2011: Political Behaviour & The Future Of Elections In Nigeria

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Champion Newspapers, in the two decades that it has been in existence, has through various means, given abundant expression to its high sense of social responsibility, even temperament and concern for the state of our nation.

For more than half of the years the publishing house has been in business, it has added further value to the society by hosting the annual Better Society Lecture series, an intellectual platform the primary essence of which is succinctly captured in its name.

Through the years that it has run, the Better Society Lecture series has featured an array of respected Nigerians as lead speakers, each discussing the prospects of our society from a chosen perspective, all pointing the way to a better Nigeria, the Nigeria of our dreams.

I am honoured to be invited to speak at this prominent forum. My appreciation goes to the Board and Management of Champion Newspapers Limited, not just for honouring me with the invitation to speak at this conference, but for initiating and sustaining this important forum for periodic examination of the state of our collective being, while searching for means to a better future.

I am particularly thrilled by the topic of this year's lecture. It seeks to resuscitate a critical issue which ought to be at the heart of our quest for a better political climate and process, but which has been deftly pushed almost out of attention. This, of course, has not been by chance.

Someone once made a light hearted reference to Kano as a state with a political philosophy that is at once progressive and simplistic to a fault. As the story was told, every time an election came around in Kano, the people of the state had been indoctrinated to hold up a simple slogan which curiously influenced the voting pattern of many. The slogan was brief; Change!

Since you can only change what is in existence, the person who bore the brunt of the abiding slogan and inclination for change was always an incumbent elected official. It didn't matter what he did or did not do. The beneficiary was, of course, the challenger who was not yet known. He invariably represented change, until the next time around.

As it turned out, very few among those who chanted 'change' and often voted for change ever pulsed to ask why and if change was necessary. For all the people knew, change was progress. It was progressive. And so the state continued to have change. It continued to have one term chief executives. Well, until recently.

May be there was a little bit of over simplification in the story of the abiding inclination of the voters in Kano for change. In recent times however, something about the common chant in the national media has become very reminiscent of the fabled slogan in Kano. These days, a discussion about politics and the state of our union cannot be on if the subject is not electoral reform.

A politician whose track record in electoral recklessness is well known takes a public podium to speak and without qualms he proclaims with a straight face that the electoral system has gone terribly bad and the answer lies in nothing else but electoral reform.

Another one, a party leader who runs his political party like a fiefdom and shows gross disdain for democratic norms takes his own public stand and what does he say? 'Democracy in Nigeria is doomed unless there is electoral reform'.

Yet another one, an active participant in the national politics who never plays by the rules and goes to all extents in his bid to corrupt election administrators, buys up a chunk of the media space, hires as many writers as are available and launches an assault on the integrity of the officials he never stopped trying to compromise. For good measures, this fellow now proclaims in his new deceptive wholesomeness that the electoral system is corrupt and must be reformed or there will be no progress.

The refrain has been picked up across the land and goes on and on. 'On electoral reform we stand'. Good music, but you cannot honestly and effectively be standing on electoral reform if you are at the same time sitting on your political party as a personal stool. Very few people are pulsing to ask; what or who exactly do we need to reform in our electoral process to make it more wholesome? But that is a key question.

The reality that much of the chant of electoral reform in recent times has become more of a subterfuge, a coordinated attempt to hoodwink the society and turn the light away from where the light needs to be beamed in terms of enhancing the electoral process once more presents a serious challenge to Nigeria in its effort to strengthen and straighten the weak ends of a crucial aspect of its national life.

The topic of this lecture is in itself therefore, very reformative. It is indeed, a tribute to Champion Newspapers; a reflection of a characteristic discerning spirit that has continued to inhabit its corporate leadership.

It is instructive that in the overflow of the pitch for electoral reform that presently dominate both the media space and most arena of political discussion in the land, many of them sponsored by the way, not many people have stepped out of the box to look intently at most of the those loudly championing the campaign. Basic questions need to be asked; what is at the root of the problems of Nigeria's political process? What is the antecedent of many among the new corps of election reform cheer leaders?

