Shettima and the weaponisation of political language

With the election of the presiding officials for the 10th National Assembly, it has become instructive to do an overview of the politics, and the related issues, on the eve of the elections. The first thing to note, is that the ruling APC eventually got what it wanted: party candidates as senate president and deputy; as well as speaker and deputy in the House of Representatives.

The traumatic experience of 2015 was avoided. A dissident from within the party couldn’t manipulate the process to emerge. And the fears were real enough. In the lead to the elections, there were stories making the rounds, that Senator Yari’s campaign was finding traction with sections of the incoming senators, just as the rumour that Senator Akpabio had made impolitic statements which had ruffled political feathers in certain sections of the party. The consequence of that, was the allegation being whispered in political circles, that the president and party leaders were shopping for an alternative candidate for senate president.

Of course, disinformation is a very important weapon of political manoeuvres. And in the context of the horse trading associated with the leadership selection for the 10th National Assembly, it was a most potent weapon indeed!

The reason was simply because the stakes were very high. The backdrop of the emotions about the central place of identity in Nigerian politics, had not been as poisonous as we witnessed with the emergence of the Tinubu-Shettima ticket.

Religion was weaponised at the most dangerous level that we’ve ever witnessed, since the 1999 transition to civilian administration in our country.

The bitterness that was stoked around the issue became a central motif of the political campaigns, the elections, and the outcomes. The fact that our political elite has been unable to devise a soothing balm for the frayed political nerves, therefore, deepened suspicions about the leadership tussle for the 10th National Assembly.

It was also important to note that despite the political savvy of the president and his vice, the new administration was still not sure-footed yet, given the backdrop of the balance of forces in the incoming Assembly.

So, the APC as a party, and the new administration especially, couldn’t leave anything to chances. The smoke-filled recesses of Nigerian politics have been known to throw up incredible surprises. And if the administration wants to settle in properly, to face the challenges of governance, this battle for the 10th National Assembly leadership must not only be joined, it must be won. And decisively too!

This was where Vice President Kashim Shettima entered the fray. He had been a prominent member of the 9th National Assembly; he built an impressive network within both chambers, as a party leader, and his emergence as vice president meant added responsibility on behalf of the government and party.

That’s what played out in the days leading to the leadership election in the. National Assembly. Shettima was working flat out, to ensure that bruised egos were massaged; party members were shepherded back into the party’s political line; a balance was found between personal ambitions and national interest, especially given the ethno-religious fractures that accompanied the last elections.

The context within which issues were being contested didn’t leave room for spontaneity. If the party and the administration made any damaging miscalculations, they won’t just have eggs on their faces, the administration would become significantly diminished over the next four years.

The example of 2015, and Bukola Saraki’s rebellion is still too fresh in the memory, and some of the personnel from that epoch are still very much around today. The president cannot afford to be wrong-footed a second time. Not when he’s now the lord of the manor!

The situation that the APC faces was clear. The Muslim-Muslim ticket has been a success. But that success alienated a very significant section of the country. The wise thing is the search for restitution, through the creative balance sought for, in the leadership of the 10th National Assembly. Thus, the senate president, the nation’s number three citizen, was consciously zoned to the South-south, and specifically, for a Christian to emerge. Yet, nothing was totally guaranteed in the field of politics.

This was the backdrop to the statement which Shettima made two days before the vote in the National Assembly about “… the worst, most incompetent Southern Christian”, vis-a-vis “… the most puritanical Northern Muslim candidate”.

Of course, the party was not throwing up “the worst, most incompetent Southern Christian”, and neither is it preparing a cudgel against “the most puritanical Northern Muslim”. There’s no way that Shettima, who is on the joint presidential ticket as a Northern Muslim, could turn his back on that constituency; in the same manner, that having emerged as vice oresident in a keenly-contested election, can denigrate the southern half of the country!

A flowery flight of language and of erudition was immediately seized upon for political weaponisation purposes. And therein lies the high stakes of Nigerian politics. There’s no issue that’s too small to seek to gain a very damaging advantage, politically.

I am sure that the vice oresident would have been flummoxed at the manner in which political capital was being extracted from his statement, and as is the wont in such situations, devoid of the overall context of the wellbeing of our country.

Thank God; the sought for outcomes have emerged within the haloed chambers of the National Assembly. The stage has now been set for the concerted work of administration, over the next four years. The in-tray of the administration is filled with incredible levels of expectations, and Nigerians will be watching every step taken to solve the myriads of problems dogging our country.

How the relationship evolves between the leadership of the 10th National Assembly, the administration and the ruling party, would very much be part of the overall picture.

Politicians are not averse to weaponising everything on their way, from ethno-religious chasms, to political language. That’s been very evident in the past couple of days. But the success of the overall balance being sought for national cohesion, through the outcomes of the leadership election for the 10th National Assembly, trumps the divisiveness of petty politics.

In that victory for the idea of uniting our country and building bridges, across the chasms of ethnicity and religion, Shettima won a major victory for the party and the new administration. That’s a very important victory indeed!

Kawu, PhD, FNGE, is a broadcaster, journalist and political scientist.