Nigeria's 2011 Elections: Free but NOT fair!

by Ken "SKC" Ogbonnia

The 2011 elections have come and gone. Winners and losers have been declared-and members of the Judiciary are pungently salivating. The president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, has already offered a verdict. His closest rival, Muhammadu Buhari, has said his own. Both local and international bodies and leaders have also spoken. The man entrusted with the conduct of elections, the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Attahiru Jega, has provided insightful experiences. On balance, there is an overwhelming consensus that the elections show a great improvement from the recent past, credibility wise. But any attempt to herald the 2011elections as free and any fair begs for critical analysis and questions.

Free election can occur where the citizens are guaranteed the right and opportunity to choose their leaders. The concept includes, among other things, freedom of speech, assembly, and of association for the political parties, the candidates, voters as well as the news media and election monitors. For elections to be fair; first of all, besides the presence of a truly independent electoral commission, there must be clear adherence to rule of law, particularly electoral laws. There should be a level playing ground, equity, and transparency in all stages of the electoral process, including registration and membership of political parties, funding, access to news media, registration of voters, accreditation, collation, announcement or cancellation of results, and resolutions of disputes.

The 2011 elections can be considered free in the sense that there was a great deal of freedom in the overall conduct, including freedom of association and choice, which is perhaps the great improvement. Unfortunately, that freedom included the freedom to loot public treasury so as to fund elections. Candidates seeking elective offices also had the freedom to shamelessly compete for funds already stolen by ex-public officials and their cronies in the private sector. More relatively, this brand of freedom blatantly deepened by INEC created undue disparity in funding, with the ruling parties at the different levels of government unfairly taking advantage to the detriment of opposing parties.

The fact that the source and use of campaign money has been the root of Nigerian electoral woes as well as the endemic corruption is well documented in the global political encyclopedia. It is also a common knowledge that illegal use of money usually influences all manners of election-rigging, including thuggery, police brutality, inflation of votes, bribing of electoral agents, manipulation of electoral judges; and even non-implementation of public policies. Thus the most notorious shortfall of Nigerian immediate past elections was that, in spite of the fact that the 1999 Constitution and both the Electoral Acts of 2002 and 2006 stipulated specific guidelines for campaign finance and attendant penalties, neither Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’Adua, nor most other elected officials could account for the billions used in ferrying them to power. For this reason, it was imperative that any intended improvement by INEC should exhibit a good measure of control and probity for monitoring sources and uses of funds during elections. Instead, despite the uncountable money at its disposal in a country of overflowing human resources, the INEC Chairman, Attahiru Jega, had a fervent sanity to bluntly proclaim that, the “INEC does not even have a desk that handles campaign financing” for the 2011 elections (As quoted in Daily Trust, May 8, 2011). No one will take away the endearing enthusiasm of President Goodluck Jonathan or the famed integrity of Professor Attahiru Jega towards the conduct of the elections. And no person is claiming that the process of monitoring campaign funds will be easy in a cash-based economy. Or, do we dare compare this INEC by exhuming the mess of 2003 and 2007 polls? Please, NO! But the damning revelation by Jega that his organization patently ignored the most critical aspect of its responsibility is disingenuous–a leadership perfidy–and deserves wide condemnation.

In fact, the failings of INEC were evident from the events leading up to the primaries but it seemed that no one cared to notice. Of course, there have been some musings within the polity, with aggrieved parties occasionally hollering but yet to register any solid official complaint–either because of their own culpability or the truism that INEC had no plans to implement the relevant campaign laws. Even the Nigeria’s promising news media, which currently occupies a high temple in the world of free and sensational journalism, never seriously beamed its searchlight around sources and nature of campaign finance …As no one was categorically but authoritatively asking: How did President Goodluck Jonathan and his primary opponents, particularly ex-Military President Ibrahim Babangida, former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, and Governor Bukola Saraki fund their campaigns? Where did Jonathan and Atiku source the funds to openly “settle” the delegates who voted for them in the epic PDP presidential primary election? Finally, what are the implications when leaders are exposed to fund elections at all costs–without any qualms? That is, how did Jonathan, a man whose nature radiates civility and candor, eventually pay for his cross-country campaign and advertisement while his opponents were stalled to their regional enclaves? But wait a second…How in the world did well-celebrated Anti-Corruption crusader, a former Assistant Inspector General of Police, Nuhu Ribadu, suddenly land the money to offset his huge campaign bills? How on this earth did eminent moral interventionist, former Head of State Muhammadu Buhari (who has consistently claimed to have less than $1,000.00 in his Bank Account) generate the millions used in prosecuting his campaigns in Northern Nigeria?

