‘How to Rig an Election‘ is one of the newest books in my library. I have all sorts of friends with a taste for weird writings. One of them, Tayo Koleoso from Saki, Oyo State, but based in the United States, bought and sent a copy of that book to me two weeks ago. “You must read it,” he ordered. I have tried to obey him. Authored by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klass, it is a handbook on politics of electoral malfeasance; it also teaches how to subvert subversion in democratic politics. Some books are bad and good in equal measure, from cover to cover. Cheeseman and Klass remind me of Edward Luttwak’s ‘Coup d’etat: A Practical Handbook‘ – a 1968 work that is so graphically brutal to the extent that the author likens it to “a cookery book” for laymen to make sumptuous soups. The New Yorker describes the book as “wicked, truthful and entertaining”; its publishers say it shows “step by step how governments could be overthrown” but has also “inspired anti-coup precautions around the world.” Cheeseman and his partner teach “five new ways to rig an election – and ten ways to stop it.” Those two books complement each other.
How to rig an election is synonymous with how to seize a government. From political rhetoric to policy conception and execution, it is difficult not to hold that Nigeria’s rampaging husbands are reading some really bad books. Paul Collier, author of ‘Wars, Guns and Votes’ read ‘How to Rig an Election’ and lamented that elections in many countries were increasingly becoming a sham and the problem getting worse. He accused the international community of conniving “at being deceived” while democracy suffered violence around the world. Elaine Glaser of Times Literary Supplement made a comparison between “historic autocrats who boosted their status by bumping off their opponents” and modern dictators who boost their own status “by holding cosmetic, compromised elections.” We have them in Nigeria as our ‘democracy’ grows tumors.
‘Jagba’ is a Yoruba action word; ‘snatch it’ is the approximate in English. It is a desperate, battle-cry word in elections where the stakes are high as in the coming polls. A candidate hammers it into the skulls of his supporters that power is the end that matters in politics, and that they must, at all costs, grab it, snatch it and run away with it. When you hear that with a full complement of applause from excited subalterns, please know that democracy has put on the autocrat’s jackboot. It is no longer a government of the people by the people. A cutlass that has two sharp edges is no longer a cutlass; it has become a sword.
The APC presidential candidate, Bola Tinubu, gave that grab-seize-and-run order last week. Tinubu, in a video recorded in London, is shown telling a gathering of APC leaders and supporters that, “Political power is not going to be served in a restaurant. It is not served a la carte. At all costs, fight for it, grab it, snatch it and run (away) with it.” That is a new addition to power rhetoric. I’ve heard and read “real power is not given, it is taken.” There is also the phrase: “power wears out those who don’t have it.” Both are uttered in the film, ‘Godfather III’. The Godfather’s creator was too self-restraining and temperate to use ‘snatch’ and ‘run.’ I watched and listened to the Tinubu video one, two, three times and couldn’t close my mouth. The man waxed sure-footedly audacious. The video is viral online. He has not denied being the one in it. What Tinubu said is, however, not exclusive to him and his party. It is a frothing broth on all fires; a conversation that straddles nights and days in all political parties and circles. The year 2023 is about snatching and running. They all plan it. The APC candidate was only caught saying it because he was too big to care; he was careless.
Snatching, grabbing and running away with election victory and ‘power’ are acts of coup making. Snatchers must never be offered a seat in a democracy. But across all parties, the resolve to “snatch it” is palpable. In the South-West, they call it jágbà – the literal translation is what the APC warlord said in London: the entire statement, the three sentences. Democracy dies where politicians become so powerfully self-assured that they know (and say it) that they will be elected even if the whole world says no. That scenario sounds Hitleric. It was Adolf Hitler’s belief – and he espoused it – that ‘the party’ must “not become a servant of the masses, but their master!” Ruling parties get that big in Nigeria – and they constrict and choke the people with it. There was the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) in the first republic; the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) was the people’s master during the second republic; the PDP was the undisguised lord until 2015. The APC is the reigning master of the masses, and its Lordship wields the whip with unpretentious impunity. The party speaks with tones of terror and force. We hear stuff like: “we will win; we have even won. If they like, let them jump into the sea.” Talks like that shame and degrade democracy; they taunt trouble.
Whatever is happening (and may still happen) to our democracy is straight from old, notorious rule books of autocracy. Hitler prescribes “terror and force” as the means to an easy defeat of reason. ‘Reason’, according to Oxford Languages, is the “power of the mind to think, understand and form judgements logically.” Now, think of a “force” or an act of terror powerful enough to destroy a people’s will with all its judgmental properties. That is what ‘jágbà’ (snatch it) does to people’s faith in constitutional democracy. The voter stops thinking; he stops asking questions; he refuses to understand anything again about the future. He asks why he must waste his time asking questions and, even voting, when the end is known even before the start whistle is blown.
