In 2019, INEC must demonstrate to Nigerian editors that their encounter with democracy in 2018 is not a fluke, a fleeting fantasy.
Every thriving democracy has elements of intellectual dialectics. Democracy diminishes anti-intellectualism. It engages the moment. It interrogates its elements: the actors – politicians, electorate, media, judiciary and sundry stakeholders. Therefore every gathering in the name of democracy is such that would shame anti-intellectualism; a gathering of fecund minds, an opportunity for intellectual fellowship.
And so it was last month when Nigerian editors under the aegis of Nigerian Guild of Editors gathered in Asaba, Delta State for its 14th All Nigeria Editors’ Conference (ANEC). Aptly themed: Credible Elections, Sustainable Democracy and the Nigerian Media, it was a fitting prelude to the 2019 election which has thrown up several peculiar challenges. With a rowdy crowd of over 70 presidential candidates, a nation distinctly divided along ethno-religious fault lines, an electoral umpire which continues to present a misty picture of public mistrust and a proletariat electorate that cheaply falls for crumbs, a partisan media and biased security apparatchik, 2019 general election is certainly pregnant with shocks, suspense and surprises.
It was against this backdrop that the Guild of editors opted for the theme of this year’s conference. INEC Chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu did justice to the theme in his keynote delivered on his behalf by Resident Electoral Commissioner in Akwa Ibom, the ever seminal Mike Igini. ANEC is the flagship annual conference of the Guild. It has had brilliant minds present papers over the years but this year’s edition betters the rest.
For the first time, a sitting Vice President of the country was in attendance. Professor Yemi Osinbajo, the humourist intellectual power house brought his high octane brain to town. He was at his cerebral best when he took editors and guests at the conference through the contours and crevices of the nation’s democracy with a charge to the media to remain steadfast to the grains and tenets of balanced reportage even when the rest of the stakeholders lose their heads in the often bewildering political cloud. Osinbajo was forthright when he said that politicians have a tendency to undercut the competition just to get a head-start over others but that it is the duty of the media to call such politicians to order.
Several other speakers including security expert, Dennis Amachree, a former Director at the Department of State Security (DSS) gave varying perspectives to the great event of 2019. At the end, it was more of hope than despair especially after listening to INEC chairman. But there is great work to be done especially by the media. If the 2019 election must hold and have a semblance of free, fair and credible exercise the media must rise to its duty as watchdog and public
ombudsman. The media must stay away from partisanship, must strive to moderate public speech from hate speech to harmless free speech. Indeed, the Nigerian media must begin now to reset the already febrile political temperament.
The polity is fractured. The temperature is high. Tongues are acerbic, words are caustic. The pervading poverty and weakening economy has atrophied the electorate reducing the voter card to a mere one meal ticket; the equivalent of the widow’s morsel. At times like these, it is the media that must rouse the rabble; it must engage the stakeholders and point to each one of them their respective duties. The media must interlink the debates and the diatribes. It must help bring out the best in us, not the beast in us.
But far beyond the thesis and brilliant submissions on how Nigeria can get it right in the 2019 elections, ANEC 2018 presented editors a rare opportunity to encounter the purity of democracy. A thriving democracy must engender development. Editors got more than a handful of the interplay between democracy and development; between good governance and human development. After the tour of projects which is one the standout sessions of the conference, Nigerian editors were unanimous in their verdict: democracy is working in Nigeria and Delta State is a shining example. The energy-sapping tour took three platoons of editors to all the three senatorial districts of the state. From the new Asaba International Airport runway and taxiways described by Air Peace Captain Matthew Ekeinde as the best in the country through the Stephen Keshi Stadium swamped in a kaleidoscope of cryptic colours and cadence to innervating roads across the state including roads within the far-flung islands of Burutu, there was always something to ascribe to the majesty of democracy. This is Delta, the home of fresh palm wine, catfish, banga soup, white soup of diverse varieties, bushmeat especially the acclaimed king of bushmeat, the grasscutter. Some editors helped themselves to some delicacies, products of the state entrepreneurship schemes which has taken many youths out of the unemployment market into the dignified hall of fame of job and wealth creators.
Delta which budded off from the old Bendel State is fast regaining its lost glory in sports and academic excellence especially technical education. Okowa’s government is planting technical and vocational schools across the state. The intendment is to create a pool of job creators and problem solvers as against a battalion of job seekers.
Every functional democracy must impact the people positively. Delta has shown more than enough reason for editors to believe that Nigeria’s democracy is a half full cup not a half empty one. The governor also demonstrated before editors that democracy must and should have a flavor of intellectualism. For a man who qualified as a medical doctor at 22 from the University of Ibadan in those days, he did well to intellectualise governance to the admiration of editors. During the Executive session, a time when editors listen to and grill governors, Okowa was unfazed. He spoke off-the-cuff seamlessly meandering from sector to sector, town to town as he highlighted the landmarks of his administration.
True, ANEC 2018 provided editors with reasons to believe. One of such reasons was captured by INEC chairman thus: “We will never compromise or surrender the core values of independence, transparency, impartiality and integrity that underpin the mandate of the commission but rather we shall show courage of conviction to be true to them.” This nugget sounds like the philosophy of INEC under Professor Yakubu. It is a verbal affirmation. INEC must do well to translate words to action.
In 2019, INEC must demonstrate to Nigerian editors that their encounter with democracy in 2018 is not a fluke, a fleeting fantasy. INEC must make good its creed of a truly independent commission. It is when INEC has done its job that it can exert pressure on the other stakeholders to build a sustainable democracy where there is opportunity for all and responsibility from all.