Nigeria 2023: Three-horse race shows that Nigeria’s democracy is advancing, says Kukah 

By Eniola Akinkuotu

Posted on Thursday, 23 February 2023 17:34
Bishop Matthew Kukah (Photo: @YeleSowore)

The Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Matthew Kukah, who is also a member of the National Peace Committee, talks to The Africa Report about the forthcoming elections and what must be done to prevent violence. 

After President Goodluck Jonathan was announced winner of the 2011 election, Nigeria witnessed post-election violence that left about 800 people dead mostly in the north where General Muhammadu Buhari has a cult following. In a bid to forestall a recurrence, the National Peace Committee was set up comprising some of the most respected Nigerians.

Some of the prominent members of the peace committee include General Abdulsalami Abubakar (former head of state); Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar (the Sultan of Sokoto); Aliko Dangote (Africa’s wealthiest man); and Matthew Kukah (Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto).

Ahead of the highly anticipated presidential election on Saturday, the peace committee administered the signing of three pacts among all 18 presidential candidates, including Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Labour Party’s Peter Obi.

According to the pact, all 18 presidential candidates will accept the outcome of the poll as long as the election is free, fair and credible. They also pledged not to encourage violence among their supporters during and after the poll.

However, the possibility of a violence-free election remains a subject of debate. Earlier in the week there were riots in some southern cities over the government’s naira redesign policy which has triggered an unprecedented scarcity of the currency making it difficult for Nigerians to buy even essential commodities like food.

The southeast of Nigeria, which has been at the mercy of violent secessionists, has continued to witness the burning of election offices even four days to the election.

With the presidential election turning out to be a three horse race with a dark horse in the mix, there are fears that such high stakes could trigger violence, but Bishop Kukah thinks differently. He sees this development as signifying growth in Nigeria.

He, however, believes that in the event of a presidential run-off, candidates may resort to tribal and ethnic politics, which could reverse democratic gains.

Kukah says security agencies will have to be on their toes. The outspoken cleric also believes that the southeast will defy violent secessionists and show up in their numbers on the day of the election.

Kukah says contrary to the thinking of the Federal Government, the naira scarcity may even worsen vote buying as it would make desperate Nigerians to sell their votes for pittance.

The Africa Report: Are you confident that with the signing of the peace accord, politicians will shelve violence on election day? 

Matthew Kukah: Well, definitely it will be too much to expect that just a few years after experimenting with this option that we have found a solution to our problem. No. I think there are quite a number of issues involved.

First is the very fact that this has generated a lot of international interest. […] the politicians also realise the seriousness that the international community places on Nigeria’s elections. Hitherto, why things have always gone wrong with our politics in Africa is the feeling that the politicians always say this is Africa, conduct doesn’t matter, but this initiative is helping to hold our politicians to a higher standard of behaviour. [I believe] it is the beginning of a pretty long journey, but the good thing is that I think we are on the right path.

There have been pockets of violence in parts of the country especially in the face of the naira scarcity, which has sparked riots in Lagos, Ogun, Delta and Edo states. It is within this atmosphere that elections are about to be held. Do you think that security agencies are up to the task? 

I don’t think the riots are serious enough [to derail elections]. I mean we are dealing with different issues and they are mutually reinforcing in the sense that perhaps out of desperation, realising how things are going, people might actually be more encouraged to vote out a government or a party that has not been doing what Nigerians expect.

[…] it can work the other way: […] Nigerians may feel more concerned about the need to take their destiny into their hands and know that they have the power to change the course of national politics. Again, these are law and order issues and there are laws for everything in Nigeria. […] it is really about the ability of security agencies to impose sanctions when people misbehave.

An electoral office was still burnt in Imo State just days ago. The electoral umpire says over 50 of its facilities since the last election with most of them happening in the southeast. There have also been lockdowns weekly in the southeast. How do you see this affecting the region in this election? 

I think the southeast is a different ball game altogether, but also, it is important to understand that in every system there are people who want things done in a particular way. I think there are two issues.

First is that with Peter Obi contesting the election, the dynamics have changed. The people [secessionists] are no longer getting away with the things they used to get away with. I recall seeing a corpse of someone some days ago who was sadly killed for trying to enforce the sit at home order.

[…] there is a huge body of people in the southeast who do not agree with [secession] and they believe these enforcers do not represent them. […] I think it will be important for security agencies to focus on this as a law and order issue. There are [more] than enough political parties. Whatever you want from Nigeria, if there is a political party that cannot meet your needs, you can establish your own political party, but no citizen has the right to stop another citizen from enforcing a right that is constitutionally given to them. […] these are law and order issues and that is why I said most of this just boils down to law enforcement.

