Friday, December 31, 2010

Politicizing the Anointing

In a multi-religious society like Nigeria where matters of faith are often contentious, we should at least agree on one cardinal principle: Politics should not be used for religious ends while religion should not be used for political goals. This maxim is prone to flagrant violation, more so in an election year. President Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign has been most guilty of this infraction. In one of his campaign ads sponsored by the United Nigeria Group, a voice intones at the beginning, “Let God’s will be done,” and goes on to exhort listeners to vote for the Jonathan/Sambo ticket because it is “God’s will” for the country. In another ad featuring some home video stars, the Jonathan/Sambo ticket is described as “God’s choice.” The Jonathan campaign has generally cast the president as some sort of divine elect or anointed king. This trend of religious politicking is worrisome.
In a society as religious as ours, faith will always be an ingredient of politics which at the best of times is an unstable alchemy of the empirical and the irrational. However, there is a difference between the incandescent political morality of Aminu Kano, whose religious scholarship sharpened his advocacy of democratic humanism and the opportunistic charlatanry of former Zamfara Governor, Ahmed Sani, the erstwhile proponent of Sharia, now an anonymous presence in the senate and last seen battling charges of child-trafficking and pedophilia. There is a clear difference between the thoughtful Spartan Christian faith of Obafemi Awolowo and the hypocritical self-righteous sanctimony of former President Olusegun Obasanjo whose presidency became a pulpit of bull.
Some will argue that the tenor of Jonathan’s faith-based campaign is simply political brand marketing, a scheme of communication that acceptably deploys religious idioms. Certainly, there is a clear effort to construct a usable myth around Jonathan as a man of providence and to dramatize his political trajectory as the stuff of the Nigerian dream. But Jonathan is in danger of becoming a candidate whose claims to leadership rest solely on the fortuitous manner of his ascendance to the presidency. His rise from anonymity to the highest office in the land within a decade, marked by serendipity rather than apparent competence, is being sold as a portent of divine favour and good tidings for the nation at large. There is a place for fairytales in politics, but to hinge our beleaguered country’s hopes on the good fortune of a candidate is, to say the least, imprudent. To advertize that fortune as a supernatural imprimatur upon his candidacy which we must accept for our own good is deception.
Nigerians have previously trusted in usable political myths to their grief. Even General Abacha was hailed by some as a messianic soldier ordained by God to cleanse the rot of the Babangida years although he had himself been an essential part of that rot. Obasanjo’s spectacular sojourn from prison to presidency evoked all kinds of pseudo-mystical interpretations and earned him the toga of the anointed – a concept which he took far too seriously. The late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua emerged as a dark horse in 2007 to clinch the presidency; an office for which his more famous elder brother had strived and ultimately died in vain. Again, some people saw providence at work in Yar’Adua’s emergence and sold him as a divine choice. Indeed, after his victory in the fraud-riddled 2007 polls, Yar’Adua urged his opponents to accept his election as the will of God. These are the results of the bastardization of politics in a religious society.
Religious politicking signals the crisis of legitimacy and stature ailing Nigerian politics. As the state has degenerated over the past two decades, its captors and operatives have increasingly sought to import legitimacy from the religious domain to deodorize their political pursuits. At the opening of the Lagos Central Mosque in 1988, General Ibrahim Babangida declared that the economic recession – which was exacerbated to no small extent by his structural adjustment programme – was “the will of Allah.” Such dissembling has become more pronounced since the inception of the Fourth Republic. Obasanjo constantly declared that his presidency was God-ordained. Ahmed Sani’s declaration of Sharia law in Zamfara effectively made him an Ayatollah – a defender of the faithful – without manifestly improving his performance or enhancing the lives of the people. In 2002, his deputy, Mahmud Shinkafi (now governor of Zamfara) issued a fatwa calling for the murder of Isioma Daniel, a Thisday fashion writer for an innocuous reference to the Prophet Mohammed in an article that some Muslims deemed offensive.
The danger is that ideologically bankrupt and amoral politicians will increasingly seek to legitimize their misrule by draping their failed politics in theological garments, thus casting themselves as prophets. The culture of impunity that already denominates public life can only be deepened by delusions of spiritual infallibility. Politicians typically seek transcendent authenticity by pressing flesh with clerics and getting photo ops with the country’s most respected “men of God.” But many are now defining their politics in religious terms, thereby altering the dynamics of democratic engagement and paving a highway to theocratic fascism. In this setting, failed politicians can always blame the electorate for being of little faith. Politics is conducted as holy war and governance becomes a personality cult. Dissent is criminalized as Luciferian insurgence against divine order. Social criticism becomes blasphemy and lawful oppositional activism becomes apostasy. Can terminal excommunications and inquisitions be far off? We should also fear that these ersatz theocrats will provoke an extremist backlash from zealots who believe themselves ordained to cleanse the society of elite hypocrisy. It is no accident, after all, that Boko Haram and allied groups have flourished in the Sharia states where politicians have cynically played the religious card.  
It is in this context that we must critique the Jonathan campaign and the general political field. The president’s recent appearance at the Redemption Camp where he was prayed over by Pastor Enoch Adeboye raises questions about the propriety of mixing politics with faith. Adeboye is one of Nigeria’s most respected clerics but is increasingly vulnerable to criticism as a leading luminary of a religious establishment whose choice of secular friends has been unscrupulous and whose deficit in social conscience and activism has become a moral millstone around its neck. Indeed, these religious elites are seen as collaborators with corrupt corporate oligarchs and rogue politicians in an infrastructure of kleptocracy.
The 2011 election must not become a referendum on candidates’ piety. The ads’ implicit and explicit appeals to superstition, emotionalism and irrationality are fraudulent at a time when we need to dispassionately invigilate the political options on parade. Their sectarian overtones are unwise in a country where religion is often a polarizing theme. Above all, it devalues what should be a serious contest of ideas for the right to direct Nigeria’s course in the 21st century. Bala Usman, the late radical historian, argued that religion in the public square is largely an instrument of social control deployed by political elites to mask the true nature of their self-serving adventures in power. He held that the manipulation of religion to mobilize political support is largely responsible for sectarian discord in Nigeria. The tenor of electioneering so far is consistent with his thesis.
As citizens, we have to exercise discernment in a dark age of false prophets. We must judge aspirants by their fruit. What is their track record on dealing with poverty, hunger, homelessness, disease and the vast range of dehumanizing plagues afflicting Nigerians? We must jettison vacuous religious rhetoric and ask concrete questions about social justice, equity and economic growth. Politicians should not contend for hearts and minds in churches and mosques but on the stomp and in debate forums where they can outline their reasons for seeking office. People of faith must insist on these ground rules so as to protect religion from profanity by political hacks. Keen students of Nigerian religiousity understand that the god invoked in these ads is a deceptive construct forged in the crucible of elite corruption and mass suffering, superstition and gullibility. Politicians must also eschew pseudo-religious buffoonery in order to renew a vocation now overrun by conmen. We should judge candidates by their competence and character not by their eligibility for Al Jannah lest we surrender our fate to charlatans.  

