Most societies do not trust their politicians, so it is not an anomaly peculiar to Nigeria. Whether it is an advanced democracy or a developing country does not make any difference. For instance, 63% of British people believed their politicians were mainly interested in themselves alone, according to the IPPR think tank poll conducted in 2021. Also, in another survey, 60% of Australians rank the politicians very low on the issues of honesty and integrity. Similarly, in the US, a 2021 Gallup poll showed that 60% of Americans do not have confidence in their politicians. A 2013 study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) pointed out that the people’s trust in politicians in India hit an all-time low that year.
However, the case of Nigerians and trust in their politicians seems to decline with every cycle of elections since 1999. An extreme trust deficit hovers over Nigerian politicians, and the public hardly believes in the campaign promises or even the commitment made by politicians. Much of the trust deficit links to the fact that there is no mechanism of political accountability in the country. Even when one is in place, politicians and even institutions that are supposed to enforce this usually undermine it.
The 2023 elections present a unique situation for the average Nigerian voter to confront the issue of trust deficit among the political class. Nigerians have run out of patience in trusting their politicians and those who hold public office on their behalf. There are five significant reasons why the average Nigerian citizen and voter cannot trust politicians.
First, politicians have failed to keep to their many promises over time . A critical look at the campaign promises since the 1979 elections reveals that the themes and promises are the same: that of bringing about food sufficiency, constant electricity, pipe-borne water, the building of roads, coupled with the provision of quality education and healthcare . From the post-1999 political period till date, we can add to this list issues of security, employment creation through industralisation, fighting corruption, and fixing the economy, and the cocktail of promises would have been complete. I bet you that these will be the same issues and promises in the 2023 elections.
Politicians have never kept any of these promises properly, none of which has been truly addressed and eliminated from the list of developmental challenges. The trend is as if, immediately after elections, politicians forget or even deny their promises. Many of our basic infrastructure are non-existent or in total disrepair. Youth unemployment is rife, despite the many promises of creating jobs and revamping social services, which are either non-functional or suboptimal. Issues of restructuring have featured in most election campaigns since the 1999 general elections, but despite all the promises by successive candidates, we are still at the same point talking about the same issues since then.
Second, the inconsistency of politicians is legendary and often borders on creative lies and propaganda. Nigerian politicians change parties like the asoebi changes of bridal clothes during traditional wedding ceremonies. The politics of supremacy of personal interests has killed any serious ideological underpinnings of any of the political parties.
Politicians have turned parties into vehicles to struggle for power without any enduring attachment to ideals, philosophies, and ideologies. On policy issues, one hardly ever knows where politicians and office holders stand. Besides, when issues of national importance arise, politicians flip-flop from one opinion or stance to another in alignment with their personal interests. For instance, many Northern politicians, especially PDP presidential candidate Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, supported the zoning issue in 2011 but opposed it in the 2019 and 2022 primaries because it favours them and the North.
Third, many campaign promises have no precise details on how to accomplish them. Politicians create soundbites and colourful proclamations on massive projects they promise to build to improve the lives and material conditions of citizens. However, the politicians do not provide information on the feasibility or viability of these projects. They do not provide details on how and where they will get the funds for the project, who will oversee the project, the cost- benefit analysis, and who will benefit from it. What are the opportunity costs of the project, and how is the project linked to other projects to provide a system of infrastructure that supports economic sustainability and growth?
Fourth, the average politician is a chameleon who change his/her persona during and after elections. The best time to easily access politicians is when they are canvassing for votes. They show an openness that surprises their worst critics and communicate compassionately and purposefully during election campaigns. However, immediately after the elections, these politicians become inaccessible and unapproachable, whether they win or not. It even becomes worse when they win an elective position because they become far removed from the people, and overzealous security officers and their entourages guard them heavily. Engagement with the people becomes rare once in office. They are far removed from the people they govern and only communicate with them formally through the traditional and social media. Little wonder that there is a disconnect and lack of trust between politicians and the people.
Finally, there is opaqueness in the conducts of individual politicians, the party and government affairs. This opaqueness breeds disunity and hatred even within the party. The fluidity of the conflict of interest between powerful interest groups and government officials leads to scandals, the reign of innuendos and rumours that bedevil trust and faith in the political system and politicians. This partly accounts for why the two major parties in Nigeria are facing deep internal crisis and tensions today.
The difference between the Nigerian situation and politicians of other climes is that a more enlightened civil society can hold politicians accountable for their campaign promises by keeping an inventory of these promises and asking questions of politicians during campaigns and even after elections; how much will the proposed projects cost? Where the funds will come from? What are their real impacts and how will they contribute to improving the quality of living of the people? Only by interrogating and engaging the campaign promises of politicians will we start the process of holding them accountable.
Nigerians must demand a rejigging of the governance structure that must embrace results – performance benchmarks, targets, timelines, achievable goals, and milestones. A result-oriented governance approach emphasises process and outcomes, whilst deemphasising ordinary rhetoric and promises not backed with actions.
For the political class, political communication and marketing must be less of fact spinning and framing political messages to confuse or deceive the people. The political language should become less vague and empty. All politicians must strive to be honourable, knowledgeable, and trustworthy. Politicians always on the receiving end of the trust deficit must learn the benefit of facts, figures, statistics, historical patterns, trends, and time limits. These will assist them in addressing the trust deficit.
All politicians in Nigeria must strive to let the 2023 elections give us something new to place our hopes and aspirations in. They must be open to
being held accountable for their promises. Let the candidates speak for themselves on all key policy issues and not through some spokespersons they will later deny as being unauthorised to make commitments and decisions on their behalf. This is the time to ask candidates for the finer details of vague campaign promises and to ensure that candidates keep their promises and commitments, and that none should or can take Nigerians for granted again.
We hope the INEC is ready to painstakingly officiate a free and fair election in the 2023 general election according to the provisions of the amended Electoral Act. The more the polls are credible, the more legitimate and trustworthy that politicians will look and become.
Voters must be ready to track inventories of campaign promises to hold politicians accountable for their promises. They should act decisively when they know politicians are taking them on rides and abandoning their
promises. The people must create platforms to continuously engage political office holders, and were anyone is not acting in the overall interest of the people, they could initiate the process of recalling such a person from the
Assembly, if s/he is a legislator, petition higher office holders about such a politician, embark on media campaigns against the politician, and ultimately, vote out the politician in the next election cycle. This will serve as deterrence for politicians from making promises they have no intention or plan of keeping.
Although Nigeria is not unique in lacking trust for politicians, the people use even stronger languages than in most climes to describe these politicians, who are all lumped within the category of dubious thieves and liars. There is a pervading sense of hopelessness when politicians fail to keep their campaign promises and neglect the people with utmost impunity. The general elections of 2023 are a make or mar election in a generation.
Preliminary findings thus far are indicating meaningful youth engagement during the early stages of the campaign; therefore, this is a clarion call and a call of duty to all influential Nigerians to check the campaign promises against the odds and realities of affordability, sustainability, and practical value, especially when the opportunity costs are calculated. Let’s sincerely hope that the 2023 general elections will herald a new dawn in electioneering campaigns dominated by issues-based debates, while campaign promises are interrogated and situatied within the current economic situations and realities, locally and internationally, in the hope that the best candidates win the elections to liberate Nigerians.