As the 2023 general election unfolded, it occurred to me that my conscious engagement with the politics of my country has been bookended by hope. As a young boy I stood at the Racecourse, now Tafawa Balewa Square, and watched the Union Jack being lowered for the last time, relinquishing British dominion over Nigeria.
Those days were filled with a sense of anticipation and big dreams, not too different from the expectation that, over the last year, spurred record numbers of young and not so young people to register to vote. This time though, embedded in that hope is a sense of a contestation for the essence of the nation. We may be, intuitively, testing who we are. If so, I think that the fiasco of the election is healthy in the long run because it brings into clear focus the choices laid out before us.
Do we choose to acquiesce to the result of a plebiscite the conduct of which has raised a plethora of, so far, unanswered questions about its process? Do we protest the results through the mechanisms enshrined in the electoral law? Do we reject the results and mount a strident protest in defiance of the authority under which they were produced and ratified? Do we embrace the concept of citizenship and if so, what does that mean? What is required of us as citizens? Is justice, is fairness important to us as a nation? Are we in fact us, or are we them and us? Does a demand for a just society go beyond our personal desires? The questions, raised by the conduct of the election, are more far reaching than the decision as to who will sit in State House, Abuja.
The worst part of the letdown of the presidential election is the battering that it gave the psyche of those who chose to believe in it as a way toward a better nation. My friend Nkiru, who turned seventy the day before the election, was thrilled to tell me that she voted this year for the first time in her life because she felt that she owed it to her children. A week ago, the most charitable explanation that I could give for the problems with the election, was that those with responsibility for conducting it, genuinely lacked the technical knowledge and/or the administrative ability to stay on top of the task. However, the constant shifting of explanations, contradictions and selective adherence to their rules and court orders sketches a very different picture. Presumably time will tell but the INEC commissioners are doing nothing to inspire trust in them as managers of the process. This may be due to incompetence or compromise and either way the picture is ugly. Even President Mohammadu Buhari who said he wanted to bequeath a successful election to the nation, turned to the cameras after marking his ballot and held it up to show who he had voted for in a very high-profile act of undermining the principle of a secret ballot.
Images, literal or metaphorical are how we perceive and understand the reality of the world we live in. I have spent my working life as a photographer and picture editor, making and evaluating images. Never have I encountered an event that conjured up a more personally haunting image than that of young Nigerians, singing the national anthem under the cover of our green white and green, and being fired on by Nigerian soldiers. That evening was a ‘stain on the banner’ that our founding national anthem promised – to honor in peace or battle so as to hand it, stainless onto our children. As dusk enveloped the twentieth of October 2020, my namesake Babajide Sanwo-Olu lost all moral authority to govern Lagos State. Even though I have never met him, I cannot imagine that he ordered the soldiers to shoot or wanted the soldiers to shoot the protesters at the tollgate. It is equally inconceivable to me that they were there without his knowledge and consent.
Several years ago, I was in a meeting with a Major General in charge of Training and Doctrine of the Nigerian Army. When that day’s newspapers were brought in, I caught a glimpse of the headline, ‘Human rights atrocities committed by army in the Niger Delta’. Oh oh, this is about to turn a bit awkward I thought. He looked down at the paper and then back up to me and said that there is NO situation that justifies a Nigerian soldier being armed and sent to face a Nigerian citizen. “That is not what we are trained to do, it is not what we are for. When faced by an external threat, our job is to remove that threat for the sake of our citizens. It is true that the colonial government used the army against civilian citizens and some of our military leaders have also done so but there is no justification for it. It can only lead to a bad outcome.”
Today much of the society seems to feel that the army is just another tool for maintaining civil order. Not so. We have normalized the idea of the army operating on Nigerian soil, for example undertaking combat missions against Boko Haram in Borno State.
How did we get here? For how for many years did the group grow and arm itself in plain sight, until it became too powerful and well equipped for the police to contend with? Remember how its initial skirmishes were so badly mishandled by internal security that it was able to transform itself into some sort of an army. Was it our neglect that caused delightful village children to grow into such disaffected and alienated youth, that they became easy pickings for radicalization?
And then someone felt it was a good idea to put troops on the streets at Lekki! No, Mr Sanwo-Olu should not have allowed troops on Lagos streets. I was stunned to hear him explain on a TV talk show how he did not have personal command authority over the army and how he has ‘quietly’ compensated people who were affected. As if it is a quiet private matter that is not the concern of the citizens of Lagos. It was a rather softball interview which gave him every opportunity to explain. In the end it revealed that even now, he could not account for his decisions that fateful day, never mind the findings of the public enquiry that he himself set up. Regardless of the outcome of this weekend, he has long since forfeited the moral authority to govern Lagos State.
I can share what I have learnt between the Racecourse and the Tollgate. The child born in Bama, Borno State should have the exact same rights as the child born on Banana Island, Lagos. Each generation comes up to meet its moment. Its moment must be met with dreams, desire and enthusiasm always remembering that this is not a race, there is no finishing line, no full-time whistle. It is an infinitely unfolding continuum in which success is measured by tomorrow being a bit better than today. Where my recognition of your humanity enhances mine. We do not have to live behind razor wire and broken glass topped walls. We do not have to be afraid to take a stroll for evening breeze at 11pm. We do not have to step over a wraith of a human being sleeping on Ikoyi streets in order to own a Rolls Royce Wraith. We did not always live like this and the next generation need not be shackled to these consequences of our choices. We make consequential choices every day, including during elections.