Opinion: Our election, our destiny – By AYO OLUKOTUN
In the coming week, Nigerians will go to the polls to elect a President who will govern for the four years between 2019 and 2023, as well as politicians who will constitute the National Assembly in the same period. This will be followed up on March 2 by elections to governorship and state Houses of Assembly positions. Taken together, this is the sixth time in the period since 1999 when Nigerians will go to the polls. Also, it is the first general election after the historic outing of February 2015, in which for the first time, an incumbent party and leader were defeated in what was widely regarded as a free and fair election. In that year, former President Goodluck Jonathan in keeping best global practices, willingly conceded defeat to his main rival, Muhammadu Buhari, who is standing election for another four-year term.
Elections, whatever their imperfections, go to the very heart of the democratic assumption by connoting the representative, competitive, and legitimacy-conferring aspects of governance. In the absence of direct democracy, modern elections are considered the next best way to ensure leadership succession, the exercises of choice by voters, and the building of a national political community around values of participation and the rule of law. Next week’s and other elections will decide several things, the first of which is whether the widely-acclaimed elections of 2015 are an exceptional departure from the norm of rigged elections, which are a feature of our history since 1999. Put in another way, can the country repeat the integrity and the output of that election, which increased Nigeria’s soft power and won us plaudits from the international community? A related question is whether given the tension that has preceded the forthcoming elections, polling would go on in an atmosphere of civility, peace and orderliness devoid of the violence that characterised previous elections. Before coming up with educated guesses to these questions, it is important to realise that international observers which are a crucial part of the apparatus for legitimising elections, have arrived in Nigeria while the United States Government considered it necessary to send a former President, Bill Clinton, to hold meetings with the two primary contenders, Buhari and Abubakar Atiku.
Future historians will ponder why the nation is often so exercised and stretched to its very limits by every election, in contrast to many countries around the globe, including some in West Africa such as Ghana, where elections have become seamless and routine. For now, however, let us focus on the various communities and institutions that can bring success or ruin the elections. Arguably, the most important is the Independent National Electoral Commission, whose performance or lack of it, will go a long way in determining whether the exercises will be free, fair and credible. There is a sense in which after a bumpy start, INEC has got its act together, stepping up the distribution of the PVCs (there are still jagged areas in the actual collection), cleaning up the electoral register, and staying on top of the technological game by mastering the use of card readers. Hence, earlier elections at the sub-national levels point to increasing clarity of logistical and infrastructural details, including the prompt arrival of voting materials and manual substitutes where card readers had failed. Considering that these elections were conducted in a few states, the commission will have to step up its game given that it is dealing with the sprawling territory of an entire nation. This should not be too difficult because it has had time and funds from domestic and foreign sources to prepare for the eventful days. Technocracy aside, INEC must be seen to live up to the billings of 2015 when its former chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega, wrote his name in history by resisting political interference in the elections. This is an area of crucial monitoring in view of allegations, true or invented, by the opposition, that there are covert plans to fiddle with the outcome of the elections. The political parties should be admonished to be responsible and patriotic contestants playing by the rules and taking the larger interests of the nation into consideration. At the end of the day, even those who win must have a nation to govern, while those who lose should have a place to return to so that they can plan for future elections. It would do no good to resort to acts of thuggery, vote-buying, hate speech or irresponsible behaviour, all of which have been dominant for much of our history.
Worthy of mention also is the role of the security agencies whose impartiality is vital to the conduct and success of the elections. Indiscriminate arrests, the failure to maintain law and order, or blatant one-sidedness can undermine the integrity of the elections, and should be avoided at all costs. The controversial redeployment of police commissioners around the country, this week, may require a second look, given that, once the security is drawn into the fray, it would be difficult to perceive their role as that of neutral umpires. The police are unlikely to mass up in the huge numbers obtained in the Ekiti election for example; indeed, the challenge will be how to administer security without spreading themselves too thin around the country. This is an opportunity for the recently appointed Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, to prove his mettle. Important too, is the role of civil society, national and global, represented by domestic and international observers, and other non-governmental organisations, whose watch-dog role must be escalated and maintained throughout the duration of the elections and beyond. The political society usually acts out of cynical self-interest, not caring for the larger good. This is the time therefore, for civil society and election monitors to step into the neutral space that cannot be filled by politicians.
The voters represent a cardinal segment of the process in that their apathy or non-compliance with the rules can undo the elections, or at least, diminish them. They are enjoined, in pursuit of their civic responsibilities, to show up in large numbers, not minding the frustrations that now and then complicate the electoral process. It is not enough to vote, they must stand in readiness to defend their votes and to ensure that results reflect the voting trend. In 2015, only roughly 44% of registered voters showed up to cast their votes in the presidential election. That figure translates to a meagre 16% of the country’s population suggesting low turnout and a disturbingly high number of citizens who are either apolitical or switched off, what Emeritus Professor Akin Mabogunje frequently describes as ‘the rascality of politicians’. This itself is a topic for another day, but democratic renewal mandates the building up of the civic space and an active citizenry, who through participation, can turn matters around.
The final point to note is that, since there are no perfect elections anywhere in the world, political gladiators are enjoined not to be bad losers, but to accept defeat, once the process complies substantially with existing rules and tenets of fair play. This is a test of statesmanship but it will determine whether we are growing in democratic comportment and civility, or regressing. May the best candidates emerge victorious. Punch