• Saturday, July 20, 2024
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BusinessDay

Politicians must guard their utterances

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Nigeria’s electioneering campaigns have over time been characterised by negative utterances, unguarded statements and abusive words by politicians, which portray the nation’s politics as a ‘do or die’ affair. This situation seems to have worsened of late as next month’s general elections in the country approach, raising concerns among Nigerians and observers of our politics that the politicians are unnecessarily heating up the polity.

In their campaigns for the forthcoming elections, the two major political parties – the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC) – rather than focus on issues, have again resorted to mudslinging, name-calling, character assassination and throwing tantrums at each other, as if winning elections depends on who pours more vituperations on the other. And so, as their campaign trains move from one state capital to the other, both parties are neither presenting their manifestoes nor addressing the real issues that affect the people.

This is in contrast with what obtains elsewhere. Take the forthcoming May 7 general election in the UK. Comparing it with next month’s general elections in Nigeria, Olu Fasan, a BusinessDay columnist, in a recent article ‘A tale of two general elections’, writes: “Although the British party leaders will aim for each other’s jugular, the election in the UK will be dominated by debates on issues, notably the economy and immigration. By contrast, no big picture issue will define the elections in Nigeria, and the parties will only talk in generalities, if at all, on issues.”

On why British politicians would be focusing on issues and Nigeria’s politicians won’t, Fasan says, “The structure of the campaign in the UK makes it impossible for any serious political party to duck the issues. The gruelling TV leaders’ debates, and the ubiquitous and inquisitive British media, provide no hiding place. The shifting opinion polls can only be ignored by any party’s at its peril. Then politicians often need to canvass for votes, and sell their policies, house to house and in small meetings. None of these levers is effective in Nigeria. Campaigning is like carnivals and driven by the cult of personality, which precludes any serious debate on issues.”

It is against this backdrop that Nigerian Guild of Editors, the umbrella body of all editors in Nigeria, recently called on politicians to guard their utterances as we approach next month’s general elections. In a communiqué issued after its last quarterly meeting in 2014, the guild advised the political class, security agents and the populace to be cautious in their utterances, abide by the rules of campaign and exhibit tolerance before and during the elections to avoid over-heating the polity.

Similarly, Abdulsalami Abubakar, former military head of state, recently called on political and communal leaders to watch and weigh and guard their utterances. “If they don’t, we should all rise as one and condemn them, along with whoever preaches, threatens or practices violence in Nigeria,” Abubakar said in an advertorial.

We totally agree. Indeed, a situation where politicians purposely sidestep issues and pour invective on one another is not only unwelcome but also condemnable. After 16 unbroken years, Nigeria’s democracy should at this time mature beyond pettiness to more serious issues.

But while we caution political gladiators, it is also important to remind the editors of their gate-keeping function. They too have the responsibility to ensure that those unguarded utterances by politicians capable of instigating mayhem are not allowed into the public space. Democracy guarantees freedom of speech, we know, but that freedom must be guided by rules so that it is not abused by anyone, no matter how highly placed. Criticisms are welcome, but they must be issue-based and constructive.