2011 ELECTIONS: REDRESSING THE PAST, ADDRESSING THE FUTURE
Last Saturday's legislative elections, imperfect as they were, served to correct certain myths about Nigerians. Before the elections, the conventional wisdom was that Nigerians were somehow incapable of making rational political choices. As I write, the full certified results were yet to be released, but there was no question that the electorate took seriously its duty to choose the stewards of their affairs. Nigerian voters rebuked and corrected the thinking that they were blinded simpletons whose choices are dictated by primordial considerations.
The highlights of the elections were as instructive as the headlines were telling. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo and his beloved daughter, Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello, were roundly thrashed in their ward. The voters in Aso Rock, Goodluck Jonathan's official residential address, rejected him and his wife's 'umblerra.' Then Mr. Jonathan got a double whammy of humiliation when the voters in his home state of Bayelsa appeared fascinated by the rival Labor Party. Namadi Sambo, who's Mr. Jonathan's sidekick, was similarly crushed in his own ward. The Peoples Democratic Party, which had snatched the south west in the do-or-die elections of 2007, was losing virtually all its ground in the zone. Among the victims was Speaker Dimeji Bankole, a youthful, well-spoken politician who betrayed all expectations of legislative sagacity - becoming as wretched a legislative leader as the worst of them.
As I noted above, the elections were far from stellar. The violence that claimed many lives in Niger, Borno, Bayelsa and Delta States proved that too many political aspirants are still beholden to the perception that elections are a do-or-die - or, even, do-and-die - business. Besides, there were reports of apparent suppression of votes in various parts of the country where polling booths were moved without notice, result sheets arrived late, ballot papers were inadequate, or voters simply couldn't see their names on the registers. These are serious impediments.
They raise the question whether Nigerians, who have invested stupendous funds in these elections, ought to be satisfied with a process in which many are disenfranchised - or loopholes created for unrepentant riggers.
Still, it's a mark of what Nigerians have been through in the last twelve years that many are close to ecstatic about Attahiru Jega's first national outing. And Mr. Jega deserves to be given his due. The crisis at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will take more than one man to solve it. A situation where many electoral officials rent themselves out to riggers, the plague is a deep, institutional one. Even so, the man at the helm at INEC has demonstrated that there's a substantial difference between Jega and (Maurice) Iwu. In 2007, Mr. Iwu revealed himself as a veritable contradiction, adept at speaking about his readiness to 'die for Nigeria,' but unable to show a modicum of courage where it counted: in delivering elections that boasted a modicum of credibility.
By contrast, Mr. Jega has established different atmospherics and standards of conduct. Here's a man who appears driven to do the right thing, even if he's sometimes incapable of plugging the holes that rogue politicians love to exploit.
Some Nigerians would be tempted to view the trend of significant repudiation of the misruling PDP as evidence of the maturation, the coming of age, of the Nigerian voter. That would be a profound misreading.
One has always argued that the average Nigerian voter is capable of exercising his civic duty with responsibility and prudence. Yes, she may accept cash gifts from corrupt candidates and sing their praises in public. Yet, once in the privacy of the polling booth, she is highly likely to discriminate between those out to hijack the public treasury and those who hold out the promise of serving the public. No question, there will always be people who go out to vote for candidates who share their ethnic or religious affiliation. But this kind of voter, I have always insisted, is in the minority.
If some are surprised at all at the PDP's huge reverses in last Saturday's elections, it's because they had ingested the lie that the party won the 2003 and 2007 elections. In fact, the PDP's ostensible victories in the two past elections amounted to coups against the Nigerian people. Let's be clear: The PDP would long have disappeared from Nigeria's political map had the elections of 2003 and 2007 not become classic exercises in electoral fraud.
