2023: What If Machiavelli Votes?

ENGAGEMENTS with Chidi Amuta, e-mail: chidi.amuta@gmail.com


Ordinarily, the hidden hands of an ancient Italian devious thinker should have no relevance to Nigeria’s 2023 election. But Machiavelli lived in a bad time and in a treacherous political terrain pretty much like the Nigeria of 2022. Like in the Florentine city state, our politics has been reduced to seasonal  undeclared civil wars moderated by the hidden hands of dark knights of vested interests and primordial loyalties. Somehow, the often trivialized and battered dictum that the end of a power exploit justifies the means has come to rule our political history in spite of fancy pretensions  to democratic fidelity.

Machiavelli was himself variously a victim and traducer of a system wracked by perennial turmoil and serial instability. He was even tried and convicted for treasonous subversion of the state and sacked from his public service career. It was in his period of internal exile and isolation that he found time to write The Prince which later became the classic text on statecraft especially for ambitious power seekers and power mongers in bad places. Machiavelli meant well in his philosophical enquiry. But his legacy has become one of an evil genius of political thinking.

Several centuries after his demise, he and his handbook have become the universal primers of dark power schemes and manipulative statecraft. Therefore, anywhere the contest for power becomes subject to unwritten rules, unstated assumptions and murky computations, Machiavelli is cited as an inspiration. Whenever the normal political process is derailed in the service of devious ends, Machiavelli is said to have cast a vote. Wherever unintended detours occur on the road to a power destination, Machiavelli is invoked. Whenever rough seekers of power succeed in decapitating the state or usurping its power pinnacles, their untidy methods find accommodation in Machiavelli’ scheme. Coups and counter coups, all shades of revolutions, political assassinations, bogus elections and political gangsterism and other nasty power games all find philosophical legitimation in the license of political language as ‘Machiavellian’.

Nigeria is not new to devious detours and nasty disruptions at the verge of power transitions. In 1983, President Shehu Shagari was on the way to a two-term presidential tenure. A lanky Machiavelli donned a battle fatigue and struck,  sending democracy on a reverse trip. The end of a military power grab was justified by the meanness of the subsequent legitimacy excuses. A frowning autocracy replaced an imperfect democracy. A more sophisticated smiling Machiavellian disciple came calling.  The rest is just one chapter from a past of many tragic power usurpations and disruptions.

Today, we are literally at the doorstep of the 2023 elections. This is like no other normal democratic transition moments. Nearly all the variables that define our nationhood have come unhinged. Such moments try even the most settled of nations and call for the emergence of more than power occupants.

All the parties have activated into a campaign mode, having fulfilled all INEC requirements. The public is in an expectant mood as wagers and opinion polls pass the mantle of victorious odds from Obi to Atiku and  Tinubu and back again in no particular ranking order. On its part, INEC has been busy perfecting all its processes and mechanics to ensure a tolerably credible election. From what we are reading, INEC’s increased confidence stems mostly from its near perfection of the use of the BVACS technology and logistical clean-up. These have worked fairly well in producing fairly credible recent governorship elections in Edo, Anambra, Ondo, Ekiti and Osun respectively.

There is an emergent consensus that INEC under the present leadership has come to a point where the integrity of electoral outcomes has become relatively axiomatic. Confidence in the electoral process and hope in the promise of democracy have grown. A great deal of this improved electoral ecosystem and democratic landscape  is the result of the reliability of the technology mix that INEC has adopted. The fears of a Machiavellian disruption begin here. Machiavellian political philosophy is essentially disruptive, not conformist or preservative.

As it turns out, Machiavelli and other dark power forces now also have a technology wing. In the age of information technology wizardry, nearly every perfect system is vulnerable.  Hacking and unauthorised cyber access have become an industry. There is nothing in the BVACS technology that completely insulates it from compromise by a determined and desperate political interest intent on influencing the outcome of the 2023 elections. Hackers and vendors of all manner of viruses and malware are out there on the prowl for hire for a couple of thousands of dollars. From a basement or garage somewhere in Shanghai, Wuse or Lekki, a group of internet freaks and cyber criminals could actually clone INEC’s BVACS machines and their footprints. The cloned BVACS machines could overwrite the genuine machines and transmit fake results well ahead of the genuine terminals. By the time INEC realises it, the damage would have been done. This is only one way in which the technological advantage of INEC’s success could be turned into a gruesome liability. The ingenuity of technological evil hands and minds has no limits in today’s world.