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Future of Progressives

The most urgent question in Nigerian politics at the moment is not the outcome of the 2011 elections. It is the possibility of forging a viable progressive alternative to the extant political order. Several analysts interpret Nigerian politics as a Manichean drama between the “evil” ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party and an angelic opposition. This portrait is simplistic to the point of silliness. What ails Nigerian politics is bigger than a single political party; it is a militarized and parasitic political culture of which the PDP is only the most obvious example. It is a system, poisoned by the long years of military dictatorship, which cuts across party lines. The PDP is its most visible manifestation because it is the dominant party. Therefore, it would be a mistake to reduce political change to simply changing parties in power. Ejecting the ruling party will count for nothing if we do not change the reigning ideas.

A second view of Nigerian politics shared by many of its practitioners and analysts is that ideology is inconsequential; that tags such as ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ are passé. Again, this is a legacy of military rule which virtually eliminated ideas from politics and redefined it as a contest of cash and brigandage. It is true that Nigerian politicians mostly do not reckon with ideology. Indeed, to the extent to which political parties are ideological communities, we do not have authentic parties at the moment; only protean constellations of interests ever changing in accord with personal fortunes. The PDP is thus the biggest and the most successful congregation of strange bedfellows in the field. But ideology does matter. Over the past two decades, governance has been shaped by what can only be described as a free market kleptocracy entrenched by a raft of neo-liberal reforms that emphasizes untrammeled liberalization, huge cuts in social spending, privatization and the devaluation of the naira.

These measures are consistent with the structural adjustment programmes that were promoted by western governments and Bretton Woods Institutions during the 1980s and were discredited by the 1990s. General Ibrahim Babangida fundamentally altered the fabric of state-society relations by imposing SAP in 1986. Within the context of military dictatorships and our quasi-militarized illiberal democracy, and in the absence of regulatory inhibitions, these measures amount to simply vandalizing the state, cannibalizing federal assets and sharing them among cronies. The contradictions inherent in effecting a radical shift in socio-economic priorities under a totalitarian regime was glossed over by architects of SAP. In effect, even though, it affected a consistency with capitalism, what emerged can only be called a kleptocracy or more charitably, crony capitalism or predatory capitalism.

