Challenges Before Nigeria As She Progresses To The April 2011 Election

Paper presented at a public workshop on Tuesday February 22, 2011 hosted by Africare and the U.S. Institute of Peace will host to assess progress toward that goal and consider next steps toward free and fair 2011 elections.

As Nigeria prepares for critical elections that will determine the direction Nigeria and much of West Africa will go for perhaps the next decade, there have been good signs as well as ominous signs coming out of the nation. There are things that those in positions of power are doing or have done that suggest that the intention to have free and fair elections in 2011 is there. But there are also troubling signs that show that while the 'want to' may be present, the 'how to' may not yet have been perfected. And unless those in power in Nigeria today want to and know how to and perhaps why to have free and fair credible elections, Nigeria may not have the type of election she deserves in 2011. But like I said, there are encouraging signs.

Why were previous elections flawed?


Most people are agreed that the 2007 Nigerian elections were flawed but I believe strongly that to understand why those elections were flawed we need to look at the personalities that drove those elections. For instance, why was Nigeria able to conduct decent elections in 1999 and not in 2003 and 2007? I think it all boils down to the personality of the man at the head of the body conducting the election and his relationship with the President who appointed him as well as the enabling laws under which he operated.

2.Military Backing

In 1999 Justice Ephraim Akpata was the chairman of INEC. He was appointed by General Abdulsalami Abubakar, a man who suddenly found himself as Head of state after the death of the late dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha and who had no desire to perpetuate himself in office. Justice Akpata was independent and it was obvious that he was his own man. He was only able to do this because he operated under a military Head of state who ruled by decree and whose word to a large extent could not be questioned even by a court of law and who in turn gave Justice Akpata sweeping powers. Justice Akpata had a pedigree that was known. His antecedents as a justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria showed he was incorruptible and fearless. His character was known and it was possible to assess his personality and know with some level of accuracy what he would do in a given circumstance. Justice Akpata could hire and fire at will at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and he did fire some he felt he could not work with. The environment could not have been better for JusticeAkpata and for free and fair elections for Nigeria. As such the elections were free and fair. However, Justice Akpata died on the 8th of January 2000.

3.No Financial Autonomy and Independence for The INEC

Justice Akpata was replaced first by Abel Guobadia who conducted the 2003 electionsand later Maurice Iwu who supervised the infamous 2007 elections (for want of a betterterm). They both had to contend with the new law that had come into place with the promulgation of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, which stripped them of a lot of the powers that Justice Akpata enjoyed under the military. Under these two heads of the INEC, the institution did not have financial autonomy and was tied to the apron strings of the executive and as we all know, he who pays the piper dictates the tune. Furthermore, they had to contend with then President OlusegunObasanjo who has a reputation of being very overbearing and used to getting his way (of course he was a former military strongman). It was reported more than once between 2001 and 2007 that president Obasanjo had summoned the chairman of the INEC to the Presidential villa to give explanations for certain actions. This closeness to the incumbent president deeply affected the objectivity of these election umpires. In the face of the president and the ruling party, they were very timid, however, when dealing with the opposition they were often abrasive. For instance about a week after the April 2003 elections Abel Guobadia described former president Obasanjo's opponent in the race, Gen. Buhari, as a "frustrated man". Not to be outdone the INEC under his successor, Maurice Iwu, accused Buhari of forgery when he produced evidence to prove the 2007 elections were rigged. These two men would never have had the audacity to address the incumbent president or the ruling party in such terms. That being the case it hardly seems fair to them to call them umpires. At best, they were civil servants appointed and controlled by the incumbent president and even if he did not expressly order them to skew the elections in favour of the PDP, his overbearing behaviour and body language would have communicated his intentions. In fact president Obasanjo in 2007 had said that those elections were to him a "do or die elections"! Obviously the INEC heard him.