On a wider scale, the fear of political instability hovers over Nigeria even as we speak. It has nothing to do with preparations for the elections themselves. But instead, fundamental issues of national security and stability have emerged anew. In the last fortnight, all major Western diplomatic missions in Abuja have sent out travel advisories and feverish alerts pointing to an imminent string of terrorist events in Abuja. The United States and Canada have issued guidelines to their nationals for the evacuation of non- essential personnel from Nigeria. The United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Denmark and others have followed suit. All Nigerian security agencies have fanned out all over Abuja in search of the trouble makers. All this is taking place under a veneer of normalcy and tranquility in and around the city. So far, security people have reported some  significant arrests and found items of interest in residential estates in Abuja. But there has not been anything of a magnitude to justify the scope of the diplomatic stampede.

Predictably, all manner of Machiavellian narratives and conspiracy theories have gone to town. The most consequential is the postulation that those who threaten Abuja may have larger political scripts hidden in their tunics. A series of synchronised terror events in and around Abuja could send the  message that the 2023 elections would be untenable in an atmosphere of anarchy and insecurity in the capital city. In place of the election, this devious logic would want to emplace a government of national unity as a stabilization mechanism until security and stability return. This satanic script is said to be the handiwork of the famous  conservative clique in and around the Villa. Beyond conspiracy schemes, there is a sense in which each of the frontline presidential candidates is open to schemes outside their control.

Mr. Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is easily the most adept power player in the present mix.  Mr. Atiku has torpedoed his party’s power rotation understanding thereby stifling the hope of the South-east to furnish a presidential candidate for the PDP in 2023. He garnered the support of the northern elite of the party to upstage other contenders at the May presidential primaries convention. A ding dong intra party series of skirmishes is raging between him and Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State.

Mr. Atiku may be holding the mainframe of the party with the support and collaboration of Dr. Iyiorcha Ayu, the party’s savvy chairman. Both men can rely on the longer institutional memory of the party to advance their cause. But Mr. Wike is a threat to the Rivers State bloc vote which is only next to Lagos in the south. The party has to find its way around Mr. Wike to gain access to that demographics of voters.

Mr. Atiku remains vulnerable to the Machiavellian manoeuvres  of three human political forces: he needs to reach some accommodation with Mr. Wike and his fellow travellers. More importantly,  Atiku is politically indebted to two political deities: ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo and former military president Ibrahim Babangida. Both men bear him deep grudges and possess considerable political clout. They could both keep Atiku awake for a few nights in the months ahead.

PDP Presidential flag bearer, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar

But Mr. Atiku is a Fulani Muslim. But he remains something of a suspicious figure among the common northern street folk who see him as too much of a Westernised capitalist apologist and mogul. To approximate the cultic followership of a Buhari in the north, Mr. Atiku will need to move from his known centre right position towards a more conservative posture. That could cost him the support of corporate Nigeria and influential friends in the south. Of the three frontline presidential candidates, therefore, Mr. Atiku has the advantage of being the most pro establishment and pro northern hegemony.

The ghosts of Machiavelli that will  haunt Mr. Atiku reside in three zones of the country: the South-west, the South-east and the South-south. In the South-west, he has to wrestle with the potly ghost of Mr. Obasanjo. There is of course the looming presence of Mr. Bola Tinubu. In the South East, the wounded collective consciousness of a people lies in wait. For the South-south, an Atiku presidency is inconsequential.

Mr. Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC) can be an exciting old war horse. All the major indices of Nigerian power are on display in his armoury. He can rely on the troubled Buhari incumbency and the myth of an incumbent party. Hanging on to the Buhari coat tail could earn him the cultic followership of the departing Daura musketeer. However, Buhari’s cultic followership  in the major Muslim states of Kano, Katsina and Kaduna, like all political followership, is not automatically transferable. If Tinubu could lay hands on that inheritance, he could get a decisive edge when added to his Lagos trove. His hands have extended to Rivers where he has effectively undermined the PDP by entering into an electoral understanding with Governor Wike. His Muslim-Muslim ticket could be an insurance policy to enhance his access to Buhari’s core Muslim base. But northern voters who have to choose between the Islam of Atiku and that of Atiku will have in interesting choice.

