Nigerian elections and Nigerian marriages have a lot in common. Both should be sacrosanct. They are conducted with pomp and fanfare, and promises are made but kept in breach. 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 the candidates and the electorate in defining power structures, agencies, and processes in a democracy.
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 become meaningless, ineffectual, and unfit for purpose. Credible election is the glue that holds the candidate and the electorate together, and anything that erodes people’s trust and confidence in the electoral system simultaneously creates a divorce between the candidates and the electorate.
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, the 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. This election has 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 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 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 divorce and is part of the stress test for democracy. The presidential election of 25th February was a sign of a bad marriage, but the governorship and state house of assembly elections showed that if we do not care, we are heading for 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, result manipulation and “thuggery” were the rules of this election instead of the exception. This problem has led to moral panic and has 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 election process, rigged the elections, and intimidated and abused voters verbally and physically as they did in this election. In some states, the scene on election day is reminiscent of a mob war and activities of Mafioso in banana republics. One observer mission compared what happened to the 2015 Rivers State election, considered the most violent election in Nigeria’s history.
All the reports point to the fact that Rivers State had no elections in the strict sense of elections. The state is now notorious for shambolic elections. On this occasion, INEC, her agents, and desperate political actors did not follow electoral rules, and worse still, the compromise of the security agencies was evident. Some reports accused some Lagos actors of elevating the electoral contest 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 greater might and control of instruments of violence had their way, and those with popular support without the “might of violence” lost out. These assaults on democracy stem from the dominant political philosophy in Nigeria among political gladiators, favouring winning at all costs at first polling and dealing with the aftermath with pretentious reconciliatory speeches. 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 in the polls. It is dangerous to assume that candidates will consider violence and rigging as the only option for securing the people’s mandate in a future election. This flies in the face of democracy, where the power belongs to the people and only through credible elections do people select whom to entrust their power over to 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 based on 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 argued that a fair and functional Nigerian election experience mattered more than the outcome. Onubogu opines that “Nigerians needed to be able to see that the process worked.” Hassan comments, “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 10 signs that democracy is under siege. There are elements of these 10 signs in the last state elections in Nigeria. I will focus on the four most relevant signs vis-a-vis the previous state election. First, voter participation is on the decline. Mainly, after the adverse events 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 per cent of all eligible voters in Nigeria participated, and the state elections witnessed even lesser voter turnout. This percentage turnout is indicative and is 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, financial inducement of political actors, financing of violence and thuggery, and compromising security agents and INEC officials. They sometimes acted in unison to truncate the people’s will.
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 box 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 are 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 youths’ utter dismay 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 are clamouring for now.
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 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 judiciary 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 set on Nigeria.