Periodic elections are a vital ingredient of the practice of Democracy all over the civilized world. One of the acclaimed benefits of the practice of Democracy is peaceful change of leadership via free and fair elections. Thus it is indisputable that sound electoral rules and practice are an indispensable element of democratic governance.
In a heterogeneous society like Nigeria having a Federal Constitution sound electoral rules that guarantee free and fair elections are vital to confidence of the peoples and components in the entire Federal polity and even the stability thereof. The Independence and impartiality of the operators of the electoral process is also of the greatest importance since the success or otherwise of any process, rules or game especially in a democratic society depends on the commitment of its operators to principles of independence transparency and fairness.
Hence such operators bear loyalty not to the Government in power (notwithstanding that it might have appointed them) but to the entire Nigerian Polity and Society. Thus an electoral process providing for mandatory obedience of electoral officials to direction or control or even orders of the ruling or incumbent government violates one of the basic tenets of Democracy. It must be noted that the practice of democracy has become subject of international discussion observation and prescription hence the prevalence of the practice of attendance of international election monitors in most democratic elections nowadays.
The Indisputable elements of a free and fair electoral system in a democratic setting can be briefly stated as follows:
1. The people must be active participants in effecting change of government by exercise of choice in elections.
2. Elections must be due at stated periodic intervals i.e.. Tenure of government must be fixed.
3. Provision should be made for contingent changes that may arise before elections are due e.g. bye-election and re-call.
4. Electoral body must be independent, have security of tenure and be non- partisan.
5. The process must be transparent (and observable).
6. It must be free and fair i.e. Universal Adult Suffrage for voting and clear rules of candidature.
7. There must be machinery for resolution of pre and post election disputes.
8. Fundamental and difficult issues of governance should be decided by referendum.
Free Elections constitutes and remains a major challenge to stability and democratic practice in almost all developing countries especially Nigeria. It is in the setting of developing countries that the imperfections of elections as a method of attaining power/ ruler-ship and of changing governments are most vivid. In the case of governments like the present Nigerian Government which emerged from a change or transition from Military dictatorship, it was always made clear by the vacating junta that compliance with the electoral norms adumbrated above was secondary to the imperative of the change.
In fact Nigeria’s Maximum Dictator Ibrahim Babangida (popularly known as “the evil genius”openly declared that “we know those we will not hand over power but we do not know those we will”. Notwithstanding his annulment of the 1993 election ALL (in and outside Nigeria) appreciated the compelling imperative of military disengagement from governance. Thus a cursory examination of the program and governing statutes applied by any typical military dictator forced to yield place to civilians through democratic election shows flagrant violation of some of the above tenets of democratic electoral practice.
Hence there is some justification for the declaration by some Nigerian Politicians that the military are incompetent to midwife democracy and that they should yield place to an Interim Civilian government that will be in power to superintend elections and other processes of transition from military to civilian rule. But the reality of life is that those in power are always sensitive to avoid handing over political power to their avowed political enemies. Hence the deliberate subtle manipulation of both the process and the personnel to ensure victory for their favored candidates at elections. The frequent claim to neutrality remains mere propaganda aimed at securing integrity for the process at least in the eagle eyes of the International Community.
It has therefore been observed that in Nigeria the 1999 General Elections merely signifies the commencement of transition to democratic Rule and is not the transition itself but was only condoned by democrats and all in order to avert further excuse of the Military to hang on to power. This is all the more obvious to any objective observer when the following observations concerning the 1999 Elections are noted:
1. The polity given birth to by the transition has been largely unstable.
2. Numerous Issues of vital importance were swept under the carpet by the vacating military junta e.g. census.
3. The majority of elected officials are military apologists or even retired military officers with anti-democratic corrupt or even criminal antecedents.
4. Deliberate efforts was made to conceal the antecedents (including educational qualifications) of those elected resulting in the emergence of mediocres, treasury looters military deserters, ex-convicts and anti-democracy / military apologists into vital national offices.
5. Free choice which is inherent in democratic practice is a mirage in any poverty ravaged disease ridden and largely illiterate populations like Nigerias’ hence the richest candidates (with few exceptions) won exemplifying the manipulative role of money in the electoral process.
6. There was subtle and patent dictation to the electoral body from the ruling junta and the word “Independent” was deliberately added in the name as a smoke screen to confuse unsuspecting International Observers.
7. The grievance resolution process established before and after the elections were deliberately rendered ineffective e.g. by publication of statute governing elections AFTER limitations and hearing periods for election disputes.
8. There was mandatory registration of political parties and no provision for independent candidatures. There is evidence in the case of Nigeria’s Abubakar 1999 elections that a party which fell short of registration guidelines was registered at the intervention of the incumbent government. N.B.The preponderant opinion seems to be that any and every party/person should be allowed participation in the process hence in 2003 all were allowed.
