By Jerome-Mario Utomi
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) recent declaration with excitement that it has received 42,211 online applications nationwide within the 24 hours of the resumption of its Continuous Voter Registration (CVR), naturally jogged my memory of a reported comment credited to President Muhammadu Buhari, few days after 2019 general election. Mr. President had in Abuja while declaring open the 25th Nigeria Economic Summit (NES) with the theme: ‘‘Nigeria 2050: Shifting Gears’’ stated that the peaceful conduct of the 2019 general elections was a clear proof that Nigeria’s democracy was maturing.
‘The elections he said have come and gone. Our country, once again, has shown the world that we can choose our leaders in a peaceful and orderly manner. Apart from a few pockets of unrest, the majority of voters exercised their civic rights without hindrance. ‘‘Furthermore, we also saw an increase in the number of aggrieved candidates and supporters, who took their concerns and grievances to the courts as opposed to the streets. This is how it should be. What this clearly shows is that our democracy is maturing,’’
Admittedly, there existed as it were, reason to believe the above statement considering prominence of the speaker and clarity of his message. But then, wisdom teaches that life is like photography and photography is like life. You need the negatives to fully make valid sense of the true positive picture. From this standpoint, can one judge Mr. President’s assertion as correct?
To provide answers to this question, let’s first refresh our minds, by taking a sincere look at comments/reports by foreign observers about the 2019 general election in Nigeria.
Out of many, this piece will focus on three. First is the cold fact from John Campbell, a former United States Ambassador to Nigeria. He said that; “When Nigeria transitioned from military to civilian rule in 1999, the effects on West Africa were palpable: coups lost their legitimacy, and the region has pursued a positive democratic trajectory ever since. But the latest presidential election is far from an example for those African countries consolidating their democracies or emerging from quasi-authoritarian regimes to emulate’’.
Before the dust raised by John Campbells’ comment could settle, that of the American Government was up. They stated; ‘As noted by many observer groups in their preliminary reports, we too were disappointed by the low voter turnout as well as credible reports of voter intimidation, vote-buying, and interference by security forces, and violence in some locations. We are saddened by those acts of violence and extend our deepest sympathy to the families of those who lost their lives, including those who worked for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the security services’.
As if that was not enough evidence for the nation to understand that all may actually not be well with our just concluded election, the European Union Observation Mission led by the EU chief Observer, Maria Arena in their preliminary report came with another troubling aspect that INEC had many operational shortcomings and particularly lamented the killing of almost 35 people on the election day as well as the late arrival of election materials at the polling units.
The implication of these findings is that, the electoral process in Nigeria including that of 2019 is rendered vulnerable to abuse, through massive rigging and other forms of electoral malpractices by political parties- especially by those in power as they seek to manipulate the system to serve their partisan interest. Elections, which are a critical part of the democratic process, therefore, lose their intrinsic value, and become mere means of manipulation to get to power.
Using these hard facts and factors discussed above as a benchmark, particularly that by the European Union Observation Mission led by the EU chief Observer, Maria Arena, it presents Mr President’ claim as untrue. The reason is simple; an electoral exercise where over 35 citizens lost their lives cannot be described as peaceful or growing.
More precisely in my views, recording an increase in the number of aggrieved candidates, and supporters, who took their concerns and grievances to the courts, as opposed to the streets, or having an increase in the number of registered voters should not be the Key Performance Indicator (KPI), to decide whether the nations’ democracy is growing or not as there are other perimeters and parameters to identify such development.
Democracy is not an end in itself and it is not about the number of registered voters. The world is in agreement that for democracy to be considered as developing, it should underwrite social justice and social mobility. But unfortunately, this has not been the case here in Nigeria since May 1999 as it only fuels hopelessness.
Substantively also, the above reality places another potential downside to the recent claim by the All Progressive Congress (APC), that they are loved as a party because they placed before Nigerians policies that focus on delivering prosperity to all Nigerians through enhanced security; eliminated corrupt practices in public service; supports sectors that will create jobs, and promoted socially-focused interventions to support the poorest and most vulnerable among us.
Empirically, aside from the fact that some analysts have described the Party’s comment as a resemblance of someone calling his puppy a lion, democracy in Nigeria of today says the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria in one of their reports, cannot enjoy such attributes outlined by APC in the face of the present happenings in the country. Nigerian State, they noted, is much endowed with natural, human and spiritual resources; but, political authorities have not been completely diligent in relating to these resources nor have they been fair and equitable in distributing them. Many instances of killings still exist as a result of banditry, kidnapping, assassination, armed robbery, reckless use of force by security agencies, lynching, reported an upsurge in the cases of suicide, even among our youths, clashes between herdsmen, communities and the activities of Boko Haram insurgents have continued, in which many innocent people lose their lives.
To reap the fruits of a maturing democracy, we must first go beyond superficial voter registration to recognize that how elected officials treat their people after elections is the major indicator of a growing democracy.
Very key also, Nigeria and Nigerians must admit without doubt that the world qualifies election as credible only when it is organized in an atmosphere of peace, devoid of rancour and acrimony. The outcome of such an election must be acceptable to a majority of the electorate and it must be acceptable within the international community. If elections are to be free and fair, laws designed in that regard must not just exist; they must be operational and be enforced. And the power of freedom of choice conferred on the electorates must be absolute and not questionable.
Thus, while this piece encourages all Nigerians to participate in the ongoing Continuous Voter Registration (CVR), the nation Nigeria must find ways of keeping faith with the four basic conditions necessary for holding free and fair elections. These include; an honest, competent and non-partisan body to administer the election, the knowledge and willingness of the political community to accept basic rules and regulations governing the contest for power, a developed system of political parties and teams of candidates presented to the electorates as alternative choices. And an independent judiciary to interpret electoral laws and settle election disputes.
Utomi is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Policy), Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), Lagos. He could be reached via;[email protected]