Much ado about elections in nigeria


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Much ado about elections in nigeria

  1. 1. MUCH ADO ABOUT ELECTIONS IN NIGERIA By J. ‘Kayode Fayemi Centre for Democracy & DevelopmentIntroductionThere is a pervasive and widespread fear about Nigeria’s next elections. Many punditsare already filling their columns with doomsday scenarios for the countrys young andfragile democracy. In a way these fears are not completely misplaced if history offers anylessons. Unlike the 1959, 1979, 1993 and 1999 elections, organised by departing colonialand military authorities, the 1964 and 1983 elections organised under incumbent civiliangovernments were marred by serious fraud and violence, the unfortunate effect of whichwas political instability, which in turn heralded the return of the military. The 2003election in Nigeria certainly harbors the potential for electoral fraud and violence anddoomsday scenarios might help the citizenry to maintain vigilance in order to keep thepoliticians and their agents in check and the electoral commission on its toes. It is alsoimportant though that we put things in proper perspective and move away from the nearexclusive focus on elections as though it were democracy.One way to achieve proper perspective is to agree that elections across Africa and indeed,elsewhere in the world commonly hold the potential for violence, as the competition isusually of a ‘winner-takes-all’ nature. The stakes are high; the players are desperate andthe spoils of office enormous for the winner. There are very few states where a culture ofcivil opposition and dialogue has taken firm root, due in part to the history of militaryinterference and authoritarian rule in political processes across the continent. Nigeria isno exception to this pattern and we have already witnessed some violence in the partyprimaries at the local, state and federal levels. Such episodes can be expected, due to themultitude of causes and political actors at the national level, and the number and variety 1
  2. 2. of more localised disputes, many of which have very little to do with the elections per se,even if they all want to use elections as the vehicle for achieving various objectives.Intense and uncompromising contests between factions for senior positions in the partyhierarchy have taken place. Problems have arisen with respect to the Electoral Act,especially with regards to freedom of association and registration of political parties, theexpiration of tenure of local governments and councils and the inadequate constitutionalprovisions for replacing them. Tensions abound from complaints at the ad hocadministrative arrangements which are made as elections are further delayed and morecouncil terms lapse.In spite of all the above, there is also evidence to suggest that Nigeria’s democracy ismaturing and there is a growing respect for the rule of law. The judiciary has pronouncedresponsibly on many of the contentious issues that might have exacerbated pre-electiontensions and the executive and legislative branches of government on their part havetended to respect the rulings of the court, even in cases where they have come out worseoff. Cases relating to the electoral laws, registration of more parties, conduct andmanagement of elections and local government tenure are but just a few to mention.Indeed, the judiciary has come out of this as the most well regarded arm of governmentand truly earned the reputation of being the last hope of the people. To buttress this, twomajor local newspapers, The Guardian and Newswatch Magazine declared the judiciaryas “The Man of the Year 2002” for these landmark rulings.The point to emphasise therefore is that all of what we are witnessing represents the by-products of political transition, which is inherently conflictual, contradictory andprogressive all at once and the challenge is to examine the progress made so far, thepotentials for reversal and the prospects for consolidation. So, in essence, there is nothingsurprising about the current jousting amongst political gladiators in Nigeria. This, I amsure, will be deemed controversial by those who would have us believe that the electionis in itself the cause of violence, rather than a symptom of years of militarization. Bylocating the forthcoming elections in its proper context, in a continuum of politicalprocesses that Nigeria began in the aftermath of General Abacha’s death in 1998, perhaps 2
  3. 3. even earlier – we can see why elections do not a democracy make.Back to the Future: 1999 and the future of Democracy in NigeriaFormal military disengagement in May 1999 heralded certain expectations of measurableprogress and a deepening of democratic development. Indeed, there was a teleologicalconnection drawn between military disengagement from politics, and an automaticimprovement in societal and political order. While discerning watchers cautioned againstthese exaggerated assumptions, political leaders and decision makers espoused anoutward confidence that belied the deep seated nature of the Nigerian crisis. At a timewhen the country ought to have been classified as a post-conflict state in need of urgent,comprehensive and long-term rebuilding, the mood was one of almost unrestrainedtriumphalism.Almost four years into civilian rule, the scale, scope and intensity of conflict in Nigeriasince the end of military rule challenges the assumed link between militarydisengagement from politics, de-militarisation of Nigerian society and the deepening ofthe democratic order. With no fewer than 10,000 dead in religious and communalconflicts and an exponential increase in societal violence, Nigerians are at risk of almostregretting civilian rule. Although there are several reasons for this increase in societal andstate violence – not least the expanded space provided by civilian rule, the fact that thepublic continues to cast serious doubt on the state’s capacity to manage domestic crisesand protect the security of life and property, underscores primarily the depth ofdisenchantment with the state of things and have sometimes led to isolated calls for thereturn of the military. Nigeria’s democratic transition has radically altered existing socialboundaries and divisions, accentuating hitherto suppressed or dormant identity drivenconflicts without providing the needed institutional arrangements beyond elections. Thishas placed a question mark on the very viability of Nigeria’s democratic enterprise in amanner that cannot be resolved simply by adversarial, winner takes all elections.Consequently, the pacted nature of Nigeria’s 1999 transition and the faustian bargains 3
