Monday, April 25, 2011

Broad Day Democracy in Nigeria: An Observer’s Account

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

The emergence of people’s power through various means of exercising their franchise to decide who leads and who goes where is taking root in Africa. Strongman politics and guerrilla warfare, and politics of machinations are gradually wearing away. Presidential Elections were held in Nigeria on April 16, 2011, and it was indeed a remarkable experience for millions of people to see for the first time, that their votes really counted, and that those whom the majority voted for in the preceding National Assembly elections and the presidential elections are the ones declared as winners. A friend of mine on the ECOWAS team, chilled by the development in his country told me that he was in tears to see Nigeria moving in such a progressive way forward. He recalled an experience of the 2007 elections during which he was a poll observer for a gubernatorial candidate. In no time according to him, strongmen stormed the polling area with sporadic gun fire, scared people away and stole the ballot boxes. That robbery was intended to turn the results in favor of the candidate whom by the people’s votes was overwhelmingly rejected. So the people’s franchises were stolen. Court actions ensued, and after three years, with gradual reforms in the judicial system itself, the people’s candidate was declared the winner.

There were many of such instances according to observers’ accounts in 2007. For the most part, all international observers and domestic observers declared the elections and the victory of the People’s Democratic Party as a product of a fraudulent process, and daylight robbery of the people’s vote. Today, Africa’s largest democracy is turning the tide. And it is worth nothing that for once, the time of the people has arrived in Africa. In Tunisia and Egypt, with no opportunities for free and fair votes, the people devised other means at self-determination, and they are now in full control. In Libya, efforts at self-determination had turned violent, so one cannot easily describe the process in Libya as a mass people’s movement for self-liberation since western-backed oppositions have stolen the show by means of guerrilla tactics.

Nigeria stands to be the most populous nation in Africa with so many diversities in culture, religion and political traditions. Its role as the dominant power in West Africa demands from it moral authority through the proper conduct of its domestic activities, without which its influence in the sub-region would be questionable. The country is gradually transforming itself and wants to begin to lead by examples. The 2011 Presidential Election, albeit some minor skirmishes and violence in areas traditionally unstable, is a turning point for the country and can be seen as the first brick in the building of a larger democratic system in West Africa. Several other countries have proven worthy of credible electoral process before – Liberia (2005), Ghana (2008) Sierra Leone (2007)- while Ivory Coast was still in the vestiges of a crisis resulting from electoral fraud and strongman defiance of a rejected candidate-president. One would have thought that the processes that railroaded Goodluck Jonathan to power as Vice President of Nigeria in 2007 could have been re-invented to make him president in 2011. But this time he took a comfortable ride with huge support from the people, securing over 22 million of the 39 million votes cast, and his party’s victory anchored in high degree of legitimacy.

We saw it broad day and we can testify that this time the people’s voices sounded aloud. We know that there were places where irregularities were reported and bombs were thrown to intimidate voters, and observers. But from reports from around the country, from international and local observers, the election was credible, and was conducted in a free and very transparent environment. What I saw at the polling stations I visited as an ECOWAS Observer , the word ‘transparent’ will be an understatement in describing the openness of the process. At the polling stations voters defied the burning sun and stood in their numbers to see the counting of their votes. Poll officers, mostly members of the Nigeria National Youth Service Corps were vigilant and one could see in them a commitment to a call to national duty – to serve their country at this critical time in organizing and leading a transition. They collated the ballot papers just under a canopy that was used as a polling station while we all stood looking and the determined voters scattered all around. With a mega phone, the counting process began. And a ballot paper will be lifted and displayed for the crowd to see which party is marked. The crowd would all join in a chorus and count in a way reminiscent of my kindergarten classes “1! 2! 3! 3! 4!...” I was really impressed by this incredibly remarkable development, so I turned to a colleague and said ‘this is a broad day democracy in Nigeria’. From that polling station, and several others no single voter could doubt his/her role in the process, and neither could anyone doubt that the votes were fairly counted.

Processes like these are supported and rooted in credible institutions run by people of high moral and ethical rectitude. With a history of terribly fraudulent elections, many Nigerians previously thought that they were only going to participate in a process of window-dressing a victory for an incumbent leader who would at the end disregard their opinions and rig the process. But the incumbent president committed himself to a free and fair process; the oppositions, too, committed themselves to a peaceful and fair election. A University professor was appointed to chair the electoral commission. The man, Prof. Attahiru Jega, in the words of many Nigerians, is a ‘prophet who God had sent to deliver Nigeria from the demons of theft and electoral malpractices’. Jega’s leadership gave a very huge legitimacy to the process. His personality alone saved the Independent National Electoral Commission from disparagements. Jega mobilized a group of professors and collaborated with the Youth Service Corps to do his ‘prophetic delivery’. The Nigerian press, too, was very vigilant. The press ensured that all sides and events were covered thus giving the people a broader opportunity to weigh every side in making their decisions.

The violence in some parts of the country has no legal ground for turning over the people’s verdict. The violence is rooted in ethnic and sectarian cleavages which has been brought forth to darken the credibility of a successful democratic process. We make no attempt here to gown the entire process with a plain white cloth, we know some parts were stained, but overall, we witnessed an unprecedented people’s victory in Nigeria through a presidential election that was conducted broad day and votes counted broad day. The first was the National Assembly elections of April 9 which observers believed the Presidential election learned a lot from, and of course, the skirmishes from that process were worked out to ensure the success of the Presidential Election of April 16. From the presidential poll, lessons learnt will be used to make the gubernatorial elections of April 23 a more successful one. And so this is how every society recovers and builds itself. From a history of violent transitions, rigged elections, military putsches, Nigeria is now transforming to a democratic society. The process must not stop to elections, but the system of governance must be democratically strengthened so that what has come with a trumpet of input legitimacy can have a broader output legitimacy – that is governing in a way that ensures equitable distribution of resources, justice for all, sound financial and administrative management, and broader participation of the masses of the people. We are sure Nigeria will get there, and of course the rest of West Africa will flourish in ‘broad day democracy – Elections in the day, and governance in the day’.