To be sure, Nigeria’s economic woes predated Babangida, but his socio-economic engineering deepened the consumerist maladies of the society, accentuated social injustice and corruption, and destroyed civic trust in government. The perverse neo-liberalism that generated these dysfunctions remains the dominant philosophy of government. The state has lost its meaning as a provider of public goods – social infrastructure, roads, bridges, education and healthcare etc. Government’s responsibilities have shrunk dramatically, while it has tightened its grip on national resources and redefined itself as a profit machine for its operators. For the vast majority of our compatriots, governance is denoted by its absence except for the nuisance value of sirened motorcades and allied formats of reprobate pageantry. It is this culture of predation for which a progressive alternative must be found.

In the quest for a progressive alternative today, it is sensible to look back and to reclaim the vision of the progressive patriarchs of yore. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and Aminu Kano were the leading luminaries of the progressive tradition in the fifties and sixties. It may be argued that their inability to win power, due to British colonial intrigues, internecine squabbling and ethnic mistrust, was the most significant political mishap in the early stages of the Nigerian project. For without a doubt, the course of Nigerian history would have turned out very differently if they had directed it. Zik, Awo, Aminu and their cohorts were not doctrinaire socialists despite their left-leaning rhetoric. British colonialists saw them through the blinkers of the cold war and deemed them to be a “red danger” but they were nothing of the sort. Rather they were “third way progressives” who envisioned a synthesis of an enterprise economy and a welfare state.

Their ardent advocacy of universal public education reflected their belief in the moral purpose of the state as an enabler of human potential and national prosperity. They were welfarists who were as interested in wealth creation as they were in social justice. The philosopher, Chinweizu has characterized their ideology as “communalism” rooted less in Marx than in the communal ethos of African society which emphasizes inclusion and collectivity. It is a vision of the responsible society that leaves no one behind in the quest for moral and material progress. The state is thus necessary to underwrite the mutual wellbeing of the citizenry while reining in the inequities and inequalities that result from unbridled capitalism. Certainly, surrendering society to the caprices of market forces would have been anathema to the patriarchs.

Nigerian progressives today are suffering from a number of plagues. The ascendancy of right wing military regimes throughout our history severely limited progressive fortunes. It also meant that right wing politicians were the favoured parties in military-sponsored transition programmes. Babangida’s particular persecution of so-called “radicals” nearly destroyed the progressives and left them too exhausted to mount a feasible challenge for power in 1999. Thirdly, the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of communism in 1989, unleashed a sense of ideological bankruptcy which buffeted the Nigerian left. The left has long supplied the moral energy of progressivism and with their weakening the progressive community also atrophied.

But the progressives are also reeling from self-inflicted woes, chiefly, their congenital inability to build a truly national movement. Progressive forces have been undermined by factional infighting, bigotry and sectarian prejudices. Progressivism is not synonymous with any ethnic nationality even though some politicians and commentators of the south west persist in making this unfortunate assertion. Their potential for a national victory has been nullified often enough by the irredentist reduction of progressivism to an ethnic enclave. In his seminal book, Africa in Ebullition, Adegoke Adelabu argued that the Action Group was limited by its “self-imposed provincialism and its petticoat of shabby parochialism.” The same criticism is valid today against those who deem themselves heirs of the A.G., and its later incarnation, the U.P.N. For years, an odious narrative has made the rounds casting the south (and the southwest in particular) as the bastion of progressivism and the north as the seat of feudal conservatism. This bogus narrative assisted by bigoted and ignorant commentators has long prevented progressives on both sides of the Niger from linking hands and rising to the defence of their constituency – poor, disillusioned Nigerians who are in the majority.

Secondly, progressives seem incapable of subsuming ego and personal ambition in the quest for greater collective victories. Internecine dogfights splintered the Peoples Redemption Party and reduced a potential national progressive movement to a skeletal organization located entirely in Kano. Too often, progressives prefer to operate as lone-rangers so convinced in the justice of their own cause that they wind up in a cul de sac of their self-righteousness, high on puritanical fervor but electorally impotent. This is a shame because when they make their case rightly, the progressives have the most compelling vision for Nigeria; one which should enjoy greater mass appeal but which for these reasons does not.

Of late, progressive ideals have disappeared from the public square. We live in an age of intellectual famine and ideas are rarely given space to manifest. Militarized politics ensures that public debate is frequently “won” by the hecklers and those who make the loudest noise. Reasoned, sober voices are drowned out. The triumph of cash and carry politics has sapped progressives of their confidence. There is presently no recognizable progressive party. Creating a national movement calls for progressives to rediscover their political identity and re-establish their pavilion in the marketplace of ideas. If they can regain their faith in themselves and in their values, overcome expired prejudices and provincialisms and find new young and energetic leaders, Nigeria could very well experience a national renaissance.