Experts are saying that this election has reinforced ethnic frontiers in Nigeria with the three main candidates representing each of the major tribes like the 1979 election. Do you foresee post-election violence if any of the southern candidates fail to emerge?

In a football loving country like Argentina, Brazil or other parts of Latin America, footballers have been shot for the mere thought that their teams lost a game. […] naturally there will always be reactions from people when things don’t go the way they want because everyone goes into a game of this nature with the hope of winning. And of course people have invested emotionally, physically and financially. The loss of an election is the loss of fortune, but how do you respond? Again, for me, it boils down to law and order and that is why this peace pact we have [made] is significant.

This is the first time this is happening in our history that politicians are signing up to say they will accept the result of this election if they are certified to be free, fair and credible. Now, anybody who decides that he wants violence will be crying more than the bereaved because unless the loser decides that he wants his supporters to commit acts of violence, anybody taking the law into their own hands will have to pay the price.

This is why the job of the National Peace Committee is very important. […] anybody who decides that he wants to make trouble is on his own unless they want to say their principal instigated them because it is possible also that by behaviour or conduct, a politician can incite his people to violence. […] it all depends on how a politician behaves and that is why by signing this peace accord; we have placed a higher moral burden on the contestants themselves.

[…], no one has done what President Jonathan did. He has set the ultimate political standard on political conduct [by accepting defeat in 2015]. I also think there is a quantitative difference between this election and that of 1979. The sheer number of voters, the introduction of young people has changed the dynamics. They are no longer hostages to the forces that drove regional politics.

Social media has changed all that. I think all we can say is that nobody knows what will happen, but we can always encourage people to understand that young people must stay alive. It is only the living that can play politics. If you are stupid enough to go and kill yourself, traffic will not stop, so it is important that you are alive.

[..] I think the fact that we are having this tension is evidence of the fact that our democracy is growing because you would not have contemplated this sort of thing a few years back when the PDP in its arrogance said it would be in power for 60 years and I believe that the APC also thought they could just take the prize home without any problem. [However,] the fact that we don’t know who will win means that anybody can win and that uncertainty is the measure you can use to talk about the maturity of democracy.

Since the inauguration of the peace committee, we haven’t seen post-election violence of the scale of 2011, but we have seen violence in a few states on election day like in Rivers. Are there any states that you think need special attention as regards violence on election day? 

First of all, the very fact that this election is about a change of actors [makes it different]. Buhari is not running for election. Most governors are not seeking re-election except in a few states. […] what this means is that the propensity for violence will be slightly less because it is not the same for instance with a governor who has all the resources at his disposal and wants to enforce his will.

The money a governor would spend to get his preferred candidate elected is not the same he will spend for himself. […] the propensity for violence when people are running for a second term is based on the fact that a class of beneficiaries would have already emerged and it is those kinds of people that will be struggling to hold their ground.

[However,] there are already some combustible states where violence is pretty common, but I don’t want to be a prophet of doom. I will say that in those states where the fault lines are pretty sharp and there is a bigger price to play for, you can expect anything. [Even so,] it is a good thing that security agencies are saying they are up to the task.

Do you see the naira policy and the resulting scarcity of the currency reducing incidents of vote buying on election day? 

[…] I see it having the opposite effect because for example, whereas other people would have been able to sell their votes for N5,000 ($10.8) or so, now they can sell their votes for as low as N200 because now that the naira is very scarce, anyone can sell their vote for anything. [However], many of these things will happen in areas where people [vote buyers] have a bit of strength and control. Otherwise, if you attempt it in a place where you are not strong, you could probably just get attacked.

[Nevertheless,] I feel a lot of people have already made up their minds and there might not be a direct correlation between collecting money and electoral outcomes. I think people have learnt that it is stolen money and so they feel if they are taking money from a thief, they are not bound by any moral standards. They know that if it was your money, you would not be giving it out so freely. […] people could take money and still vote based on their conscience.

Do you foresee a run-off and do you think if it happens, it could pose challenges being the first time in Nigeria’s history? 

Definitely, a run-off is about trade-offs, and it depends on how things play out because that is when religion, regionalism and ethnicity might then become the deciding factors depending on how people negotiate.

[…] if you have a run-off, what will happen? Will Muslims feel it is better for Atiku to align with Tinubu so that the Muslim community can remain in power? Or ideologically, will Atiku say I feel more bound to the liberal principles of [the] Labour Party and re-align? Or will the smaller parties be able to mobilise because in a way they [smaller parties] could play a more critical role to play in the sense that if they mobilise themselves, they might not be as significant as they look.

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