Nigeria and its international friends need to act urgently and concertedly to prevent another electoral disaster in 2011
Nigeria’s election reform process is faltering. The 2007 election was a disaster for the country, in more ways than one. Political manipulation by then President Olusegun Obasanjo, widespread fraud and poll-related violence eroded public confidence in the electoral process significantly, and undermined the legitimacy of the “winners” and their ability to govern effectively. As 2011 approaches, the importance of credible elections cannot be overstated. For the president, who had listed electoral reform at the top of his seven-point agenda, failure to deliver on his promise could be politically disastrous.
More importantly, for Nigeria, another failure in 2011 could do mortal damage to citizens’ faith in democracy and diminish the state’s authority and its ability to mediate and resolve the country’s many internal conflicts, not to mention further undermining its claims to democratic leadership in Africa and subverting its campaign for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on a visit to Nigeria back in August, the “lack of transparency and accountability has eroded the legitimacy of the government and contributed to the rise of groups that embrace violence and reject the authority of the state”. Rather than just sending another expensive electoral observation mission in 2011 to document the by then inevitable disaster, the international community needs to follow Clinton’s lead and make its concerns known now.
Following the national and international condemnations in 2007, President Umaru Yar’Adua promised a review of the entire electoral system “with a view to ensuring that we raise the quality and standard of our general elections, and thereby deepen our democracy”. Two years after he initiated that review, and less than 20 months to the next general elections in 2011, the reform process has stalled. The next election could be more chaotic than 2007, and even more violent.
Nigerian government and ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) officials deny there is an impending crisis, dismissing Clinton’s concerns as ill-informed and misleading. Some argue that the reform process is still on course; others insist they find no fault with the existing electoral laws. But the country’s election chief, Maurice Iwu, recently informed Nigerians that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has not commenced any serious plans for the 2011 election, because the laws clarifying his agency’s functions and powers are yet to be made. A late start by INEC will make all the other problems harder to deal with.
On 28 August 2007, Yar’Adua set up a 22-member electoral reform committee (ERC), headed by a former chief justice, Muhammed Uwais, and comprising several other well regarded citizens. Its composition and mandate raised hopes that the country could conduct better elections in future.
That committee held public hearings in 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states, received 1,466 memoranda from various political interests, and submitted its report on 12 December 2008. Its most significant recommendation was that the position of head of INEC be openly advertised, as opposed to being nominated by the President, which is currently the case. All applications would then be screened by the National Judicial Council (NJC) which would forward a shortlist of three applicants to the president, who in turn would forward one of the nominees to the National Assembly for confirmation. This new arrangement was to curb the influence of the president – and his party – in appointing and thereafter manipulating the INEC head, a major issue in the 2007 elections. The ERC also recommended that the electoral body be allowed to draw its finances directly from the federation account, and that some of its functions be split between three new institutions, namely a Constituency Delimitation Commission, a Political Parties Registration and Regulatory Commission and an Electoral Offences Commission. The shedding of these functions to new bodies was intended to enable INEC focus on conducting and administering elections more efficiently than it did in 2007. In seeking to ensure rapid passage of legislation that would enable these reforms, the committee even submitted three draft bills to that end.
That report drew public praise from many Nigerians; but the process began to unravel soon thereafter. First, Yar’Adua and his council of ministers dropped several key submissions of the report, including the new proposal on appointing the electoral chief, curiously arguing it would amount to a violation of the principle of separation of powers. Following its extensive hatchet-job rewriting of the report, the executive arm, on 30 April, then sent seven reform bills to the National Assembly (federal legislature), where the reform process has met further setbacks and delays.
The legislators, dominated by the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), first threw out one of the bills that sought to regulate the formation of political parties. Then they ruled that any further review of electoral laws must be part of a wider constitution review process, an open-ended exercise that could drag on for years. A leadership struggle between the Senate and the House, within a bi-cameral Joint Committee on Constitution Review (JCCR), ensured there was no further progress until June when both houses finally decided to conduct their electoral and constitutional reviews separately. In July, the House held public hearings on the proposed reforms, but that exercise has been widely dismissed as a farce: the public was given only three days notice and the hearings, held only in Abuja, lasted only four days. The legislators then commenced their annual vacation running till the end of September. Even when the Upper and Lower houses conclude their independent reviews, more time will be needed to reconcile differences in their resolutions. Further delays are therefore inevitable, damaging the prospects of any real electoral reforms in time for 2011.
The next few months will be critical. President Yar’Adua must demonstrate greater commitment to the reforms he promised Nigerians, by pushing the legislature to expedite its deliberations. Members of the PDP-dominated National Assembly must commit themselves to credible electoral reforms, truly reflecting the preferences of their constituents as articulated in the ERC report. They must also act urgently, bearing in mind that the country desperately needs better elections in 2011 to halt its deepening slide into crises. While the PDP by its numerical advantage in the legislature must bear primary responsibility for this, the opposition parties must now close ranks in giving the process a much-needed push.
If another debacle is to be avoided, Nigeria’s civil society needs to mobilise more effectively. Some brave efforts are already underway, notably the campaign to collect 30 million signatures in support of the ERC report and the grassroots mobilisation recently started by the Civil Society Co-ordinating Committee (CSCC) on Electoral Reforms. These efforts need to be intensified: civil society groups need to forge a strong movement nationwide, one that would promote the electoral reform more aggressively, especially by empowering voters to force the hands of their representatives to respect popular preferences. It must also develop strategies for lobbying federal lawmakers more intensively. The mass media must lend support to these efforts.
The international community also needs to step in urgently. It is no good waiting till the eve of the elections and then sending an observation team which will, again, merely document what will by then be the end-game of a disaster that was long foretold. Nigeria’s friends and partners abroad need to put pressure on the executive and the legislature to speed up the reforms, now. Clinton struck the right key in Abuja last month; but the US needs to coordinate its pressure with others from the European Union, G8 nations and the Commonwealth. Those African countries that have achieved significant successes in conducting elections should, through ECOWAS and the African Union, encourage Nigeria to do better. Public statements in support of electoral reforms will boost the morale of civil society leaders on the ground. More concretely, international support for the reform process must devote greater resources to those non-state organisations that have shown the courage, commitment and capacity to mobilise citizens for constructive change. All actors must help Nigeria to improve its electoral system before the 2011 elections, or that election will on push Nigeria deeper into crises.