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It’s been a long while since Nigerians had a reason to be optimistic and joyful about their country, may be the last time was when Nigeria won an international soccer trophy, soccer being an undisguised source of collective excitement. Each day in the country is taken up by tales of woe and misery, worrisome reports of abductions, state failure, collapse of infrastructure, sectarian violence, corruption in high and low places, mass emigrations and widespread cynicism. When the country celebrated its 50th independence anniversary in October 2010, the national ceremony in Abuja was abbreviated by sounds of bomb explosions. When the country embarked on the process of another general election, there was so much concern, expressed locally and internationally, that the elections would take Nigeria to the edge of the precipice.

Today, the country has more or less concluded election 2011, and although there was an outbreak of violence in the 12 Northern states over the outcome of the Presidential election of April 16, reports of election malpractices, protests about results in Ika North, Anambra Central, Plateau state, pre-election tension in Akwa Ibom, “an inconclusive” Gubernatorial election in Imo state, and the heavy deployment of soldiers in the North, Delta state and Oyo state, the pervasive impression is that election 2011 is a vast improvement on previous elections in Nigeria.

It is the same electoral commission which organized the 2007 general elections which were described as the worst in Nigerian history that has more or less organized election 2011: the only thing that has changed is the leadership of the Commission and the leadership of the country. Professor Attahiru Jega and President Goodluck Jonathan deserve to be commended for leading a process of which it may be said that Nigeria has broken the jinx of failed elections. The international community has been warm in its praise, and election monitors and observers have been similarly generous. With election 2011, Nigerians may no longer be reminded of how their Ghanaian neighbours are better managers of electoral processes. In his pre-election speech titled “We can’t afford to fail”, Prof Jega told Nigerians: “we must not fail and we must get it right.” The first part of that promise has been well kept, but did we entirely get it right?

Election 2011 provides us a basis to realize that there is a lot of work to be done with regard to electoral framework, the strengthening of institutions for election management, overall electoral reform and the transformation of political culture. The elections for example, exposed the fragility of the Nigerian union, the problematic national question, and how so little progress has been made in making Nigeria, a united nation; this remains all said and done, a terribly disunited country. INEC had complained about the inadequacy of time to conduct the elections; still the election time-table was changed twice and further adjusted twice in the course of the elections; funding was also an initial problem and on April 2, the election could not commence due to logistics hitches. Many of the observed shortcomings in the course of the elections could be addressed in future exercises through reform and an adjustment of processes.

The independence of INEC in the conduct of election 2011, which has been praised, and particularly the observed neutrality of the INEC leadership is largely a function of the individual difference in temperament. The independence of INEC must still be made a matter of constitutional review, to ensure that this all-important body is non-partisan and that its appointees are not chosen directly by the President. Too many Nigerians were excluded from the process: either because they are abroad or on official duty or physically challenged. These are issues for the future: absentee balloting and special arrangements to be made for the physically challenged. Many blind voters complained that they were not too sure their votes counted!

On election day, the voting procedure in the future should allow the aged, the handicapped and nursing mothers and pregnant women to vote first, rather than expose them to undue hardship. Reviews of the Electoral Act and Constitutional Amendments must be taken care of long before the next elections, and not rushed at the last minute such that INEC is not placed in the kind of difficult situation in which it found itself in the last six months. The registration of voters and review of voters’ register should not be an election-time activity; the register should be updated routinely and carefully scrutinized to ensure its correctness. And of course, Nigeria must move beyond the funny arrangement whereby some voters travelled to their villages in order to be part of the process. People should be advised to register and vote where they are domiciled.

One of the take-aways from election 2011 is the unfinished task of ensuring that Nigeria becomes one nation. We saw a lot of sophistication on the part of voters, in addition to their passion and enthusiasm, but the voting pattern and the outbreak of post-election violence in the North indicated the strong role played by religious, ethnic and identity sentiments. It is instructive, however, that the same Northern voters who expressed a preference for the CPC in the Presidential election were not so excited by the CPC in the other elections including the Gubernatorial and Houses of Assembly election. And yet many lives and properties were destroyed on account of the CPC’s performance in the Presidential election. Voter behaviour in the 2011 Nigerian elections deserves more rigorous investigation. Nor was the display of sentiments restricted to the North, it influenced voting at the local levels as well, and perhaps in this regard, the most striking illustration is to be found in the South West where with the exception of the Presidential election, South West voters embraced the local regional party, the Action Congress of Nigeria. The old Western region, with the exception of Delta state, is now effectively in the opposition. The Yoruba in particular are back to the old, traditional mould of staying out of the mainstream; in the North East, the East and South South, there are no major suprises in terms of political direction.

