Nigerians are fast losing faith in democracy. We need to do something urgently before we get to the terminal stage of divorce. This is an opportunity for the judiciary to emphasise the importance of process and the rule of law in our elections. The only way to stop this electoral impunity is for the courts to send a clear message through its judgements that deviation from the laws, rules and regulations governing elections by any candidate or party will be met with severe punishment and will never be rewarded.
Nigerian elections and marriages have a lot in common. Both should be sacrosanct. They are conducted with pomp and fanfare, and promises are made but kept in the breach. The professions of loyalty and honesty are like a singsong. Like a marriage cements the relationship between two consenting adults supposedly in love, elections cement and clarify the relationship between candidates and electorates in defining power structures, agencies, and processes in democracies. Divorce becomes inevitable when the glue that holds a marriage together weakens and breaks down over time. Likewise, when elections become dodgy, crude, and violent, they are meaningless, ineffectual, and unfit for purpose. Credible elections are the glue that holds candidates and electorates together, and anything that erodes people’s trust and confidence in an electoral system simultaneously creates a divorce between the candidates and the electorates.
Nigeria’s last state governorship and House of Assembly elections have left a sour taste in our collective mouth. Well-meaning Nigerians and members of the international community on monitoring visits were appalled and mortified by the conduct of the elections in many states in Nigeria. Voter intimidation by thugs, ballot box and result sheet snatching, result manipulation and violence were prevalent in most states. This anomaly has eroded the trust capital of our elections and created a deficit that may take a generation to recover from. These elections have raped our democracy and put in motion actions and inactions capable of producing a democratic divorce – a situation where elections are considered anathema in choosing democratic leaders. This is an open invitation to anarchy, lawlessness, and disregard for the rule of law.
Like in marriage, in a democracy, there is an agreement for people to live and work together for a shared purpose. There are rules, covenants, a code of conduct and principles. In both cases, there are stakeholders. There are expectations, promises and vows. Successful marriages require a lot of work, commitment, nurturing and the observance of rules. Marriages that fail and lead to divorce start inadvertently.
An election is critical to measuring whether democracy is succeeding or headed for a divorce and it is part of the stress test for democracy. The presidential election of the 25th of February showed the signs of a bad marriage, but the governorship and state Houses of Assembly elections showed that if we do not care, we are heading for a divorce from democracy. All the features of a marriage headed for divorce were displayed during the last elections. Like a marriage under siege, violence, a flawed electoral process, results manipulation and “thuggery” were the rules of these elections, instead of being the exception. This problem has led to moral panic and brought to the fore the need for rethinking our democracy and the struggle for power within it.
It is evident from the account of many observer missions that the elections were shambolic in some flashpoint states, with high competition among the top contenders. At no point in Nigeria’s history have political actors blatantly, openly, and shamelessly disrupted the elections processes, rigged the elections, and intimidated and abused voters verbally and physically, as they did in these past elections. In some states, the scene on election day was reminiscent of mob wars and the activities of Mafioso in banana republics. One observer mission said as much of what happened to the 2015 Rivers State election, considered the most violent in Nigerian history.
It is dangerous to assume that candidates will consider violence and rigging as the only options for securing the peoples mandates in future elections. This flies in the face of democracy, where power belongs to the people and only through credible elections do people select whom to entrust their power to, who will wield it for the common good.
All the reports point to the fact that Rivers State had no elections in the strict sense of this processes. The state is now notorious for chaotic elections. On this recent occasion, INEC, its agents, and desperate political actors did not follow electoral rules, and worse still, the compromise of the security agencies was widely evident. Some reports accused some Lagos actors of elevating the elections to a “thuggery contest”. Votes and violence, according to the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), were inseparable in most places. The political actors with the greater might and control of instruments of violence had their ways, and those with popular support without the “might of violence” lost out. These assaults on democracy stemmed from the dominant political philosophy in Nigeria among gladiators, which favours winning at all costs at the first polling and dealing with the aftermath through pretentious reconciliatory speeches. The recourse to due process and reliance on the rule of law were assigned to the dustbin of history.
