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Free and Fair Elections in Independent Nigeria

By Dr Bukar Usman


I must state as a prelude to my comments on post independence elections in Nigeria after independence  that I have never taken part in partisan politics and I do not aspire to do so, even now that I am in retirement. I have been a public servant for virtually all my working life. Partisan politics never appeals to me. Additionally, at this point in time I am not inclined to take any fulltime employment in the public service.

    It is pertinent to further state that unlike some of my school mates at that time, I did not participate in student unionism. The nearest I got involved was when I organised my House team's boycott of a football match. That was way back in my secondary school days in Maiduguri in 1962. I felt strongly that the expatriate referee, Mr. Wood, was biased and so we successfully refused to turn up for the match. He was left with only one team on the field, thus aborting the match.

    The other unionist activism in which I participated was at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in 1966. Famous musician Bongos Ikwue and his activist colleagues mobilised us to protest against the introduction of 'mature' students programme. Under the programme, workers were to be admitted to various disciplines in the University. It was our feeling then that the scheme would limit opportunities for younger prospective students, coming directly from secondary schools. We demonstrated against the scheme. Consequently, the institution was closed down for a while and the ring leaders expelled. The scheme took off nonetheless as the Northern Region Government was determined to implement its manpower development programme.

    I must also say that I have witnessed at fairly mature age nearly all the elections conducted in Nigeria back to the 1950s. However, given my background, I can only comment from the stand point of an observer whose level of political involvement in partisan political activities did not go beyond superficial and occasional private exchange of views with colleagues and associates, some of whom admittedly,  active politicians. Other factors which have shaped my opinion about elections in independent Nigeria include accounts of ordinary voters, historical materials and current media reports, local and foreign, statements by active and veteran politicians, columnists, reputable former public officers, legal luminaries, academicians, clergymen, writers and reports on elections by various Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

    It is an understatement to say that although Nigerians yearn for 'democracy' we have not been fortunate to have a settled political structure and system in the last 50 years for which Nigerians and well wishers could be proud of. Instead, we continue to tinker with the constitution while 'electoral transparency' eludes Nigeria. The level of transparency and integrity in elections in Nigeria peaked during the 1993 elections, and from there it kept declining to the present stage whereby citizens fear that the 2011 elections could spell doom for democracy in our fatherland.

    The controversies about 'zoning' and 'consensus candidate' are side issues. What Nigerians are more concerned about is the voting itself: whether it is 'free and fair' and ‘every vote counts' so that candidates of their choice will emerge victorious to subsequently administer the country with real mandate and genuine commitment to the promotion of public wellbeing.

    Previous elections were marred by malpractices and imposition of candidates, thus denying the people their real choices. Some termed it 'selection' not 'election'. Election campaigns are not issue-based. Candidates offer no manifestoes or proposed programmes because they somewhat knew that they would rig themselves into public offices for their own ends.  During elections, violence led to large scale destruction of public and private properties. The authorities do not do much to stop the destructions and the perpetrators go scot-free and proudly, if not insultingly, interact with people in high places.

    Going by what happened in the past elections conducted since 1993, there is skepticism and despondency about the prospects for transparent elections in 2011, as argued earlier. The skepticism is soundly premised on the sordid occurrences in the past elections as recanted by political opponents in the media and at the election tribunals or as comprehensively captured by fairly credible election monitors and eye witnesses. The reality is that what have been revealed in public discourse and before the tribunals, represent just the tip of an iceberg that could chill democracy in its tracks. Many aggrieved had merely resigned to their fate and reposed everything in the hands of God, instead of embarking on an endless and costly litigation. Only very few had the perseverance and the resources to pursue their cases in the law courts lasting ridiculously to more than three years in search of justice in a term of four years.

    Those whose elections were nullified because they rigged themselves into public offices in which they managed public resources without true authority, walked away free with all the payments made to them and executive decisions taken. Moreover, no one is punished for their roles in perverting the electoral process. Some would even officiate in the coming elections as high level electoral officials. Rigging in our electoral system seems to run deep and will be a herculean task to get rid of in 2011.