It is pertinent to raise these issues, for in the words of Tom Nairn, the historian and critic of the New Left Review; “revolution must be conceived with a new cohesion and a new radicalism, starting with a clear grasp of the failure of those who first began it, otherwise its fragmentary realization will bring about only a new division in the society”[1]

There is no doubt that Nigeria's electoral process needs reforming. All those who sincerely seek that equity must however come to it with clean hands. Unfortunately, that is not the case at the moment. This is a clear threat to the prospect of any useful outcome of the present varied attempts to institute reforms in the electoral process.

The problems that have dogged Nigeria's elections over the years have remained more or less, constant. There is virtually nothing recent or new about them. These are problems steeped in personal indiscipline and inordinate ambition. In the poignant words in The Letter of St. James in the New Testament; “You desire and do not have, so you kill. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and wage war…”[2]

This, in a nutshell is the root of the basic problem of Nigeria's political and electoral processes. It is anchored in individual tendencies and behaviours that are substantially at variance with the norms and values that obtain in a healthy democracy. Every other problem of Nigeria's electoral system derives either substantially or tangentially there from or is inextricably linked to acts of indiscretion by participants in the process.

It is a fact that conflict between ancient traditional practices and the dictates of modernity in patterns of behaviour and values constitutes a strain to democratic practices and processes in emerging democracies such as Nigeria. Unfortunately, this conflict is steadily stoked, reinforced and exploited by individuals who keep swinging between being modern and being traditional, depending on the political calculation of each moment.

The pull of traditionalism and the benefits derived by some individuals from subscribing to it presents a no mean challenge to the democratic process. For instance, the concept of the African big man - a lord whose word is law and to whom all those around him must bow - has remained a potent threat to democracy and its attendant activities such as the electoral process.

When, an individual exists, as is still found these days, who single-handedly picks all candidates for a political party in all elections, the views and preferences of majority of the party members notwithstanding, the grief for democracy becomes apparent. The exclusion of a very large segment of any society from governance and decision making that affects their lives can only lead to social disharmony. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said : “There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society, with a large segment of that society who feels that they have no stake in it, who feels that they have nothing to lose. People, who have a stake in their society, protect that society, but when they don't have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it … ..”

And as it turns out most often, where ever one African big man or godfather or leader holds sway in a political setting, smaller and pocket godfathers thrive down the line, all thwarting compliance to democratic norms and personifying every other thing but that which democracy stands for. Thus it is as Mathew Hassan Kukah had noted that Nigeria's “political space is sometimes a pantheon inhabited by deities of various shapes, sizes, persuasions or tongues”[3].

For these autocratic democrats, elections must be won at all cost. Every weapon - money, influence, intimidation, blackmail, media assault and physical violence, exists to be deployed to ensure that the big man is not digraced in an electoral contest. Disgraced, that is how losing an election is seen in the context of the big man. These are democrats who in Kukah's words, “can only take responsibility for winning, but not for losing”[4]

Not surprisingly therefore, every election result in such a society inhabited by these tin gods of various shapes and size of pocket must be challenged to the highest available court in the land. It has to be so, considering that a big man is not expected to lose. Not with all his money. Not with his influence and surely not with his power. More often than not, popularity and ability to persuade the electorate is not considered a crucial ingredient necessary for a god father and his anointed candidate to win.

It is worth noting that “the only election in the country that ended without its result being challenged was the 1959 Federal election which preceded independence in 1960. That election was directly supervised by Britain, (then) the colonial power”[5]

Ever since then in 1959, Nigeria's electoral process has evolved in fits and spurts, with characteristics that reflect the experiences and inclination of the people. Of the experiences that have intervened through these years in shaping the political tendencies and behaviour in the society, military rule, of course stands as the historical incident with the most telling impact.

