I have said it many times, Nigeria and Nigerians are in many ways similar to the United States and Americans. The country’s size, the regional presence, the diversity, the assertiveness and entrepreneurial spirit of Nigerians, the economic and regional inequalities etc. That is probably why in 1979, the country decided to switch from a Parliamentary system of government to a Presidential system, complete with a two-chamber legislature, essentially emulating the American model.
Unsurprisingly, the electioneering campaigns and politicking for the general elections in Nigeria next month are increasingly resembling American style politics. From questionable donations of billions of naira to political parties, to the powerful, in-your-face high quality campaign videos on YouTube and TV, to the almost defamatory political advertorials on newspapers… It is all increasingly American. After all, at least one of the parties has hired top-notch American PR firms to help in this regard.
However, the latest emulation of American electoral politics took the form of sudden scrutiny over the opposition candidate’s WASC/GCE (O Level) certificate issued in 1961, over 50 years ago! Like the ‘birthers’ in the United States who demanded for Barack Obama’s birth certificate as proof that he wasn’t born in Kenya or did not possess citizenship of some ‘Muslim’ country like Indonesia, it started like trivia and was waved aside, until it gained momentum a few days ago and threatened to undermine the middle-class support base of Muhammadu Buhari. He stated that it was such a long time ago, and he lost that particular high school completion certificate, after his house was raided in the aftermath of a military coup in 1985.
Somehow, no one could find a copy of the certificate. It sounds rather odd, right? Not when you know Nigeria, and how poor record-keeping is such an entrenched culture. Where freak accidents like fires, floods, building collapse or even office relocation have a habit, of destroying records and documents, much to the delight of many bureaucrats tired of careful tending to weary old files. Try looking for the budget of any state in Nigeria in the year 2000. Or where such documents are usually ‘auctioned’ off to street vendors of roasted maize, bean-cake and other such local delicacies.
While some of his supporters were genuinely worried that he may not be able to prove he had completed high school in 1961 (even though there was proof that he had completed numerous post-secondary courses and obtained certification around the world), others claiming to be ‘neutral observers’ took the opportunity to either turn logic on its head, or bare their fangs and embark on a regional bashing fest. Others still chose to remain silent, and prayed and hoped, that the man whose integrity towers literally and figuratively above most others was not involved in some certificate falsification scandal or ‘wuru wuru’ as it is colloquially called. Many simply observed in amazement as the saga unfolded.
But what was most disturbing to any observer was that the Nigerian Army waded into a matter that was clearly normal, but petty, distracting and irritating party politics. The Army which should ordinarily be preoccupied with chasing, routing and crushing Boko Haram insurgents currently conquering Nigeria’s territory and killing thousands of innocent chose to play a now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t game. They initially said they had the record of that particular certificate of Buhari, then a few days later, they said they didn’t have his certificate. Odd. This is a man who enlisted in his teens and rose to the rank of a Major General. Then again, the same Army recently gave the death sentence to 54 soldiers for refusing to fight Boko Haram insurgents, in protest of their lack of equipment and ammunition.
Then Buhari finally contacted his high school in his home-town, which issued a Statement of Result (because in the Nigerian system, high schools are responsible for providing a summation of the WASC/GCE results), and for the avoidance of doubt, also issued a copy of the computer print-out from the issuer of the test, the University of Cambridge. This controversy has finally been laid to rest, one hopes.
Of course, like the ‘birthers’, some other trivial issue will come up, to try to disqualify said candidate. But that is almost expected in party politics, especially of the American hue. One party always seeking to smear and discredit the other, because of the winner-takes-all nature of a Presidential system.
But you see, the Americans rarely subject their critical national institutions on which their internal security and territorial integrity rest, to the whims of transient party politicking. You don’t see the U.S. Army dragged into the political banter between the Democrats and the Republicans. You don’t see the FBI accusing the Republicans of planning to hack into the database of the electoral commission without presenting any shred of evidence, or ransacking and destroying their party offices or accusing McCain of leveraging his international networks to ‘sponsor’ violent far right fundamentalists like Anders Breivik. This is not to say that American national security institutions are completely apolitical, but they are not politicised to the point of undermining their basic mandates. Despite their numerous weaknesses and their penchant to needlessly spy on citizens and world leaders, they largely remain above the fray of petty partisan politics.
As the parties continue to sling mud at one another, and as even some of the most highly educated Nigerians join them in the muddy puddle of politics, rather than engaging in practical discussions on how to address the problem of underdevelopment, economic management, insecurity and predatory corruption, I hope they will also emulate the Americans in keeping critical national security institutions out of these things, for everyone’s sake.