Unknown Quantities at the helm

So in summary, the 2003 and 2007 elections turned out the way they did because the INEC was not really independent and the Chairman and board of the INEC got their funding at the pleasure of the president. Also and particularly in the case of Maurice Iwulittle to nothing was known of the chairmen appointed by president Obasanjo so it was difficult to assess their personality or know if they had any political leaning and it eventually turned out that at least one of them (Maurice Iwu) had sympathy for the PDP under whose banner his own daughter contested for elections in the just concluded primary season in Nigeria. Normally the senate is expected to ratify the appointment of the chairman of INEC nominated by the president, but because the senate was controlled by the PDP whose interests were tied to that of President Obasanjo what transpired in the confirmation hearings of both Abel Guobadia and Maurice Iwu was a mere formality. They both got easy passes.

Progress being made

It is obvious that to get a better result in 2011, the INEC must be completely independent of the President and must have financial autonomy and be headed by a man of known unimpeachable integrity who has no connection to the President or the ruling party. All of these have been achieved today.

1. New Chairman, Independence and Financial Autonomy

First the new INEC chairman appointed by President Jonathan is universally acknowledged by both the opposition, the Nigerian civil society and pro-democratic groups to be a man of integrity who has demonstrated through a pattern of good works that he cannot compromised. Also both the President and chairman Jega himself have said that they had never met until the day the President appointed him. Secondly the Electoral Act of 2010 signed into law by President Jonathan on the 20th of August, 2010 guarantees the INEC financial autonomy. And already we begin to see that this autonomy is having a positive effect on the INEC. Just last week for instance, the INEC and the PDP engaged in a public spat because the INEC refused the PDP's request to substitute candidates whose names had already been presented to the INEC. Such a thing would have been unthinkable in the past.

2. Voters Register

In 2007 many Nigerian watchers posited that rogue politicians were able to rig elections primarily because the electoral register used in 2007 did not go through a verification exercise. Apparently INEC has learnt from this and has in 2011 compiled a new and more reliable voters register and has followed this by displaying the new voters register at each of the 120,000 polling stations nationwide for Nigerians to inspect and check for errors in their names and such like. Party agents are also expected to be involved in this process. Although it was meant to take place between February 14th and 18th, I have a sense that the INEC board will extend the time for verification.

3. Election Monitors

Another good indicator is the fact that when I interviewed the chairman of INEC I asked him if he would make use of evidence of electoral malpractices captured by ordinary Nigerians on modern devices like smart phones and digital cameras and uploaded to a site I intend to build and promote for that purpose. Chairman Jega responded on camera that he would accept such evidence and he would prosecute anybody caught engaging in electoral malpractice no matter their status in society. This made the headline in Nigeria the next day and was particularly significant because the previous INEC board had rejected such pieces of evidence because the Nigerian Evidence Act is ambiguous on the admissibility of such types of evidence and this formed the difficulty encountered by candidates who were rigged out in 2007 when they challenged the results of the election in court.

4. Non Extraneous Interference

One of the early indicators that 2011 may be better than 2007 in my view is the fact that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has not participated so much in the process as they did in 2007 when the EFCC under the leadership of Malam NuhuRibadu (ironically now a presidential candidate himself) blacklisted many of the candidates for elective offices on the basis that they were not fit and proper persons tocontest elections. The complaint then was that most of those on the list were also people who had fallen out with the former president. We do not see this type of activity this time around and this is definitely a good indicator.

So with these developments, there is hope that the 2011 elections will fare much better than the 2007 elections.

Threats to coming elections

But there are still threats to the coming elections and I will touch on those below.


1. Compromised INEC officials

The current President by his action particularly of choosing someone with a trade union back ground (Jega was former President of the union of university lecturers) and an academic who was until his appointment Vice Chancellor of The Bayero University Kano, is seen as wanting better elections than in 2007. Also, I interviewed The Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) himself and he said amongst other things that he has been given a free hand and so far has not encountered any interference in his duties. However, quite understandably, civil society is particularly concerned that he has not fired some of the commissioners like AyokaAdebayo, who oversaw controversial and often fraudulent elections in 2007 and subsequent years. In his defence, when asked he did say that he had no power to fire them. However, I do know that even if he cannot fire them, he can reassign them from the field and into more administrative duties where they will not be able to influence the results of elections.

