By Dr. Matthew Ayibakuro
On 16 November 2019, citizens of Bayelsa State will be voting for a new governor to lead the state for the next four years. The current electoral cycle, which commenced about a year ago – and arguably earlier – has intensified over the last few months. As expected, there have been rays of optimism mixed with reasons for sheer despondence with regard to the prospects of the election bringing about long-overdue meaningful development for the people of the State.
Whilst the outcome of the election is undeniably the most critical component of this process, it is also important to understand, contextualise and document the wide range of events that have taken place throughout the electioneering process. These events, ranging from the very serious to the purely dramatic, tell a unique story of the democratic and developmental trajectory of Bayelsa State. Even though this piece highlights what we know about this particular election, the points made here foreshadow the long-term hopes of the state and reflect the experience of democratic practice at subnational level in Nigeria.
Based on this, therefore, here is what we know so far about the 2019 governorship election in Bayelsa State.
An Election with the Best Possible Aspirants
The electoral cycle leading up to these polls commenced on the most optimistic note with some of the best possible citizens of the state putting themselves forward to contest. The most instructive part of this was the high number of persons from what may be considered a “non-political” background that sought to contest. The main opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) had aspirants like Maureen Etebu who has three PhD degrees and was the pioneer Vice-Chancellor of the Nigerian Maritime University, and Diseye Poweigha, a retired Commissioner of Police. The primaries were eventually won by David Lyon who is best known as the CEO of a number of companies in the oil and gas sector, including the popular Darlon Security and Guards Nigeria Ltd which employs youths across the state to secure oil installations. He did so despite his limited political experience and having contested against more experienced aspirants, including a former Senator and Minister.
However, the most vivid demonstration of quality aspirants was found in the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The roll call of its aspirants included persons from a technocratic background like the serving deputy governor, Rear Admiral Gboribiogha John Jonah (rtd) and a former diplomat and federal permanent secretary, Amb. Boladei Igali. There were also aspirants from a strong professional background like Arc. Reuben Okoya and Barr Anthony George-Ikoli, SAN. The list of 21 aspirants also had persons from the business community such as Pastor Keniebi Okoko and the former Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission, Chief Ndutimi Alaibe.
At the end of the primaries, the large pool of candidates had been cleared and limited to two: Senator Douye Diri of the PDP and David Lyon of the APC. Whilst there are divergent views on this outcome, it was encouraging to witness the quality of individuals that sought the office of governor of the state. Considering the degree of perennial leadership failure that Nigerians have experienced at both national and subnational levels, it is a positive sign that apathy towards politics has not prevented many of these candidates, who do not see politics as a primary career, from seeking leadership.
Political Victory Outweighs Meaningful Development Efforts
Since the commencement of the current electoral cycle, especially since the turn of the year 2019, citizens of Bayelsa State have arguably witnessed more actions and decisions from political office holders than in the three previous years combined.
Some examples of this include the holding of overdue Local Government Area elections about two months to the PDP party primaries, the installation/repairs of non-functional street lights in the state capital and the return of contractors to site on projects that had stalled for long periods of time. Perhaps, the most palpable demonstration of this has been the unparalleled appointments made by the Governor in the last couple of months, including sixty new special advisers in one swoop in October and the constitution of the leadership of rural development areas in the state.
On the part of the APC, it has been able to galvanise citizens in the State in the manner expected of an opposition party for the first time since the last governorship election in the State over three years ago. The political scene, the democratic experience and the developmental needs of the state have been yearning for a virile opposition experience like this for so long, and the outcome of the polls will tell if this rejuvenation of opposition politics in the state has come a little too late or not.
The broader implication of all this is the undeniable conclusion that the expedience of political victory outweighs the more important necessity to build sustainable democratic practices and enhance development outcomes. In Bayelsa state, instead of developmental gains and political victory having a mutually reinforcing effect, the buck ends with the exigencies of political victory and nothing more. After the next two weeks, democracy and development expediencies will likely hibernate for another three years, and then reawaken to another electoral cycle.
Who Needs Conversations or Debates on Policies and Programmes
With just two weeks to the polls, Bayelsans are no wiser about what specific policies or programmes differentiate the candidates of the PDP and APC and what, if anything, would be different from the past. Whilst the candidate of the APC released a long manifesto and that of the PDP released an executive summary of his manifesto, the thrust of both documents provides little indication of a distinctive policy or programme thrust around which a new government will be built.
This is, however, not even the major concern. From a neutral perspective, the real concern is the fact that no substantive conversation is taking place on the basis of these documents. A majority of the discourses led by spokespeople of the parties and other supporters are centered around the individual lives and personalities of the candidates and their benefactors: The incumbent governor, Seriake Dickson for Douye Diri of the PDP and the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Timipre Sylva for David Lyon of the APC.
Beyond this, public discourse, especially on social media has focused on peripheral issues such as the perceived academic prowess and deficiencies of both candidates, defections from one party to another and Trump-like assessments of which party’s primaries have the most crowds. The governorship debates which took place a couple of days ago added very little to this process due to the absence of the candidate of the APC and the routine and unsubstantial answers provided by those who participated. At the end of the debates, there was very little for Bayelsans to be excited about in terms of any substantial policies and programmes that would change the development trajectory of the state post-election.
