Resolving Nigeria's Electoral Crisis

Nigerian President Obasanjo is pleased
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo just after receiving his certificate from the Independent National Electoral Commission, April 23, 2003 (Photo: Pius Utomi Expei/AFP).

The outcome of the elections of April 12 and 19 has again brought Nigeria to the precipice. The elections were generally peaceful, even if not totally violence-free. There were some logistic hitches that were later smoothed out, but by and large, the elections were impressive. The jinx, it seemed, had been broken. But having peaceful elections is totally different from having free and fair elections. One does not necessarily lead to the other.

The events of the last few days suggest it is too early to celebrate a successful civilian-to-civilian transition. There is every reason to be afraid for the democratic project in Nigeria, and for Nigeria itself. With claims and counter-claims of electoral malpractices filling the air, with emotions bursting through the roof, the clouds are gathering again.

If this drift is not halted, the possibility of a democratic breakdown, fuelled by ethno-religious tension and a crisis of legitimacy, cannot be dismissed. This doomsday scenario has haunted many Nigerians all along. But right now, the nightmare looks so real.

There is an urgent need for political actors and stakeholders to step back from the brink and seek legal and political solutions to prevent this much-feared and much-discussed doomsday scenario from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

At issue is the integrity of the results announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Last Tuesday night, the commission’s chairman, Abel Guobadia announced that President Olusegun Obasanjo had won the presidential election with 61 percent of the votes cast. According to the results, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (ret.) of the All Nigeria People’s Party, ANPP, won 32 percent of the votes cast.

In the gubernatorial elections, the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won in 28 states, up from the 21 states it had won in the 1999 elections. The ANPP won in seven states, as compared to the nine it used to have. The Alliance for Democracy (AD) could only cling to one of the six states it had won in 1999.

From the results, the PDP consolidated its dominance by retaining 20 of its previously held 21 states, snatching three from the ANPP and poaching five from the AD. This pattern was well foreshadowed by the results of the National Assembly polls of April 12.

The results, however, have been greeted with contestations. Buhari and other presidential candidates have rejected the elections, alleging widespread manipulations. The ANPP candidate has also called on the international community to reject the result of the elections and for an interim government to be formed by May 29.

Both local and international observers have also complained of egregious lapses such as intimidation of opponents, multiple voting, stuffing and swapping of ballot boxes, and changing of results.

Both the European Union Election Observation Mission and the Transition Monitoring Group have detailed serious irregularities in states such as Rivers, Bayelsa, and Enugu, among others. According to the E.U. observers, “the elections in these states lack credibility.”

To be sure, some of the irregularities are so brazen that not a few Nigerians believe votes were just arbitrarily awarded in some back room by the enforcers of the ruling party. The results from Rivers, Bayelsa, and Ogun states support this thesis.

The 96.5 percent turnout in Rivers State taxes credulity. The explanation by the PDP Chairman, Chief Audu Ogbeh, that the “historic” turnout was a reward for the performance of the state governor is patently insulting.

The result from Ogun State, the president’s home state, is equally mind-blowing. Apart from the fact that the president scored 99.2 percent of the votes cast in the state, there is a wide discrepancy in the number of votes cast for the gubernatorial candidates and the presidential candidates, even though the two elections were held simultaneously. A whopping 618,071 votes were unaccounted for.

Until a credible explanation is offered, it is difficult to dismiss the allegations of opponents as the “complaints of bad losers.” We note, however, that these abuses resulted from the over-zealousness of officials in a few states, thereby distracting from what could have passed as largely free and fair elections.

Be that as it may, from all reports at our disposal, we firmly believe that President Obasanjo would have won, fair and square, even at the first ballot. Buhari, from our findings, does not have the needed support in all parts of the country.

According to our exit polls, the president was likely to meet the constitutional requirements of winning 25 percent of the vote at least two-thirds of Nigerian states and of winning 55 percent of the total popular vote.

But some overzealous members of the president’s campaign team chose not to leave anything to chance. They resorted to stuffing the ballots and inflating results in a few states. They need not have done so. For even if you remove the votes in about six of the states where the abuses were said to have been widespread, Obasanjo would still have won. Their actions unnecessarily taint a hard-won victory, leaving a needless crisis on its trail.

The upshot of all these is that the electoral process has been tainted. And this poses great dangers to both our young democracy and to our country. Having credible polls and legitimate governments are crucial to democracy. With the results so far, there are serious questions about the credibility of the polls and the legitimacy of the government it might produce.

And if this crisis is allowed to fester, it could take on an ethno-religious color. This would necessarily push Nigeria back to her political fault lines. The country may muddle through. But muddling through may just give some temporary comfort. It could amount to postponing the evil day. Besides, having a government of doubted legitimacy and a country of grudges lays the foundation for future explosions. This we have to avoid. And fast.

Buhari has called for an interim government to take over from May 29. He has also not expressed interest in going to the election tribunal. We don’t consider his call and attitude helpful. We believe that participating in an election is an act of faith in the process. Though some of the latest developments are faith-shaking, they shouldn’t constitute the grounds for absolute cynicism.

We urge the aggrieved parties to avail themselves of the mechanisms for seeking redress built in to our government. The gubernatorial candidates should go to the electoral tribunals, while the presidential candidates should go to court. With well-documented cases, we believe that the cause of justice will be served. We urge the judges who will treat these cases to bear in mind that both the judiciary and democracy will be on trial before them. We believe the Court of Appeal, which will be a court of first instance in the presidential polls, is filled with sound judges whose erudition and wise counsel will be called upon at this time of national crisis. We believe they are more than capable of dispensing justice.

No matter the outcome of the legal option, we believe the process of reconciliation will be helped by a thorough-going political approach. The president should lead the way in this direction. It is not enough for him to thank Nigerians for giving him another mandate, extend hand of fellowship and threaten to maintain public peace. He has a huge responsibility for steering this country away from the precipice.

The utterances of his aides, especially Jerry Gana, Chief Audu Ogbeh, and Chief Ojo Maduekwe, have not been helpful. When they are not sounding unnecessarily triumphant, they are unduly inflammatory. This is the time to calm frayed nerves. Those bent on retaining their jobs should not be allowed to push this country over the edge. We also condemn the victory gala staged by the PDP in Abuja. It was not only inexpedient, it was insensitive. This is no time to gloat but a time for reconciliation and friendship.

This is a time for serious dialogue, possibly brokered under the aegis of the Council of State. We urge all the stakeholders to give this process a chance in the interest of peace and stability. The president has promised to form a broad-based national government going beyond partisan lines. We think that is a good move. But he should strive to step down from his high horse and consult with his opponent, Buhari, who has earned the support of a substantial and important section of the country.

Ultimately, there is need to further open up the electoral process, ensure the financial independence of the electoral commission and evolve an electoral system that will accommodate different interests and sections of the society. But these are matters of the future. The urgent task at hand is how to get out of this unnecessary mess. We believe we can do it if the major stakeholders are ready to meet and to sacrifice in the overall interest of this country. They should.