Snatching and grabbing and running is a kinetic race that can only go to the fittest. Survival of the fittest defines not democracy but its very opposite. It is a bad political behavior like cancer; it may be forced into some form of remission, but it will be back soon – metastasised, more ferocious, deadlier. The more subversion in electoral politics is tackled, the stronger it comes back in new forms. And that is because old dogs always devise new ways to eat fresh bones. In the first republic, politicians in power were brazen. They shut out their opponents from the process; they framed up and locked up some; they prevented others from submitting their nomination forms. They then declared themselves elected unopposed. They were more confident and creative in the second republic. On March 14, 1983, the governorship candidate of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) and incumbent governor of Oyo State, Chief Bola Ige, said in Ibadan that he was surprised to discover that he was registered as a ‘female’ in the voters register. Was that a clerical error or an audacious act of detestosteronization of a political stallion? We may not know; but we know that because the Ige side stood on terra firma too, the issue was soon fixed. How? Ige is dead but his then press secretary, Lekan Alabi, is alive and well in Ibadan as a very high chief. You can ask him for details.
You’ve heard of INEC’s brag about a foolproof, rigging-free 2023 elections. Its optimism is rooted in technology- its deployment of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation Systems (BVAS). But assurances and optimism are rarely safe routes to success – especially in electoral politics. I think vigilance is. Cheeseman and Klass cry that the dictator in politics expands his toolbox continually: “Every time we work out a new way to detect and deter one type of rigging, a new one emerges.” This past Friday, the American National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI) released a report on Nigeria’s coming elections. They said the report was based on the completion of a second pre-election assessment mission as part of their joint observation of Nigeria’s 2023 general elections. The delegation said it “heard reports that some politicians were seeking to discredit the use of BVAS, as a means of sowing doubt about the credibility of the electronic voter accreditation and results transmission processes, in an effort to return to manual processes which are prone to manipulation.” Now, is it a mere coincidence that the persons who spoke about snatching and running away with power are the ones expressing ‘reservations’ about BVAS in the coming elections? Read the lips of the Americans. They also spoke about a “significant increase in electoral violence, often targeting INEC facilities, election materials, opposing candidates, party supporters and women leaders…and (the) pervasive role of money in politics in Nigeria, and the lack of accountability for electoral offences, including vote buying.” They warned that “if the 2023 elections fail to deliver on citizen expectations of credible and inclusive polls, the confidence of Nigerians in their government and elections, which is already the lowest in Africa, may further erode, and there are concerns about the potential for significant post-election violence.”
Scary? No, not scary; deja vu is the applicable feeling and reaction here. All those infractions listed by the Americans are not strange in our political history. Every election cycle, we expect them and prepare for them. They were in our past and the repercussions leave life-long scars in the lives of the country. But because we learn in the breach, the behaviour that sentenced Dog to a night of hunger is the exact scheme in our husbands’ plan to ‘jágbà’ and run home with the spoils of politics. I have read the PDP and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, condemning Tinubu’s snatch-it rhetoric. The intriguing thing is that all parties plot to ‘jágbà’; they all also plan against ‘jágbà’. It will be a tumultuous, riotous ring of bouts and scramble for power going forward.
So, what results will be announced at the end of this exercise? I have no answer, but I will ask if those playing God have heard of ‘Stroke of God’s Hand’ before? It is that ‘thing’ that can only be attributed to a power out of human control. In medicine, ancient professionals repeatedly saw a condition that was sudden and devastating and could explain it no other way than to place its cause and effects at God’s doorstep. They called that illness ‘Stroke of God’s Hand’. It was in the sixteenth century that medical experts shortened it to ‘stroke’ – the master stroke. A 17th century French writer, Gabriel Naude, appropriated and conflated the master-stroke idea into politics and wrote about an end-time when: “…the thunderbolt falls before the noise is heard in the skies…(and) he receives the blow that thinks he himself is giving it, he suffers who never expected it, and he dies that look’d upon himself to be the most secure.” Naude concludes that “all is done in the night and obscurity amongst storms and confusion” (Luttwak: 2016: xxxiv).
So, if the rush to the 2023 prize remains a game without rules as the horses are playing it, what do you think will happen to the trophy? Have you watched a WhatsApp video of famished women in a northern Nigerian village riotously scooping food from a pot on the fire? It is a scene of confusion and desperation: What one scoops is snatched by a more vicious other; every plate is a ladle which everyone uses and loses to a stronger grabber. The ground is littered and fed with what the strugglers crave, yet no one could call the scramblers to order. At the background are cries of children traumatised by the mad world they see. In the end, the video ends suddenly as it appears everyone gets nothing to eat from that pot of greed.