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The small gods of constitutional and electoral design

By Festus Okoye

Suddenly, a cloud of fatalistic resignation has enveloped the leading lights of some civil society groups and organisa
tions on the possibility or impossibility of electoral and constitutional reform before the 2011 elections. Prior to this period, some have been very upbeat and worked assiduously on very various electoral models that can be packaged for the Nigerian environment.

Some believed that the electoral reform project is a product of the Nigerian peoples struggle and that the incumbent regime is only responding to the objective and subjective conditions engendered by the outcome of the 2007 elections.

Ironically, the measured and cautious optimism that electoral and constitutional reform is around the corner has been replaced with a creeping panic borne out of a critical assessment of political developments in the polity in the last few months.

These developments, range from the clinical misbehaviour of the political elite during the re-run elections in Ekiti State, the debates surrounding the Executive Bills in the Senate and House of Representatives, the approaching elections in Anambra State and the state of anomie that has attended the primaries of some of the parties and the seeming lack of interest by the major political parties and their Governors on issues around electoral and constitutional reform.

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A combination of elite disinterest and their refusal to be bound by the lessons of history threatens to dwarf, whittle, belittle and if you will extinguish the great work carried out by the cream of civil society groups and organisations over a long period of time. The anger and panic of some of these groups and their leaders are anchored on two main pillars.

The first is that they believed and trusted the leadership of the country to deliver on its promise of electoral and constitutional reform. The second is that time is fast running out and all the indices and precedents from past elections will be carried over to the 2011 elections with the attendant consequences for the peace and stability of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The indices for this fatalistic resignation are embedded in what has been done and what has not been done. It is embedded in our stubborn refusal to pay attention to history. It is wrapped around our penchant for fire brigade rigmarole rather than confront the root causes of problems. Here lies the root of the panic.

We have suddenly narrowed the struggle for democracy to begin and end with the struggle for electoral and constitutional reform and since this struggle seems to be facing reverses, we are at a loss as to which direction to go. There is no doubt that designing a credible, acceptable and workable electoral and constitutional framework for Nigeria is a huge challenge and getting it right is a good stimulus for democracy.

There is no doubt that getting the political elite to clean up their acts, embrace the concept of free, fair and transparent elections anchored on the rule of law and due process is even a bigger challenge and cracking this will boost the practice of democracy. We must face the facts.

The struggle for constitutional and electoral reform will be hard and painful. The road will be slippery and treacherous. People will take public positions that are contrary to their inner beliefs and practices. Some other persons will support electoral reforms in the morning and finance opposition to it in the evening.

If we limit our struggles to it, we will then be very disappointed.We must from the onset situate the current electoral and constitutional difficulties as part of the difficulties of institutionalising democracy. There are forces that are uncomfortable with constitutional and electoral reform and some of these forces are also uncomfortable with democracy.

There are forces that dread any form of amendment and believe that any form of amendment no matter how innocuous may open a Pandora box that will destabilise entrenched positions and interests. Others believe that unless they wrap their contentious and sometimes controversial projects around issues Nigerians are agreed upon and are passionate about, it will be difficult to achieve their objective as a single item.

Furthermore, it is clear that domestic and international pressure for accelerated constitutional and electoral reform has waned. As the 2011 election approaches, all the political forces are looking at the crystal ball on what to do to win elections. Ordinarily, cleaning up the electoral process, guaranteeing a level playing ground for all and assisting the electoral management body deliver elections that meets the expectations of all would be the ideal thing to do.

Unfortunately, the reality staring everybody in the face is that some of the electoral reform Bills presently before the National Assembly if eventually passed may become operational after the 2011 elections. We must therefore have the courage to brace up to the reality of the fact that elections in 2011 may unless we work extra hard take place under the existing constitutional and electoral framework. It also means that the political elite will use the same strategies and tactics and subterfuge they used to corrupt the electoral process and the crisis of electoral legitimacy will continue.

Civil society groups and organisations must in the light of the calamity that will befall the country if the political elite stubbornly refuse to release their stranglehold on the electoral and constitutional process remain engaged with the constitutional and electoral process. Civil society groups must see the entire electoral and constitutional exercise as a democratic process and continue to demand genuine, comprehensive and credible constitutional and electoral reform anchored on the struggles for democratic and national liberation.

Civil society groups must adopt a flexible and multi pronged strategy in research, strategy and advocacy. This means that civil society groups must study the report of the Electoral Reform Committee and the rationale for some of the recommendations. Civil society groups must also study the Executive Bills and make a comparative analysis of the Executive Bills and the Electoral Reform Committee Bills.

Civil society groups must organise zonal sensitization programs on the Bills to acquaint grassroots based groups on the main intendment of the Bills. These sensitisation programs must target the media, the religious groups and organisations, professional groups and organisations and the labour movement. The international community must also assist in putting pressure on the government to engage in genuine electoral and constitutional reform.

If governance is about the people, this is one area the Nigerian people are passionate about and the interest of the nation demands that they should have their way. If we desire genuine electoral reforms based on the will of the people and based on our experiences with elections, it is desirable to amend aspects of the constitution dealing with the electoral process.

This does not mean that electoral and constitutional reform without more is the only panacea or talisman for credible elections. Nigeria can still achieve a semblance of free, fair and transparent elections if the political elite decide to play by the rules and if the electoral management body is insulated from political pressure and manipulation.

While we vigorously canvass and campaign for electoral and constitutional reform, we must avoid over dependence and worship of small gods of constitutional and electoral design. Nigeria and Nigerians seem trapped in the fatalistic web of morbid attachment to system designs. While we run away from building, empowering and making institutions work, we have a penchant for resorting to system designs as an escapist route.

While a good design anchored on a reasoned policy and solid foundation will endure, designs situated and build on inappropriate frameworks and on weak institutional foundations will fail.We must pay serious attention to the weaknesses of our democratic institutions. We must as a people and as a nation insist that those that rig elections and come to power through unconstitutional means are not allowed to govern.We must insist that the political elite plays by the rules of the political game, show fidelity to the rule of law and due process and imbibe the norms and lessons of democracy.

Our biggest challenge is that while the ordinary people of Nigeria have embraced democracy and the concept of elections as a less painful means of regime change, the political elite, mostly weaned under military dictatorship is still not convinced that the ideals of democracy anchored on elections is the best for the country.

The Nigerian people must not permit the political elite to bungle the constitutional and electoral reform process and corrupt the 2011 elections. The stakes are high and the eyes of the world are on Nigeria. We must approach the issue of constitutional and electoral reform and ordered electoral succession with single mindedness.

The present effort at constitutional and electoral reform offers the Nigerian people, the political elite and other stakeholders another redeeming opportunity to reform the electoral framework and set Nigeria firmly on the path of free, fair and transparent elections. If through acts of opportunism and self interest, they bungle the constitutional and electoral reform process, the battle for the 2011 elections will be fierce and the consequences may threaten the very foundation of the stability of the country.

It is therefore in the collective interest of the Nigerian people to design a constitutional and electoral framework that meets acceptable national and international standards. In carrying out this design, Nigerians must be careful not to be trapped in the morbid embrace of design at the expense of real political work to get institutions of democracy off the ground and hold persons in public office accountable for their behaviour and deeds.


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