2.Ethno-Religious Tensions

In my view, the major threat facing the 2011 election is the rise of sectional groups like the Northern Political Leaders Forum (NPLF) who are openly promoting regional, sectional and or religious interest over national interest. The Northern Political Leaders Forum was formed for the sole purpose of pressuring the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to cede power to the North in fulfillment of the 'zoning' principle within the PDP where political power at the federal level is expected to be rotated between the North and the South and between Muslims and Christians. Obviously the death of President Umaru Musa Yar'adua before he could complete his first term initiated a series of events that has seen the PDP jettisoning the 'zoning' principle and this has led to a lot of discontent amongst some of the political elite in the North especially those of the old guard.

Sensing that they may be losing out they formed the NPLF in August of 2010 and found support with other groups promoting or purporting to promote a Northern sectional agenda such as the Arewa Consultative Forum and the Arewa Youth Forum. As these groups faced the imminence of a Jonathan candidacy their rhetoric became increasingly divisive with Alhaji Lawal Kaita, a former governor of the Northern state of Kaduna and a member of one of these groups being quoted as saying the "North" would make Nigeria "ungovernable". In fact his exact words were "Anything short of a Northern President is tantamount to stealing our Presidency. Jonathan has to go and he will go. Even if he uses the incumbency power to get his nomination on the platform of the PDP, he would be frustrated out."

Quite naturally, this type of talk has drawn angry reactions from the Southern part of the country. The end result has been a hardening of the stance of the more extreme elements in the North and in the South and this is the present and most pressing threat we have to the 2011 election.

Even more disturbing are the mass SMS (texts) being circulated in the mainly Muslim North to the extent that a vote for President Jonathan is a vote against Islam. Coming at a time when there is an uprising by the group known as 'boko haram' (a Taliban like Islamic extremist group that believes Western education is haram-sin) and tensions in the Middle Belt (the swat of land in the middle of Nigeria where the mainly Christian South meets the mainly Muslim North) Nigeria may be sitting on a keg of gun powder if nothing is done to halt this whispering religious/ethnic campaign that is fast gaining ground in Nigeria. In fact I am not so sure that it is still a whispering campaign because at least one of the major parties, The Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) is openly using religion as a campaign tool. For instance, the major Nigerian newspaper Thisday in its edition this past Thursday (17th of February, 2011) said "A major factor in the mobilisation for CPC, according to sources, is the use of religion as a campaign tool".

3. Tensions in the Judiciary

Coupled with the threat of ethnic and religious irredentist as outlined above, another looming threat to the 2011 elections which has perhaps not received as much attention as it should receive is the in fighting currently going on in the Nigerian judiciary. Recently, the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami, made some weighty allegations against the Chief Justice of Nigeria essentially accusing him of involvement in partisan politics on the side of the ruling PDP. His actions were triggered by the attempt by the Chief Justice of Nigeria to elevate him to the Supreme Court an attempt which he resisted. Certainly opposition politicians are taking his allegations seriously even though he has withdrawn them. The effect of Justice Salami's actions on the integrity of the judiciary cannot now be assessed fully but it is expected that the toll will be huge. For instance court challenges have followed EVERY election held in Nigeria since independence and the judiciary has to be seen as the final hope of victims of stolen elections. If the public has a perception that the judiciary is biased what now becomes of the process when the inevitable happens and disputes are taken to the judiciary? Will the parties to any such suit accept the verdict?

Nigeria has to avoid what happened in C├┤te d'Ivoire where the electoral commission declared one candidate the winner and the judiciary under the aegis of the Constitutional Council declared another candidate the winner. And the only way to avoid a similar scenario in Nigeria is for the judiciary to not only be impartial but to be seen as such.

