This week, I share my reflections on Ahmadu Kurfi book “Sixty Years Long March Towards Democracy: Nigeria’s General Elections 1951 –2011” published by Safari Books, Ibadan. The book is a compendium that reviews all the twelve general elections we have had in Nigeria since 1951.
Ahmadu Kurfi, Maradin Katsina, is the most qualified person to write such a book because he has been a keen and informed observer of all of the elections. A graduate of the University of Hull in the United Kingdom, he became an assistant administrative officer in 1958 and was in charge of voter registration in the Abuja/Lapai Federal Constituency and electoral officer in Kontogora Federal Constituency in the 1959 general elections. He kept faith with electoral administration and was to become the Executive Secretary of the Federal Electoral Commission in 1979.
I had the privilege of serving with him on the Electoral Reform Committee established by the Umaru Musa Yar’Adua Administration where we all appreciated his vast knowledge of electoral matters.
Maradin Katsina has been consistently devoted to the struggle for free and fair elections. We must celebrate him because Nigeria is a country where the people are committed to free and fair elections but the elite is disdainful of the people’s franchise and has a long history of subverting the people’s mandate.
Although a member of the elite, Maradi has always been on the side of the people in terms of respecting the franchise of the citizen. What is important about him however is his vast experience and knowledge about elections so his sixty year advocacy for free and fair elections is a testimony of commitment which we must all salute.
The book starts with a review of restricted franchise of the citizen in the 1951 and 1954 elections. In the North, the elections were indirect, conducted through five stages under the tutelage of the Native Administration system from the village through to the chiefdom.
The outcomes were therefore largely determined by traditional rulers, as Maradi points out, including his own father who was then the Maradin Katsina. In the North, women were denied the franchise while in the South, mandate restriction was based on the tax status of individuals.
The book reviews the close connection between elections and political instability in Nigerian history. At this period when Nigeria’s unity is extremely fragile, it is important to read his account of the 1964 elections in which massive electoral fraud eventually led to the coup d’état and civil war that ravaged Nigeria.
The elections were contested between the NPC led NNA alliance and the NCNC led UPGA Alliance. He points out that issues were already defined before the elections as NNA had “won” 66 seats before the elections.
These seats were declared unopposed because the electoral officers simply disappeared after receiving the nomination from the ruling party in a context in which the law required that candidates must personally hand in their nomination forms to the electoral officer.
The then President, Nnamdi Azikiwe was so disgusted that he declared that it was better for Nigeria “to disintegrate in peace not in pieces”.
During the elections of the 1950s and 1960s, it was one ballot box per candidate that was used and it was possible for voters to pocket their votes and sell to party agents who would later go in and place multiple ballots in the box. Parties that could fraudulently obtain ballot papers also simply stuffed the ballot boxes of their candidates.
One of the most serious challenges in organising Nigerian elections that the book examines was the nomination process for candidates. The book has detailed analysis of the screening process and attempts to prevent Joseph Tarka, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Aminu Kano and Odimegwu Ojukwu from contesting elections on the basis that they did not meet the criteria set out to be candidates in the elections.
The intrigues around these candidates all reveal the reluctance of Nigeria’s political class to accept that the ordinary voter should the arbiter in our elections.
At the analytical level, one of the most important lessons we learn from the book is the way in which incumbency has been used to rig second round elections.
While the elections of 1959, 1979 and 1999 were relatively free and fair, incumbents used state power to massively rig elections that organised in 1964, 1983, 2003 and 2007.
As he put it, state power was used to “deliver” votes for the ruling party. A chapter is devoted to a detailed explication of the various forms of rigging that have characterised Nigerian elections over the past sixty years.
One of the most controversial aspects of the 1979 elections was the determination of whether the election had been won on the first round. The law stipulated that to win on the first round, the candidate must obtained at least one quarter of the votes cast in two thirds of the states in the country.
There were at that time nineteen states in the country and FEDECO, the electoral commission was of the view that two thirds of nineteen is 12 two thirds of states.
Mathematically, this amounted to 12.66. The candidate of the National Party of Nigeria, Shehu Shagari got a quarter of the votes cast in twelve states. For the thirteenth state, he only got two thirds of 0.66 and the returning officer was of the view that this was sufficient to declare him winner.
This decision generated a lot of controversy as the opposition believed that to win, it was necessary to obtain two thirds of the 13th state rather than two thirds of 0.66 of the state. The matter went to court and the decision of FEDECO was upheld.
What we learn from Kurfi’s book is that the general assumption was that FEDECO conspired to deny the candidate with the second highest votes, Obafemi Awolowo, the right to go to the Electoral College for a final decision on the winner. His own argument however that was this assumption was wrong. The law stipulated that in the event that no candidate got a quarter in two thirds of the states, the runoff in the Electoral College was to be between the candidate with the highest votes cast and the candidate who won the majority of votes cast in the highest number of states.
While Awolowo had the second highest number of votes cast in the country, he scored the highest number of votes in seven states while Waziri Ibrahim of the GNPP scored lower total no of votes but scored the highest number of votes cast in twelve states while Awolowo scored the highest number of votes cast in only seven states.
If there was to be a runoff, it would have been between Waziri Ibrahim and Shehu Shagari. Kurfi’s view however was that a run off would have been legal had Shagari not got the arithmetic two thirds but it would have been undemocratic because the law stipulated that the electoral college to make the final determination would have been the National Assembly sitting with members of the State Houses of Assembly rather than the electorate which I completely agree with.
The book provides a very positive perspective on the future of Nigerian elections. The author argues that the 2011 elections should be celebrated as a major achievement in Nigeria’s long march towards democracy. He argues that even the cancellation of the April 2nd elections was positive as it indicated an electoral commission that was ready to talk the truth to Nigerians.
The author makes numerous well founded suggestions for the improvement of Nigeria’s electoral system. They include the call for the organisation of staggered elections for both the legislatures and executives, movement towards the increased use of technology in the voting process and the removal of restrictions in party registration.
The book is required reading for all those who want to understand our history of elections and democratic challenges as well as those interested in protecting the electoral mandate of the Nigerian.
Jibrin Ibrahim, public intellectual and civil society leader, is executive director at the Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD, in Abuja from where he writes a syndicated column for Premium Times.
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