Nigeria Today

January 16, 2011

Free and fair elections in Nigeria: When?

By Tonie Iredia
For a number of reasons, not a few Nigerians look forward to free and fair elections come April. First, there is public faith in the umpire — the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)-a body of persons of proven integrity led by Professor Attahiru Jega, a man generally believed to be fearless and forthright.

Already, INEC has shown its result-oriented posture with the successful take-off yesterday of a nation-wide registration of voters with over 80 per cent  of the required ‘magical’ data capturing machines.  Second, the political parties have virtually completed primaries to pick their ‘best’ flag- bearers for the elections. Third, Nigerians have waited for so long for genuine democracy and are now in a mood to embrace the new slogan-‘one man one vote’.

They are also fully ready to defend their ballots. Fourth, our religious leaders have prayed ceaselessly for peace and have, in fact, anointed some candidates to face the D-Day. Thus all should be well.

But, some of us remain skeptical because of the unanimous finding of social scientists over the years that in developing countries, the conduct of elections is an ordeal.  A good example is Kenya where in less than three  days after the December 27, 2007 polls, no fewer than 500 persons died as a result of violent demonstrations over the conduct of the process.  As at today, peace is yet to return to Cote d’Ivoire as many citizens are being killed daily following unending clashes between the two rival political parties that contested the November 28, 2010 election.

The situation in Nigeria has not been different. As Richard Joseph in his study of ‘Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria’ aptly puts it, our electoral process is always reduced to a “Hobbessian state of war” making it seem as if political violence is both a culture and an article of faith for Nigerians. On his part, Claude Ake described a typical Nigerian election “as an all-consuming business” in which the end justifies any means. Of course, no one was taken aback by Omo Omoruyi’s dismissal of the famous June 12, 1993 election as “a complete betrayal of the democratic rights of Nigerians.”

Unfortunately, the experience of the 90s has not changed. Just before the 2003 elections, a bike-riding assassin shot dead a governorship aspirant in Ogun State. In Edo State, thugs invaded the precincts of a meeting called by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), to settle an intra-party squabble and killed three persons.

A Resident Electoral Commissioner, Chief Philip Oloruntoba, was shot dead in his house in Lokoja, Kogi State, by unknown persons. That same year, a group of persons yet to be identified till date set ablaze the national secretariat of the then main opposition party- the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP). Since then, the political war has not abated. On December 3, 2010, no fewer than three  persons were killed at a political party’s local government congress in Oyo State. In Akwa Ibom, an aspirant, Dr. Akpan Akpanudo was shot dead on January 3, 2011 after participating in his party primaries for the State House of Assembly.

There have been similar media reports on the destruction of lives and properties in states like Niger, Nasarawa, Bayelsa, Ebonyi, Ekiti etc. in the current build-up to the April elections.

The incontrovertible reason for such a high level of unwholesome political behaviour is the fact that the Nigerian political system is premised on election as a zero-sum game where the winner takes all.  Consequently, the average Nigerian politician is dangerously desperate to win an election at all cost. When a bomb exploded at the official lodge of Governor Chris Ngige of Anambra State on December 1, 2004, the leader of those opposed to the governor had this to say: “My mistake for which I ask for understanding stemmed from my belief that election is like a battle and since all is fair in war, I believed that the end justified the means in an election.”

Against this backdrop, Jega and his team have to rely on a miracle to make the coming elections free and fair. To close schools as part of the strategies for attaining a credible register for free and elections may not be enough. The issue is not whether it is proper to close schools because we are used to incessant closure of schools during the many strikes by teachers.

It is even possible that this time round, government probably wants to assert that she too can close schools.  For us, anything, including the Presidency itself, can be closed provided Jega assures us that it would stop failed elections in the country.  In other words, having closed all our schools during the current registration of voters, we must not hear the usual stories of issues like insufficient registration materials or inadequate officials as well as the several malpractices that have since 1979 rendered nugatory, our 12 attempts at getting an accurate register of voters in the country.

Our only pain is that even if INEC produces a credible voters’ register from the current exercise and goes ahead to ensure that all aspects of the other segments of our election process are hitch-free, we are still not assured of free and fair elections. Those who doubt this assertion need to hear what happened at the recent rerun governorship election in Delta State. Jega was directly in charge of it. He was assisted by six of his National Commissioners, three Resident Commissioners and the Resident Commissioner for Delta State.

There were also as many as 25,000 policemen but many electoral malpractices including the snatching of ballot boxes still occurred. We donot know what would happen to the more than 60 suspects that were arrested. All we know is that 850 political thugs arrested for similar offences during the 2003 elections were, according to the IG, Mr. Tafa Balogun, set free through government intervention.

How can we have free and fair elections when those who mar them are officially protected? In addition, if a near illiterate citizen can win an election by whatever means and thereafter becomes entitled to, among other items, a vehicle maintenance allowance that is higher than the salary of a director in the public service, when shall we have free and fair elections?

The point that must be made is that it is now imperative for us to review our present political system. Public office must be made less materially attractive otherwise; strategies such as the closures of schools for the registration of voters, etc. will only serve as a faulty social therapy.