The ramification of this dominant ideology is mindboggling. One can only imagine the chaos and mayhem that will descend on the state in subsequent elections if all political candidates resort to militancy and thuggery during polls. It is dangerous to assume that candidates will consider violence and rigging as the only options for securing the peoples mandates in future elections. This flies in the face of democracy, where power belongs to the people and only through credible elections do people select whom to entrust their power to, who will wield it for the common good.
This outcome-centric ideology defeats the purpose of elections in a democracy. A mandate obtained through violence and disregard for the due process does not represent the people’s will. The power wielded on the basis of that mandate is illegitimate and illegal. Public commentators and political analysts like Ms Idayat Hassan of the CDD and Ms Oge Onubogu of the Wilson Centre have argued that a fair and functional Nigerian election experience matters more than the outcome. Onubogu opines that, “Nigerians needed to be able to see that the process worked.” Hassan said, “More and more citizens are losing trust in democracy because of these dysfunctions.” The process is fundamental in elections.
Dambisa Moyo, a global economist, wrote on ten signs that democracy is under siege. There were elements of these ten signs in the last state elections in Nigeria. I will focus on the four most relevant signs vis-a-vis the previous state elections. First, voter participation is on the decline. Mainly, after the adverse events that most voters witnessed during the presidential and National Assembly elections, some chose not to participate in the state elections. In the last presidential and National Assembly elections, only about 28% of all eligible voters in Nigeria participated, and the state elections witnessed even lesser voter turnout. The percentage turnout was indicative and was one of the poorest turnouts in Nigerian elections. The import is that one-third of registered voters determined the will of the people.
The second sign is that money buys political influence. Money played a pivotal role in defining the last elections. There are accusations of vote buying, the financial inducement of political actors, financing of violence and thuggery, and compromising security agents and INEC officials. These sometimes acted in unison to truncate the people’s will.
…the younger generations are turning away from democracy as they are losing faith in the sanctity of the process. Youths were the most affected in this last election. Most felt it was time to engage politically and change the system. However, they are disappointed and disillusioned. A cursory look at social media reveals an avalanche of comments and content showing the utter dismay of youths about the flawed process and outcome of the elections.
The third sign that democracy is under threat is that the right or freedom to choose is declining. The political actors at the polling booths disenfranchised some voters, and other potential voters did not participate due to the hostile electoral environment characterised by extreme violence on voting day. Even some who voted lost the power to choose when their votes did not count because of ballot and result sheet snatching immediately after accreditation, before entering the results. In some instances, the outright destruction of voting materials by thugs was witnessed by voters.
The fourth indicator is that the younger generations are turning away from democracy as they are losing faith in the sanctity of the process. Youths were the most affected in this last election. Most felt it was time to engage politically and change the system. However, they are disappointed and disillusioned. A cursory look at social media reveals an avalanche of comments and content showing the utter dismay of youths about the flawed process and outcome of the elections. Some feel that political thieves robbed their mandate and are still organising to push for the change of the orthodoxy they have been clamouring for.
In some states, the gubernatorial and House of Assembly election processes and outcomes do not make common sense. Electoral fraud is a real threat to democracy. Nigerians in most states have been moot, protesting like in Nasarawa, or they have accepted the fraud with unspoken revulsion. Those who perpetuated and aided the fraud say it is not about morals but the outcome. However, they need to see the danger that lies ahead. Nigerians are fast losing faith in democracy. We need to do something urgently before we get to the terminal stage of divorce. This is an opportunity for the judiciary to emphasise the importance of process and the rule of law in our elections. The only way to stop this electoral impunity is for the courts to send a clear message through its judgements that deviation from the laws, rules and regulations governing elections by any candidate or party will be met with severe punishment and will never be rewarded. If political actors perpetrating electoral fraud can benefit from the crime, we are obviously on the road to perdition.
The real and present challenge for our incoming political leaders and the international community is how to tackle these challenges before the sun of democracy sets on Nigeria.
Dakuku Peterside is a policy and leadership expert.
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