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Nigeria, politics of elections and International Observers

By Owei Lakemfa

I WAS one of four African  trade unionists who observed the 2002 Zimbabwean Presidential elections under the African Union Observer Mission. The international observers including those from Nigeria, led by former Head of Interim Government, Chief Ernest Shonekan, met daily at the Sheraton Hotel to compare notes. There was a consensus that the elections in which President Robert Mugabe had 54 per cent and opposition leader,  Morgan Tsvangirai had 40 per cent, were free and fair. It was, therefore, a shock when the Commonwealth Observer Mission led by former Nigerian Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, had a contrary report; one that was not based on observed facts.

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Based on this contrived report, then Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, Australian Prime Minister, John Howard and South African President Thabo Mbeki, announced the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth claiming the elections were “marred by a high level of politically motivated violence.” Violence that was not visible to other international observers.

This confirmed my position that nothing involving human beings is value-free. Yes, humans can be objective, but in a subjective way. It is like journalism; the journalist is charged to be objective because ‘facts are sacred’. However, the angle he picks his report, the type of headline cast and the way he interprets the story, cannot be entirely objective. So it is with election monitors and observers. For example, in the 2015 Nigeria elections, the international observers were supposed to have done a clinical job. But the biases of their home governments were quite visible.

These included the refusal to sell the Jonathan government arms to fight the Boko Haram, obstructing the sale of arms by other countries and making statements that seemed innocuous, but clearly tilting towards the then opposition All Progessives Congress, APC. The international observers who are mainly Western or Western-funded, picked their cue from these. The APC benefitted from this as it coasted home to victory assisted by a gentleman President Goodluck Jonathan who insisted that his ambition for a second term was not worth the blood of a single Nigerian.

When, therefore, Western countries began to make the same seemingly innocuous statements in the run up to tomorrow’s Presidential elections, the ruling APC could see through the smokescreen and started shouting about ‘foreign intervention’. Interestingly, it does not see the visit of two governors from Niger Republic to campaign for Buhari, as foreign intervention.

The current drama began on November 18, 2018 when the  European Union, EU, and some 24 countries, including the United States of America, USA,  United Kingdom, UK, France, Germany, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden, issued a statement which stated in part: “As friends of Nigeria and its people, we will follow the campaigns and election process closely.

Who wins the elections is for the Nigerian people to decide. Our concern is to see a process leading to free, fair, transparent and peaceful elections. We hope to see transparent campaigns and we urge all voters to use their democratic right and vote… We urge all involved to refrain from using hate speech and take a firm stance against violence.”

The APC which had tried in vain to prevent the January 17, visit to the USA by the opposition People’s Democratic Party, PDP, Presidential Candidate, Alhaji Abubakar Atiku, could take it no more when the EU, UK and USA criticised the January 25 controversial suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen by President Buhari. Given this unprecedented  Executive action, the countries had worried about the credibility of the Presidential elections.

The ruling APC’s Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State who claims to be close to President Buhari, sent out a chilling message to the Western countries and their observers: “Those that are calling for anyone to come and intervene in Nigeria, we are waiting for the person that would come and intervene, they would go back in body bags…Nobody will come to Nigeria and tell us how to run our country. We have got our independence and we are trying to run our country as decently as possible and we know the history of those countries that are trying to teach us.”

To demonstrate that the governor had official backing, the APC National Publicity Secretary, Mallam Lanre Issa-Onilu affirmed to the press that: “what  Governor El-Rufai said, clearly, is the position of this government.” The Presidency also backed El-Rufai. Presidential Spokesperson, Mallam  Garba Shehu in a rather ambiguous statement said: “The governor spoke strongly in defence of national interest.”  In reaction, the obviously rattled Western Observers opted to stay rather than flee the country. It was left for President Buhari to assure the observers of their safety.

But I do not think the foreign observers should worry too much as they will not be the only ones in body bags; President Buhari has said those who try to disturb the electoral process or snatch ballot boxes, would also find themselves in body bags. He told the APC National Executive Council meeting this Monday: “Anybody who decides to snatch ballot boxes or lead thugs to disturb it (elections), maybe that would be the last unlawful action he would take. I have directed the police and the military to be ruthless…I am going to warn anybody who thinks he has enough influence in his locality to lead a body of thugs to snatch boxes or to disturb the voting system, he would do it at the expense of his own life.”

But who really puts much stock on what election observers think? Usually, they sanctify election results on the basis that they ‘substantially comply’ with democratic rules. In very rare cases, they cast doubts on the results. For instance, the West condemned the results of the December 30, 2018 Presidential Elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Belgium threatened to drag the country before the United Nations Security Council while French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, claimed that the results “do not conform with the results that we have noticed.” That did not stop the country from swearing in President Felix Tshisekedi.

Nigeria should consider itself lucky that the West is here to observe our elections. When Venezuela conducted its May 20, 2018 general elections and invited the EU and UN to observe, it was ignored. That did not stop the EU, USA and their allies from condemning the elections as fraudulent and recognising a fraudster who did not even contest the elections as “Acting President.”

If the foreign observers do not want to return home in body bags, they should allow Nigerians to democratically choose tomorrow, who can better stop the massacres, banditry, insecurity and impunity in the country.


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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.