At this stage in his campaign, Labour Party’s presidential candidate, Peter Obi, should be laying out the policy ideas and ideology that will define his government and building a team of competent managers who can run with his vision. For a man who has accumulated a growing band of self-motivated and organic following in a short period, he needs to make the best of the interest he is generating. The last thing—the very last thing—he needs at the moment is wringing his hands and apologising for the zeal of his supporters. Nothing they are doing is new. That is the nature of elections, enabled by social media, where comments, exchanges and interactions can build momentum. Besides, which Nigerian politician would mind being similarly followed by those whose bank accounts they did not have to first credit?
After observing how his supporters tore into the senior pastor of Covenant Christian Centre, Poju Oyemade, who tweeted what the online band considered a criticism of Obi’s candidature, Obi pleaded with them to take it easy. While I appreciate that Obi wants to inscribe the democratic ethos of reasonable debate and polite dissensions, he should also know that the culture of raging online precedes his presidential candidature. 10 years ago, a President’s media aide magisterially labelled the army of cybercritics the “collective children of anger.” Since then, nothing Nigeria has done has assuaged the fury of this generation who have never known good governance. Now, they are even justifiably angrier that they might pass on the trauma of living in a failed country they inherited from their parents to their children. The older they get, the more they are seized by the urgency of resolving Nigeria’s perennial dysfunction and the more intense the passion with which they will engage the issues. You cannot blame those who live in a society where the conditions of their humanity get systematically decimated by the political class for not making genteel exchanges with those who facilitate social impairment.
A rule of public conduct used to be keeping your political opinions to yourself unless you are sure you are in the company of people who share them. Politics divides people into camps and discussing it puts people in a position to justify themselves against you. That could ruin social relationships. These days, no thanks to the immediacy and interactivity of social media, some of those rules of etiquette are gone. The narcissist in all of us will not stop talking; some of us can no longer move our own arms in our own homes without feeling compelled to share it with semi-strangers online. We want to be heard, we want to be seen, and we want to be the centre of public admiration. It feels positively affirmative when getting “likes” and “loves” for expressing private thoughts until the topic at hand draws a hostile crowd. Social media interaction reminds you of the old proverb: one person can cook for a whole village to eat and they will all be satisfied. But if the village reciprocates, the overwhelming result will be unsatisfactory.
Unless accompanied by violence, no politician needs to curb the exuberance of their supporters’ energetic responses to opponents. That is tantamount to asking football players to apologise for their fan’s hooliganism. And comparatively, politics is a far more passionate game. People invest the whole of their being into it and it manifests in their impassioned exchanges online and offline. After the hotly contested 2016 elections in the USA, families divided between the supporters of Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump had a hard time celebrating their annual Thanksgiving feast just a few weeks later. Some cancelled their scheduled trips and vowed to stay away from certain family members because of the presidential candidate they supported. Political discussions will always be that volatile, especially in an election year. To express an opinion in the agora of social media is to be exposed and have some of the intense emotions ruling the times flung in one’s direction.
From my perch, I have witnessed tensions every election season since 2007 or thereabouts. It used to be Dr Goodluck Jonathan’s supporters versus everyone else. The social media terrain was still relatively new then, and it was the bid to understand its nature and the role that it would play in Nigerian politics that drove Jonathan’s aide to label critics “children of anger.” By the 2011 elections, the “election mania,” sadly, did not stay online. Some supporters of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), who could not manage their electoral loss, took out their anger on poor people. An estimated 800 lives were lost in that unfortunate incident. Though violence raged in some parts of the country, Buhari did not immediately call his supporters to order. For days, he maintained a defiant stance while people burned.
In another country, somebody like Buhari would have been permanently ostracised for what he did in 2011. Nobody would have touched a character like that with as much as an antiseptic-soaked glove! But look at where we are today. Some of the people who carried out the carnage in 2011, and those who supported Buhari despite his shameful history, are probably sitting down somewhere today and still labelling Obi’s supporters for being “illiberal.” Regardless of what happens in 2023, Obi’s supporters will not go away. They will either transmute into virulent defenders of his presidency or fierce critics of whoever wins the presidency. Brace yourself; our journey together is only just beginning.
When Buhari became the 2015 All Progressives Congress’ presidential candidate, he also gained an existing crowd of online supporters. Some of them fancied themselves as progressives, having developed their moral bona fides from strident criticisms of Jonathan. If you think Obi’s supporters are passionate, then you should have seen the fundamentalism and ferocity of Buhari’s followers. You dare raise your voice and they will creep out of every woodwork and wormhole to pillory you for supporting “corruption.” Even after the election, their self-righteous rage remained insufferable. Any contrarian thought was immediately chalked down to bitterness. Some of us were labelled “angry” because, according to them, our regular supply of brown envelopes ended with the corrupt Peoples Democratic Party. They maintained their monomania, although after the 2019 elections it started to fizzle out. Who knows whether they have now exhausted their partisan energy or the rising price of foodstuffs has finally ameliorated their enthusiasm. Whatever passion they have left in their bodies after supporting a serially failed President is now being expended on moaning about Obi’s supporters. Sorry, but you too had your own time in the sun. It is turn-by-turn. Book your seats in anticipation of 2027 already.
The longer history of Nigerian political engagements during elections, especially online, has taught me that rage will be recurrent and it is unproductive to attempt to regulate other people’s passions. Who is to say how others should express themselves when we have not lived their lives to determine how badly the country has hurt them? Unless they turn violent, it is pointless curbing enthusiastic supporters even when they overreach themselves. Elections are like the death of an elephant—an event that attracts all shapes and sizes of knives. You cannot dictate how and where each should slice their own portion of the fallen beast. The internet itself is very much like the marketplace we read about in mythological tales—all kinds of creatures gather there to transact all kinds of business. Rather than trying to decree the tone and substance of conversations, it is much easier to find one’s corner of the internet where like-minded individuals gather and engage them.
There is no point contributing to the tension by wrestling people whose style of engagement is too aggressive for your finely-manicured tastes, and then complaining about their manners. In the time you have spent blaming Obi for his followers’ zeal you could also have invested the energy in modelling reasonable engagements within your own sphere. If, despite all efforts, you still attract negativity, whittle your friends’ list or restrict the crowd around your space. Social media algorithms are skewed to give you more of what you engage. Each time you click on “roforofo” fights and read as much as even one comment, the algorithms sense your interests and send you more of such. Stop engaging aggressors and they will fall off your timelines.