Bola Tinubu

Mr. Tinubu remains the candidate with the deepest pocket. He seems ready to deploy that war chest into the service of his political goals. His financial blitzkrieg during the APC presidential primaries says it all. He literally drowned his opponents in a sea of dollar bills to take home the prize presidential ticket.

Inherent in Mr. Tinubu’s advantages are grave vulnerabilities as well. Some close watchers of President Buhari believe that his nativist instincts may not in fact favour a Tinubu succession. A school of thought believes that the Aso Rock power cartel around him may not be so excited about a Tinubu presidency either. There is an even more sinister Machiavellian conspiracy theory afloat. What if the assumed support of northern APC governors is designed to obtain Tinubu’s money and use it to fund an Atiku succession, thereby consolidating the northern hegemony? Tinubu may have the transactional support of ordinary northerners through cash and lorry loads of branded bags of rice. While Buhari gave the northern masses empty promises of a better life, Mr. Tinubu has instant goodness in cash and supplies in generous quantities!

With Mr. Obi of the Labour Party, we come face to face with a real threat to Nigeria’s power nexus. Mr. Obi is challenging the political establishment, the traditional architecture of parties and the ethos of old politicians. He is challenging the bastions of vested interest, the organized crime syndicates of fuel subsidies and inflated state contracts. He has openly indicated a desire to run a people oriented administration that is accountable, frugal and open. All these grate on the nerves of the deep state and the warlords of enshrined corruption. He wants to reorganise national security and thus curb the crime dividends enjoyed by the security high command.

Labour Party Presidential candidate, Peter Obi

Peter Obi and his OBIdients movement could have been dismissed with a wave of the hand if they were not so consequential, menacing and expanding.  In a relatively short space of time, Mr. Obi has had a movement grow around him and his counter narrative. He has become the emblematic poster “man in black” of this season with a targeted appeal mostly to the youth.  He is the convergence of moment, message and messenger. His message is simple: ‘It is time to take back our country’. That message has resonated with the youth and the disenchanted majority of urban poor and unemployed.  The desire to create a new Nigeria transcends the barriers that have held Nigeria hostage. There lies Obi’s real threat to the power establishment.

The system is not going to sit idly by while Mr. Obi and his followers sweep vested interest out of power. Therefore, he will be the meeting ground of all the dark forces intent on maintaining the status quo. In quick rehearsals, financial blackmail of Mr. Obi has been tried and did not work. Ethnic profiling has not stuck. As the campaign season progresses, more sophisticated antics may be rolled out if Mr. Obi and the OBIdients sustain their appeal and gather momentum.

The possible release of IPOB chieftain, Mr. Nnamdi Kanu, could be weaponized against Mr. Obi in the event that he becomes an electoral threat. Nnamdi Kanu’s considerable folk popularity in the South East could be deployed to erode Mr. Obi’s anticipated South-east home base. The devious calculation would be to use Nnamdi Kanu’s release as an effective antidote against an Obi presidential emergence.

On the other hand, an unlikely mass embrace of Obi by Kanu and his IPOB mob will still spell the death of the OBIdients as a national movement and credible political alternative. It will be quickly consigned to the convenient category of separatist troublemakers. If Kanu and his followers decide to oppose Obi, it could convert the South-east into a political battle field in every sense and distract from the national contest for apex power.

Beyond such overtly mischievous and presumably far- fetched schemes,  the major indices and constant unknowns of power and politics in Nigeria remain active. They will determine who assumes apex power in 2023. These constant determinants include issues of faith, ethnicity, region and big money interests and the deep state.  Even in spite of the present veneer of democratic orderliness towards the 2023 elections, the prospects of democratic succession remain fractious and somewhat uncertain. The possibility of all manner of last minute Machiavellian antics remains potent. But the ultimate triumph of our democracy will remain a function of the state of health of our democratic institutions: a truly independent and credible INEC, a judiciary of honest judges, a media of fair and truthful journalists and a non- partisan state structure.

In a sense, the speculative possibility of a Machiavelli vote in 2023 is another way of posing the great universal question of history: What if?

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