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Lessons from the 2011 General Elections

By Dr Bukar Usman


The April 2011 general elections, in spite of the hiccups, should be acclaimed as a step forward in the nation's march towards roundly free and fair elections. The NLC described it as arguably about the best the nation has had since independence. The US, which also applauded it as being better than that of the 2007, however expressed serious concern about reports of alleged ballot box snatching and stuffing and called on INEC to ‘'transparently review and take appropriate action on all allegations of ‘under-age' voters, violence and intimidation, ballot stuffing, and inordinately high turnout in some areas of the country.'' There were also allegations of manipulation in collation of results.

    Given our unenviable history of electoral misconduct, spanning over the last 50 years, INEC under Prof Attahiru Jega's leadership can be said to have come out well in spite of the odds and the brief period of public scepticism occasioned by the Commission's initial tottering steps and seeming self doubt.

     Relative to the 2003 and 2007 elections, the 2011 election was more transparent as it generally reflected the votes openly cast, counted and recorded in the various polling booths. Many of the complaints centred around what transpired at the collation centres, where the voters appeared to have been shut out from "defending" their votes as much as they did at the polling booths. However, the nation fared better than in previous elections as the generally acceptable outcome rekindled new hopes for the democratic future of Nigeria.

    INEC must re-strategise to make future elections closer to the hitch-free elections which obtain in more stable democracies. The obvious defects of the 2011 elections must be practically addressed, and on time too. In future elections, a more relaxed and sanitised atmosphere is required. Security was too heavy, and this somewhat worked against free choice. The campaigns were weighed heavily against the opposition, as they were virtually shut out of public-owned media. The impact of the National Broadcasting Commission, which ought to have stepped in to ensure equal media access for all political parties and contestants, was virtually nil. As for the privately-owned media, we know the one who spends the most in advertising money gets the most slots; but then, reportorial balance dictates, in spite of each medium's editorial disposition, that every party or candidate should be fairly represented in independently generated news and feature programmes.

    Money factor in our electoral campaigns looms disturbingly large with no apparent solution in sight. All legal limitations seem to have been observed in breach, especially in the 2011 elections. Unfortunately, our teeming electorates remain hopelessly vulnerable to material inducements. The pressure they mount on candidates is one of the reasons contesting elections in Nigeria has become an extra-ordinarily capital intensive venture and why losing elections seems like a bitter personal tragedy. Some thing has to be done about this and I think it has to go beyond making more laws in this regard.

     Whatever we can do to lessen the grip of state governors over electoral choices will help in strengthening democracy in the country. At present, they still seem to adversely stand between the electorates and popular democracy in the various states. We know of upsets in few places, such as Imo and Oyo, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. There are various reasons for the stranglehold of the governors but the most apparent is the uncontrolled power they wield over the financial resources of their states, against the dictates of due checks and balances. This has to stop in the interest of political and economic development of this country.

    The courts were exploited to the fullest by petitioners, up to the last moments, leaving INEC with little or no time for any sound planning. There was even the reported case of a controversial "candidate" who did not contest the elections but relied on the courts to secure for him INEC's Certificate of Return. INEC reportedly later woke up from its court-induced stupor to withdraw the validity of the already issued certificate. Some of these things arose because the necessary electoral legislations were enacted late in the day leading to a costly rush in arrangements. INEC deserves more time for planning and should start planning for the next elections now.

    As for the media, there is need for restraint, especially in the way they manage post-election issues. Following the disturbances which greeted the outcome of the presidential elections in some parts of the country, there were hysterical comments in the media, some quite insensitive and provocative. Information management at such sensitive moments should be re-appraised by the media.

     The overall verdict remains, however, that in the 2011 elections we have moved positively forward in our quest for electoral excellence, although we need to refine our methods to make it transparent through and through. We have moved from the opaque manner in which pre-2011 elections (with the possible exception of Prof. Humphrey Nwosu's Option A4 electoral experiment) to what I call "transparent-opaque" dimension of the 2011 elections. We need to make the collation centres reflect the transparency we perceive at the polling booths. It is INEC's duty to find out how to make this happen in an unquestionably open way.

    The clamour for power shift which has been on for decades has received an added boost, much to the relief of several interest groups. Hopefully, the nation would now settle down in earnest to enable those who have been empowered to squarely face the daunting task of freeing the nation from "fear" and "want" or, as inscribed in our Constitution, providing the citizenry with "security" and "welfare." 






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