Last week, representatives of Nigeria’s political parties and its electoral commission met in Abuja. At the end of a marathon meeting, Attahiru Jega of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced that the country’s general elections would be postponed by six weeks.
Trust Nigerians: reactions to the development fell along partisan lines. It had been clear for some time that President Goodluck Jonathan and his inner circle were desperate to reschedule the election, the reason being the failure of the incumbent president’s campaign to gain traction. So many of the president’s supporters—seeing an opportunity to re-set the clock, buy time, and re-strategize—took to justifying the postponement.
On the other hand, partisans of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) abominated the decision. For them, the decision represented a stealing of their party’s and presidential candidate’s momentum, a form of electoral heist, a veritable effort to subvert the will of their Nigerian electorate.
Other Nigerians opted to occupy the middle of a riven, contentious divide. Seeking to project themselves as realists, these “centrists” argued that there was simply no way the elections could have gone on the erstwhile timetable. Hundreds of thousands of voters had not received their permanent voters cards. Hundreds of thousands of voters in Nigeria’s terror-plagued northeast are displaced from their homes, living in shambolic refugee quarters within Nigeria and even in neighboring countries. Large swathes of territory in that zone of Nigeria are under the occupation of Boko Haram, or susceptible to capture by the group’s well-armed fighters. How hold elections as scheduled when those Nigerians caught under the “Caliphate” of Islamist insurgents are certain to be disenfranchised?
Whether one sees the postponement as justified or not, the implications of the development are far more troubling than the warring partisans on either side—and the ostensible realists—appear to realize or willing to admit. I’d suggest that the decision was, above all, a moment of national undressing. As the world looked on, Nigeria’s political class removed the mask their country has worn for so long. They exposed their and their country’s sordid underbelly. To borrow the fresh phrase of an uneducated, rustic Nigerian politician, “Everything has nakeded itself.”
There’s nothing more exasperating than to listen to Nigerians, especially public officials or their hirelings, who insist that our country is a coherent entity. These official apologists are quick to euphemize Nigeria’s myriad crises as mere teething problems. Yes, they have since retreated from the days of proclaiming their country the “giant of Africa,” but these custodians of an inflated national narrative are yet to come to terms with the reality that—to paraphrase Wole Soyinka—there’s no nation in the space called Nigeria.
A few days ago, a friend told me that the Nigerian elections needed to be postponed in order to avert the fulfillment of the prediction by some US intelligence experts that Nigeria could fracture by 2015. My response: the postponement of the elections is confirmation that Nigeria has already fallen to pieces. We who think there is an extant cohesive Nigeria are mere stubborn believers in a will-o-the wisp.
There’s no way to dissect the postponement to make it look good. If it’s the case that President Jonathan used his powers of incumbency to force the shifting of the date for elections, then we’re looking at a dire situation. In a settled—that is to say, ideologically and structurally sound—political community, no one man, however high his office, would be able to blackmail his way to a self-serving postponement of elections. In fact, if Nigeria were a nation, no one person or party would dare demand that elections be postponed to serve their selfish, partisan ends. Even the mere entertainment of the thought would spell doom for the person or political party.
Clearly, INEC was ill prepared for the elections. How else explain the commission’s failure to put voters cards in the hands of hundreds of thousands of eligible voters? This kind of deliberate ineptitude bespeaks the wretchedness of Nigeria as an idea and entity. It’s not as if INEC officials woke up two weeks ago and were told, surprise, surprise, to start planning elections. They knew as far back as four years ago—the last time Nigeria held general elections—that this election cycle would arrive. So why did the commission fail to do even the basic things? If Nigeria were a society where patriotic pride is part of the national tradition, where citizenship means something vital, Mr. Jega and his management would have tendered their letters of resignation en masse—and exited the INEC building in bowed, shamed heads. Their incompetence would have provoked outrage all around.
The displaced, disenfranchised voters of the northeast of Nigeria present a conundrum. Yet, to exploit their state to justify the postponement of elections is to enter into uncertain, dangerous territory. If these roaming refugees must be resettled in their homes before elections are to hold, then we might as well perpetually put off the elections. Nobody in Nigeria knows when our military would be able rise to the challenge of reclaiming the territories seized by Boko Haram. For that matter, nobody knows if that’s ever going to happen.
Let me suggest that Nigeria’s postponement of elections is not a new watermark of incompetence and failure. It is only our display to the world of the depths of our shamelessness, our mediocrity, and our lack of seriousness. Despite our politicians’ rhetoric, Nigeria is rotten through and through. And now we are exhibiting our grotesque sore to the rest of the world.
If anybody was in doubt that Nigeria is a contraption maintained to serve the greed of a few, I hope the sordid drama of elections has dispelled it. In the last two weeks, we have witnessed the ratcheting up of violent, partisan rhetoric on several sides. It’s all about which self-selected camp of Nigeria’s misruling class will preside over the looting of the country’s fast disappearing assets. They will sacrifice the lives of innocent Nigerians to serve their greed.
If elections can be easily postponed, why don’t Nigerians propose something even more radical? Why must we continue to support a Presidency whose annual feeding budget exceeds what’s spent on the education of students in several universities put together? Why must we keep paying each of our national legislators millions of dollars each year just so they can tell ministerial nominees to “bow and go”?
Let’s demand the dismantling of this awful edifice that’s been misnamed “democracy.” No, I am NOT calling for military rule—I am deeply opposed to that idea. Instead, for a period of at least two years, let’s put Nigeria in the hands of a caretaker group of technocrats nominated by students, workers, peasants, and professional groups. The caretaker group major task should be the refashioning of Nigeria. That would entail addressing broad issues (of citizenship and national ethos) as well as practical ones. There’s no justification for Nigeria to have full-time legislators. There’s no reason to have the most expansive immunity clause in the world. There’s no logic to handing millions of dollars each month to governors or the president in the name of security vote.