    Government appointed the Justice Uwais panel which proposed electoral reforms which are being put in place by the federal government. Yet there are strong doubts as to whether the steps taken so far could ensure a free and fair election in 2011.  It is true that the Uwais Panel had consulted widely and taken into consideration the fears expressed by those who made submissions to it, but as not all its recommendations were accepted for implementation, serious doubts still exist about the sincerity of the authorities in meeting the genuine fears expressed by all and sundry.

    After the 2007 elections many prominent political actors have spoken out about rigging and its pervasiveness and have resolved to resist future occurrences. For this reason, the 2011 elections which offer hope and another chance for redemption can still be marred by those hell-bent on rigging and the stiff resistance they may encounter.  This makes a recipe for trouble.

    Mr. Donald Duke, the former Governor of Cross River State was about the first executive to boldly and candidly educate Nigerians of how rigging was perpetrated. Among other prominent politicians, he opened up to state that the most important electoral officers critical in the conduct of elections are the Presiding Officers and there are 120,000 of them (Thisday, July 28, 2010, P.22). Olusegun Osoba, the former Governor of Ogun State also recounted his experience in Ogun State. More lessons are drawn from the contributions of Ibrahim Biu current INEC official and Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde the renowned columnist. The following excerpts may suffice to relive the depth of some of the problems:

    With reference to the 2003 gubernatorial and presidential elections in Ogun State, Olusegun Osoba says in a press interview:

    "For example, in Ogun State, he (Obasanjo) wrote a figure of 1.2 million votes scored by all of us; gubernatorial candidates whom they wrote were six hundred thousand. So there was difference of six hundred thousand votes scored by all the gubernatorial candidates compiled and that of Obasanjo.

    "Till today, Obasanjo has not been able to explain how, when the elections took place the same time, two ballot papers were given to every voter; one for presidential election, one for gubernatorial election. Did six hundred thousand voters throw their votes for governorship away? Were the votes voided? Did they destroy the ballots? When these questions were put to him, he had no answer. And at the Court of Appeal Tribunal, Ogun State was not part of the votes that made him President. Even the Court of Appeal threw out Ogun State to show you that they did not win anything in Ogun State," (Vanguard, October 28, 2010, P. 51).

    Regarding the conduct of the 2007 gubernatorial election in Kano, Ibrahim Biu, the current INEC Director on Voter Education, made startling disclosures at a seminar in Kano. A news report on the event states that:

    "...A director with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has disclosed that he was offered bribe by some politicians to rig the 2007 governorship election in Kano state.  Alhaji Ibrahim Biu, who is the director in-charge of Voter Education, said that his refusal to accept the monetary inducement led to Governor Ibrahim Shekarau being declared winner of the governorship poll.

    "Biu, made the disclosure at Bayero University, Kano during a seminar organised by the Kano state chapter of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR).

    "Challenging any one to dispute his claim, the INEC director said he refused collecting the bribe because "if I had acquiesced to the demand of those politicians, the end result will tell on the people.

    "This is why I can hold my head high in Kano now because I did not receive that bribe," stating that had he collected the bribe, he would not have the courage to speak.

    "He disclosed that his stance did not go down well with those who offered him the bribe to rig the election, adding that he was subsequently transferred to Bauchi state as punishment for his action," (Peoples Daily, October 19, 2010, P. 11).

    Dr. Aliyu Tilde's news report/commentary on senatorial bye-election in Bauchi sarcastically titled 'New INEC, Old habits' says:

    "...we have never witnessed anything like this before", said the village head of Kurfai in Toro Local Government Area of Bauchi State last Saturday, 22 August 2010, when the senatorial bye-election was taking place. Explaining the disappointment of his fellow villagers to an INEC official sent to monitor the election in the area, the leader continued: "During previous elections officials used to come here with voting materials and all we had to contend with was the behaviour of youth who may occasionally clash but in the end it would be settled and election would take place. This time, as you can see, nothing has arrived." And though the election did not take place in the unit as the INEC monitor witnessed, later at the collation centre two young men arrived, a youth corper and an official of the local government, claiming that they were just returning from the same Kurfai where they suffered so much in their effort to conduct the election. When pressed by the INEC monitor, they changed the claim saying that they went to an entirely different place, Kurfai, the home of the local government chairman.

