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One-point agenda and the unexpected hero?
By Olanrewaju jimoh
Thursday, March 04, 2010

Nigeria turns 50 this year and we are, once again, at a crucial moment in the history of our beloved country. Unlike other times in our past, this moment is different because of one factor: luck or, should I say, Goodluck. The purpose of this article is to convince you that this is a God-given opportunity for us to change our direction as a nation.

Let us briefly examine other junctions we have been when Nigeria did not choose the right path (or you could say our leaders did not choose the right paths for us). In 1979, when Gen.Olusegun Obasanjo decided to hand over power to civilian government, the election was fraudulent and unfair. To add insult to injury, the day before the election, the erstwhile head of state Gen.Obasanjo said that Nigerians should not expect the most qualified candidate to emerge as president.

That same shabby electoral process was repeated four years later and shortly after, Generals Buhari and Idiagbon purged the country of a corrupt and ineffective government.

Fast forward to 1993 when Nigeria held the freest and fairest election ever on June 12. Even as a young boy, I had a feeling that my country was heading towards the right direction. But we blew it. The election was annulled by Gen Ibrahim Babangida and the rest is history. Even when one examines the elections of 1999, 2003 and 2007, the blatant flaws in the electoral process are largely to blame for the situation we find ourselves today.

People all over the world argue about our survival as one nation after 2015 mainly because of our inability to hold credible elections. I will spare you the usual tirade about all the other problems that plague us in Nigeria today. But why am I saying all of this?

We have just witnessed a divine intervention in Nigeria's politics. If you are a reflective and perceptive Nigerian, you will agree with me that nobody but the almighty could have designed the peculiar political stage in Nigeria today. I think God is giving Nigeria another chance and honestly, I don't know if we can afford to miss this one.

Let me further elucidate the situation as I see it. First of all, I wish President Umaru Musa-Yar'adua a speedy recovery and good health. I believe I speak for all Nigerians when I say that. That being said, we can all agree that a country like Nigeria needs a healthy and capable leader and we are glad that we now have an acting president in Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.

It is likely that Dr. Jonathan is perhaps the luckiest Nigerian ever. In 2005, he was only a Deputy Governor and now 5 years later, he is the Acting President. So, that's great for the Jonathan family but what does this mean for Nigeria? When previous examples of crucial junctions in our nation's history are compared with this one, the emergence of an unlikely player like Dr. Jonathan is the distinguishing factor.

Given the way the stage is set, it is likely that Dr. Jonathan will pick the right path for Nigeria and this is why I have hope. Firstly, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Jonathan's party, has a ticket rotation policy that rules him out of the 2011 elections. Though unreasonable as a policy, this might be the very reason it exists today. Secondly, since he did not actively strive to become president, his indebtedness to political Godfathers and vested interests is considerably limited (though not totally absent). Could it be that Nigeria's messiah has finally emerged from the same place as our crude oil, the gift and curse of our nation? Again, this depends on what actions he takes in the coming 18 months.

Eminent elders, led by Dr. Yakubu Gowon, have quickly advised the Acting President to shelve President Yar'adua's overly ambitious and now languishing 7 point agenda in favour of a more focused 4 point agenda. I commend their efforts and reasoning and I concur on the need for focus. In fact, I am calling for a more drastic one point agenda for the next 18 months. The agenda is electoral reform. This is the single most important problem in our nascent and threatened democracy. Now, I am not downplaying the importance of power, energy, and infrastructure but let's face it, even if Jonathan moves to Kainji dam and takes over the administration of PHCN himself, we will not attain 24-hour power supply in 18 months. Like energy, infrastructural developments are strategic initiatives that often take years of planning and judicious execution before materialization.

It is, therefore, necessary for a time-restricted presidency to focus on an electoral reform agenda which is achievable within 18 months and is also a critical precursor to the attainment of the other 3 or 6 points in the long run. But how much reform do we need?

We need a lot of reform and it cannot be half-baked. I agree with Prof. Wole Soyinka on the need to change INEC's leadership. Even more importantly, the organization needs to be restructured and strengthened. Increased accountability and transparency are going to be important in the new INEC. We need to invest in technology that can give us a 24-hour video monitoring of each ballot box/ballot station, including vote counting and other back door operations. We also need new election fraud penalties like long jail sentences and confiscation of property for politicians and election officials involved in malpractices.

I don't foresee any difficulties in deploying volunteer NYSC members to different polling stations. They can add manpower to a grossly understaffed INEC. We should even be prepared for worst case scenarios by having AU/UN peace-keeping forces complement the Nigerian Police force in dissuading political thugs from sabotaging the process in any and every way possible. Basically, what I am trying to say is that all hands must be on deck to protect the sanctity of our next elections so that the farce we played in the last three or four cycles is not repeated. I believe that only when politicians are truly elected by the people can the dividends of democracy be enjoyed by all.

That is when real leaders will emerge, that is when development will transpire, and that is when peace will reign. I will not pretend to be naïve about the immensity of the task ahead for the acting president Jonathan. There is no doubt that, in order to achieve the goal discussed above, he will have to ruffle some powerful feathers. This takes courage but as they say, 'No guts, No glory'. Indeed, it is ironic that he will face the greatest opposition from within his own party, the PDP. But as the de facto leader, electoral reform is probably the best thing he could do for the PDP.

It could force them to become better public servants as they will have to focus less on rigging and more on winning elections. Competition brings out the best in us and this rule applies to political parties too.

•Olanrewaju Jimoh writes from Duke Medical School, Durham, U S A

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