To say the results of the Ekiti elections which took place in Ekiti State, Nigeria on the 22/6/2014 took me by utter and complete surprise is a bit of an understatement. Like many Nigerians living within and outside the country, I just really believed that the incumbent Governor would be reinstated for another 4 years-full stop.
This view had nothing to do with my personal affiliations with mainstream political parties in Nigerian but everything to do with having heard a lot of “good things” about the tenure of this particular gentleman. He had beautifully restored the iconic Ikogosi Warm Springs which I had lamented about for years as a superb natural resource left to languish to near decrepitness by many previous governments in Ekiti State.
In addition, he and his team had embarked on a project to deliver public sector reforms which were both visionary and absolutely necessary.
In my quite simplistic rationalizing, good deeds speak for themselves after all; it makes sense that the men and women of Ekiti state whose lives were being enhanced everyday would only want this to continue. As it turned out, my analysis was a little naive.
The incumbent was voted out and his much maligned opponent swept the polls. How could this happen, I mused?
And I wasn`t alone.My friends on the ground in Nigeria appeared just as confused as I was, if not more!
Many used Facebook and Twitter to lament what they saw as a result which defiled “all logic”. How could the masses vote overwhelmingly for the much maligned opponent and leave the preferred “ tried and tested” incumbent out in the cold?
Didn’t Nigerians actually know what was “good” for them, some wondered? Were the masses so consumed by immediate gratification- parabled by the rumored bags of rice- that people simply “sold their birthright”?
Too simple I thought. These implied explanations just felt way too simplistic- especially since I had a sneaking suspicion that the Nigerian electorate have become much savvier over the last couple of years.
Clearly, I wasn’t the only one with questions. Twitter was agog. I skimmed through many commentaries and read a few rushed responses hoping for a glimpse- something to give me some intelligent insights.
Despite Nigeria`s mottled democratic history, the process continues to evolve. Its clear that the Nigerian electorate is beginning to understand the power of the vote as a potent tool. Not least of all in Ekiti state where on the 21st of June, people turned out in substantial numbers- voter apathy was clearly not at play here.
Suffice to say, unlike many elections in the past, even though there had been reports and counter reports of political shenanigans and aggressive muscling of the opposition, many were quick to say how “rigging” wasn’t a factor. Ekiti people did come out to vote and the result of that vote is what it is.
So what could explain this anomaly?
As I continued to scour the internet and ran into an article which made me ask very different questions about the delicate relationship between the electorate and those who wish to lead them and the ramifications of social power as a protest tool in the democratic process.
In an interview for channels TV titled – Ekiti People Voted Against Fayemi Not For Fayose, the commentator explained that, aside from not being able to: “connect with the grassroots” during his tenure, the incumbent had been in “ back and forth tussles with civil servants and teachers in the state for about 18 months, asking the teachers to take competency tests that resulted in heavy shakeups in the system.”
Apparently, this standoff with civil servants over attempts to sanitize the system had gone down pretty badly. Hence, many people registered their displeasure through a protest vote for the opposition. Simple as.
A little quick digging through newspaper achieves did establish the facts. There had indeed been a long running “battle” between the incumbent and the Teachers Union in the state over competency tests which the government claimed was a boost for teachers but teachers argued was a shortcut to rooting them out.
From where I am sitting, as part of delivering good governance, competency tests made perfect sense. Being an educationalist myself, the importance of having qualified and able teachers in schools is almost a basic requirement to ensure teaching in our primary, secondary and tertiary institutions is of a consistently high standard across the board.
On the other hand, the issue of the stalemate on tests, represents a much larger metaphor. It highlights a dilemma for our burgeoning democratic process. How do we manage the tensions which exist between the zeal of well-meaning politicians and the psychological readiness of the electorate- the masses-at the receiving end.
Political psychology is not a new concept and in my view, moving forward, we need to thoroughly understand the psyche of the people we aim to serve and take seriously elements of their psychological responses to their everyday realities.
The Nigerian masses have a unique psychological framework and paradoxically, their needs are basic and yet evolving at the same time. They have to be considered. These are people who have survived being let down over and over again by a generation of governments (military and civilian) and who quite frankly are bruised and smarting from years of poor governance and acts brazen corruption by public servants.
Despite the bravado, the political psyche of the ordinary Nigerian in the street is fragile. And if their trust in public figures continues to take a pounding, well meaning politicians with a reform agenda will have an uphill battle to say the least.
It’s a delicate balance indeed- If we mean to serve, we have to understand how affected the polity is by the generational layers of socio-political experiences and the historical trail of distrust and broken structures which have permeated the idea of governance in Nigeria.
Change which involves the breaking down of their paradigms of social existence -well-meaning or not (like a competency test which inevitably people believed would see many lose their source of livelihood) is just not going to make sense to them at this point in their very wobbly democratic development.
Unfortunately, the picture which the electorate have of the political ruling class goes beyond immediate serving public servants in Ekiti state. Their picture of the ruling elite is spliced with stories of federal ministers with private jets, national delegates in Abuja collecting thousands per day for snoring through entire sessions and billions of Naira somewhere-still unaccounted for.
For the ordinary man in the street these stories have taken on almost mythical status in their imaginations. To then be almost forcibly encouraged into doing something which they feel is going to mean the loss of the meager social power that they have, may just be a step too far.
Herein lies the dilemma for social reforms which must have the backing of the people at the grassroots as well as inspire the confidence of the voters.
I mean how did a whole generation of teachers end up in the system without the standard qualifications in the first place? And this is not a malaise specific to Ekiti state- its a national problem which needs a comprehensive response at a national level.
This is turning into a longer article than I intended. What is clear though is that as predicted, the elections in Ekiti State were indeed a watershed and our attempts at a democratic process is maturing.
In this particular instance, the people of Ekiti decided to use their power at the polls to send an emotional message of disaffection to their governor. Hopefully, we are all listening.
The power of the electorate to make something dramatic happen once every four years is fast becoming apparent. However, a balance needs to be negotiated much earlier in the delicate relationship between the electorate and the elected; people must not feel that their only recourse is to vote emotionally once every 4 years. Finding ways to invest a sense of social power in ordinary people needs to become more of a routine expectation as we attempt to understand what really makes people tick apart from the proverbial bag of rice.
In the end- it would appear that the people of Ekiti state exercised their power to register a vote of protest. However, as protest votes go, there are consequences, invariably not all of which may have been fully thought through or are even desired by the protest voters themselves.