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Nigeria’s 2019 polls: The good, the bad and the ugly

By Olu Fasan

AHEAD of this year’s general elections, I wrote a piece in this column, entitled “Nigeria must pass seven basic tests of credible polls” (Vanguard, January 10, 2019). Drawing on Denis and Ian Derbyshire’s work in Political Systems of the World, I stated that, to be truly free and democratic, elections must not involve voter intimidation, vote-buying, vote-miscounting or the abuse of incumbency, such as the militarisation of the polls or the intimidation of opponents. Thus, for the 2019 elections to be considered free, fair, transparent and peaceful – and credible – Nigeria, I stressed, must adhere to the universal standards. So, time to ask: Did this year’s general election pass the credibility test?

The answer, sadly, is no. The basic rules were honoured more in the breach than the observance. Each was, in fact, blatantly violated. Recently, basking in the afterglow of what he considered to be successful polls, President Muhammadu Buhari said he would leave a legacy of free, fair and credible elections for Nigeria. But the legacy he claims is non-existent or at least tainted. International and local observers are united in their verdict that the elections were marred by serious and wide-ranging irregularities and abuses. The EU Observer Mission noted “an urgent need to rebuild faith in the electoral process”.

Aisha Buhari voting at the Governorship and State Assembly Elections at Kofar Baru Polling Unit 003 in Daura Katsina State on 9th Mar 2019

But, as the saying goes, there is nothing so bad that it couldn’t be worse. So, there must be a positive side to the bad situation. Thus, in assessing the 2019 elections, I derive a useful framework from the famous title of Sergio Leone’s 1966 epic film, “The good, the bad and the ugly”. I start with the good!

Without a doubt, the most positive aspect of this year’s elections was the resurgence of “people power” and the death of godfatherism in some states. In Nigeria, politicians who gained their relevance from the people always behave as if they are their masters, not their servants. But in this year’s elections, the people began to fight back, what with the collapse of political dynasties and the humbling of inflated political egos.

Who would have thought that the decades-old political empire of the Sarakis in Kwara State would fall like a pack of cards in just one general election? Thanks to the powerful O to ge (Enough is enough!) slogan, the ferociously self-entitled Bukola Saraki, current Senate President, didn’t only lose his bid to return to the Senate, his party, PDP, lost all the other legislative elections in the state, as well as the governorship race. It was a rout!

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Elsewhere, we saw the humbling of the arrogant Abiola Ajimobi in Oyo State, a man who gratuitously insulted people; the humiliation of the megalomaniacal Rochas Okorocha, who ran Imo State like a personal fief; the bringing down of the pompous Godswin Akpabio, who believed his own hype and thought he had Akwa Ibom State wrapped around his finger; and the mortifying of Ibikunle Amosun, who behaved as the ultimate political godfather in Ogun State, but failed to get his protégé to succeed him as governor. All this matters because in a democracy there must be no doubt about who is the boss: it’s the people! That truism was brought home to some vain and hubristic politicians is this year’s polls. Good riddance!

But if the resurgence of people’s power and the bursting of political egos were “the good” of this year’s elections, “the bad” was the prevalence of vote-buying, which shows that Nigerian politicians still prey on the ignorance and poverty of the people. The worst emblematic image was the sight during the presidential election of bullion vans in the house of Bola Tinubu, the APC national leader. He reportedly said: “It’s my money and I can give it to whomever I like; to the people free of charge”. Really? On election day? That defence would cut no ice in any civilised and genuinely democratic country. So, vote-buying, or the perception of it, was the bad of this year’s elections. Of course, some would say, rightly, it’s the bad of all recent elections in Nigeria!

What about “the ugly”? Well, the obvious culprits must be the militarisation of the elections and the do-or-die power struggles. Both spurred violence and contributed to the extremely low turnouts as well as the phenomenon of inconclusive elections. The military’s illicit role in the elections was widely criticised by international and local observers. When soldiers scared away voters or disrupted the collation process or provided cover for thugs to do so, the credibility of such elections is seriously damaged. Yet, that’s what happened in many states, especially in politically volatile and hotly contested ones, such as Rivers State. Of course, the militarisation is an abuse of state power, and many would rightly be concerned about how the security forces are used in the orchestrated rerun elections this Saturday!

Surely, “the good” of this year’s elections, namely, the isolated resurgence of people power, was gratifying. But “the bad”, that is, the vote-buying etc, and “the ugly”, viz, the militarisation, violence and their concomitants, hugely debased the polls. They did enormous damage to their credibility. That, of course, shames Nigeria!

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