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Intolerance among Nigerian political elites: Are we moving forward or backward?

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By Matthew Ma

“Nigeria is a rainbow collection of leadership and culture. The rainbow in the sky is an object of beauty. However, today, we seem blind to the beauty in our rainbow collection of leadership and culture. Instead, we find mutual suspicion, hate, and prejudice in other people.”

Elections in Nigeria’s multicultural societies always include hate campaigns, mudslinging, and electoral violence that often threaten peacebuilding and national integration. Elections serve twin purposes in a democracy. First, it gives voters the freedom to choose candidates of their choice to manage the affairs of a country. Second, it allows the candidates to campaign to win votes in a free and fair contest. However, elections in Nigeria are far from achieving these purposes. They are increasingly contentious and often divide the countries along ethnic and religious lines. The divisive character of the 2015 presidential election brought about the postponement of the election, the legality of the biometric smart card reader, the eligibility of the APC presidential candidate, and the use of hate speech in the run-up to the election. But why is the level of intolerance in the country rising? Are we moving forward or backward?

The use of hate speech for political mobilization and its overall impact on democratization have generated debate and controversy in both post-colonial formations and more advanced democracies. The wave of political intolerance and hate politics is not a new phenomenon. While some political analysts link the rise of political intolerance to the changing economic and political structure of the world, others see it as a mere repetition of our past. Perhaps, one of the most significant challenges to democracy in the last decade has been the rise of populist parties and leaders. Populist leaders dominated the world with the phenomenon of hatred and political intolerance. In the 1930s, political prejudice in the form of anti-Semitism ruthlessly led to the killings of millions of Jews people. Political dogmatism in the form of fascism and Nazism led to catastrophic wars and political crises. The rise of populist movements in the second half of the 20th century caused a great divide among the partisans in America. Populist leaders like Donald Trump in America, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Narendra Modi in India are the leading figures of hatred and intolerant politics. In India, the populist regime of Narendra Modi fueled hatred against Muslim and Sikh minorities. During the Modi regime, India witnessed a sudden rise in hate speech incidents and mob lynching of Muslims.

Similarly, the populist government of President Erdogan in Turkey promoted religious intolerance and hatred against western countries. America under Donald Trump evolved as an epicenter of hate crimes against minorities. President Trump advocated hate against Mexicans, Africans, and Asians. He also used religious slogans for political gains. Trump showed his hatred for Muslims in his public speeches and put a travel ban on Muslim countries during his presidency. He supplied hate stories against minorities, immigrants, and foreign cultures to supporters for political gains. The political views of these leaders caused a divide in their respective countries based on discrimination and intolerance towards minority groups and outsiders. The populist leaders divided the societies based on us versus them. The wave of hate politics also raised the trajectory of hate crimes against immigrants and foreign settlers in countries like Hungary, Poland, France, and Turkey. Muslims in Europe experienced hate speech, while Islamophobia became a growing issue in most parts of Europe and America. The rise of hate politics and intolerance also put minorities in a vulnerable and dangerous position.

Back on home soil, the rise of intolerance among political elites in Nigeria is not new. Each time an election is going to take place, there are always ceaseless cases of hate speech among the political elites. Three years ago, the political rivalry between Senator George Akume, who represents Benue Northwest Senate constituency, and Gov. Samuel Ortom took a new turn, with both sides abusing each other in audio conversations. The wrangling between Samuel Ortom and his erstwhile godfather George Akume took a new dimension as the former threatened to drag the latter to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) over an alleged missing N2 billion from the State treasury. In a leaked audio phone conversation, Ortom warned Akume to get ready to refund the N2 billion he allegedly stole from the state government before he left as a governor in 2007 or prepare to face the law. In their heated telephone conversation, Governor Ortom advised the minister to be careful about how he speaks to the elders in the State, specifically traditional rulers. He reminded Senator Akume of how he publicly attacked the Paramount Ruler of the Tiv land as the king of politics. The governor, angry with the minister for constantly insulting his wife, pleaded with the minister to stop referencing his wife anytime he abused him for political reasons. He reminded him that politics is a game of interest, not a do-or-die affair. In his reaction, an angry Akume replied to Ortom that it was not his influence, help, or support that made him win his senatorial election in 2015. It was unclear who leaked the phone conversation, but Benue indigenes alleged that someone in Ortom’s cabinet must have released it.

