Matthew Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, other critical stakeholders and national leaders have highlighted the need for candidates, especially those running for the presidency and their spokespersons, to run issue-based campaigns, devoid of hate speeches and divisiveness.
The stakeholders spoke against the backdrop of the commencement of campaign on September 28 at a high-level forum on political communication and issue-based campaign in the 2023 general election, organised by the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies (NILDS) and the Kukah Centre in Abuja.
Kukah said that in saner climes, issues of religion and ethnicity do not dominate the polity but other issues that are more critical to the survival of a nation.
He said that anti-corruption campaign messages would no longer be fashionable in the forthcoming elections as Nigerians have seen it all, adding that the people needed to be given a sense of belonging irrespective of their ethnic, political or religious beliefs.
He said: “I hear conversations on the quality of campaigns and how this campaign should be conducted. A campaigner seeks to draw your attention and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not that politicians are bad people, this is not the issue. It’s like people who have won elections will tell you. Maybe, what we thought were the issues when we were outside, now we are inside, it’s different. The challenge therefore, almost like everything else in life, it’s about readjusting and figuring out how to make things work.
“The greatest challenge for us is that our identity politics has not been well managed. The most important ingredient in politics is diversity. You have heard me in the last seven years or so, I have been relentless. I am convinced beyond reasonable doubt that had we developed the skills to manage diversity effectively and efficiently, that’s what is happening in other parts of the world.
“The question for every politician is what do I want to be known for? Nigeria has produced some dramatic politicians. There are people who can hold you spell bound. Every campaign must be characterised by a slogan. Nigeria politicians need to understand that the wiping-out-corruption campaign no longer works. Nigerians are looking for a country they can believe in.”
Kukah added: “Our identities are not a problem. Religion is not actually a problem. When you talk about issue-based campaigns, there has to be an aggregate of safety; how do you manage a country like Nigeria with so many religious and other differences? People have to get a sense that they are in this too. I think that when we talk about what the issue should be for the 2023 election, it’s basically the same thing we have been talking about.”
Lai Mohammed, minister of information and culture, who was represented by Sam Agi, director of performing arts, National Arts Council and Culture, said that hate speeches and misinformation were embedded in campaign messages and this should not be so.
“Hate speeches, misinformation and other ways of manipulating messages are apparent. We should be concerned that whatever message that will be sent must be relevant. Most Nigerians reside in grassroots, so grassroots mobilisation should be taken very seriously. If we can use a medium that can enable us to reach those people in the grassroots, the advocacy will be more receptive and effective. We will be happy to receive a communiqué that will come out of the event,” Mohammed said.
Ahmad Lawan, president of the Senate, expressed worry that elections in Nigeria were always characterised by divisive messages, with attention shifting from core issues of governance to attacks on personalities.
Lawan said the 9th National Assembly has taken deliberate measures to strengthen Nigeria’s democratic process particularly through the passage of the 2022 Electoral Act, which makes numerous innovations aimed at improving transparency and voter confidence.
The Senate president said: “The emergence of presidential candidates for political parties and the appointment of media spokespersons have once again thrown up the question of how political messages should be crafted and delivered and the consequence of messaging for the broader polity. Since independence, elections in Nigeria have been characterised by polarising rhetoric and deep-seated divisions relating to ethnicity, religion and other primordial sentiments.
“Against this background and ahead of the commencement of campaigns, this forum assumes an even greater significance. The proliferation of the internet and social media platforms and the growing culture of fake news pose new dangers and threats to our collective existence. Politicians at all levels must be cognizant of this and take measures to mitigate them.
“We have shifted our focus from the core issues of governance to irrelevant and frankly nonsensical attacks on the personalities of the various candidates. By so doing, we, the politicians, have once again distracted Nigerians from assessing those who seek political office based on the merit of their positions. Inadvertently, we are also exploiting primordial sentiments for political purposes, not minding the danger this poses to our democratic experiment.”
Femi Gbajabiamila, speaker of the House of Representatives, appealed to the political actors to keep their campaign languages moderate by not being abusive.
He said: “As we prepare to commence campaign activities precisely nine days from today (statutorily for a period of 150 days before tolling day), it is critical that we familiarise ourselves with the rules of the game and set ourselves a basic standard of conduct mainly because of our place as leaders and weight that our utterances carry among our supporters and followers.
“The Electoral Act 2022, one of the most significant legislations passed by the National Assembly since 1999, contains critical provisions on the conduct of
political campaigns. Section 92 states that ‘a political campaign or slogan shall not be tainted with abusive language directly or indirectly likely to injure religious, ethnic, tribal or sectional feelings.’
“Sub-section 2 is even more direct in its prohibition of intemperate, slanderous or base language, insinuations, or innuendoes designed or likely to provoke violent reactions or emotions’. Other vital provisions prohibit the use of places of religious worship, police stations and public offices for campaigns. The Act further stipulates sanctions for a political party, aspirant or candidate that contravenes these provisions ranging from fines of up to N2 million or imprisonment for a term of twelve (12) months.”
Abubakar Suleiman, director-general of NILDS, said that political messages must be tailored to sustain Nigeria’s democracy, describing campaigning as an indispensable tool in the context of the electoral process in any democratic environment.
He said: “Despite the advantages, it is well known that campaigns can undermine democracy, particularly when they induce cynicism among the populace, undermine trust in government, decrease turnout and frustrate genuine attempts to engage the citizenry.
“Critics have raised significant concerns about recent developments in political communication, particularly because negative and personality-based ones are increasingly replacing informative, policy-focused campaigns. The lack of ‘substance’ in political debates means that voters are often confused and unable to make well-informed decisions. Some studies have shown that negative political communication and campaigns push people to stay away from politics altogether.
“It is self-evident that the build-up to the 2023 general elections raises genuine concerns about the pattern of public communication among political actors, their publicity agents, and other related stakeholders, especially those actively engaged in media and communication.”