  4. 4. with the departing military produced a post transition configuration which looked morelike a re-packaged space for militarily controlled politics than a fundamental restructuringof power relations. The nature of General Abachas exit and the ascension to power ofGeneral Abubakar arguably determined the outcome of the democratisation project in1999. However one may view the eventual outcome of the rushed transition programme,the fact that the military elite was not responding to a full scale defeat by the populationcan hardly be discounted in understanding the compromised outcome that is reflected intoday’s governance arrangement. There is no doubt that the dominance of the politicalparty hierarchy by retired military officers and civilians closely connected to the militaryelite set the tone for the party development that pays little attention to ideology orprogrammes. It is no surprise therefore that four of the key political parties – includingthe ruling party – have elected retired generals as their candidates for the forthcomingpresidential elections: General Obasanjo for the PDP, General Mohammed Buhari forthe ANPP; General Ike Nwachukwu for the NDP and former Biafran leader, GeneralEmeka Ojukwu for the APGA. This is not to mention the several gubernatorial,parliamentary and state assembly and local government candidates who are also ex-military officers.The impact of this entrenched militarism however goes beyond those running for office,even if they make the journey toward democratic consolidation a lot more difficult. Itextends to the pervasive nature of the psychology of force and militarism in the widersociety. Incidents of aggression, impatience, and competition arise in domestic violenceand other family disputes, over petrol queues, in the conduct of motorists, and in thebehaviour of the armed forces and police in dealing with citizens. While there is no doubtthat hitherto dormant conflicts have found expression in the available democratic space toexpress themselves, at its root however is the loss of a culture of compromise andaccommodation in the resolution and management of conflicts.Indeed, the violence that has attended the adoption of Sharia law in the North as well asthe communal conflicts rendering several parts of the country asunder have been seen asevidence of the intractability of the Nigerian crisis on grounds of ethnicity and religion. 4
  5. 5. Yet, these ethno-religious explanation of the governance crisis obfuscate rather thanelucidate our understanding. In reality, the ten-thousand odd lives that have been lost toviolence since President Olusegun Obasanjo came to office in May 1999 happened due toa number of diverse and complex reasons - through environmental/decentralisationconflicts (Odi, Niger Delta), inter-ethnic/religious animosities (Kaduna, Kano, Aba) andland/intra-ethnic disputes (Ife/Modakeke, Tiv/Nasarrawa Takum/Jukun, Urhobo/Itsekiri)– all linked to the fundamental disconnection between the rulers and the governed and amajor product of state desertion by citizens. It also underscores why the country shouldaddress the causes of these problems, rather than focus on these symptomatic distractions.It’s the structure, stupid!Without discounting the importance of elections in a democratising polity, it is importantto first interrogate the notion of democracy in its variegated and complex forms –especially in the context of transition societies. From the foregoing, the notion whichpaints a pre-conceived destination, almost a uni-dimensional focus on elections asdemocracy: Have elections, and every other thing shall follow - is a seriously flawed one.The problem in our view is about the nature and character of the Nigerian state, and it isnot one that election can resolve, no matter how regular, well organized and untaintedthey are. It is clear to most people in Nigeria, including the political leadership, that thequestion of the national structure is the central issue that will not go away in Nigeria’squest for democratic development and effective governance. The question that manycontinue to pose will have to be answered with all its attendant ramifications: What isthis nation called Nigeria? What does it mean to be Nigerian? What is the relationshipbetween the citizens and the state? What is the nature of inter-governmental relations?These were the questions Nigerians avoided in the events leading up to May 1999, in thedesperation to rid the country of its military rulers and in the hope that elections willresolve them. Without resolving the issue of the national structure via national dialogue,it is difficult to see how Nigerians can attain consolidation and effective governance onthe basis of electoral democracy. 5
  6. 6. Which way forward?While it is uncharitable to argue that nothing has changed in Nigeria since May 1999, thenature of the progress made is a contested one. Evidence of Nigeria’s basic socio-economic indicators bears testimony to this. With 28.1% of the population living belowpoverty when General Obasanjo left in 1979 to over 70% of Nigerians below poverty linein 2003, Nigeria’s poverty trap represents almost a paradox measured against thecountry’s wealth. Bred by unequal power relations, the structural and systematicallocation of resources among different groups in society and their differential access topower and the political process, the distorted distribution of the nation’s wealth hasresulted in the enrichment of a minority at the expense of an impoverished majority, andthis minority (mostly ex-military generals and their friends) now use the wealth toentrench their power. Also, the chronic nature of poverty in Nigeria has a link tohistorical and continuing mismanagement of resources, persistent and institutionaluncertainty, weak rule of law, decrepit and/or absent infrastructure, weak institutions ofstate and monumental corruption. In short, central to the depth of poverty has been poorgovernance and at the core of bad governance has been the over-centralised state.Bringing the government closer to the people offers a clear and immediate response to thecrisis of governance and constitutional reform is the pathway to achieving this.Will political developments in Nigeria allow genuine constitutional reform agenda to takefirm root in the post election era? There is room for cautious optimism, but only if we seethe elections as part of a wider struggle to address problems of militarism, accountabilityand entrenchment of the rule of law, not as an end in itself.Kayode Fayemi is the Director of the Centre for Democracy & Development in Lagos,Nigeria. 6