Combating Shadow Votes

There is no denying that the repeated military interventions in the constitutional history of Nigeria have had a cumulative corrosive effect on both the democratic culture as well as the overall political economy of the country, often resulting in weak political institutions and rampant public and private sector corruption, resulting in poor economic performance and decreased governance and other social capacity. The current wave of political liberalization in Africa has witnessed unprecedented and monumental changes in the region’s political landscape. In fact, probably more than any other developing region, Africa has witnessed far-reaching changes which have impacted socio-economic, political and cultural relations, with profound implications for the region’s location and role in the emerging complex and competitive global divisions of labour and power.

Fed up with the suffocation of civil society, repression, corruption, and economic mismanagement, popular constituencies began to resist and reject undemocratic leaders and forms of governance. Workers, students, women, rural and urban associations, even sections of the military, joined in the agitation for political liberalization and a return to democratic politics and governance. Of course, the results have varied from country to country and from experience to experience. Generally, there is today no nation in Africa that is isolated from the wave of protests, agitations for change, and popular enthusiasm for democratic rule. All African states have witnessed the emergence of new pro-democracy movements, leaders, political parties and issues on the political agenda.

The return to civilian rule following the 1999 elections was only the beginning of a process of democratization and capacity building. The deleterious impact of British colonialism equally pre-determined the tragic fortunes of both the putative Doyen of Nigerian politics, as well as those of the founding premier of Nigeria, cannot be gainsaid. And any study which attempts to comprehensively examine the achievements and drawbacks of either patriot cannot afford to do so without also, at least tangentially, drawing on some of the achievements and misfortunes of the other personage. It is to be appreciated that the 1998-1999 electoral process—as well as the underlying constitutional framework—was far from ideal but there was a broad consensus in Nigerian society that such defects had to be accepted within this context with the understanding that they were the price of returning the soldiers to the barracks and that they would be overcome over time through a transparent reform process. Thus expectations were rather high in the lead-up to the 2003 elections, which were viewed as a further step forward. Unfortunately, while the results of the latter poll were ultimately accepted (albeit very grudgingly in some quarters), the disappointment over many of the problems which characterized the poll—including, inter alia, the multiple cases of delays, flawed procedures, political violence and questionably tabulated results—have given rise to cynicism and a broad decrease in confidence on the part of the general population, especially the more educated classes, in the Nigerian electoral system if not in the will of the political establishment to respect the sovereign decision of the people. Thus it is even more important that the current electoral process be credibly shown to indeed be free and fair.

However, the delegation found that the political climate in Nigeria today, while relatively open in comparison to many other societies making transitions toward greater democracy, is very tense. While the overwhelming consensus among the delegation’s interlocutors— shared by the delegates themselves—is that elections was held as scheduled and a transition taken place on the constitutionally-mandated date of May 29, 2007, there was no doubt on the part of a not insignificant number as to whether there truly existed a political will to actually have free and fair elections which wasn’t credibly carried out.

Furthermore, even if assuming that the quasi-unanimous declarations of support for the poll on the part of political figures were indeed manifestations of the requisite will, the question remains whether Nigeria is prepared for an electoral reform or can be reasonably expected to become prepared to actually carry out subsequent exercises in a credible manner. Even assuming both these presuppositions, serious concerns relating to security remain unanswered. In fact, enough reports of violence and fear in the current intra-party primary campaigns do not augur well for the general election campaign that is only now beginning. Most Nigerians have become so cynical about their fellow countrymen that any election, however impeccably democratic, would be seen as no more than a choice as to who was to loot the treasury. The long-drawn politico-historical process of regionalism, statism and localism has led to a concentric pattern of seven ethnic and political cleavages in Nigeria: (i) between the North and the South; (ii) between the three majority ethnic groups; (iii) between these wazobia groups on the one hand, and the minority groups on the other; (iv) rivalry between states, sometimes within and sometimes between ethnic groups; (v) interethnic rivalry in a mixed state composed of minority groups of different strengths, or a segment of a majority ethnicity surrounded by minority groups; (vi) intraethnic or subethnic rivalry within each majority ethnic group, sometimes also corresponding to state boundaries and sometimes within a single state; (vii) and finally, interclan and intraclan rivalries, particularly in the southeast and the north-central parts of the country. The most politically significant cleavages on which this report concentrates are the first three. The country with the largest population in Africa appalls most visitors, and such is its ill fame that newspapermen would far rather cover any civil war in the world than spend a weekend in Lagos.