    "At Nabordo, a supervisor entered the room of his friend who was hired at N100,000.00 to intercept a ballot box from the village of Jimeri in Zaranda ward where the ruling party got only three votes. The young man and his team of hunters successfully intercepted the ballot box, tore all the ballot papers, returned them into the box and brought the ballot box to Nabordo where they hanged it on a tree at the town centre. When his friend saw the crisp N1000 notes in his room, the young man quickly gave an alibi; "Muhammad, what can you people give us? Life is so difficult. Look at my leaking room..."

    "Fifty kilometers away, a retired Colonel could not vote because the register of his unit was taken to another unit; so also a former secretary to the government whose voters register at Fadaman Mada was mischievously transferred to a place at behind the Emir's Palace in a completely different ward at the centre of the city. When he arrived at the place after four hours of search, he found the voting taking place in the house of an elderly man, with POP youths surrounding the voting desk such that people are intimidated either to avoid voting entirely or vote for the ruling party. Hardly was there any voter because it was impossible to know where the station is in the first place. The same thing happened to a senatorial candidate of another party. At Magama Gumau, a stronghold of one of the candidates, thugs came with knives and machetes, dispersed the voters and snatched the ballot boxes and other materials. The same thing happened in many polling stations throughout the senatorial district.

    "The whole election was marred by the same old habits of snatching ballot boxes, thuggery, diversion of registers and voting cards, shortages of ballot papers, failure of election officials to turn up, use of colossal amounts to bribe officials and sponsor mayhem, etc. In the end, in Toro Local Government Area, for example, none of the opposition parties signed the return sheet of the local government area; in addition, out of the return sheets of the eleven wards, only three were duly signed and stamped by their INEC returning officers. In his speech, the PDP returning officer of the local government attested that it was the best election he has ever witnessed in his life!" (Peoples Daily, August 27, 2010, P.37).

    The Minority Verdict of the Ekiti State Governorship Tribunal for the 2007 Elections published in full in The Nations, July 6, 2010, Pp. A1-A48 also contained startling revelations of intimidation of political opponents and the commitment of serious electoral and criminal offences. Not surprisingly the Appeal Court which subsequently sat in llorin overturned the results. Senatorial bye-elections in Gombe and other reordered elections conducted since the elections of 2007 brought no cheering news except to the 'victors'.

     The gubernatorial elections in Kogi, Adamawa, Cross River, Anambra, Edo, Ondo, Ekiti, Delta States and the latest Osun, which were all overturned through court action and several legislative seats similarly overturned, all carry similar sordid stories of electoral irregularities.

    It is to forestall all this that President Yar'Adua set up the Uwais panel whose report informed the reconstitution of INEC, the review of the electoral laws and adequate funding of INEC by President Jonathan's administration to provide the necessary logistics.

    After much protest almost amounting to blackmail and with much reluctance, Government, with the approval of the National Assembly, provided INEC with the sum of N87bn to be expended as follows:

          Recurrent                                       -       N25.8bn

          Capital (digital voters registration) -        N54.9bn

          Collapsible boxes                           -        N3.0bn

          Vehicles                                          -        N4.0bn

     The ball is thus squarely put in the court of INEC. To whom much is given much is expected. What needs to be seen is where all these efforts would lead Nigeria to in 2011 and beyond.

     The nation's dilemma today is whether the reforms made in the electoral laws and repositioning of INEC in terms of staffing and the provision of logistic requirement will lead to free and fair elections in the country. Although there is a reasonable appreciation of some of the steps taken, there is the need to ponder over the comments of some prominent individuals as to whether what has befallen the electoral system since independence lies with the 'law' or 'human frailty.' The arguments are forceful and persuasive on both sides, but the weight of opinion seems to tilt towards the latter as these comments reveal:

     Justice Alfa Belgore, the former Chief Justice of Nigeria delivered a paper at Asaba on "Electoral Reforms or Electorate Reforms."  A news report on his remarks states that:

     "....the electoral system had failed, attributing it to the lack of fundamental acceptance of the rules of the electoral process by all stakeholders, including the citizens, candidates and umpires.

