In his new book entitled, “Delicate Distress: An Interpreter’s Account of the Nigerian Dilemma”, Dr. Amanze Obi, scholar and frontline Nigerian journalist, asks disturbing questions about Nigeria. He delves into Nigeria’s 2007 general elections, digging up its controversial rubbles. He also raises questions about the politics of number that has tended to widen the gulf between the North and the South of the country, among other issues. Excerpts:
Professor Maurice Iwu, the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) between 2006 and 2010, had a date with history. He was saddled with the onerous responsibility of conducting the very crucial election that would give Nigeria a leap in its quest for an enduring democratic culture.
Iwu was certainly not the first Nigerian to be confronted with such national assignment. Some other Nigerians of repute had done the job before him. But there was a significant difference between Iwu’s assignment and those which his predecessors carried out.
The difference resided largely in the circumstance under which Iwu worked. Under his leadership of INEC, Nigeria was, for the first time in its history, experiencing eight years of uninterrupted civil rule. That was a landmark in the political history of Nigeria.
Having crossed the hurdle which the civilian governments of the First and Second Republics could not overleap, the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, which gave Iwu the assignment, was obviously thumping its chest. It was taking pride in this feat. At some point, the government or its principal, Obasanjo, became somewhat conceited about this.
He began to feel that as he was leaving office, he would dictate the direction Nigeria would go. When therefore Obasanjo talked about the 2007 elections being a matter of life and death, he was simply saying that he needed a special form of reward for taking Nigeria to the democratic height it never attained before. Anything that stood on his way therefore deserved to be crushed.
Besides, the same President had wanted to stay in office beyond his constitutionally sanctioned tenure. The plot was aborted. But it sharply polarized the polity before it was buried. The experience left remarkable bruises on the psyche of the President. Having failed in that regard, the next step for him to take was to ensure that the elections went the way he wanted.
Given this set-up, Iwu was caught between the overbearing tendencies of the principal who appointed him and the imperative of playing the role of an unbiased umpire. This scenario constituted difficult times for him.
But, more difficult for Iwu was the pessimism of Nigerians. Regardless of the precarious situation in which he found himself, Iwu looked poised to weather the storm. Even though he was being buffeted from all corners with criticisms that were, more often than not, uncharitable, the man was still working hard to earn the confidence of Nigerians. He never wavered in his oft-repeated declaration that he would conduct free and fair elections, even if that was going to be the last thing he would do in his life. This declaration was instructive. It showed that Iwu recognized the need to carry out his assignment.
Given this scenario, it became easy to appreciate the fact that the problem lay not with Iwu as a person but with Nigerians who do not even believe in their ability to effect a change if they so wished. The rational way to escape blame in the situation would then be to surmise that people who have resigned to situations should not expect miracles to happen. Those who have accepted complacency as a way of life should not complain when smart Alecs seize the day.
It was encouraging to know that in a situation where many doubted the possibility of conducting the elections, the man at the centre of the storm was the one giving assurances to the contrary. Even though the circumstances that led to this state of doubt were understandable, Nigerians did not give Iwu and his Commission the benefit of doubt. Since Iwu had said that he would conduct free and fair polls, what the people needed to do was to mark his words while monitoring his actions and inactions. The overall objective would have been to ensure that he did not deviate from his promises.
Beyond all that, an umpire such as Iwu needed to be saved from the psychological warfare that he was subjected to. The best way to destabilise a man is to label him a fraud. Once that sticks, any step taken by him to the contrary will hardly count. Iwu’s case was as bad as that. In this matter, the option before Iwu was either to succeed or fail. But Nigerians did not even give him the chance to choose either. It was in this state of doubt that the 2007 elections were held. As it turned out, the outcome was as controversial as the processes that led to it. The furore that was to follow was either moderated or exacerbated by the personality of Iwu. However, all this depended on people’s perception of the then INEC chairman.
On the politics of number, Obi argues that if there is any issue which has made the North-South divide legendary, it is the unending argument about which region of the country is more populous than the other. The argument has been with the country since independence. But it was reinforced again in 2006 when a national head-count took place. Between the early part of 2006 when the census exercise was conducted and January 2007 when the figures were announced, all that the people achieved was merely to wait for an official pronouncement on the census whose outcome everybody knew would open a fresh can of worms.
The fears of many were confirmed when the then chairman of the National Population Commission (NPC), Samuila Makama, announced the census figures. Nigeria’s population, according to him, stood at 140,003,542. The figures released showed that those living in Northern Nigeria outnumber those in the South by about 11 million.
Perhaps these were the only things that sounded new, even if a section of the country did not accept them. Beyond these, every other index about the census followed a familiar trajectory. For instance, the argument about the numerical superiority between Lagos and Kano remained. Just to ensure that the apple cart was not toppled, the census figures merely gave Kano a slight edge over Lagos. While Kano recorded 9,383,682, Lagos was awarded 9,013,534.
It is not only the Lagos and the Kano figures that looked contrived, most of the other figures also appeared made up.
Consider again the old and familiar debate between the numerical strength of the North and South of the country. From the very beginning, the claim that the North has more population than the South has been disputed. The argument was and has remained that the colonial overlords who were instrumental to the conduct and outcome of the country’s first census preferred to put the figures of the North higher than that of the South for strategic reasons.
But the South has continued to argue that landmass is not the same thing as mass population. The South is also worried that it is only in Nigeria that an arid North can boast of more human beings than the rain forest, that is, the South. Under the present 36 – state structure, the North has 19 while the South has 17.
All these point to a certain disparity. The story it tells is that a people with 17 states cannot have a higher population than those with 19 states. Based on this long-standing belief or assumption, government and its agencies are being made to accept the situation as almost axiomatic.
It would appear that the whopping 11 million which the NPC awarded to the North in excess of the southern population suggests that there are more northerners than southerners. But the indices used for the 2006 census may not necessarily suggest that. It may well be that the migrant population in the North helped to swell the figures in its favour. This is especially so since religion and ethnicity were excluded from the census questionnaire.
This brings us to one of the issues that made the outcome of the 2006 census suspect. Before the census exercise started, a lot of dust was raised as to why two critical indices – religion and ethnicity – were excluded from the questionnaire. Questions were raised as to why NPC chose to do that.
But no meaningful reason or explanation was given. In the absence of that, the move lent itself to all sorts of interpretations. The Igbo who are known to move around more than any other group in Nigeria felt uneasy about it. The move was seen as an attempt to use the Igbo population to swell the figures of other states of the federation where the Igbo are resident.
In the same vein, adherents of Christianity and Islam subjected the exclusion of religion from the questionnaire to different interpretations. For Christians particularly, it was an attempt to conceal their real numerical strength especially in South-west Nigeria where Islam and Christianity seem to be competing in terms of penetration and reach. Situations such as these create nothing but mutual suspicion and even antagonism.
What it suggests is that Nigeria is founded on false grounds and that the authorities must never be trusted when it comes to facts and figures.