March 28. On this day in history, Flavius Valens became, in 364 AD, co-emperor of the Roman Empire, and the British Parliament passed, in 1979, a single-vote of no confidence in the government of James Callaghan, paving the way for the elections that ushered in the Age of Margaret Thatcher.
On this day in 2015, Nigerians went to the polls to elect a President. The morning of the next day, in the incumbent President’s home in Otueke, a sleepy community in the creeks of the Niger Delta, near where oil was first discovered in Nigeria in 1956, the alarm goes off, but the President is already awake. He’s been up since the earliest-rising fishermen set off on the oil-slicked waters in search of the day’s catch. Next to him, the First Lady is still fast asleep.
Today, the President will know whether his return to the capital, Abuja, will be a triumphant entry, or something mournful and subdued, similar to the way his predecessor returned in the early hours of February 23, 2010. Deep down in him, he knows he won’t be too pained, at least not as much as his wife, and his kinsmen. He’s had an unbelievably fortunate run, going from a mid-level civil servant to President of the richest and most populous black nation on earth in a little over a decade.
Six hundred and fifty kilometres to the north, in Kaduna, the presidential challenger is keeping vigil. Behind his oval-frame glasses, his eyes are devoid of sleep, as they were during the party’s presidential primary in Lagos last December. He sits on a couch in his modestly furnished living room, surrounded by friends and well-wishers who all address him as Mr. President. Even the littlest children, when they awaken, will run rings around him squealing, “Sai-Bwawee”.
In that same Kaduna, the vice-presidential alarm goes off. The architect-turned-politician reaches out to silence it. He’s reluctant to rise to meet the beckoning day. He’s never won an election in his ward, and today might not be different. People say the former President, the farmer who has ruled Nigeria twice, also had a habit of not winning elections in his ward. Hardly comforting, if you asked the vice-president. There’s no basis for comparison, considering that one man’s mild embarrassment is another’s obituary. The vice-president has often thought of relocating his ward to a part of town where victory is likelier.
In the Kaduna State Government House, the incumbent governor is up early. He summons his secretary to bring the iPad, and to open his challenger’s Twitter account. His challenger is a Social Media Overlord, with close to half a million followers on Twitter, a man who more than makes up for what he lacks in verticality and horizontality with a penchant for ruffling every feather in sight. The governor wants to see what the Ruffler has been saying on Twitter. Nothing, it turns out. The last time he tweeted was nine hours ago. The governor doesn’t know whether to be worried or not. Is the Ruffler’s silence a good or bad sign? He doesn’t know. This is the first real election both of them will be contesting – the governor came to this office by way of succeeding his deceased boss; the Ruffler, until now, had shown little interest in elective office, and seemed destined to live out his life as a technocrat and trouble-maker.
In Lagos, the vice-presidential candidate of the opposition is at his desk, the silence of dawn broken by diesel generators that ought to belong to hellfire, considering the amount of heat they generate. His head is bowed in prayer, his arms resting on an open Devotional Bible. In a few hours, it will be time for church, and he will be preaching of the goodness of God. For as long as he can, he will try to keep his mind away from the ballots. It’s not by power nor by might, saith the Lord!
Back in Abuja – deserted by politicians, who have all gone to their towns and villages to fight do-or-die political battles – the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission is going into his second or third sleep-free night. Yesterday’s elections, and the ones holding on April 11, will be the last set of elections he’ll be conducting before his term of office expires in June. They will permanently define his legacy. He knew, when taking this job, in 2010, that it would mostly be a thankless task. But he had no idea just how difficult it would be; how intimidating the temptation to throw in the towel would be. In one sense, you’re just like the President, at the mercy of your advisers and subordinates, and expected to make all-wise and all-knowing decisions based on limited information you have no way of verifying.
Far away in Abeokuta, there’s a young man who’s still in bed. All he can think of is this: that were it not for the elections, this would be his first full day as a married man. Sometime at the end of December, his family met with his fiancée’s family, and settled for March 28 as “the day the Lord has made.” They would have chosen February 14, Valentine’s Day, but it was not an option because presidential election had already been fixed for that day. Someone had suggested that they leave out the whole of February, because of the elections. And so they had chosen March 28. And printed invitation cards. The cards had caused a fight between him and his fiancée, because he felt they had spent more money on it than they could afford.
And then the postponement happened, somewhat out of the blues. He still remembers that night, February 7, when the electoral management body chairman confirmed the postponement, and announced the new dates: March 28 and April 11. He remembers wondering if he heard the new dates correctly. He will never forget the way something inside him seemed to drop to the bottom of his stomach. He remembers the incoming call from his fiancée, and failing to answer it. The days that followed were a blur, family meetings to reschedule the date, frequent and random outbursts of crying from his wife-to-be. Now they’ve postponed the wedding till June, because no one is sure what even May might look like. So he has another three months to live as a bachelor – all because of an unserious country and its politics.
Across the country, much of the predicted violence has yet failed to materialise. But it’s still too early to rejoice, considering what happened when the results of the last presidential election emerged. Unlike that election — with its 10 million vote gap between the winner and the runner-up — this one promises an alarmingly narrow margin; perhaps, the first presidential election in Nigeria’s history that an incumbent will be going into without a solid assurance of victory.
In the last one week, everyone and their grandmother have published projections, throwing up the idea of “Buhari’s States”, “Jonathan’s States”, and “Battleground States”. There are the ones that bear the indelible mark of consensus – everyone knows the 12 northernmost states will be taken by Muhammadu Buhari, and that all the southeastern states and all the Niger Delta states will be taken by Goodluck Jonathan. No one is sure of Adamawa, Gombe and Niger states; where they will swing, and by what margins. Or whether Ekiti State will go the way of Osun State, or Ondo State?
By evening today, we will have a clear view of where Nigeria is headed, for the next four years. All eyes will be on Kaduna. And not just for the battle between the Governor and the Ruffler. In the violence that followed the 2011 presidential election, close to a thousand persons were killed. More than 800 of those people died in Kaduna State; 80 per cent of that number in southern Kaduna.
It will be a tense Sunday; the most tense of the 52 this year, no doubt. Where will the victory parties break out? And where will the machetes and Kalashnikovs show their unforgiving faces; their unstoppable resolve to sow sorrow, tears and blood?
By TOLU OGUNLESI