Prolonged military rule not only reinforced the syndrome of the African big man, it displaced most of the extant values and order in place then, introduced its own pace and mindset and then raised a crop of new rich who believed absolutely in the power of their money not only to speak for them, but also to buy for them everything and anything, including compliance with the laws of the land. Ten years after the exit of the military, the impact of their rule still lingers in our society and can easily be found within the political parties, where officials of prime democratic institutions often manifest very uncommon contempt for democratic principles and resist even compliance with their own rules.

The prevailing predominant political behaviour within the Nigerian society has been at best a serious challenge to the advancement of democracy. So much is held up at the moment in terms of values and conduct within the society which is at variance with a regime of unfettered democracy. Indeed, the foundation of the problems of Nigeria's electoral process for which far reaching reforms have been commonly accepted as panacea is located primarily in political behaviours and proclivities that are far less at variance with the norms and values that obtain in a healthy democracy

The accomplishment of the 2007 general elections which many of its critics fail to grasp is located not in the flawlessness of the process as with its overcoming monumental impediments that could so easily have marred the elections. “It is true that at some critical junctures along the process of preparing for the (2007) elections, it was not quite certain if the contending sides to the polls were still committed to the scheduled polls”[6]

Every cycle of national elections exposes the inherent problems and danger of the predominant political behaviour in the Nigerian society. The 2007 elections experienced some of the most harrowing aspects of these tendencies. Among the troubling features of the prevailing political behaviour and tendencies are lack of underpinning ideologies and principles by parties and individuals.

Contemporary Nigerian politics seems so obviously to have little or no room for firm belief in anything beyond the pursuit of personal ambition. The room for treachery in this setting is therefore, vast. And when the chips are down, not many can be counted upon not to betray even the common interest. This is a grave problem for the growth of the electoral process and the state.

A predominant political behaviour that shows very minimal interest in the fortification and sustenance of institutions of the state is also a major problem for the society. Alas, this is presently the case with Nigeria.

The attempts variously made in 2007 to get the leadership of the Independent National Electoral Commission to postpone the elections reflected a grave undermining of the fabric of state stability which those who were involved did not seem to appreciate or were ready to sacrifice for personal gain.

Until Nigerians, both the leaders and the led begin to appreciate that a whimsical shift in set national dates or rules corrodes the very foundation of order in the society, the stability of the country will remain tenuous. The predominant political behviour in the country at the moment services expediency to the detriment of enduring values. This is a threat not just to future elections and the electoral process in the country, but also to the nation as a whole.

As we are once again faced with the political situation in Anambra state, many have expressed their displeasure with the pre-election process in that state. While I concede that there may be some peculiarities with what is going on there, the broad framework of the politics of Anambra state is typical of Nigerian politics. As it was in Anambra in 1999 so was it in 2003,so was it in 2007 and so will it be in 2010.There is no reason to lose sleep.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with many candidates vying for a single elective position as long as the initial selection within the party and subsequent election follow democratic norms and the rule of law. Anambra has caught our attention and comments only because its election is isolated, so was Kogi, so was Bayelsa, so was Ekiti, and the other states in their own peculiarities and typicality of the Nigerian electoral environment. I thank God for the grace of having the courage to ask: was the electoral system or INEC that was responsible for what ever perceived failure that people are talking about?

By far the most serious challenge to the nation and the electoral process as 2011 draws nearer is the frightening extent to which some people go in the name of political activism to undermine their country simply because they have not got what they believe is due to them.

The easy recourse to externalization of otherwise internal affairs including elections and their outcome; the mindlessness of hailing and holding up every report that puts down one's nation; the persistent expression of self doubt in all things Nigerian and the consistent promotion of views that disparage all things Nigerian constitute potent threats not just to future elections but to the future of Nigeria.

