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Nigeria needs to prevent another electoral debacle

By François Grignon

NIGERIA’S election reform process is faltering. The 2007 election was a disaster for the country, in more ways than one.

Political manipulation by then President Olusegun Obasanjo, widespread fraud and poll-related violence eroded public confidence in the electoral process significantly, and undermined the legitimacy of the “winners” and their ability to govern effectively.

As 2011 approaches, the importance of credible elections cannot be overstated. For the President, who had listed electoral reform at the top of his Seven-Point Agenda, failure to deliver on his promise could be politically disastrous.

More importantly, for Nigeria, another failure in 2011 could do mortal damage to citizens’ faith in democracy and diminish the state’s authority and its ability to mediate and resolve the country’s many internal conflicts, not to mention further undermining its claims to democratic leadership in Africa and subverting its campaign for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.

As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on a visit to Nigeria back in August, the “lack of transparency and accountability has eroded the legitimacy of the government and contributed to the rise of groups that embrace violence and reject the authority of the state”.

Rather than just sending another expensive electoral observation mission in 2011 to document the by then inevitable disaster, the international community needs to follow Clinton’s lead and make its concerns known now.

Following the national and international condemnations in 2007, President Umaru Yar’Adua promised a review of the entire electoral system “with a view to ensuring that we raise the quality and standard of our general elections, and thereby deepen our democracy”.

Two years after he initiated that review, and less than 20 months to the next general elections in 2011, the reform process has stalled. The next election could be more chaotic than 2007, and even more violent.

Nigerian government and ruling the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) officials deny there is an impending crisis, dismissing Clinton’s concerns as ill-informed and misleading. Some argue that the reform process is still on course; others insist they find no fault with the existing electoral laws.

But the country’s election chief, Maurice Iwu, recently informed Nigerians that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has not commenced any serious plans for the 2011 election because the laws clarifying his agency’s functions and powers are yet to be made. A late start by INEC will make all the other problems harder to deal with.

On 28 August 2007, Yar’Adua set up a 22-member electoral reform committee (ERC), headed by a former chief justice, Muhammed Uwais, and comprising several other well-regarded citizens. Its composition and mandate raised hopes that the country could conduct better elections in future.

That committee held public hearings in 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states, received 1,466 memoranda from various political interests, and submitted its report on 12 December 2008.

Its most significant recommendation was that the position of head of INEC be openly advertised, as opposed to being nominated by the President, which is currently the case.

All applications would then be screened by the National Judicial Council (NJC) which would forward a shortlist of three applicants to the President, who in turn would forward one of the nominees to the National Assembly for confirmation. This new arrangement was to curb the influence of the President – and his party – in appointing and thereafter manipulating the INEC head, a major issue in the 2007 elections.

The ERC also recommended that the electoral body be allowed to draw its finances directly from the federation account, and that some of its functions be split between three new institutions, namely: A Constituency Delimitation Commission, a Political Parties Registration and Regulatory Commission and an Electoral Offences Commission.

The shedding of these functions to new bodies was intended to enable INEC focus on conducting and administering elections more efficiently than it did in 2007. In seeking to ensure rapid passage of legislation that would enable these reforms, the committee even submitted three draft bills to that end.

That report drew public praise from many Nigerians; but the process began to unravel soon thereafter.

Mr. Grignon is Africa Programme director of International Crisis group, Brussels.


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