Presidential election was carried out, which was the most intense in Nigeria’s history. Riots, civil war, insurgencies and assassinations were all palpable possibilities in the aftermath of the election. The ruling party lost the election. The ruling president called the president elect and congratulated the president-elect . This action of one humble man saved the country from a potential civil war; he deserves a Nobel peace prize. This action is praise-worthy, deserves congratulations, a display of humility and democratic sportsmanship…
This is the mainstream narrative. It begs for reflection: how do we ascribe characters to individuals?
We don’t ascribe characters to individuals in a vacuum. For instance we don’t simply say “Sadat is hardworking”, because Sadat may also be troublesome, kind, punctual and temperamental. The choice of the attributes of Sadat we mention depends on the purpose which that information seeks to redress. So in a discussion about office work, I could say Sadat is hardworking and it would serve the purpose, but saying the same sentence when discussing public vandalism would be out of place. This is the most basic way we align our characterisation of individuals with purpose. There are more relevant purposes for instance how does one characterise an individual when the purpose is to assess the contribution of that individual to a project, or to mark a historical event, or to create a myth, or to romanticise an individual. In this case, it would take more than a statement, it would take a lot of statements (or story, or narrative). Interestingly, people are not always explicit, or even aware, of the purpose why they seek to characterise a person. The question then becomes how do we ascribe character to individuals, given that there is always a purpose?
Novels and biographies may provide insight to this question. After reading a novel, we are left imprinted with the character of the story’s main individual e.g. honourable, composed, anxious etc. Is the character of the person determined by a single momentary action, or is the character to be determined by aggregation of actions over time (through the novel)? If by aggregation of actions, then is the aim of determining character to show the complexity of the person, in all their positive and negatives? Modern novels achieve this complexity by evoking empathy through humanising those that would be typically considered villains like serial killers and tyrants. Or does aggregation of actions tease out consistent actions that can be grouped together, then ascribe these as the reputation of the individual? Among the three options above, I favour them in a certain order, which is based on the extent of contradiction between the option chosen and the purpose to which one seeks to characterise another person.
There is a need to understand the formation of a narrative (story). Experiences and events are converted to narratives in order to make sense to the mind and memory, and to be suitable to a purpose i.e. taking only what is relevant from the messiness of experiences and events to suit the purpose. In the context of the recent Nigerian election, the dominant narrative here is the first paragraph, the person that has been characterised (protagonist or antagonist, depends on your choice) is the outgoing president. Just as we are left imprinted with the character of the main individual after reading a story, we are left imprinted with the character of other people in our lives after we internalise our experiences with them as narratives. In this case, the narrative above imprints on us a certain character about the outgoing president; a rosy character indeed.
Different purposes call for different methods of characterisation of individuals using narratives. If our purpose is to write history, then the prevalent choice would be either to use single historic actions/moments, or to aggregate consistent actions. If the purpose is to humanise a person, as would be found in biographies, then the prevalent choice is to expose the complexity of an individual, or again look for consistent actions. If the aim is to construct a myth or a hero, then the best choice is to focus on single historic actions/moments; because any other characterisation run the risk of de-myth-ifying. Contradiction arises when we choose a method of characterisation which does not suite the purpose, or which subverts the purpose. For instance, when we use the single historical action of the outgoing president to make assessment of his leadership abilities as the president. But it wouldn’t be a contradiction if the aim is to make him a hero. Moreover the ending of any story or narrative is powerful because it often leaves a lasting legacy. So a key assumption henceforth is that the narrative on the outgoing president above is meant to be serve as an assessment of his leadership acumen.
Although two narratives could appear opposing each other, they don’t necessarily invalidate each other because they could be shaped by same events; with only one narrative ignoring some events or accounts. Therefore the narrative of the outgoing president above could still be true even if it is pointed out that relevant information has been left out, but it would be a charade and misleading. Narratives cover just as much as they expose; they emphasise and they downplay, and this is perhaps why the saying “History is written by victors” or even “History is His-story”. So when confronted with a certain narrative that does not fit the purpose, it is another way of saying the narrative is not rich enough, or too rich as the case may be. To deal with this, one may simply wish to “enrich” the narrative and then re-assess how it fits the purpose.
In the case of the outgoing president, there is an alternative narrative, or I could say an enrichment of the more prevalent narrative. Some shattered that hero-making narrative by pointing to other failures of the president without negating that narrative, then others responded saying a people have the right to decide who to make a hero; aka willful delusion. Even more interesting, some even think the president is not just a scoundrel, but also not as honourable as a thief that confessed. Well here is an alternative narrative (I have italised all the enrichment to the original narrative above):
Election was carried out, which was the most intense in Nigeria’s history. This is in the backdrop of what many perceived as neglect of insecurity (in a particular region of the country) which is translated as commission by omission, the neglect of corruption by certain elites, and also the favoring of a particular region for economic and leadership opportunities. Riots, civil war, insurgencies were all palpable possibilities in the aftermath of the election. The ruling party (under the leadership of the president) having perceived the coming loss explored several ways to rig the election or sabotage the transition like postpone the election to buy more time to strategise, sponsor campaigns calling for resignation of INEC Chairman, sponsor campaigns to boycott biometric accreditation of voters, attempt to divide and conquer the opposition by breaking its rank, non-action/encouraging public militant threats to “protect” the ruling government, alleged offer to the military to take over an interim government, disrupt the result announcement process by provocation of the INEC Chairman, attempts to declare curfew in some states, alleged conspiracy to detain the INEC Chairman during collation of results as Security Agencies were warned by CSOs. The ruling party lost the election. The ruling president called the president elect and congratulated the president-elect . At this point, the outgoing president had clearly lost and to call and congratulate is a way to gain soft landing. The US and UK had repeatedly emphasised the need for peaceful transition fearing another occurrence of Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d’ Ivoire which had a similar build up the situation of the president. This action of one humble man saved the country from a potential civil war; he deserves a Nobel peace prize. This action is praise-worthy, deserves congratulations, a display of humility and democratic sportsmanship…
Immediately one sees a contradiction within the narrative itself. But we are more interested in contradiction between characterisation method and purpose. The first narrative focused on one action which is only un-contradictory if the purpose were to create a mythical hero out of the outgoing president, but contradictory if the purpose is to assess the outgoing president. The second narrative characterises by aggregation of actions which would also be contradictory if the purpose were to create a mythical hero, but would be suitable if it is to assess the leadership of the outgoing president. There could be other versions of this narrative which characterise by aggregating actions for the purpose of assessment, which may not reach the same conclusion as this, but that would be a matter of what is included or omitted.
Another interesting angle is that for each of the actions above that could be argued not to be carried out directly by the outgoing president, many would agree it can be attributed to his party. However we are quick to attribute that epic phone call to the president and not his party. It is a good-cop bad-cop script, which could be used to always make the outgoing president look good. Keep in mind the president is the leader of his party and the Commander in Chief, so actions of his party and those by security forces can be fairly attributed to him. Well, there you have it. A lot of contradictions. Is the outgoing president a hero or not?
Another hero created during this election is the Chairman of INEC who was interestingly vilified during the last election. His hero-fication may be worth exploring if you wish, I probably wont. But I shall write more on this series Election Reflections, which would simply be reflections on aspects of the Nigerian 2015 elections that caught my attention.