Except there is a drastic change over the next two weeks, the next governor of Bayelsa State would emerge, not because of the policies or programmes presented to the people, but because of his or her political party – parties that are not known for any particular ideology or policy thrust, – perceptions about the candidate’s private personality and the anticipated individual and political gains of the kingmakers and supporters.
By Matthew Ayibakuro
It would seem that relative stability has returned to Burundi after days of uncertainty on the leadership of the country and weeks of protests and violence over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in office. Majority of the alleged coup leaders are in custody and have already appeared before a prosecutor, whilst the leader of the coup, Godefroid Niyombare, a general and ex-intelligence chief, is said to be still at large.
A couple of days ago, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya asked his counterpart Nkurunziza to postpone the presidential election due next month, to create a conducive environment, but to ensure that the vote be held within the current electoral cycle in the country, which comes to an end in late August. Nkurunziza is back in the country and back in charge; three members of his cabinet were promptly dismissed while soldiers have been deployed to ensure that the protests do not continue. Only time will tell if the fires set alight by the recent events have finally been quenched.
Meanwhile in a rather dramatic twist, Nkurunziza, in his first speech back in the country chose to speak only about the country being under attack from the Somali-based al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab. No words are spoken about the over 105,000 Burundians who have reportedly fled the country because of the crisis, or about the many lives lost in the process. Whether or not al-Shabab’s refutal of the claims of any impending attack against Burundi is believed or not, the fact that this was the principal message in his first appearance in the capital after the now-referred-to-as-attempted coup is a clear indication that the President does not grasp the magnitude and implications of the situation and his actions. Perhaps he just does not care.
Third Term-ism and Perpetual Leadership in Africa and Beyond: Reaction of the International Community
Perhaps, he believes he is in good company in the context of political leadership in Africa. After all, just last month, Togo’s Faure Gnassingbe and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir were both re-elected as leaders of their respective countries. Whilst Faure is beginning his third term in office despite widespread protests, Bashir is a ‘veteran’ who has been in power since 1989. In fact, it is no news that there are similar long-serving leaders in Zimbabwe, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Cameroun Eritrea and Uganda.
This list could actually admit a few more countries and it is this profusion that probably emboldens leaders like Nkurunziza to believe they can get away with extending their tenures by any means necessary, including threatening supreme court judges into exile and shooting live ammunition at protesters. Outside Africa, countries like Iran, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Iceland and Syria also boasts similarly long-serving leaders. It is indeed a global phenomenon.
In terms of the reaction of the international community to events like those in Burundi, the United Nations and the African Union, as expected, would usually release press statements condemning the coup attempt, whilst at the same time “urging” members states to respect their constitutions. And so they did. The leaders of the countries in question are often called by the Secretary General of the UN or some other “powerful” leader, and we are informed that they have been told basically the same message contained in the press statements, making you wonder what was the essence of the call in the first place. Beyond this, whether or not anything more is done by the international community falls to the grey realm of conspiracy theories on reasons why countries like the United States of America or organisations like NATO invades one country to topple a government, and not the other. This is a subject for another day.
The Rise of the Masses
In the last decade, and especially since 2011, the masses in various countries are beginning to stand up against leaders who display a propensity to perpetuate themselves in office. The unprecedented events of the Arab Spring provides the most palpable instances. However, as recent as last year, Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso was forced to resign his office as President after 27 years at the helm amid violent protests against his continued stay in power.
Whilst the masses play their role, it is time for the international community, and especially the United Nations and regional organisations to start lay out a clear strategy and approach towards leaders bent on perpetuating themselves in office. It makes no sense to condemn the actions of Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi, while simultaneously asking Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled his country for 29 years, to intervene and help resolve the crisis in Burundi.
It is important for the UN and other regional bodies to establish unequivocally what the approach to this issue should be. There should either be clear condemnation of such leaders and actions to support same, or a straightforward acceptance of the situation on grounds of sovereignty or whatever makes sense. The approach of lukewarmness adopted over the years has borne little or no fruits in Africa and elsewhere.
ECOWAS Taking the Lead
Encouragingly, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has decided to take the lead on this as it pushes to consider a new clause that would prohibit presidents of members states from staying beyond two terms. If successful, this would be a welcome development that should be replicated in other regions of the continent, and indeed the UN, towards creating a lasting solution to the concern of self-perpetuating leaders.
Not oblivious of the challenge inherent in implementing a clause like this in the context of international law, ECOWAS intends to adopt a new legal regime for Community Acts that will make all ECOWAS decisions immediately applicable and binding on member states and eliminate the need for parliamentary ratifications.
Whilst one awaits the outcome of initiatives like that of ECOWAS, there is no doubt that the most significant step towards putting a stop to perpetual leaders remains popular uprising. There is nothing that will prove as successful as the masses themselves rising against such leaders. It proved successful against Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo’s bid for a third term back in 2006/2007. It pushed Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore out of office in 2014, and considering the masses have remained on the streets even after the failed coup in Burundi, it is safe to say that the last has not been heard of that particular situation.
The power-drunk leaders in Africa are slowly but surely coming to the realization that ‘kangaroo’ referendums, manipulated constitutional amendments and intimidation of the judiciary would no longer be enough to secure a life presidency.