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The enemies against adversaries: Stop making unnecessary enemies in the name of politics



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By Matthew Ma

“Spreading hate in the name of politics is unacceptable. We are tired of using politics to make enemies instead of adversaries. We are better than this. Enough of this madness!”

Enemy and adversary are words often used as synonyms. However, an adversary is less hostile. For example, a friend can be an adversary in sports, politics, or business, while an enemy implies more feelings of opposition, perhaps even hatred. An adversary is an opponent in a contest, conflict, or dispute. An enemy is someone opposed to or hostile to someone or something. Though the term adversary is like an alternative to an enemy, one can have an adversary who is not an enemy. Friends often engage in friendly competitions, which are enjoyable for both parties. Enemies do not. Enemies have great contempt for each other. Hence, we should be careful in using the latter term too loosely. Adversaries can turn into enemies. For instance, if majority parties never let minority parties have the freedom to participate, the losers are bound to conclude they can only win through the utter destruction of the majority. Once adversaries think of democracy as a dirty game, the next step is to conceive politics as war: no neighbor or friend, no brother or sister, no mercy shown.


For a long time, the language used by both sides in Nigerian politics has aggressive metaphors. Elected officials take politics personally by denigrating their opponents and engaging them in tactics equivalent to trench warfare. Where hatred leads, bad conduct follows. The problem is that politics is not war but the only reliable alternative to elect good leaders. Once we think of politics as war, our democracy becomes a battleground. By slow degrees, belligerence and self-righteousness make cooperation impossible. There cannot be much doubt that in the impasse over kidnapping, banditry, and terrorism in Nigeria, we are seeing what happens when a politics of enemies supersedes a politics of adversaries. Anyone who has lived in a dysfunctional or struggling democracy knows that politics of hate can end in political violence. Therefore, when bullying other candidates become standard practice, democracy is one step closer to permanent paralysis.


Some experts believe that the hostile mentality in Nigeria reflects the divisions we are experiencing. Inequalities in income, wealth, and opportunity have soared, making it impossible for ordinary Nigerians to respect each other as adversaries. Other thoughtful observers argue that while factions on both ends of the political spectrum see each other as enemies, most Nigerians do not see their candidates as enemies. Hence, the political system creates barriers so that candidates face the challenge of reaching beyond their respective zones.


Politicians aggravate differences in policy into conflicts over identity and value. In this way, what Freud called the “narcissism of minor differences” drives party activists into closed worlds of discourse, leaving the rest of the Nigerians feeling that “the system” fails to serve them. They cease participating, abandoning the politicians to wrestle in a deserted public square. Besides magnifying differences, the politics of enmity makes competition viscerally personal. The object is not to contradict what people say but to deny them the right to be heard. Hence, ads attacking and belittling others have been a feature of Nigerian politics since Olusegun Obasanjo to Mohammadu Buhari. Today, the politics of personal destruction seems normal, even acceptable.


There is no agreement when our elected officials walk into the parliament but only disagreements. Attacks on the other person take over. Politicians build alliances through money and wealth. The lack of political will, integrity, honesty, and accountability creates space for retired soldiers, retired bureaucrats, and businessmen to feature as “black market” political leaders to form part of the “power complex.” And all of this brings me to this forthcoming general election. Some folks do not understand that the essence of democracy is about integrity, honesty, accountability, self-service, and prudent management of public resources and that this happens best in an atmosphere where people look beyond divisive issues and political affiliations. But in Nigeria, especially in Benue state, our politics is a dirty business. We throw mud at each other, act unethically, play dirty to outshine the other, bully, and threaten others who disagree with us. Our elections involve widespread vote buying—the provision of cash or goods in exchange for votes. Candidates and their intermediaries use money tactics to buy votes by giving supporters an incentive to turn out to vote. The endemic vote-buying practice fosters corruption, limiting political accountability and public goods. This type of politics is not healthy but ignorance at its best.


Over the years, Nigerians have become enemies with the winners and the losers in these races. And that is not the way it is supposed to be. Politics is about how many friends we make, not how many enemies. It is about building coalitions and getting policies accomplished, not burning bridges. In the forthcoming election, I am already ashamed of some of the rhetoric from our respective states. And it is not over yet. An election is supposed to be about policies and who is best to lead our communities. It is about who represents and acts in the interest and wishes of the people. An election is about the will to become the best politician. It is about convincing people to vote for you regardless of which party they support. Spreading hate in the name of politics is unacceptable. We are tired of using politics to make enemies instead of adversaries. We are better than this. Enough of this madness!



But can civility, gentility, and being nicer cure this madness? What needs to change are the institutions themselves. And they will only change when the political class in Nigeria realizes that, just as in football, some bad apples will kill the game. Saving the game means changing the rules. Until recently, Nigerians believe they have nothing to learn from other countries. But our dysfunctional democracy of recent should help us to understand how other democracies avoid gridlock. Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and Australia have impartial redistricting commissions that prevent corruption and force incumbents reaching out rather than play politics of money. They instituted campaign finance rules to prevent wealthy eccentrics from funding fanatical partisanship. They have laws preventing politicians from selfishly abusing the process in their legislatures. They have open primaries to prevent fanatics from rigging elections. If Nigerians still feel that other countries’ democratic practices have nothing to teach them, they are making a huge mistake. What’s indefensible is a political class that believes nothing better is possible — a class that benefits from hate without realizing that the damage it causes is corrosive and possibly irreversible. Politics is about building coalitions, not destroying them.  Let us work together to build a stronger alliance against the enemy of progress in 2023.

  • 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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