Managing Perceptions of the 2019 elections
Perception – also known as optics- is a belief or opinion held by people on the basis of how things seem. Our perception of any event is our reality and our truth, which is why people say that perception is everything. The American essayist, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau put it even more graphically: “It is not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Others’ perceptions of our intentions and actions frame the way they engage with us. Of course those perceptions may be completely at variance with our intentions. But our good intentions, however noble or altruistic, will count very little in the way people engage with us because the road to hell was after all initially paved with the best of intentions.
As we approach the February 16 2016 presidential election, there are understandable anxieties in the air. There are fears of localized violence – before, during and after the election. How do we douse the tension? This invariably brings us to the question of managing perceptions.
Let me mention that elections are bound to be contentious in our type of society because the stakes are simply too high. Not just that political power is the major means of wealth accumulation, there is the pervasive fear that the group that captures power will use it to privilege its in-group and by extension disadvantage the out-groups. There is also the fear that the victors will use state machinery to eviscerate their former contenders, victimize old foes (actual and imagined) and neutralize future rivals. In this sense, the struggle for state power is bound to be anarchic, and electoral outcomes are bound to be contentious. This is why our type of societies is often called ‘democratizing’ or ‘illiberal democracies’. Not only are such societies low-trust, critical institutions of state such as the electoral umpire, the security agencies and anti-corruption contraptions (such as the EFCC in Nigeria) whose officials are appointed by the government, are essentially distrusted by the opposition – sometimes with good reasons, other times merely crying wolf.
Until January 15 2018, there had been concerns in opposition camps on whether Buhari would extend the tenure of Idris Kpotun, (who turned 60 on that day) as the Inspector General of Police. Opposition groups never hid their suspicions of Kpotun’s partisanship and Senate President Dr Bukola Saraki once accused him of being the most partisan Inspector General of Police the country ever had. That might be an exaggeration but it was of course the way many opposition groups perceived him, which constituted their reality.
As a public officer, (and not a political appointee), Kpotun was subject to Federal Public Service Rules 2009, which states in 020810 (ii) that “the compulsory retirement age for all grades in the Service shall be 60 years or 35 years of pensionable service whichever is earlier” and “no officer shall be allowed to remain in service after attaining the retirement age of 60 years or 35 years of pensionable service whichever is earlier.” If Buhari had extended the tenure of Kpotun, he would have followed the bad precedents set by both Obasanjo and Yaradua who respectively illegally extended the tenures of Sunday Ehindero and Mike Okiro: while Ehindero served until his 61st birthday in 2007, Okiro retired on 24 July, 2009, his 60th birthday (but after more than 35 years of service).
I think Buhari did the right thing by not renewing the tenure of Kpotun. Being sensitive to public opinion is not the same as being cowed by public opinion. There is a fine line between the two: while leadership is, and ought not be a popularity contest, a leader should be sensitive to public opinion and know when public opinion embodies genuine fears or superior wisdom.
While I am happy that Buhari showed some sensitivity to public opinion in not extending the tenure of Idris Kpotun, (now retired), I am rather disappointed that he failed to utilize the opportunity of appointing a new Inspector General of Police to further demonstrate sensitivity to public concerns - this time the complaint from the Southern part of the country that the country’s security architecture is overwhelmingly dominated by people from the North. His supporters in the South have often argued that the lopsidedness in the composition of the country’s security agencies was a mistake of the head, not of the heart, and for that Buhari, being a man of ‘integrity’, would remedy the situation at the earliest opportunity. I was rather surprised that Buhari allowed that golden opportunity to slip by – in the heat of an election season, in which a major weapon of his critics in the south against him is his alleged Northern bias in sensitive appointments. I believe the President not seizing the opportunity of the retirement of Idris Kpotun to prove that the alleged lopsidedness in the composition of the country’s security agencies was merely a mistake of the head, not of the heart, makes the job of his political marketers in the South harder. It also hands powerful ammunition to his critics in the south – to stoke the fear factor of how his second term in office will look like if he is re-elected.
Let us be clear about one thing: ethnic politics may be an elite game, a mask over the intra class feud among the various ethnic factions and fractions of the same social class over access and distribution of critical national resources, but it has, over time, become ideological, a filter through which most Nigerians filter the reality around them. Every individual embodies a mosaic of identities, including ethnic identity. Anyone who tells you he/she is ethnic or religious blind or does not care about the ethnic/religious identities of those in power is telling bare-faced lies for, as Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Prize winner in Economic sciences would tell us, identities that are perceived to be under threat are those most vociferously defended. Even the most patriotic Nigerian, once he/she feels that his ethnic or religious identity is under siege or being humiliated turns into an ethnic/religious warrior.
It is of course possible that the President had no ethnic, regional or economic considerations in his appointment of heads of the country’s security agencies. However as we noted above, people’s perceptions constitute their reality, and this reality, frames their modes of responses to situations. And for a President that needs votes from across the country, in less than one month’s time, I believe this ought to have been handled differently.
Related to the handling of the now retired Idris Kpotun’s case are current controversies surrounding the arraignment of Justice Walter Onnoghen, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, before the Code of Conduct Tribunal. There had been suspicions and conspiracy theories of why his appointment as Acting Chief Judge was never confirmed until Osinbajo became Acting President when Buhari was on medical treatment in the UK. There were also suspicions about the unusual efficiency with which the petition against him, by an NGO fronted by someone who is linked to the presidency, was acted upon. There were equally concerns about whether due process was followed in the arraignment. Amina Zakari’s case in INEC is similar. Opposition groups had raised issues from the time Buhari appointed her as Acting Chair Person of INEC – before the appointment was reversed. She was accused of being a relative of Buhari – an allegation she denies. As INEC’s head of operations and logistics, she was fingered by some opposition groups for what they called the ‘electoral coup’ during the recent Osun governorship election where they alleged that an election that produced a winner was reversed. She was subsequently redeployed to the department of health and welfare at INEC. It is therefore understandable that the same opposition groups will see her appointment as head of collation centre during the election as a red flag.
I feel that being a relative of someone in power should not, on its own, be enough ground to demand that someone should step aside from certain appointments as that may set a dangerous precedent of people remotely related to political or party leaders being forced to quit their public offices. I believe it is possible to be objective without necessarily being neutral. The test is whether one’s political sympathy intrudes into one’s official work. In any case most public functionaries have their own political sympathies. However since controversy has dogged Amina Zakari since Buhari appointed her Acting Chair person of INEC, I believe that, for the sake of managing the perception of INEC, she should step aside from that position – whatever her role as head of election collation centre entails.