Section 91 of the Electoral Act of 2010 is explicit on nature of campaign finance while Section 124 is specific with bribery and relative consequences. Why then was this INEC sitting idle by while huge gifts from politicians to traditional and religious leaders as well as electoral officials and helpless voters remained the most conspicuous characteristics of Nigeria’s election season? How come the INEC could not even attempt to enforce the extant laws, in face of ocean of evidence and witnesses? So, how can an election be free and fair, and what nature of democracy is to be expected, especially where there is lack of true competition or level playing ground among the major candidates? What manner of fairness is therein when some candidates had the ignoble opportunity of embezzling public money to influence elections, including the all-important party agents at the different elections and polling booths across the country while their opponents are systematically chained? Truth be told, Nigeria’s 2011 elections could be free but definitely NOT fair! In short, the only fairness that exists of the elections is one of gross infamy: The Jega led Electoral Commission was consistent in failing to probe any of the political parties or the candidates for the sources and use of funds committed to their respective electoral campaigns.

This unique form of freedom and fairness, which results to where individuals have undue access to public funds–to manipulate the electoral process–all at the expense of opponents is the major reason Nigerian polls are hardly associated with the universal phrase: free and fair election. Besides the many crude ways Nigerian politicians (especially the incumbents) usually deploy money during elections, imbalance in funding intrinsically subverts the competition component of democracy, which is central for free and fair election and, of course, effective national leadership. The continual failure to monitor campaign finance exposes leaders with good qualities and track record to compro

mise on their moral principles by soliciting funds through dishonorable means. It also explains why money instead of qualities of the leader typically determines Nigerian electoral outcomes, hence the history of corrupt leaderships.

In sum, yes, the Jega’s INEC is a great improvement but the inconceivable nonchalance towards campaign finance has grave consequences. Moving forward, the INEC should collaborate with Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and Central Bank of Nigeria to fully implement the Anti-Money Laundering laws. Further, apart from restructuring INEC to be truly independent, Nigeria should, without further delay, consider limiting the number of political parties to the barest competitive minimum, in context of Nigerian environment, specifically to a two-party system. With such concept in place, the country can as well experiment with full-public funding for candidates for elective offices. After all, most electoral expenses, by hook or by crook, are already borne out of unaccounted public funds. Political merchants and their apologists will surely counter with their usual American comparison, suggesting that money also influences electoral outcomes in the United States of America. Others can shift to the contentious issue of freedom in respect to limiting the number of political parties. All these are reasonable observations but there is more to know. In the first place, the American politicians do not brazenly steal public money to invest in individual campaigns. Besides approved public funds, candidates for elective offices in the United States can resort to money earned or inherited by them and, more commonly, funds they are able to raise legally from supporters based on the organizational abilities of the political parties or the individuals themselves. Importantly, as for the number of political parties; of course, freedom remains a vital driver of democracy but any application of freedom must be responsible and logical to be beneficial. The same Americans recognize this undeniable fact, as third parties are institutionally constrained and discouraged through stiff preconditions. And even the reigning doyen of Nigerian politics, the INEC Chairman, Attahiru Jega, who is also a senior advocate of multiplicity of political parties, has confessed that proliferation of parties contributed significantly to the undeniable failure to control campaign finance in 2011 elections.

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