Anambra and Nigeria’s burden

by Okey Ndibe

In eleven days – February 6 – Anambra voters will go to the polls to (attempt to) elect the state’s governor for the next four years. They have a full field of candidates to choose from, and they certainly have a hard task discerning the wheat from the chaff.

The election, by every measure, is a profoundly significant contest. There’s no question in my mind that Nigeria’s deeply entrenched anti-democratic forces will seek, yet again, to thwart the popular will. Will they succeed in their sick mission? Will Nigerians awake on February 7 to realize that the hijackers of power had plied their trade once again, and imposed a candidate the people did not elect? And if so, what are the likely consequences?

My opening sentence speaks, advisedly, about the electorate “attempting” to elect a new governor. Nigeria’s electoral history has been marked by such honest attempts marred by massive rigging abetted by the police, security agents and electoral officials. That practice has brought Nigeria’s by-name-only democracy to the brink of utter collapse. Time and time again, voters’ efforts to hold up their part of the bargain by going – under rain or shine – to cast votes have been sabotaged by those who prefer stealing power to licitly earning it.

Are there any grounds, speaking objectively, to expect that things would be different in Anambra this time around?

The answer is yes and no.

Let’s dwell, first, on the yes. Umaru Yar’Adua’s apparent incapacitation and likely absence from the country strike me as holding out hope for a credible election in Anambra. Despite his posturing as an agent of electoral reform, Mr. Yar’Adua has earned a reputation as a ruthless, shameless apostle of hijacked elections.

His record as far as electoral probity is concerned is, to be sure, a wretched one. Yes, he’s talked electoral reform, as he’s talked “rule of law,” but he’s been a hypocrite on both issues. In fact, it’s impossible to reconcile his words and his actions on the two fronts.

A comatose steward at Aso Rock, Mr. Yar’Adua has been content to slumber at moments of national crises that called for stellar leadership. But he’s woken up and risen to every partisan occasion when his party sought to re-steal a governorship election – in such places as Kogi, Adamawa, and Ekiti.

It is no secret that Mr. Yar’Adua and his wife, Turai, played key roles in the still questionable decision to hand the PDP’s governorship ticket to Charles Chukwuma Soludo, the immediate past governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. Were Yar’Adua in operation, there’s no question he’d try to put pressure on the malleable leadership of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to call the election for Mr. Soludo, regardless of how the people of Anambra think about the matter.

The subtraction of the Yar’Adua factor and threat bodes well for the Anambra election. Goodluck Jonathan, Yar’Adua’s deputy, is in a too precarious position to mount decisive on the electoral body. And without strong covert pressure being brought to bear on INEC, it’s unlikely that the Nigerian police as well as other security agents and the military would be marshaled to choreograph the election for the PDP candidate.

In effect, Mr. Soludo must strive to win on his own steam.

Another (admittedly miniscule) source of hope is that the governorship election is holding at a time of sober stocktaking in Nigeria. With Yar’Adua and his cohorts embedded in Saudi Arabia for more than two months, nudging Nigeria to the edge of a serious political crisis, Nigerians have come to reckon with the dire consequences of permitting a cabal to hijack power. Yar’Adua – who has never been a leader even when he was at his squash-playing best of shape – has finally brought home to us what we suspected all along: that Nigerian leaders, as Chinua Achebe suggested in The Trouble with Nigeria, really reside abroad, psychically and (now) physically.

Nigerians are aware, as never before, of the cost of letting politicians (and especially mediocre, unscrupulous ones) to usurp power. Since Anambra will give us the best preview of the shape of elections to come in 2011, one foresees less tolerance of rigged elections.

Incidentally, the fear is that – precisely because the stakes are so high, not only for Anambra but also for Nigeria as a whole – the merchants of stolen mandates will make heavy investments in Anambra. If the Anambra election can be manipulated with little or no resistance, then 2011 will similarly be a rigger’s bonanza.

One major danger for the Anambra polls is the man named Maurice Iwu, the chairman of INEC. Iwu has combined the awfulness of his performance in the 2007 “elections” with a shameless capacity for the worship of impunity – especially his own.

Mr. Iwu is not the first person to preside over bungled elections in Nigeria. But he easily distinguished himself by the scale of fraud in the elections he supervised as well as the moral offensiveness of his insistence that he oversaw a superb – if not the most flawless – set of elections. Whether he believed his own fiction is beside the point.

A man capable of that lethal combination of monumental incompetence and moral fecklessness should have been relieved a long time ago of his post as an electoral umpire. Iwu’s part in hoisting Andy Uba as governor of Anambra after a travesty that went in the name of elections in 2007 still inspires deep suspicion of his judgment. Uba, whose 2007 (s)election was one of the lowest points in the farcical general elections, is now back as the candidate of the Labor Party. In 2007, Iwu denied spots on the ballot to incumbent Governor Peter Obi as well as former Governor Chris Ngige in order to spare Mr. Uba any serious challenge.

With that history as background, only a fool would approach an Iwu-supervised election with supreme confidence in its integrity and credibility.

Even so – since Iwu may not, after all, be as ethically sapped as he has let on – the Anambra election offers a rare opportunity for a (small) measure of rehabilitation. Nigerians and the international community view the commission that he led as embodying electoral fraud. Once he leaves his post, Iwu is bound to find most addresses in Nigeria hostile to his person.

His only hope for some reprieve is to midwife an election in Anambra that only manifestly sour losers would question. It remains to be seen whether the man is capable of such transformation – even on a small scale.

There are two other danger signs.

Several weeks ago, Inspector General of Police Ogbonna Onovo alleged that some politicians in Anambra were amassing weapons with which to disrupt the election. Mr. Onovo’s statement followed a tired, unhelpful approach. The job of the police is not to sound unsubstantiated alarms – it is to arrest those implicated in real, provable plots. The IG’s failure to name, much less apprehend, the alleged gunrunners left me wondering whether Onovo sought, preemptively, to rationalize his officers’ inability to maintain law and order during the election.

Watchers of the election should be troubled too by reports that a few individuals were caught with ballot papers. INEC quickly claimed to have fired some of its staff involved in one of the cases. But that’s not enough. The staff should be prosecuted. In the interest of a clean election, the police and INEC should also unmask the parties or candidates who sponsored the illegal handlers of ballot papers. Those sponsors must be arrested as well, and barred from the election if they happen to be candidates.

One reason electoral malpractice thriv

es in Nigeria is that those who steal votes are never charged to court. All too often, they are allowed to luxuriate in the offices they have devalued through electoral theft. And – as the case of Yar’Adua proves – we all pay a steep price in the end.

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