The 2023 elections in Nigeria bring with them hopes and fears, expectations, and optimism for a better future. However, forces are fighting inadvertently to truncate the elections, imperil our nascent democracy, dim the light, and bring all our political calculations to nothing. These seemingly imperceptible forces are powerful, subtle, and distinct but not mutually exclusive. They include using intemperate language by candidates, the preponderance of fake news and judicial rascality. Except for those who study historical patterns in our clime and other jurisdictions, you may not take note of the gathering storm. These unholy triune forces are powerful enough to cause mayhem and destroy our electoral process in 2023 if nothing is done. They can truncate our 2023 elections and our democracy.
The first of these forces fighting to escalate violence, deepen distrust in the political process, and truncate the election, though not the most important, is use of intemperate language by politicians and their supporters. This has no party colouration and is beginning to define the nature and character of the 2023 elections. Politicians in this early stage of the campaign are resorting to personal attacks, vilifications, bickering, insults, and abuses of their opponents. Name calling, ethnic and sectional expressions have replaced any form of serious engagement. Recently, presidential candidates of all political parties have been using direct insulting or derogatory statements or innuendos to vilify each other.
Bola Ahmed Tinubu (BAT) has been a bout of jokes and caricature because of his perceived ill health. Peter Obi recently jibed at BAT by claiming that some candidates have good health, verifiable classmates, certificates, and easily provable history alluding to the controversy regarding BAT’s early years’ history and educational attainment. BAT, on his part, accused Obi of having IPOB supporters who have been vilifying him and spreading rumours about his health status and ability to function as a president. Obi has been accused of being agent of fake statistics.
On the other hand, Atiku boldly asked northerners in a gathering in Kaduna not to vote for presidential candidates of Igbo or Yoruba extraction.
These divisive and derogatory expressions by presidential candidates are more than mere attacks that candidates make on each other during campaigns, as seen in mature democracies. The volatile venomous nature of these expressions is seen in the offensive attacks using ill-health, human frailties or ethnic and sectional sentiments, which often are no-go areas in decent debates and are anti-culture. Often these intemperate words and innuendos breed contempt, disrespect, and calumny among politicians and more often, one intemperate statement elicits a response that is also intemperate, fuelling an unending vicious circle of hate, hurt and ultimately violence.
It is a pity that this type of school field play has also filtered into other levels of the campaign, such as the governorship campaigns and National Assemblies race. Funny enough, Nigeria has electoral laws and an electoral umpire to draw attention to the rules and, if possible, help to implement the regulations or execute some form of reprimand or punishment within its powers under the established laws to protect the decency of the electoral process. The law is supposed to be blind and an axe, and it falls on any who breaks it without bias.
Section 97, Subsection 1 of the Electoral Act prohibits candidates or parties from campaigning on religious, tribal, or sectional reasons to promote or oppose a particular political party or the election of a specific candidate. Subsection 2 adds, “Abusive, intemperate, slanderous or base language or insinuations or innuendoes designed or likely to provoke violent reaction or emotions shall not be employed or used in political campaigns.” The big elephant in the room is: has any political candidate or party ever been punished for breaking this law?
The clash of and preponderance of fake news, especially in social media, is the next deadly force mitigating a successful 2023 election. Although not absent in the traditional media, with their gatekeeping processes alert to such news sometimes, fake news is the bane of our society. Nigerians are sentimental and emotional in the way we communicate according to work done by Erin Meyer. Increasingly, fake news is lethal, can wreck havoc on victims and can lead to violence especially when it goes viral. Deliberately spreading fake news as a political campaign strategy is wrong and immoral. The proliferation of misinformation and weaponising phoney news threatens our democracy. This trend is one of the biggest threats to the peaceful pre-election and post-election conduct of the 2023 elections. And it has the potential to fragment the country and skew electoral outcomes. This calls to question the legitimacy of the electoral process and the leaders that emerge from it. Recently, there was a forged INEC letter claiming that the commission is investigating APC presidential candidate, and no one has been prosecuted for that forgery and misinformation.
I advocate for INEC and media houses to institute a fact-check hub to monitor fake news from parties, candidates, and their supporters. When any fake news is found, it must be quickly exposed, and facts declared for the benefit of the public. Everyone – voters, social media users, journalists, and media executives, must fact-check information before disseminating it. We should always question the source of information and verify the truthfulness of the facts presented and the authenticity of the source. I hope there will be a good enlightenment campaign by the National Orientation Agency, INEC, and the media on fake news and how to curb it so that people will be aware of it and have the skills to identify and destroy it. Law enforcement agencies must investigate sources of fake news and prosecute instigators for serving as a deterrent to other perpetrators of such dastardly act.
The third force is the clear and present fear of judicial compromise. That the judiciary is the last hope of the ordinary person is an accepted norm in a democracy. The judiciary interprets the law, and we rely on the impartiality of the judiciary for the system to work. One of the crucial jobs the judiciary does is dealing with pre-election matters, electoral petitions and lawsuits. However, during elections, some judges pass anti-democratic and overtly compromised judgements beyond any sane person’s imagination. Such intervention is inimical to our democratic progress. When such judicial rascality happens, democracy suffers, and people lose faith in the system. Some parties and candidates depend on judicial rascality to hold onto power. It is a doomed political strategy and is tainting the hallowed image of the judiciary. A situation where a party sues another party because of the way its primaries are conducted and prays the court to annul or disqualify all candidates for the election. It is disturbing when the court grants such a request and allows elections to be one-sided, with candidates having no real opposition.
Democracy is about the choice of the people. Court-induced political wins outside people’s franchises are a slap on our democracy. In recent times, PDP in Rivers State has directly and indirectly instituted multiple suits against all the other major parties and candidates seeking to disqualify their candidates for all elections with the hope that the party can cruise to victory without serious challenge. This worked for the PDP in 2019, and they are pushing to repeat a similar destabilising deed in the 2023 elections using the judiciary. Similar scenario is playing out in other states that bothers on internal affairs of political parties. Effectively the judiciary cannot replace the democratic choice of the people.
The leadership of the judiciary must stand up to its responsibility to tackle judicial compromises. It must commit to being more organised and hold judicial officers accountable for decisions that bother on internal affairs of political parties and the democratic choice of the people. The CJN and National Judicial Council must intervene and save our democracy from the hands of undemocratic people using judicial compromise to steal people’s mandate. Many judges are actively executing sound judgements for the benefit of society, and I highly commend them for their work in protecting our democracy. However, they should weed out the bad elements among them, especially at the state level where the executive arm exerts undue pressure on the judiciary and use them as puppets in a puppeteer’s hands.
It must be the aim of all stakeholders to tackle the problem of intemperate language, fake news and judicial compromises during our pre-election and post-election periods. All political parties and candidates for elections and their supporters must commit not to engage in hate speech, foul language, false accusations, and ethnically charged statements and any found doing so must face the full wrath of the law. Our existing laws are adequate to protect us from fake news, and we must enforce them at all costs. We must investigate any fake news that damages society and the people behind them prosecuted. The government, the media, regulatory agencies and civil society must provide public education on fake news and how to identify them and stop the urge to spread it or share it.
The unintended consequence of using intemperate language, the menace of fake news and judicial compromises, is promoting violence and the truncation of the 2023 elections. The truncation of the 2023 elections will be the catalyst for Nigeria’s collapse and disintegration. Therefore, we must all play our roles in persuading and punishing politicians against inappropriate language, engaging all regulatory authorities to act against fake news, and appealing to our judicial officers to consider national interest above narrow personal interest.