Lessons from Nigeria’s 2011 Elections
Africa Briefing N°81
15 Sep 2011
With the April 2011 general elections, Nigeria may have taken steps towards reversing the degeneration of its previous elections, but the work is not finished. Despite some progress, early and intensive preparations for the 2015 elections need to start now. Voter registration need not be as chaotic and expensive as it was this year if done on a continual basis. Far-reaching technical and administrative reforms of, and by, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), notably internal restructuring and constituency delineation, should be undertaken and accompanied by broad political and economic reforms that make the state more relevant to citizens and help guarantee an electoral and democratic future. The deadly post-presidential election violence in the North and bomb blasts by the Islamic fundamentalist Boko Haram sect since President Jonathan’s 29 May inauguration indicate the enormous challenges facing the new government. It must show more determination to contain violence in society. Addressing chronic poverty and the North’s underdevelopment – major grievances – would strengthen its hand.
The resounding, if controversial, victory of Goodluck Jonathan over veteran opposition leader General (ret.) Muhammadu Buhari was not the only significant change brought about by the elections. (He was the first southern minority leader to win the presidency, having become the incumbent by his predecessor’s death in office.) 72 of 109 senators lost their seats. In the House of Representatives, 260 of the 360 members are newly elected. President Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) lost its two-thirds majority in the Senate and now holds the governorship in only 23 of the 36 states, compared to 27 after the 2007 elections. A major winner was the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), whose success in the South-West has returned this region to its tradition of being in opposition to the ruling party at the centre. Another winner was the All-Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA), which wrested control of Imo state from the PDP; along with Anambra state, which it won in 2007, it now holds two core South-East states. In short, despite the presidency result, the polls shattered the PDP’s one-time near invincibility.
After three flawed elections – 1999, that heralded the Fourth Republic, 2003 and 2007, the last being the most discredited – the 2011 polls were critical for Nigeria’s fledgling democracy and overall political health. The eve of the elections was marked by a blend of cautious optimism and foreboding. Attahiru Jega, INEC chair, and his team won plaudits for instituting important reforms, including to the voting procedure; the introduction of the idea of community mandate protection to prevent malpractice; and the prosecution and sentencing of officials, including the electoral body’s own staff, for electoral offences. There were also grounds for pessimism: the upsurge of violence in several states, encouraged by politicians and their supporters who feared defeat; an ambiguous and confusing legal framework for the elections; and a flawed voter registration exercise, with poorly functioning biometric scans, that resulted in an inflated voters roll.
Few, however, predicted the violence that erupted in some Northern states following the announcement of the presidential results. With over 1,000 people killed, the protests made the elections one of the bloodiest ever. The polls were also riddled with malpractices, logistical deficiencies and procedural inconsistencies. Reported voter turnout of about 78 per cent in the South-South and the South-East during the presidential elections exceeded the national average by at least 50 per cent, suggesting electoral fraud. Yet, the polls were, on balance, the most credible to date. Across the country, the strength of the electoral process appeared mostly to have trumped its weaknesses. Domestic and international observers commended INEC for improved logistics and a smooth voting process.
A combination of electoral, constitutional and economic reforms is needed to make the 2015 polls truly free and fair and to ensure they are not tainted by blood. The proposals from the 2009 Uwais Electoral Reform Committee report should be widely published and reform efforts enhanced to make the system more inclusive; economic reforms should be introduced to reduce poverty and create jobs for restive young school-leavers and graduates. The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which was signed into law in late May and guarantees the right of access of individuals and groups to information held by public institutions, and the new Sovereign Wealth Fund scheme are important steps forward. Constitutional reform should be done with a more holistic, less piecemeal approach, with the full involvement of the Nigerian people, who have long been demanding it.
President Jonathan pledged to transform the country during his campaign. Yet, his cabinet, a hodgepodge of recycled, failed and controversial ministers, party stalwarts indicted in the past, a few probable reformers and some technocrats, inspires little confidence among Nigerians. The new government’s priorities should include:
releasing funds to INEC so it can begin early preparations for the 2015 elections;
directing INEC to compile, maintain and update the National Register of Voters on a continual basis, in accordance with Section 9 (1) of the 2010 Nigerian Electoral Act;
using the Uwais Committee’s extensive recommendations as the basis for a broad debate on constitutional reform, including a review of the simple-plurality electoral system for legislative elections;
responding to the genuine grievances of those living in parts of the North that are considerably poorer than some wealthier Southern states and prioritising improving their dire living conditions, while not overlooking states with similar problems in the South;
disclosing the results of the investigation into post-electoral violence, including the identities of those responsible and the causes, and working with state governments, local councils, traditional and religious leaders, relevant non-state actors and key local figures to prevent recurrence in 2015;
prosecuting those responsible for electoral malpractices or post-electoral violence, regardless of their status; and
putting more effective procedures in place for challenging possible massive rigging, as opposed to individual instances of abuse at polling stations.
Abuja/Dakar/Brussels, 15 September 2011