In the First Republic, there were many Yoruba in the Federal Government through the NNDP and they were just as pro-Yoruba as anyone else in their region, but their kinsmen in the Action Group did not regard them as the people’s true representatives. Again, during the Second Republic, Chief A M A Akinloye, an Ibadan man, was Chairman of the ruling NPN, yet he and other Yoruba in the ruling party were regarded as political outcasts by the Yoruba in the regional Unity Party of Nigeria. During the 1993 Presidential election, MKO Abiola may have received many votes in the South West but he was not regarded as a Yoruba icon until the June 12 Presidential election was annulled and Abiola’s Yorubaness suddenly became one of the rallying points. Still, the SDP could not be regarded as a Yoruba party. In 1999, the Yoruba did not vote for Obasanjo as the Alliance for Democracy won the election in the Yoruba states.

It took devious political engineering and a lot of rigging in the 2003 election for Obasanjo’s PDP to win in Yoruba states. The PDP’s 2003/7 victory in those states has since been partly reversed by the courts in Ondo, Ekiti and Osun, and with the results of the 2011 elections, Ogun and Oyo states, and all the others, have moved away from the ruling party at the centre. Thus, the House of Cards that Obasanjo and his strategists built in 2003 has collapsed. Obasanjo’s daughter lost her bid for a Senatorial seat and in every election, Obasanjo’s PDP lost in his ward and in the polling booth in front of his house! Senator Lai Joseph once wrote that “the Yoruba are their own worst enemies” because they are disunited and individualistic and he concludes: “God save Nigeria from the Yorubas!”

The situation this time around is not as bad as Lai Joseph makes out but the real question to ask is: what fresh substance are the new leaders in the South West bringing to the table? Political choices in Yorubaland are often driven by personality conflicts and disunity but it is not enough for the ACN to replace the PDP: this must translate into real performance. None of the Governors in the South West has his child in the public school system. Public school completion rate in the South West is down to about 18% and yet one major refrain during the campaigns was that the people should vote for “omo Awolowo” (about time the Awolowo family began to collect copyright fees for the use and abuse of the Awolowo brand!) It is important that the new set of leaders in the South West focus on service and not get embroiled in the old game of ego conflicts that has been the bane of Yoruba politics since 1962.

The same argument about the importance of service applies to all elected persons across the country. The changed character of the legislative assembly in the states and at the National level is a clear indication that the people are watching and that those who fail to represent them well will have their testimonials delivered to them on election day. It is a good development that many lawmakers are not returning, and that at least two incumbent Governors have lost their seats. Even more striking is how the winning Governors had to fight hard to win: hopefully they would show gratitude through performance.

Rigging and other forms of malpractices, including under-age voting, ballot box snatching, voter intimidation, bribing of voters and electoral officials, violence (in different shapes), misconduct by polling officials and returning officers were reported in many parts of the country. As it were, there isn’t yet a voting method that Nigerians would not try to compromise. What is required is the vigilance of the security agencies. The security agencies, including the military, may claim some credit for the success of election 2011, but they failed woefully in containing the spread of the post-Presidential election violence in the Northern states. The casualty figures could have been lower if there had been no failure of security intelligence. It is not enough to claim that the scale of post-election violence this year is comparatively low: the state must spare no resources in containing the impunity of those who seek to discredit it through acts of violence. The killing of youth corps members, in particular, has damaged an otherwise useful national scheme besides reminding us of the crisis of disunity.

It is a new and positive development that some of the losers in these elections have congratulated those they defeated and spoken about partnership. But our political culture also needs to change in other directions: the party’s must be re-organized to ensure internal democracy, campaign financing needs to be investigated, the use of public resources by incumbents for campaign purposes must be criminalized, the space needs to be further opened up to encourage female political candidates.

Written by Reuben Abati.

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