The aftermath of military quasi-democratic rule portrayed everything as being wrong. It is not even a geographical expression: it is merely a figment of a colonial cartographer’s imagination. This time, ethnic groups, though over two hundred and fifty dialects began to complain about oppression; potentially it was the next Yugoslavia, but fifty times as complex. Democracy is supposed to be a panacea for the neoconservatives and the liberals. Use of the popular will to choose leaders is supposed to result in wiser government and much preferred to any other form of government. Democracy and liberal government are supposed to be the universal aspiration of all mankind (and womankind). But reality is far from these pretty myths. The belief in myths about human nature does not make the world a better place, unfortunately, it appears that today, Nigeria is among the most corrupt countries on earth. Swindles of the most extravagant proportions are commonplace here; embezzlement is the highest form of art in Nigeria. The Niger Delta and its cities are pullulating and filthy; it is not uncommon to see dead bodies by the side of the road, bloated by decomposition and disregarded by passersby, awaiting disposal by vultures. Few services work, there are regular power cuts; the streets are nightmarish to negotiate.

Justice is a nightmare, and no one could be so naive as to expect any. The courts, though beefing up, recently settle matters strictly according to cash, and the prisons remain a byword for neglect. According to the Civil Liberties Organization, two thousand prisoners a year starved to death in Nigerian prisons and, having visited a Nigerian prison, it seemed certain. Even with charitable visitations from a local religious group, the overcrowded prisoners looked ill fed, and many were sick with tuberculosis. Some had been detained without trial for as long as ten years, not for political reasons but because their files had been lost, and no one wanted to set the dangerous precedent of releasing them without bribery. The windfall of oil revenues has encouraged the rise in corruption. In the approximately eight years Obasanjo (an ex-military person) has been in power, his government has received more than N175 trillion from oil and new debt recovery. Along with the increase in revenues has come a simultaneous reduction in transparency. For example, the nation-owned oil company (the NNPC) ceased publishing its consolidated annual financial statements openly and the past regime has created new own-run financial institutions, whose operations are also opaque, that spend funds at the discretion of the executive.

Corruption now permeates all levels of the nation’s society. Bureaucrats now rarely follow existing bidding regulations, and ordinary citizens must pay bribes to accomplish bureaucratic transactions and have to suffer rampant neglect of basic government services. All this has been encouraged by a general environment of impunity: officers implicated in major corruption scandals have sometimes been removed from their posts, but they have not otherwise been held legally accountable. The dramatic rise in corruption under Obasanjo was ironic since he came to power largely on an anti-corruption campaign platform. To truly fight corruption, the government needs to increase the transparency of its institutions and reduce its extensive involvement in the economy, something that has placed this nation among the least economically free countries in the world.Curiously enough, no prisoner complained of the injustice of it, and though many clamored for an improvement in their conditions, all were cheerful: since there was no possibility of justice, the existence of its opposite, injustice, did not seem to bother them.

Economic prospects look grim. Oil has been a curse to Nigeria, bringing enough money to corrupt the country, destroy its agriculture, and encourage expensive tastes and a get-rich-quick mentality, but not enough to provide everyone with a decent standard of living. When oil prices were at their peak, the president said Nigeria‘s problem with money was not how to get it, but how to spend it. Now that oil revenues have declined, and the importation of champagne has been prohibited as a symbol of the necessary national belt-tightening, pessimism about the country’s future is universal. Vast sums have been squandered or–at best–spent on real estate in London, and the country has been left without means of support. Its reputation as a sink of financial iniquity frightens off foreign investors. And its huge population grows inexorably.

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