     "He said the rot in the system was bad to the extent that all aspirants in elections had developed a mindset of disputing all and any electoral contest, preferring to subvert the process for selfish reasons.

     "Belgore gave other reasons for the electoral system failure as "citizens' mindset against election, the lack of any knowledge of the purposes of election, and ownership of the electoral process."

     "He also identified absence of internal democracy in political parties, which fostered abuse of the election process, as well as pervasive influence and the growing phenomenon of godfathers, as drawbacks in the system.

     "Belgore, however, noted that if a comprehensive, new and credible voter register could be prepared for the country, the system could be redeemed.

     "He called for adequate funding of INEC to prevent it from being incapacitated.

     "Belgore also advocated that the people should be educated on the need to participate in the electoral process and defend their votes.

     "He called for the entrenchment of internal democracy in political parties and the review of existing court procedures rules," (Summit, August 16, 2010, P. 19).

     Dr. Lateef Adegbite, Secretary General of the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and an erudite lawyer commenting in a press interview on whether our electoral problem lies with the law or politicians remarks:

     "...Well, substantially it is correct to say with politicians but that appears to be a weak excuse for poor arrangement.

     "The starting point is credible rules and system before attitudinal changes from the politicians. This is because where the rules give too many loopholes they make it easier for bad politicians to exploit the situation, so the starting point is that there must be strong electoral laws. And such laws must be strictly enforced.

     "Is it not surprising that despite that all our elections have been marred by electoral malpractices,  no politician has been punished by not only making them to lose their seats but also not making them to face prosecution for perpetrating such electoral malpractices? Electoral offences should not be glossed over, but those proved to be involved must be punished. There must also be conscious political education to enlighten the people to let them know that it is in their best interest that elections are conducted in free and fair manner," (The Guardian, May 20, 2010, P.8).

     Justice idris Legbo Kutigi, the former Chief Justice of Nigeria in a press interview which inter alia touched on problems on why free, fair, and violence-free and transparency elections are hard to come by Nigeria since return to democracy in 1999, says:

     "...Are they not Nigerians who do the elections? Is it the law? We did it ourselves. I have never seen a law that says that on the day of elections, you will go and fill the ballot boxes outside. Same Nigerians shouting for electoral this or that are the same people that stuffed the ballot boxes outside the polling booths. So, what are we talking about? Why blaming the law? The way out is for us to follow the law," (Sunday Trust, January 24, 2010, P. 9).

     Bashir Tofa, the current All Nigeria Peoples Party's Elders Committee Chairman and former Presidential Candidate in a press interview reflecting on the ongoing electoral reforms says:

     "...In electoral reform, you have all the law, but if politicians are not reformed, including stakeholders in the business of elections, they will continue to break the law. That is why I say the political reforms required should be the reform of the mind. Politicians and officials of the various security agencies need to be reformed. We have the laws, but they are not followed. We have laws against theft, yet we have thieves, laws against smuggling, yet smuggling still strives. There are laws against electoral fraud, yet we see worse things in every election. So politicians who are calling for such reform must first of all reform themselves. Even under the current law, all we need to do is to resolve that we won't do anything any longer that will jeopardise our electoral process in future elections, that's all. This is the reform we need, because we have all the laws, it is just that we don't have honest people, we have to try to educate politicians; tell them that the problems are not with the electoral laws; but with politicians. Nigerian officials and the security agencies, these are the people whose activities take place during elections," (Sunday Independent, May 23, 2010, P. 11).

     Simon Kolawole, the regular columnist of Thisday commenting on Jega, Uwais report, June 12, etc says, with emphasis on ‘moral morass' that:

     "...We forget that in addition to having the right person in charge of INEC, we also need to reform ourselves. To expect that one "super INEC chairman", appointed by Uwais Report, will cure us of our fraudulent tendencies is to live in delusion. It is human being that corrupts the system. Uwais Report was not used to conduct June 12, 1993 election, yet we accept it as the most credible in our post-Independence history. So there is something missing in these agitations. As good as Uwais Panel's recommendations are; we are still left with the vital need to reform our win-at-all costs mentally. We must renew our minds. We need, in the words of my colleague, Eddy Odivwri, "moral rearmament". We must be ready to play fair. We must be ready to vote and protect our votes. We all have a role to play if election is to mean anything in Nigeria," (Thisday, June 13, 2010, P.120).

