Grappling with the aftermath of April polls
Grappling with the aftermath of April polls
Op-Ed / Africa

Grappling with the aftermath of April polls

The April 2011 elections were a mixed grill. Quite predictably, the elections were riddled with political and electoral violence, fitting into a well-worn, self-fulfilling prophecy of sorrow, tears and blood, to paraphrase a Nigerian editorialist. The result was a harvest of deaths – hundreds were killed in politically-motivated, communal and sectarian violence before and during the elections. Given the centrality of power and the access it provides to abundant oil, gas and mineral wealth, intra and inter-party politics proved volatile and turbulent.

Common to both the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the three main opposition parties - Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) and All-Nigerian People’s Party (ANPP) - were intra-party elections and primaries that degenerated into farcical selections, breach of due process and candidate imposition. Against the background of rampant poverty and mass unemployment, political and electoral tensions are easily colored and tainted by religion, ethnicity and geography. Ahead of the polls, 12 of the 36 states were declared hot-spots by Nigerian authorities; only a handful of them eventually escaped the spectre of violence.

But few predicted the fury and anger of the post-presidential election protest in major northern towns and cities. While some have pointed accusing fingers at the CPC and Muhammadu Buhari, its presidential candidate, for not calling their supporters to order, others have opined that the riots betray a more fundamental socio-economic malaise. Several explanations have been proffered, including a ‘religious agenda’ that merely exploited ‘a political situation’ and cultural survival of the (political) North.

Others are: spontaneous political action or a rearguard battle by those worried by loss of political power considered by many in the region as a birthright; and crude evidence of class struggle by northern talakawa (commoners) in the targeting of symbols of wealth and power of both Christians and Muslims.

Beyond the empanelling of an election judicial tribunal on the violence, the sobering lesson is that, as presently constituted, Nigeria may have pretty little common meaning to its diverse yet vibrant population. Whatever fate befalls the judicial challenge to the Nigeria-wide mandate of President Goodluck Jonathan by the CPC and Buhari — by winning 25 % of the votes in 31 of the 36 states, he surpassed the constitutional requirement of 25 % of votes in 24 states - the president and his future cabinet have their work well cut out for them: the creation of a consciousness of what Nigeria should mean to its people notably in terms of the public values to project, protect and enhance.

The elections were also marred by logistical deficiencies and procedural inconsistencies, and by a rehash of malpractices: ballot box stuffing and snatching, illegal thumb printing of ballot papers, fake Independent National Electoral Commission INEC materials, intimidation, inducement and arm-twisting of voters through money and materials.

Yet, across the country, the strength of the electoral process trumped its weaknesses. Many Nigerians – as well as members of the international community– commended INEC for improved logistics and smoother voting process as the elections progressed, even as the high-tech biometrics proved fallible and the voter register problematic on occasion. The use of senior academics as returning officers and youth corps members as ad hoc election staff helped. So also did the conviction of fraud and cancellation of fraudulent results and huge deployment of security personnel, including, controversially, the military.

INEC chairman Attahiru Jega and his team’s perceived ability to put Nigeria above self and willingness to learn and self-correct triumphed over constraints and impediments. A major weakness was inadequate time by INEC to perfect its reforms, which precipitated the sudden halt of the National Assembly election on April 2. Inadequate time also created loopholes for some desperate politicians and a handful of INEC officials to engage in electoral malfeasance.

The loss of power by the ruling PDP in both National Assembly and governorship elections, including in Ogun, former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s home state, is a victory for a more diversified, more democratic, more representative and more legitimate system of government. It should drive better service delivery for Nigerians as parties become more competitive for citizens’ genuine loyalty and support. If the opposition parties successfully resist the temptation of pork barrel politics and keep to their electoral promises, the quality of parliamentary politics and the country’s burgeoning democracy will shore up. The elections also shattered the myth of invincibility of incumbency, as sitting governors in Oyo, Kano, Imo and Nasarawa lost out. The Nigerian electorate has also proved its sophistication, voting sometimes for candidates and at other times for parties. The entire South-west and Edo state (save Osun state in the presidential) were emblematic of this quality. But there are examples from other parts of the country. In Niger state, the CPC won both the National Assembly and presidential elections only to lose the governorship to the PDP. It also lost Katsina - Buhari’s home state — to the PDP barely a week after it had won 71% of the presidential votes as against PDP’s 26%.

The most important issue in the Nigeria elections is that, for the first time in the country’s history, a ‘southern minority’ politician has been elected president. It is a vote for a new Nigeria - and a new beginning. It is also a historic political milestone and a unique opportunity to transform the country’s political economy. With a massive mandate, President Jonathan has a resounding legitimacy to boost his ability, and that of his team, to govern strongly. But as Lamido Sanusi, Nigeria’s Central Bank Governor, has suggested, the president should tell Nigerians upfront whether his policies are for the elite or for the masses.

Nigerians do not expect the President to solve their entire nation’s problems during his tenure. Rather, they would like him to prioritize and deliver on key areas. In terms of substantive politics, energy provision is crucial. Next in line are revamping of run-down physical infrastructures, education and health, as well as public service reforms. No leader can achieve much with the current government machinery. President Jonathan has promised to manage resources better and do things differently – he should do so and be held accountable by both domestic and international stakeholders in the Nigeria project. In terms of non-substantive politics, the fight against endemic corruption is top priority. If this battle is not won, substantive politics will be stymied.

Finally, important lessons have been learnt during the polls, the most significant is that human agency and commitment can be as significant as structures and institutions. If political violence and electoral malfeasance did not subvert the will of the Nigerian electorate, it is mainly thanks to the contributions of INEC and Chairman Jega and his team; President Jonathan; senior academics who doubled as returning officers; young Nigerians in the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) who served as ad-hoc officials; and the electorate that was determined and prepared, every step of the way, to defend their votes and protect the integrity of the system.

Institutional support deployed by the police, army and other security agencies as well as by domestic and international monitoring and observer teams was equally  invaluable.

Nigeria may have used the April 2011 general elections to begin to reverse the degeneration of its previous elections, but it is not yet time for official self-congratulation and back-slapping. Going forward, the need to start intense and intensive preparations for the 2015 elections can hardly be over-emphasized. Voter registration need not be as chaotic and expensive as it was this year if it is done as a continuing exercise, according to the 2010 Electoral Act. If technical reforms are accompanied by far-reaching political and economic reforms that can alleviate poverty, generate jobs and ensure energy – in short, reforms that make the state more relevant to the generality of Nigerians – the health of the country’s electoral and democratic future will be guaranteed. The government should also show more determination to contain violence from the society. Successful reforms will strengthen its hands to do so.

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