These remain blots on the practice of democracy in Nigeria but although some journalists have unwittingly introduced their wrong description of the Nigerian democracy as NASCENT it must be admitted that the preferred term of usage should be “fledgling” because democratic practice in Nigeria is as old (if not older) than the Nigerian State itself.
In our quest for a sound electoral process and in order to guarantee the integrity of future transition to a more stable polity the observed blots must be addressed. This is the crux of the challenge before the minority Nigerian elite today.
The blots were condoned during the 1999 elections because of the almost unanimous burning desire of Nigerians and the International Community to rid the military from governance but the inadequacies would certainly be a ready tool of attack by a loser on the integrity of any future elections. Hence the much published proposed review of the Electoral Law by Independent Electoral Commission is a timely and welcome effort.
It could be observed in retrospect that it was not so much the love of Nigerians and the Military for democracy but the total disenchantment of the entire Nigerian Society with Military rule and the brazen face of oppression of individuals and entities especially state-sponsored assassinations
, manipulation of electoral processes brazen corruption, tribal and religious discrimination and most importantly the Abacha agenda of self – succession that impelled the temporary alliance of the Nigerian Political elite to get rid of the military not particularly caring about the details of the process and the resulting imposition of military apologists (and retired military officers) and treasury looters as successors and beneficiaries of the new democratic order.
Little wonder the almost immediate violent expression of disenchantment with the polity and the very great disparity between the expectations of the masses and the actuality on the ground. Apart from freedom of expression (wrongly interpreted to encompass freedom to declare and propagate secession and disintegration) the Nigerian Masses are yet to point to much socio-economic gains brought about by the new civilian administration. Grinding poverty has remained endemic and abated partially by the Obasanjo Administration’s Poverty Reduction Programs like NEEDS but nothing equivalent at State and Local Government levels while the gap between the rich and the poor widens daily. The easiest index is the exchange rate of the Naira (Nigerian Currency) which has not been positively affected by the democratic changes .
There cannot be any reasonable expectation for sustenance of democracy in Nigeria in the short run unless certain fundamental matters are expressly addressed and agreed rather than assumed. The vocal Nigerian Political Elite has (perhaps wrongfully) refused to attribute permanence to the 1999 military-imposed constitution. Some are spoiling for a peaceful disintegration drawing strength and inspiration from analogy with the disintegration of the Soviet and Yugoslavia Republics.
Others prefer excision of the so-called core (desert) North as proposed by Gideon Orkar while others have declared secession although unable to actualize same. It has become obvious that the failure of Abubakar Administration to effect genuine forgiveness and reconciliation particularly the arrogance of the Northern-dominated Military who failed to pay reparations and otherwise assuage the hurt inflicted by them on the Southern peoples and institutions is s booby- trap to our fragile polity.
Obasanjo Regime’s rejection of the South African model of truth and Reconciliation and his set up of a debilitated Oputa Human Rights Violations Panel and the refusal of the Dictators i.e. Babangida and Abubakar to appear evidences the lack of remorse of the Military for their Human Rights atrocities and gross mis-rule. But there can be no restoration of confidence and genuine peace without reconciliation forgiveness and restitution.
The concession of presidency to a Southern-Christian doesn’t seem to constitute a total answer to the problem of power domination and stability. The deletion of the Rotational Presidency Clause from the Constitutional by Abubakar has further compounded the situation by fueling suspicion that the concession of power to the South is only temporary. Viewed along with the prospect that the populous Ibos of Southern Nigeria would continue to be excluded from Presidency, the fragility of the entire Nigerian Polity becomes more vivid.
The fact is that unlike Yakubu Gowon and Muhammadu Buhari, the Junta leaders – Babangida, Abacha and Abubakar – (also known as caliphate irredentists) frittered away Nigeria’s opportunity to pursue effect and sustain true Nationhood. Inspite of Democratic governance, this remains the real challenge of the Nigerian Polity and hence the National Question today. It is impracticable to expect Obasanjo (himself a retired Army General) to correct what his these Dictators have broken up, to heal the wounds inflicted in the hearts of Southerners by them and to transform the economy in a short time.
But neither Confederation nor disintegration seems to offer an attractive alternative and this fact constitutes the challenge before the Sovereign National Conference protagonists today. The urgent review of the 1999 Constitution by the National Assembly appears to offer a ray of hope for the sustenance of democracy and the commencement of the thorny road to Nationhood. The greatest resource for the review is the Report of the Government’s National Political Reform Conference although the input of private Nigerian Groups especially the Political Parties and individuals would be welcome.
It is now clear that the leadership of the civil society especially among the vocal Yorubas of the South allowed themselves to be lured by Abubakar into unconditional participation in his Transition program reneging on the earlier insistence on Sovereign National Conference. Elections, especially the Presidential Election, were conducted and contested under his faulty 1999 Constitution whose terms are so flagrantly disadvantageous to and unacceptable by the peoples of Nigeria hence the urgent need for Constitutional Amendment . In jettisoning Abacha’s Constitution, Abubakar probably threw away the baby with the birth-water!