atmosphere. Now, it is grossly unhelpful to say that “it’s all politics,” to borrow Simon Kolawole’s famous phrase. What have passed as campaigns by some publicists in the last few months constitute a sad commentary on Nigeria’s political development. Even pundits jettisoned discussion of issues; raining insults and curses on politicians have become their pastime.

Take a sample. The health of candidates was turned into a virulent weapon of campaign. For clarity, there is no provision in the constitution or the electoral guidelines stipulating that health report is a condition for parties in nominating candidates for elections. But the 1999 Constitution provides in Section 144 for the step to take if a president becomes incapacitated while in office. Among other things, the opinions of medical experts including the president’s own doctor are required before the decision to remove the president from office is taken. Implicit in that provision is the respect for the dignity of the human person and hinging the decision on scientific facts. So the constitution strictly reserves the role of passing any judgement in the matters of the health of even a serving president to medical experts. Contrast this intendment of the Constitution with the vulgar, indecent and inhuman comments of some political publicists and supporters about the health of the opponents of their principals. Publicists make statements in an obscene manner on subjects on which they clearly have no competence. With ethics completely thrown overboard, newspaper columnists, television anchors and radio programme hosts have turned into emergency neurologists, oncologists and cardiologists. They diagnose politicians who are not their patients in their newsrooms and studios.

Let us be clear about it. The legitimacy of members of the public to ask for the health report of a candidate cannot be a justification for making a mockery of the health of another human being. Worse still, this ill will is expressed most of the times out of crass ignorance. Listening to some pundits talk about the health of other human beings the question to ask is this: whatever happened to the humanity in these base campaigners?

The point at issue here is that the exercise of the right to ask questions about the fitness of any candidate should be done decently, ethically and humanely. At the commencement of the open campaigns about 150 days ago, some pundits raised a false alarm that one candidate would run his campaign by proxy as they maliciously declared him unfit to campaign. It was said of another candidate that he would reside in another country for a greater part of the campaigns. Today these candidates have been to all parts of the country despite all the fake news and digital manipulations circulating about their health. In this season of politics without humanity all means are fair provided sufficient damage is inflicted on the opponent. In this crude rhetorical warfare, the opponent of the principal of a publicist is a fair game.

Pray, is there any human being who enjoys his health being a subject of mockery or reading his obituary circulated by merchants of hate? Politicians are first and foremost human beings with flesh and blood too.

While announcing a week ago that she would stand down as Scotland’s First Minister, British Member of Parliament Nicola Sturgeon said: “I am a human being as well as a politician.” In making that loaded statement, the lady was reacting in a different context to the brutality in the current tone of British politics. In Nigeria, it is sometimes forgotten that a politician is first a human being, as Sturgeon puts it. The mood of President Muhammadu Buhari changed recently when asked questions about his feelings on the silly rumour that the real person is dead and that a clone of him called Jibril from Sudan is the person in Aso Rock. The President was not smiling when he said it was “not a joke.” Some of the campaign – season emergency doctors had diagnosed Buhari in their imagination and declared that he would not survive hospitalisation during his first tenure. Thankfully, Buhari will be completing his second term in office as President in about three months. Yet, some pundits are still playing God in 2023 as they claim to know those who would die in office. Making pronouncements on anybody ‘s health for public purpose should be the business of medical experts who are in position to do so ethically. Anything to the contrary is less than decent and unacceptable.

A more elevated approach to the subject of health of candidates could have been an informed debate about the quality of public healthcare delivery in the country. The manifestoes of candidates could have examined in this respect. It is legitimate to query the culture in which the President and other political office holders have to seek medical treatment abroad. In other words, rather than making unkind comments about the health of any politician, there should be a debate on the provision of quality universal healthcare.

Admittedly, it would take some time for Nigeria’s liberal democracy to mature to the extent that campaigns would be issue-based. After all, commentators still describe Nigeria’s democracy as “nascent.” It is, perhaps, not obvious to those who say the democratic process is “nascent” that it is a misnomer after 24 years of this dispensation. That is the way it would be seen in some optimistic quarters. There is something fundamentally wrong with the democratic process as no appreciable effort is made to deepen its content beyond what it was at infancy in almost a quarter of a century.

Nigeria’s democracy is certainly not too young to expect a greater degree of decency in electioneering. The need to detoxify the tone of campaigns towards elections should be a subject of political education by political parties and other democratic forces in the years ahead.

Source: First published in Thisday Newspaper

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