Nigeria: The Burden of a Lie

by Okey Ndibe

I have never been more afraid of Nigeria – afraid, that is, of the very idea of Nigeria – than in the past week or two. Until recently, I had retained residual hope in the prospect of the birth of a viable nation out of the space called Nigeria. I’m now – I must confess – filled with deep doubts.

Suddenly, or not so suddenly, some sections of Nigeria have once again become vast killing fields. Nigeria, always adept at degrading most of its populace, has become an entity that roasts its citizens as if they were cattle. And a Nigeria that presumes to have a government appears incapable of discharging the most basic function of a state: protecting the lives and property of citizens.

Nothing justifies the current bonfire and its consumption, once again, of youth corps members and other innocents who had little or no hand in making Nigeria a dreary, misshapen space. Nothing justifies it, but one cannot say that it was not foreseen. Violence, as Frantz Fanon pointed out long ago, can serve revolutionary ends. I am all for resisting hijackers of power, but the violence we’ve witnessed hardly rose to the level of a meaningful resistance. For the most part, the protesters turned their fury on innocent victims. They killed indiscriminately and wreaked havoc on private businesses. This species of violence was not informed by any revolutionary ethos.

It was gratuitous and hysterical, but should be understood as the culmination and production of a series of lies and corrupt acts – even evidence of an incoherent state. Ultimately, a Nigerian state whose machinery, instead of uplifting its populace, degrades and dehumanizes a majority of its citizens, both fertilized and incubated the violence.

This is a season, alas, when Nigeria’s manifold contradictions have bubbled to the surface all at once. Instead of revealing the promise of cohesion, Nigeria has never looked more like a map of two or more irreconcilable nations, two mutually antagonistic sectarian tents.

In February, I told a forum at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC that Nigeria resembled a space organized for and by a small group of criminal elements who pose as leaders. I suggested that this cabal always hijacks power for its self-aggrandizement – and to prey on the impoverished majority. I spoke with the current elections in view. My talk reflected my profound misgivings about the way that Nigeria had saddled itself with an inexcusably expensive electoral system. The price tag struck me as indefensible. Even so, my larger concern was this sneaking fear that the system was not invulnerable to manipulation.

Johns Hopkins had also invited Dimieari von Kemedi, an aide to Goodluck Jonathan, to speak at the forum. He sounded rather upbeat in his assessment of the (then) forthcoming elections. Trumpeting the virtues of the biometric data technology that was utilized in voter registration, he insisted that the 2011 elections would be virtually impossible to rig.

In an interview after our talk with a reporter from the Voice of America, I stated my fervent hope that I would be proved wrong in my dire prognosis. I very much wanted Dimieari’s optimistic account to emerge as the savvier, more perceptive narrative.

Today, in the aftermath of the presidential elections, what surprises is not that von Kemedi’s prediction of credible elections came to pass – it didn’t. The astonishment is how a large swath of the nation’s youth and elite have embraced and propagated a lie.

Let’s give credit: Attahiru Jega, thank God, is no Maurice Iwu. From the outset, Mr. Jega’s body language and actions bespoke a desire and determination to conduct a series of elections that would stand up to scrutiny. But it takes more than one man’s will to achieve such a lofty goal.

What transpired in some parts of Nigeria during the presidential elections revealed the ease with which politicians – and one must point especially at the ruling party – could rape a supposedly impregnable system. Doubtless, the presidential polls were conducted reasonably well in some parts of the country, especially in the southwest. However, the southeast and south-south became arenas for the rawest, most unintelligent form of electoral fraud. In these areas, agents representing opposition candidates were either intimidated or coaxed with cash to acquiesce in the stuffing of ballots for Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP.

Would Mr. Jonathan have won in these states? I’d say in all likelihood. Would he have won close to a hundred percent of the votes? I’d say far from it. That Jonathan’s operatives – among them southeast and south-south governors – saw fit to stage this manner of rigging spree speaks volumes about their disdain both for the Nigerian people as well as INEC’s biometric technology. Mr. Jonathan’s scandalous margin of victory suggests that a herd mentality (a desire by everybody to vote in the same way) exists in the southeast and south-south. That’s a lie manufactured by a herd of gubernatorial riggers.