As we commence campaigns for the forthcoming election, we started witnessing the trajectories of political intolerance, religious conservatism, hate speech, and malice among political elites. A typical example of political hatred is the division among members of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has given birth to the G-5 governors. The group emerged after the former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, defeated Mr. Nyesom Wike and other aspirants in the primary election to emerge as the PDP presidential candidate. Soon after the primaries, the G-5 governors led by Governor Nyesom Wike of River State, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu State, Samuel Ortom of Benue State, Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State, and Seyi Makinde of Oyo State demanded the resignation of the National Chairman of the PDP. They advised Ayu to pave the way for a southerner to lead the party to achieve a regional balance. The governors argued that the idea became necessary because Mr. Ayu and Mr. Atiku were from northern Nigeria. The G-5 governors launched an offensive campaign against the presidential flag bearer of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). They have since continued to insist on the resignation of the national chairman of the party.

The governor of Benue State, who has been quiet after his party nominated a Fulani man as a presidential candidate, vowed not to support a Fulani man again. Ortom was reacting to the statement made by Atiku during the presidential interactive session organized by the Arewa Joint Committee in Kaduna. Atiku had earlier said he was angry at Ortom’s characterization of the Fulani as bandits and terrorists because he was a Fulani. This statement did not go well with Ortom, who called on Atiku Abubakar to apologize to him and the Benue people for his outburst against him and the Benue people. He warned against supporting a Fulani man for the 2023 presidential election and asked the PDP presidential candidate to go to hell. According to him, he will never again support any Fulani man in the 2023 elections to continue killing the Benue people and collecting their ancestral land. He added that any Benue person who supports the Fulani is automatically considered an enemy of the State. He expressed his anger at the long silence by members of the PDP from the State in the National Assembly for leaving him alone in the fight against the invasion. According to him, their long silence over the killing of Benue people by the marauding herders suggests complicity in the invasion and killings of Benue citizens. But how can Atiku who holds the highest honorific chieftaincy title for non-Tiv indigenes, the Zege Mule Tiv (shelter of the Tiv people), suddenly become an enemy of the State? What will happen to the G-5 governors in the next three months before the election? I wait to see how things will play out with these groups in the forthcoming months.

While we struggle over how to make the right choices in the 2023 general election, a former Minister of Aviation, Mr. Femi Fani-Kayode, and a former member of the National Assembly, Senator Dino Melaye, traded insults at each other on social media. Trouble started when Fani-Kayode asked the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to suspend the national chairman of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Senator Iyorchia Ayu. He also called on the security agents to arrest and interrogate Melaye for revealing that Ayu’s election was faulty. Fani-Kayode, however, described Dino’s assertion as an open confession, stressing that the process of bringing Ayu as the party’s chairman was a criminal offense. But Dino, reacting to Fani-Kayode’s observation, lambasted the former Minister, describing him as a drug addict. This insult did not go well, as the former Minister took to his social media handles to rain insults on Dino, accusing Dino of being a coward ad a tout. Fani-Kayode did not stop there. He recently called out the Presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, to look into the activities of Senator Dino Melaye. According to him, instead of joining forces with the disgruntled governor, Atiku sent Dino Melaye to attack and harass Peter Obi at town hall meetings. For him, Atiku has lost Wike, Makinde, Ortom, Ikpeazu, Ugwuanyi & now Bala Mohammed. Therefore, instead of reaching out to them for reconciliation, Atiku sent out the skin-bleaching tout to a town hall meeting to harass and insult Peter Obi. Since then, the two politicians now post embarrassing words about each other on their social media pages.

