Columns

July 11, 2024

UK general election: British democracy shames Nigerian ineptocracy, by Olu Fasan

Olu Fasan

Olu Fasan

TRUST Nigerians, some will scoff at any comparison between Britain’s democracy and what Nigeria calls democracy. But if democracy is, as Abraham Lincoln famously defined it, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, then Nigeria must be held to universal standards.

The critical electoral link between the government and the governed must not be severed, and democracy must not become ineptocracy, a system run by inept people. In any representative democracy, the irreducible core is the will of the people freely expressed in credible elections. That’s why last week’s UK general election offers some lessons.

What happened in Britain last week was people power, and nothing, absolutely nothing, was done to thwart it. The critical starting point in any election is its logistics, to ensure that no eligible voter is directly or indirectly disenfranchised. But in virtually every election in Nigeria since 1999, millions of Nigerians were disenfranchised. First, because of the incompetence of INEC, the electoral body, which often failed to ensure that everyone got a voter card, which often failed to ensure that voting started early, and which often failed to ensure that the technologies worked smoothly without avoidable “technical glitches”. Several elections were postponed for logistical reasons, and yet they still failed. Then, there are electoral violence, vote-buying, ballot-box stuffing, ballot-box snatching, and myriad other irregularities that cumulatively frustrate the will and free consent of the people. 

None of those happened in the UK general election. The voting time was between 7am and 10pm, and those starting and closing times were sacrosanct. Like many people, I went to work and left my office in central London around 7pm, got to the polling station at 9pm and voted with absolute ease. By midnight, the first constituency result was announced and by 5am it was obvious who had won the general election. There were recounts where the results were close, and everyone accepted the outcome. Party thugs did not snatch ballot boxes and electoral officers did not collude with any party or any candidate to alter the results. Twelve members of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s cabinet lost their seats; Liz Truss, a former prime minister, also lost her seat. They all accepted the results because the election was free, fair and transparent, and reflected the will of the people. 

Some would say the above elide the “fact” that Nigeria is a developing country. But that stretches credulity given that Nigerians are running international institutions, such as the World Trade Organisation, and are making their mark globally in all spheres of life. Professor Mahmood Yakubu, the chairman of INEC, is a product of both Oxford University and Cambridge University, obtaining a doctorate from the former. In principle, he could run a global institution. So, why has he failed as INEC chairman? The answer is simple: Nigeria lacks strong and independent institutions, and those running the country’s public institutions lack the values and courage to do what’s right. In other words, Nigeria’s democracy lacks guardrails, both institutions and individuals that can protect it against destructive forces.

For me, the critical issue is the will of the people, the consent of the governed. In his book Enemies of Society, Paul Johnson argues that the true essence of democracy is “the ability to remove a government without violence, to punish political failure by votes.” But where that ability is taken away through the incompetence of the electoral body, through vote-buying, rigging and other forms of electoral malpractices, then there is no democracy. That’s why I have repeatedly said in this column that Nigeria is not a democracy. For, let’s face it, there are too many people in power who got there by electoral frauds, helped by INEC officials.

Last week, in the UK, the electorate were angry. They were fed up with 14 years of Conservative governments, with five prime ministers in eight years, and they wanted change. The same thing happened in South Africa where the voters punished the African National Congress, ANC, and cost the party its majority, reducing it to 40 per cent of the vote, for the first time in 30 years. Earlier this week, the French electorate penalised President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance, Ensemble, pushing it into second position after the second round of the National Assembly elections. That’s true democracy in action. It’s people power! 

But tell me, if Prime Minister Sunak, President Macron and President Cyril Ramaphosa could manipulate their country’s electoral system to favour themselves and their parties, would they? I think not. Why? Well, first, their moral consciences and values as true democrats would not let them to do so. Second, and more importantly, the British, French and South African electoral institutions, and those running them, are so robust and independent that they would not allow any incumbent leader, indeed any politician, to distort the electoral system. But not so in Nigeria. Truth is, a typical Nigerian president will exploit his incumbency to manipulate elections to his or his party’s advantage, and the institutions are too weak, and absolutely lack the independence, to constrain him.

Last year, President Buhari said that he changed the Petroleum Industry Act to postpone the withdrawal of the fuel subsidy so as “to allow Tinubu to win the election,” saying Tinubu would have lost if he had removed the subsidy before the election. So, if Buhari deliberately changed a law to allow Tinubu to win the presidential election, what else did he do? Did he lean on INEC to tilt the balance in Tinubu’s favour?

Democracy is the ability to punish political failure by votes. Thus, given Buhari’s disastrous eight-year presidency and the unpopularity of Tinubu, who selfishly foisted him on Nigeria, their party, APC, shouldn’t have won the presidency last year. And, if you ask me, APC did not win, or, at least, did not have a popular mandate. INEC said Tinubu got 8.8m or 37 per cent of the 24m votes cast. Thus, he was rejected by a whopping 63 per cent or 15m voters!

Well, this is where Britain and Nigeria have something in common: the perverse first-past-the-post electoral system. Last week, the Labour party got only 34 per cent of the vote nationally, yet secured a landslide in parliament, with 412 or 63 per cent of the 650 seats. The pressure is growing in Britain to change the system; it should in Nigeria too. But leaving aside the first-past-the-post, elections must be competently run and devoid of manipulations.  On those, Britain’s democracy puts Nigeria’s in the shade. It is ineptocracy!