There are few things as important as national elections in Nigeria. Very few. Such has been the nature our politics.
The most popular feature of Nigerian elections is that politicians aggressively over-promise and unsurprisingly under-deliver. But, it is not the most important feature. What remains missing, and is likely to remain so, is the absence of any policy-based campaigns or details of prospective policy from politicians.
The closest our politicians come to policy is when they make broad promises to 'sweep out corruption' or 'create new jobs'. However, they stop short of detailing substantive policies that can be debated, criticised or pinned to their campaigns. As a result, voters do not get to question them on details; funding for proposed expansionary budgets, approach to government spending, privatisation of 'national assets', foreign policy, restructuring, or civil service reforms. Instead, they are forced to vote on identity politics, on religion and tribe, at the expense of the issues that shape the administrations.
A more mature democracy would have checked these electoral lapses, but in Nigeria, neither voters nor politicians look ready for a new approach.
Show me your voters
Policymakers should rarely have to surprise their citizens. There is little need for it. For instance, mature democracies understand the role of party manifestos in their campaigns, and traditionally present policies in line with their ideologies. Even with one of the most politically suicidal campaigns the United Kingdom has seen in years, it was clear that the snap election was one driven by policy, not just politics. Both parties presented detailed plans on how they would both achieve the broad promises of a 'better Britain for all'. Promises were identical, but the devil was in the policies.
Understandably, Nigeria is different. As always, not for the right reasons.
Arguably, one of the reasons for this is practical. Politicians, despite what they say, know more than most that they are in the business of realism. Details of economic or foreign policy do not motivate the average Nigerian voter. We are moved by big promises; the more ambitious, the larger the crowd.
A Nigerian political manifesto will not include minutiae like '5% cut in the tax rate for those with annual incomes below ₦1,000,000 for the next 5 years, to be paid for by increased VAT on luxury goods from 2019'. This is far too much detail for the Nigerian voter to digest or for the media to explain in the middle of an election. It just does not 'sell'.
So blame for the situation must be apportioned to both the politician and the voter. In fact, candidates who take this 'policy approach' may end up being unpopular, as we have seen in the past.
Where are the men with ideas?
Some of them are now dead. Last year, the former activist and 1979 Presidential contestant of the Nigeria Advance Party, Tunji Braithwaite, passed away. He was a man who believed in socialism and wanted to bring that brand of politics to Nigeria.
Most famously, in his presidential campaign, he promised to relocate all those in Victoria Island to Mushin and move all those in Mushin back to Victoria Island. If you ever studied politics at Nigerian secondary school level, you may be forgiven for thinking he meant this literally, because that is how some Nigerian educators interpreted this vision. In reality, he was addressing the class divide and income inequality in Lagos State, two regular targets of socialism. As can be expected, his ideology-backed politics did not resonate with the people, and his attempt to bring an intellectual brand of politics to the nation resulted in a poor performance at the polls.
Would this intellectualism resonate with Nigerian political analysts? Unlikely. Their disposition tallies with the average voter. Even in mature democracies, citizens do not read all party manifestos; they leave that to the media and its political analysts. The Economist, The New York Times, BBC, and other media bodies fill this gap by thoroughly analysing party manifestos and sharing the information with the public. Modern media use interactive websites to give citizens an understanding of manifestos while their political editors go back and forth with economists on the detail of party plans.
Unfortunately, Nigerian media and political analysts remain exclusively focused on individual actors and their opinions on opponents. Not enough attention is given to details of past or proposed policy. And even when the past is considered, it is done with a focus on grand projects like roads and stadiums, which in reality only fall under basic transport and sports policy respectively.
What Policies Can Do For Us
For those who believe that policy discussions should be restricted to national summits and conferences, that would be short sighted. Aside from the obvious benefit of compelling our politicians to present more than half-baked promises, comprehensive policies allow citizens to differentiate themselves based on plans politicians offer, rather than the politicians themselves.
For a change, Igbo voters may find themselves in agreement with Fulani politicians on their approach to pensions or education reform, while south-south indigenes may find they are in agreement with south-west indigenes on their approach to restructuring the current fiscal arrangement. The opportunity this approach offers is one where citizens embrace their similarities and differences on issues other than tribe, religion and political party. For the first time, we may question those unchallenged theories that suggest citizens always agree with the proposals of their cultural or spiritual leaders.
In reality, this will take more than one election to achieve. It may even take more than ten elections to reach. But it is worth striving for because politics has taken us nowhere. Now, Nigeria needs policies.