     The appointment of the new INEC Chairman, Prof Attahiru Jega, popularly adjudged to be of impeccable character, has raised high hopes and rekindled optimism about the likelihood of improvement in INEC performance and the conduct of the elections generally. However, it is qualified optimism in that the Chairman and INEC as an organisation have their limitations as borne out by the following remarks by a veteran bureaucrat and notable political practitioners:

     Ahmed Mohammed Joda, an Administrator, Journalist, and Politician, as well as former Permanent Secretary in the Northern Nigeria Public Service and Federal Ministry of Information, and former Chairman of the Nigeria Communication Commission in a press interview on Nigeria @ 50 reflecting on leadership and the forthcoming general elections in 2011, says:

     "We say we have gotten perfect gentleman to conduct the election but you know we can sit down in INEC and design beautiful programmes on how to do things and refuse to participate in any foul play, but there can still be election rigging," (Peoples Daily, September 29, 2010, P.28).

     Femi Falana, a Legal Practitioner and Chairman of the National Conscience Party in an Africa Independent Television (AIT) programme ‘Focus Nigeria' commented on the efforts of INEC Chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega to organize a credible election in 2011. A news report on the programme says:

     "...Jega's efforts would be futile if politicians who perpetrated electoral fraud, thuggery and injustices during elections were not arrested and prosecuted. According to Falana, since the emergence of Jega as the INEC boss, not less than three rerun elections had been conducted.

     "He said that there were allegations of thuggery, fraudulent practices and disenfranchisement perpetrated by politicians who had not been brought to book.

     "Jega cautioned that if nothing was done to those who perpetrated violence in the recent re-run elections, the voters' registration and the 2011 elections might be ruined by fraudulent politicians.

     "Falana said, "Look at what happened in Ondo State recently during the re-run election into the House of Assembly-over 20, 000 voters were disenfranchised in Ilaje, and nothing has happened. You will see that it is still business as usual. "Since Jega came into that position we have had at least two or three bye-elections, nothing has changed. All those who have perpetuated fraud, thuggery and injustice have not been arrested and brought to book. If you do not do anything, we are going to have part of the Direct Data Capture machine being captured by privileged politician as witnessed in the past," (The Punch, August 12, 2010, P.49).

     Attahiru Bafarawa, former Governor of Sokoto State in a press interview, commented on President Jonathan's effort at ensuring credible elections, saying:

     "...if he (the President) appointed an INEC chairman that will conduct a free and fair elections, I think he (the President) will leave a legacy. If he can take courage and implement Uwais report, it is another way forward.

     "But people talked so much about Maurice Iwu, forgetting that there are 36 Iwus, one each in every state. So the problem is not only Iwu of INEC; each state has it own Iwu conducting local government elections where they give hundred percent victories to the ruling party in the state. And the only way forward in this regard is to remove the State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECS) from state governments," (Sunday Trust, May 23, 2010, P. 6).

     These testimonies by statesmen, prominent judicial experts, practicing politicians and notable columnists who have seen it all give food for thought. Noteworthy too is that it is not only Nigerians, foreigners too have made comments about election in Nigeria some of which are ominous. One such notable comment which had attracted several responses from current affairs commentators and remarks by some elites in the country was by John Campbell, former US Ambassador to Nigeria. He expressed fears about the prospects for stability post 2011 elections principally on grounds of lack perceivable consensus in politicking, a position he held, for which he was vilified by some while others eulogized him, (The Guardian, September 12, 2010, P. 61 ). 

     With all the steps taken including the review of the laws and the provision of the necessary logistics to INEC, the 2011 elections should be seen more as a contest between ‘evil' and ‘good.' It will be remarkable if at the end of it all the nation records a free and fair election without post-election litigations. It is important that whoever commits electoral crime is brought to book immediately.

     On the important issue of attitude, the poser is whether given the malpractices which manifested in the few bye-elections conducted under the new INEC, the remaining period before the conduct of the 2011 elections gives enough room for atonement to potential or is it perennial, violators among the contestants and their supporters?






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