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Nigeria’s Woes; Beyond free and fair elections

By: Mukhtar Kabir Usman PhD (
 Published April 18th, 2011

The lamentation and exhortations about corruption, laziness and indiscipline only deal with the symptoms. It is like attempting to cure malaria by dealing only with high body temperature while ignoring the bacteria infection in the bloodstream. A serious attempt at getting a cure would go for the bacteria in the bloodstream even if it attempts to lower the temperature by cooling the body. What is happening in Nigeria now is the refusal to even look at the bacteria in the bloodstream and only remain with eyes glued on the thermometer lamenting the rise in temperature

Ignorance is not the same as illiteracy. Knowledge is not the same as literacy, or, even the same as the acquisition of educational certificates, or, academic ranks. Some of the most highly literate Nigerians, and the most highly educated, by virtue of their certificates and ranks, are some of the most ignorant over many crucial areas of natural and human existence and over our national life, like our geography, history, economy and politics. Democracy is built on the equality of citizens; the freedom of these citizens to associate with one another for the realization of their ideals and the defense and promotion of their interests; and the freedom of these citizens to choose between the different political platforms of various political parties and candidates, and see to the actualization of the platforms they have voted for, if their choices win. This is only possible if the citizens are well informed about their country, their governments, their circumstances and the various interests contending in the various parties. To put all this in a very simple way, this requires knowledge. Without knowledge, the association, the citizens enters into is one based on irrational, but no less powerful, instincts of fear, greed, envy, fascination, or, hatred. This is because the citizen entering into this association has no rational basis for assessing whether, or, not it serves his, or her, interest and promotes and defends his, or, her, ideals and principles. Without knowledge, the exercise of the democratic right to choose lacks a stable and rational basis and, therefore, does not enable the citizen making the choice to make the party and the candidates accountable. In short, credible elections and democratic politics is not possible when the citizens who constitute the electorate are ignorant about the basic elements of the country, its economy, its political system, and its position in world affairs.
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Nigeria cannot start rebuilding democracy without a clear public understanding of, what actually is a free and fair election and the meaning and the basis of the electoral mandate derived from such an election. The campaign for what is called “change” has promoted the false impression that the freedom and fairness of an election is determined solely by what happens on the day of the election; and has nothing to do with the whole political process of party formation, party control, the nomination of candidates, the election campaign and the extent of the democratic space within which these are conducted. There are six aspects of an election which determine whether, or not, it is democratic, free and fair. The first aspect has to do with the composition of the electorate. The second aspect has to do with the formation and control of the political parties putting up candidates for the election. The third aspect has to do with the nomination of the candidates. The fourth aspect has to do with the election campaign. The fifth aspect has to do with the polling, the counting and recording of votes and the announcement of results. The sixth aspect has to do with the operations of the judicial system in its handling of the election petitions.

The extent to which an election is free and fair, is determined by the freedom with which the adult citizens of a country can participate in it as voters. In an electoral system in which primaries are conducted by political parties for members of each party to elect their candidates, this freedom of participation has to include the freedom to form political parties which can contest elections and to vote for, or against, candidates in the party primaries. This freedom was denied to the citizens of Nigeria in all the parties’ primaries, from presidential to governorship, state assemblies, senate and House of Representatives flags which produced all the major presidential candidates and other flag bearers of their respective parties. The conventions and party primaries of the ruling PDP and all the so called opposition parties cannot by any democratic standards be regarded as free and fair. This is because the PDP itself ANPP and AD that gave birth to all the mushroom opposing parties were almost decreed into existence in 1999 by the Armed Forces Ruling Council in a jumbled manner. In fact, the formation of the parties originally, violated all universally acceptable democratic principles of party formation.

Back to the fold. Before we get down to working out a suitable political system, we have to be very clear about the realities of the existing political situation. Why do we need popular organizations which common people are mobilized and are in control? Because without them, their interests will not be represented. Why will people interests not be represented? Because without powerful popular organizations those elected as representatives, leaders and those who stood for the emergence of these representatives will by their very nature and orientations betray the electorate interests. What is it in their nature and positions that will make them betray people’s interests? In the present circumstances, most of those that emerged as representatives on the last Saturday’s parliamentary polls or their bosses are people who have only taken advantage of people resentment against the existing order, they are adventurers who took advantage of their positions and affiliations in previous governments to amass wealth. These are not just only the old and the new politicians but include the civil servants, retired army, police, customs and security officers. Is it not curious to find the likes of Akunliyi, Saminu Turaki, Soludo, Col. Jafar Isah, Lawrence Onoja and Adamu Aliero on the other side of the coin, opposing the status quo? Their actions before and now, their connections and whole approach to life, openly show their commitment to wealth and the means of accumulating more. The few who have not done so and have no such connections and ties are not carrying any weight even in the Buhari’s so called ‘pious’ CPC. Secondly, the system has debased representation to the level of tokenism. A representative in the present day Nigeria is not regarded as somebody who, in practice identifies with the conditions and interests of the people, who is accountable to them and can be disciplined by them in a systematic and organized manner. A public which consists essentially of peasant farmers and wage earners cannot make a leadership, or indeed anybody, accountable to it in a society built on the private ownership and accumulation of wealth; especially a society in which this private accumulation by a tiny minority is carried on almost entirely, through the manipulation of public office and institutions devoid of any party, religious or ethnic distinction. In other words there cannot be genuine accountability in our rotten society, more so in a dependent capitalist society like Nigeria. This is because the ownership and control of the basic means of existence- land, housing, clothing, food, transport, and information- is central to accountability. It is farcical to pretend that those who own and control these or those who serve them can be made accountable to those who have nothing but their humanity, labour and need. A representative is simply any indigene of an area that perpetuates the illusion that the various parts of the country are engaged in a competition for the allocation of ‘scarce’ resources and he is a champion of one part. His representativeness begins and ends with ethnicity and the appropriation of the ‘scarce’ resources into his pockets. Thirdly, since most of those who emerged as representatives on last Saturday’s election have amassed wealth or are dependents on those who have, they are incapable of being representatives in any other way. This is because genuine representation would involve selecting or electing representative on concrete and basic issues to the livelihood and dignity of the people. These people would prevent such issues being the basis of their being in in the parliament. For once such issues are raised and pursued, their marriage with the Executive would come to an end and their positions and ties with this structure of exploitation will be exposed. Nigerians should brace for decampings and swappings after May 29th. With no campaign of popular political education about the constitution compounded by ethnicity and controversial primaries, some facing court cases, what would be expected therefore would be groups on regional basis rather than on ideological and concrete issues. Coming to grips with the reality of the process of the formation and transformation of our society beyond the banalities and quibbling on ethnicity is clearly essential for comprehending one of the most serious political problems facing the people of this country. This cannot be done, merely by looking for and ‘highlighting’ harmonious links and INEC’s ‘sound’ starting foot. But, it is a much more serious and historic task for our generation to come to grips with, both at the level of theory and practice.

Mukhtar Kabir Usman wrote in from

Faculty Architecture and Environmental Design
Universiti International Antrabangsa
Malaysia, Gombak Campus, Darul Ehsan
Selangor, Malaysia.

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