There are several factors responsible for political intolerance in Nigeria. First, politicians tend to be politically intolerant when their interests threaten or stand to lose the benefits, powers, and rights they (exclusively) enjoy. For example, the unending rift between former president Obasanjo and his vice, Atiku Abubakar, is a typical example of intolerance among political elites. A further cause of political prejudice is bigotry and dogmatism. That is, my views and beliefs are true and always on point. It is common among political actors, especially the ruling elite, to believe their views, values, and aspirations are absolute or gospel truths that all must follow without question. In this situation, anybody who expresses divergent views from those held by the ruling elite is labeled and dismissed as a reactionary sell-out, agent of imperialism, idiot, political prostitute, cockroach, dog, traitor, or prophet of doom. The case of Femi Fani-Kayode and Dino Melaye, Samuel Ortom and Fr. Hyacinth Alia are critical examples to mention.

The politics of the belly is another cause of political intolerance. This type of intolerance occurs where and when people in a party, government, or society at large seek to position themselves for plum jobs, lucrative tender, or any political favor. They tend to do anything and stop at nothing to achieve their ulterior goals. They will badmouth and backstab friends using any means at their disposal to spread false information via gossip and hoax e-mails to plot the elimination of whomever they dislike or have divergent opinions. Political intolerance also abounds when citizens feel the avenues for dialogue and constructive engagement are restricted or shut down. Political pluralism and diversity require an environment in which citizens engage with each other and with public institutions in a free and open manner. If such avenues are non-existent or limited, people become disenchanted with democracy and revert to undemocratic (sometimes violent) means to vent their frustration and anger. The #ENDSARS is a typical example of such a case. It started against police brutality but has become a means to vent their frustration on poor governance.

A further cause of political intolerance is ignorance about the rules of engagement in a democracy by citizens and political actors. More often than not, citizens do not understand the regulations that underpin democracy. And, if otherwise, then the question that arises is: why do some people consider it is their right to say this area, village, or neighborhood belongs to party A, or this is private land, and we do not allow party politics here, or this is our tribal land, and your party has no support in this area, go elsewhere and let them vote for you? The case between the PDP and APC in Benue state is a typical example where a sitting governor feels he owns the state in every election and no other party should feel free to campaign except his party. Political intolerance also grows in any environment where the rules of the democratic game are either non-existent, not clearly defined, not enforced, or enforced unfairly. For example, when electoral systems and processes are skewed in favor of one group or political party and to the disadvantage of others, when electoral institutions lack independence and justice or resources to carry out their mandate without fear, favor, or prejudices, then intolerance prevails. When electoral rules and procedures tend to restrict campaigns or undermine others or bar aggrieved parties from seeking and obtaining justice from the court, people begin to revolt. When no regular and inclusive opportunities exist to reform electoral law, political intolerance will grow and burst into a comedy where political elites and individuals will resort to using tribal or ethnic slurs for political survival. We can relate Atiku to the Ortom case as a typical example of this factor.

Nigeria is a rainbow collection of leadership and culture. The rainbow in the sky is an object of beauty. The symbolic link between leadership and culture in modern society is that nearly every aspect of leadership is affected by culture. The values, beliefs, norms, ideals, and respect embedded in culture affect leadership behavior, goals, and policies. Though situations, belief systems, and ideas might change, the call for leaders committed to peace, maturity, and respect for others is constant. Today, we seem blind to the beauty in our rainbow collection of leadership and culture. Instead, we find mutual suspicion, hate, and prejudice in other people. Today, several parts of the country have political intolerance manifested in inter and intra-ethnic conflicts leading to the loss of lives and the destruction of private and public properties. The guns and insults have become the answer to misunderstanding. This shameful march to destruction must stop. We must halt this madness before it is too late. Enough is enough.

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Rev. Ma, S.J, is a Jesuit Catholic priest and doctoral student in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.

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