Once again, the familiar refrain from those who admit that the elections were massively manipulated in certain parts of the country, is that Mr. Jonathan would have won all the same had the process been credible. It’s a maddening, illogical argument. And the simple retort is, Why choose to steal an election you’re confident of winning in a fair, transparent process?

The presidential election did not only demystify “biometrics,” it also exposed something even more disturbing – the willingness of Nigeria’s academic elite to be tools for their country’s destruction. In much of the southeast and south-south, lecturers and professors served as returning officers. Yet, these supposedly enlightened citizens became excited and shameless participants in ballot inflation and falsification. They did so in the name of some consensus to return Mr. Jonathan. If such a consensus existed, why not simply permit citizens to actualize it by voting their consciences?

Another fashionable argument is that all parties rigged. To buttress that point, some point to the incidence of child voters in many northern states. Indeed, to the extent that they were able to, it may well be true that all parties rigged, or tried to.

Yet, this conventional wisdom – that every party rigs – begs several questions. One is: Is there any system in the world that can remove or minimize fraud from the equation of Nigerian elections? If the answer is yes, why don’t we find and adopt it? If no, then don’t we need to rethink the huge investment in a technology that is, ultimately, a false promise? Why did we have to go biometric, with all its huge price tag, if it was not going to dissuade ballot stuffing? Did we have to spend so much money on a system that could not guarantee sound elections?

One must insist, however, that there is rigging and there is rigging. Truth be told, the president and ruling party bring the police, secret service agents, even soldiers to bear on their rigging. With little or no access to these agents of the state, opposition candidates can hardly muster any rigging power to match the ruling party’s. Besides, the sitting president has unfettered access to cash – from visible and not-so-visible sources – to enable him to buy up votes and to mobilize an army of riggers. In a country where the man at the helm answers to no one, the temptation to dip hands in public funds in order to finance an election is as real as the opportunity is present.

There’s no question that the 2011 elections are better, much better than the impunity that Mr. Iwu conflated in 2007. But are they as credible and transparent as the nation’s investment warrants? Has the biometric technology chastened the riggers among us? Would the judicia

ry have the spine to judge electoral disputes on their merits rather than on the weight of the biggest bribe?

Until we admit the scale of fraud committed in the name of achieving a questionable consensus, we are bound to learn the wrong lessons – and to encourage worse forms of usurpation today and in the future. Many people, for example, expect many PDP governors to lose in today’s elections. They don’t realize that a governor who illicitly secured 99% for Mr. Jonathan is likely to use the same fraudulent means to get himself re-elected as well – with, at the very least, 80% of the votes.

Since Mr. Jonathan’s tainted victory, a sector of the Nigerian youth on cyberworld has been giddy with exultation. Overnight, Mr. Jonathan has been elevated in some quarters as the very embodiment of Nigeria’s renaissance. The youth vanguard that champions Jonathan often leaves the impression that nothing less than a messiah is come.

My suspicion is that much of this excitement is based on a profound illusion, a lie. Perhaps these boisterous youths believe they elected Jonathan. The man, I suspect, knows that he was chosen by a handful of trusted “stakeholders.” Is Jonathan’s “victory” a purely personal one, or is it a victory for Nigeria? For it to be a Nigerian triumph, then Nigerians have to see it as reflecting their deepest aspirations.

For those who labor under the illusion that they own Mr. Jonathan, it would be wise to take a look at the “Kodak” moment when the man was proclaimed “president-elect.” They’d see a beaming Tony Anenih (yes, Mr. Fix-it himself), but there’s not a single young person in the picture. Go figure!

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1 comment

Rotimi May 1, 2011 - 9:11 pm

We’ve brought a tiger home. Now we have to live with it. And why did we do this – because even whist trumpeting our education, we remain as tribal-minded and religiously fanatics as the basest of the animals who turned on innocents to vent their fury at being cheated of the right to decide by a simple “one man, one vote” model


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