First we’ll attempt a stab at some semblance of explanations. Contrary to popular opinion, to sit on the fence, or as has become the parlance, to be a fencist, is not anything worthy of commendation. The idiom is usually a euphemism for gutlessness, not neutrality. At other times, it may mean playing one’s cards close to one’s chest which itself signifies a dubious watchfulness. (The irony is that “popular opinion” does shape language, as this fence business has shown.)
The more appropriate expression would involve partisanship. As the word implies, to be nonpartisan is to create a third theatre of engagement between oppositions, that of freedom from affiliation with any of the opposing sides. By definition, a nonpartisan is free from the confines of bias, although it can be argued somewhat “pedantorily” that his bias of a different kind, a bias for the middle ground.
Aristotle must have meant well when he developed his laws of identity. According to that great man (don’t ask Bertrand Russell though), A is A, an entity cannot be both A and not-A, and an entity has to be either A or not-A. Humanity is still grappling with the implications of these laws, especially the last law, with which Aristotle effectively excised the middle ground.
Unfortunately, identity is not something to be wrapped and tied up with a nice little bow. It is far murkier than that. That middle identity, the space between A and not-A, will always exist for those of us who, from time to time, from issue to issue, prefer to be neither A nor not-A, for various reasons.
To be cognisant of these spaces of nonconformity requires a level of uncommon sensitivity, an uncommon attunement to the multiplicity of possibilities in a world fed on a diet of strict, unbending categorization. Therefore, I cannot say I am surprised by the Nigerian propensity for strict categorization. This phenomenon transcends Nigerianness; it is human, if we take democracy as a tyranny of the majority.
I’ve heard the suggestion proliferate, that the lack of the PVC is practically tantamount to forfeiting one’s basic and constitutionally guaranteed rights. They say you cannot criticize the government of the day if you do not vote. They assign you to some space simultaneously within and outside Nigeria, confined to silence, your nonparticipation in elections adjudged as your gag.
But it is telling that not voting does not and cannot land you a stint in jail, for all its civic responsibility. Contrast that, for starters, with a refusal to pay taxes, and the obligation loses it obligatoriness. So I suppose you can pardon my amusement now when anyone describes voting with the words civic obligation. I would recommend civic choice as a more befitting description of voting, a more effective epithet.
Let no ignoramus drag you into the sphere of his ignorance by bullying you into silence. Elections do not represent the totality of the political process. In fact, nonpartisanship, apathy, apoliticalness are as political as voting, and these options are open to whichever citizen prefers them.
They will say “what if everyone decides to not vote like you?”
If you want to be cynical, you will tell them it is none of your business.
If you want to don the cold, hard hat of rationality, you will tell them that outcome is impossible, as has been historically proven.
If you want to be intelligent, you will tell them to investigate the whys of the no-show, rather than peddle simplistic, prescriptive moralizations. Tell them that in the whys, a bounty usually awaits harvest. Tell them that, for instance, election no-shows arise from legitimate disinterest, which arises from a government-engineered disconnect between state and citizen. Tell them election no-shows are a verdict on the democratic process, on its purveyors, on its practitioners.
If you want to be cheeky, tell them that the thieving politician, consistently invested in undermining Nigeria, fully immersed in elections and electioneering, is not, and cannot be more Nigerian than you, whatever Nigerianness means beyond a consequence of history and geography.
If not voting does not exempt you from paying taxes or being Nigerian, you sure as hell will criticize, on solid ground, whatever government may hold sway on the day, their politics of exclusion be damned.
My apprehension of patriotism relies more on the ironic deportment of the poetry of Wilfred Owen (“Dulce Et Decorum Est”) and E.E. Cummings (“next to of course god America i”) than on the understandably deficient mainstream definitions of the concept and what our attitudes to the concept must be. For instance, a dictionary might tell you that, gee, gosh, patriotism is the love of country and willingness to sacrifice for it. The poetry of these men invest into our frame of reference, notions such as jingo, demagoguery, blindness and what bandwagon is the flavour of the day. Armed with new knowledge, a straight road grows dangerous bends.
To keep up with our penchant for boxing things nicely, some of us are tagged undesirables, worthless, kaffirs, because it must be counterintuitive to possess a keen sense of irony, to acknowledge the military’s role while asking questions of its activities. It is a banishable offence to hesitate to mindlessly wave #SupportOurTroops, tripwires designed for us unpatriots.
Good students of recent Nigerian history will understand the role of the police and military in the explosion of Boko Haram into a bloodthirsty nightmare: the extrajudicial killings; the non-differentiation between friend and foe, driving despairing friend, in exasperated frustration, to become foe.
Good students of Nigerian history will know that Nigeria and Nigerians excel at evading the difficult questions that have plagued and still plague our nationhood. These evasions are generally filed under patriotism and an unequivocal oneness, come what may, and left to fester, and whenever the circumstances are ripe, to explode.
It is true that the men and women of the Nigerian military signed up to lay down their lives in the defence of many things we hold dear. If there is any noble profession in the world, it has to be these ones, these ones in which mortal sacrifice is a foregone conclusion. And we thank them.
But it is also true that these people can be mindless brutes, leaving destruction and brutalization in their wake, in their engagement with ordinary citizens, sixteen years into a democracy. Apart from the death and destruction it brings, the point of terrorism is to terrify, to strike holy fear into the hearts of hapless bloody civilians. I do not know about you, but I am bloody terrified of my country’s military. In turn, it loves and revels in my terror. From the foregone, we can construct a syllogistic relationship between terror and the military. But let’s not fall foul of the same pitfalls that befell Aristotle. Point is: the gun, the jackboot and the decades of military rule have cultivated in the military establishment an invincibility before decency, laws, and laws of decency, and so it rides roughshod over the ordinary citizen, whenever Their Gunships please, because you know, they can visit a number of indignities upon you, and life will grind on.
And for all the terrorist menace in the North East and the advances the Nigerian military has had or has been claiming of recent, some of us suspect embellishment, obfuscation, and worse, scorched earth tactics. The scorched earth tactics are especially worrisome: the bitterness it leaves ensures that we lurch from conflict to conflict.
Naturally, blind and total support of the military is out of the question, because I am careful what I wish for, lest today’s prayer be tomorrow’s curse. There is every likelihood that the soldier I pray for today is the soldier who thoroughly beats me up tomorrow for not driving quickly enough into the Lagos Lagoon upon hearing his siren.