In 2003, a widely despised Obasanjo deployed the police, the nation's military might, and corrupt electoral officials to thwart the will of the Nigerian people. He and his party 'conquered' and took any state that caught their fancy. Then, in 2007, having failed in his bid to tinker with the constitution in order to steal a third term, a vindictive Mr. Obasanjo decided to saddle Nigeria with a dying Umaru Yar'Adua and a morally befuddled Jonathan. Mr. Iwu's INEC allocated more than 70 percent of the presidential votes to the duo, yet, apart from a few spots in Katsina and Mr. Obasanjo's Otta Farm, there was no evidence of jubilation.
I recall being scolded by some faceless and shameless Internet attackers for insisting that Yar'Adua and Jonathan were politically undesirable and damaged goods, hobbled by illegitimacy. One man sent abusive e-mails calling me 'naÃ¯ve' and 'politically illiterate' if I believed that the PDP, with all its line-up of 'stakeholders,' could have lost the 2007 elections. Another correspondent, who held an appointive office at the Presidency, advanced the same argument, albeit in more temperate language. In e-mails to me, this man was willing to concede that the elections were flawed. Even so, he contended that the PDP would still have won handily if the process had been credible.
It always puzzled me how some of Nigeria's educated elite nevertheless seemed capable of mistaking such hollow claims as persuasive argument. To begin with, the PDP's whole vocabulary and cult of 'stakeholders' established its disconnection from the Nigerian people. Properly understood, each and every Nigerian is a stakeholder in his country. Instead of this expansive view, the PDP would gather some of the nation's worst thieves, scoundrels and ragamuffins and pronounce them stakeholders. With that brand of stakeholders, is it any mystery that Nigeria is in dismal shape - and getting worse?
It's curious that a party in power would rig an election - and then rush to declare that it would have won, at any rate, in a transparent process. If you're confident of winning in a clean contest, then the act of rigging constitutes a particularly perverse form of disdain for the voter. If you know that a friend would freely and happily give you money if you asked, then your decision to steal the cash instead would indicate a pathological condition. Why steal what you can obtain legitimately?
One suspects that Nigerians' vigilance in last Saturday's elections had to do, on some level, with their profound distrust of the judiciary. One of the lowest points since the take-off of Nigeria's current 'nascent' democracy is the conspicuously unimpressive role played by the judiciary. With the exception of a courageous and principled few in their ranks, most Nigerian judges have been far from alert to their mandate to uphold the sovereignty of the Nigerian electorate. Thanks to wikileaks, we're now all too enlightened about the perfidy and corruption of many among the Supreme Court justices. Speaker Bankole reportedly confided in American diplomats that the apex court upheld Yar'Adua's 2007 'election' in exchange for cash. Nigerians have said to these unscrupulous justices: 'Shame on you!'
Assuming that Mr. Jega and INEC improve on last Saturday's showing, the current set of elections promises to inaugurate an evolutionary process in the country's political life. Here's what I mean. Whilst the 2003 and 2007 elections actually enthroned progressively more retrograde politicians, this year's is the first time that Nigeria is likely to witness a qualitative improvement in the moral and intellectual caliber of men and women elected into various offices. If the pattern holds, then we can expect to see, in 2015, political campaigns that engage with issues, not such empty and worn platitudes as 'delivering the dividends of democracy' and 'moving the nation forward.'
With the current elections, Nigerians seem determined, finally, to respond to past transgressions as well as dream a different future. For those who once tried to sell the booboo that Mr. Obasanjo was some kind of modernizing force, or that he commanded wide affection among Nigerians, last Saturday served as a decisive corrective. As I have said countless times, Mr. Obasanjo is one of the greatest political frauds ever to pollute the Nigerian space. A self-styled founder of modern Nigeria, he epitomizes the impunity that has so far marred Nigeria's democratic aspirations. By obliterating his daughter's political career, the voters in his immediate neighborhood have sent him a clear message on behalf of the rest of us. They have unmasked the walking, mischievous, unrepentant factory of disaster that he is. And in enacting a stern rejection of the man and his political progeny, perhaps Nigerians have made a symbolic down payment on a future shaped by different, more purposive leaders.