On Valentine’s Day, I attended a political event. This was remarkable because I had long established a reputation for declining invitations in general, and being a political nuisance in particular. But it was Valentine’s Day and my “madam” wasn’t in town; and so I figured there were worse ways to spend the evening than at a dinner hosted by the Lagos State governor, Babatunde Fashola, in honour of the Buhari-Osinbajo presidential campaign. I don’t know how it was funded, but for the sake of my sanity, I would assume public funds were not directly involved.
The dinner was held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Victoria Island, a structure whose difficult location was made even more annoying by its obvious visibility over the skyline. The hotel parking was no better: I knocked my car’s front bumper against a ledge while doing laps around the underground parking lot.
It wasn’t exactly what you would call “an auspicious beginning”.
Hanging banners are never a good idea for a political event—they allude to so much of fascist history. Red hanging banners are even worse, and so the ones that decorated the venue were quite reminiscent of Nazi Germany—evidence of bad design and under-exercised imagination by the event planners—considering Buhari’s military antecedents and all that jazz.
As a lecturer friend of mine, Harry, said:
“This ain’t the guy we’re used to: the bogey-man, the monster that was used to terrify recalcitrant children, the locker-upper, the dictator. In essence, GMB is not a lion that has become a kitten overnight; he would not be true to himself if he is saying that. What the fence-sitters want is assurance that they will get the lion’s courage rather than its cruelty.”
There was certainly no hint of cruelty in that loving Valentine image. Olumide, seated to my left, mischievously asked me if these pictures didn’t qualify as a public display of same-sex amorous relationship, against the wording of Nigeria’s “anti-gay law”. We laughed. And the atmosphere began to look less like a stiff military affair and more like a wedding reception, complete with dressed and suited guests.
The guests at my table, however, were not fans of APC by any definition. That the five of us at that table could all irreverently agree that both APC and PDP were equally full of nasty characters, was in itself a credit to APC, or at least, the organisers of the dinner. I’m not quite sure if Nigerian political parties have become sophisticated enough to accommodate their own critics, but this was a good start. In any case, our perceptions improved generously, and the ambience of the dinner began to present a better light, as we all fell on the bottles of wine.
And so when you put it all together: theme, decor, guests, the result is utterly incongruous, and quite inconsistent. There were politicians and the apolitical, admirers and critics, celebrities and unknowns, and there were speeches that didn’t have much to do with anything tangible. You could not exactly put a finger on why we were there—why you were there.
However, that disunity is, I suppose, the unifying essence of that dinner. It seemed to me to be a microcosm of the Nigerian condition. And like everything Nigerian, we are always at our best when our lines are blurred. Take a look at the scenario: respectable mallams at a Valentine’s Day event; non-politicians dining with politicians; Buhari and Osinbajo embraced by a circle of love.
That mish-mash of incongruous elements was highlighted in Fashola’s speech: “I have made a choice, I think these two men can change the game for us. If you look in this hall tonight, you will perhaps find some people here you will not ordinarily find in a political or quasi-political setting; you will also find some people whom you have been told don’t drink alcohol; you will also find some people whom you have been told don’t talk to people who drink alcohol; you will also see some people whom you have been told will not enter an event where alcohol is served; you will see some people too who you will have been told don’t believe in Valentine’s Day. But you know what? Question those things anytime you hear them, because in the main, they are either myths, or they are created to divide.”
I will be quite sorry to see Fashola leave office—and this isn’t just a tribute to the substance of his policies, but also to the form. When Fashola picks up a microphone to speak, you don’t immediately get nervous. Of course, that night, half of the nice things he said about the Buhari campaign was self-serving bollocks, but Fashola speaks so reasonably that you can’t help but nod in agreement. Tolu, who sat on my right, said: “I’m still not a fan of his multiple taxation, but I’m impressed by his intelligence and sincerity.” And I don’t believe she’s alone in this thought.
Fashola was quite happy to sell the image of the tolerant, all-accommodating Buhari. This approach, perhaps more than anything else, is what has distinguished the APC campaign from its major counterpart. Buhari is Muslim, Buhari is Christian, hell, Buhari is damn near atheist too. Their general avoidance of divisive lines, and their consistent resistance of hate speech seems to be a demonstrable willingness by APC to create a unifying bond for Nigerians. If that Valentine dinner stood for anything, it would be the seeming investment of APC in Nigeria’s unified diversity.
On the other hand, maybe this is still just massive PR, an affected sincerity. Maybe, like Harry says, this is a “lion” of a Buhari pretending to be a lovable kitten. The internet loves kittens. And, maybe, APC is prepared to toss us as many kittens as it can round up. But cat videos, twitter chit-chats and Valentine dinners can only go so far in politics. If APC is merely selling us our own fantasy, then you can bet that, sooner or later, this image will unravel, and its falsity will be shown to us all.