After ten years of uninterrupted democracy, and with the 2007 elections having removed the jinx of transition from one elected government to another, this is the time for consolidation. The present efforts to reform the electoral process offers a great opportunity for the nation to look at its political and electoral processes with sobriety and candour, but not with fear or under threat.

There is so much that yearns for attention and change in the electoral system. It is doubtful however, that much good can be achieved if the pitch for electoral reform is seized as some politicians are strenuously attempting to do, and turned into a campaign slogan, propelled by threats of what will befall the nation if particular trajectories are not followed. There is no basis for fear to be foisted on the nation in the name of promoting electoral reform.

What the present time calls for is reasoning and incisiveness in views as well as pursuit of national cohesion, not promotion of fear about the future of the nation. There is no basis for that. The danger in promoting fear as Nobel Laureate and former United States of America's Vice President Al Gore once wrote, is that “when fear displaces reason, the result is often irrational hatred and division”[7]. The nation does not need those.

Permit me at this juncture to quote at a reasonable length from a submission I made to the Senate Committee on the review of the 1999 Constitution earlier this month; “The fundamental difficulties of the electoral process in our society can be located in the attitude of individuals and groups as well in certain unwholesome practices which have over time become almost a part of our political culture. It is instructive that in discussing electoral reforms today very little or nothing at all is said of these issues.

“When all is said and done, the core problems of elections in our society are; electoral violence, indiscipline and crisis in political parties, excessive use of money in politics, warped mindset about elections and last but not the least the inequity in gender participation in national politics”[8]

Of course there are the issues of financial autonomy of the electoral commission, necessary adjustment in parts of the legal framework guiding the electoral process, matters of logistics[9] and few other constitutional areas that deserve attention within the body of the reform of the electoral system. Still, the reality remains that much of what ails Nigeria's electoral process is the human factor. This is where meaningful reform of the electoral system ought to start.

Every round of general elections in Nigeria comes with some nervousness and restrained expectations. Almost always, there are warnings too, from those who take on the duty of alerting the nation that the very election in focus may mark the end of the nation if care is not taken. Almost always too, the nation succeeds in taking just enough care to go through the elections and remain in intact. So shall it be with 2011.

The prospects for future elections in Nigeria are remarkably bright. It bears stating at once though, that it is up to Nigerians what to make of the future of their electoral process. At INEC, we have established The Electoral Institute to propagate voter education and enlightenment. The change of attitude and behavioural pattern that is required to enhance our political and electoral processes is however, beyond what an institute can offer. The choice is our hands, individually and collectively.

The Commission has initiated other far reaching institutional, organizational and procedural reforms since 2005. These include the introduction of the electronic voters register - a dynamic system that has put behind Nigerians the rather strenuous practice of the whole country queuing up for a few weeks just to register to vote in elections; the introduction before the 2007 elections of the Political Party Finance Manual, a publication which introduced a certain order and accountability in the management of political party finances; the abolition of the pre-2008 policy in which most ad hoc staff were recruited literally from the streets to help conduct elections and the incorporation of the members of the National Youth Service Corps as a critical part of election personnel in the country; the introduction of counting, announcing and public display of election results at the polling units; decentralization of the electoral logistics and material handling; the customization of the ballot papers; and the increased transparency of the entire electoral process with the use of broad based election monitoring and observation board. All these changes depend on human beings to be effective.

If we are sincere and faithful in the pursuit of the ideals of democracy and a better society, we will move with resoluteness to make the appropriate changes. These will not be driven by the very elements that personify the burden we are searching for how to drop. If indeed, there is seriousness and proper understanding by the majority of their true interest, there will be caused to be built a system and a future that will be more egalitarian and less concerned with serving the interest of few oligarchs. That is not only a task that must be accomplished for democracy to thrive in our land, it will be a major stride in propelling us into a better society.

Thank you all and God bless Nigeria.
Prof. Maurice M. Iwu
Hon. Chairman, INEC

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