4. Voters Disenfranchisement/Insecurity

Nigeria's 2011 elections also face another threat, that of disenfranchisement of eligible voters due to insecurity in some parts of Nigeria. The people of South-Eastern Nigeria are mercantile by nature and they travel heavily do business in the North and West. Traditionally they would normally go back to the East to register as voters and to vote. However, when the INEC carried out the registration of voters between January and February this year, they found out that there was a spike in the number of registered voters in the West and the North when compared to the numbers from the 2006 exercise which could not be explained away by population growth. They also discovered that there was a drastic drop in the number of voters registered in the Eastern parts of Nigeria. For instance while Lagos state in the West recorded 4.2 million voters in the exercise of 2006, the same area registered 6.2 million voters this year. When a reporter from Thisday newspapers asked the spokesman of INEC to explain the huge difference (45% growth) in a space of just four years the spokesman said "From our findings,Igbos were afraid to go back to the South-east to register because of the fear of kidnap. Lagos State is a major beneficiary of this development,". This insecurity in parts of Nigeria is a threat to the 2011 elections because in those parts of Nigeria there will predictably be a low voter turnout meaning that the vote in those parts may not be a true reflection of the feelings of the population. Moreover, it is a known fact that low voter turnout is conducive to election rigging.


So what can be done? What is the solution?

For ethno-religious tensions Let me say that while it may be walking a tight rope to expect the INEC to intervene on this issue giving that many of those fanning this divisive campaign are faceless and even where they are known they tend to be very powerful individuals who are virtually untouchable, they still need to act and not just play the ostrich. I propose that they should make a scape goat of someone to serve as a deterrent. A suitable target for maximum impact should be arrested (because by the Electoral Act of 2010 what they are doing is a crime)y, quickly tried and convicted and the international community has to proactively intervene by speaking out against this trend. Not wanting to be a prophet of doom, I would however want to draw attention to the fact that the fear of Southern domination and encroachment of Christianity has always been a latent fear of the far North of Nigeria since pre-colonial times and was one of the principal triggers for the fratricidal civil war of 1967-1970.

As such comments such as those recently credited to Ambassador John Campbell to the effect that the loss of the 2011 elections by Gen. Buhari may trigger an Egypt like uprising in Nigeria are at the very least unhelpful and at the worst an incitement to violence. What the international community should be saying to Nigeria at this critical time is that it expects her to conduct free and fair elections and the winner of such elections would be acceptable as long as the contest was substantially free and fair. Statements should also be directed at those fanning the embers of division along ethnic and religious lines that such actions would not be tolerated. It is not too much to call for some sanctions against the known proponents of such divisive ideologies. They could be threatened with travel bans and denial of visas or revocation of those already given. The world should not have to wait until their hate mongering matures into full blown acts of violence before the international community reacts

For the judiciary there can only be one solution to avoid what may turn out to be a catastrophe. Both Justices Salami and Katsina Alu must recuse themselves from any and all cases arising from the 2011 elections. This is just to safe guard the process. But even more important, the other arms of government in Nigeria (the executive and the legislature) must as a matter of necessity set machinery in motion to investigate the weighty allegations made by Justice Salami and get to the root of the power tussle between the two if there can be any hope that the full integrity of the Nigerian judiciary can be restored. It is not proper that the National Judicial Council which has JusticeKatsina-Alu himself as head will sit in judgement over this issue and determine without any probe that there is nothing to Salami's allegations. This must not be allowed to die a natural death and friends of Nigeria must speak up now while the situation can be salvaged before it reaches C├┤te d'Ivoire-like dimensions.

For Voters disenfranchisement There is very little time to make any significant improvements in security in those areas between now and the election which barring any changes would be taking place in 7 weeks from today (April 9th). To my mind, the only solution there can be is for the INEC to relocate the voting centres in those areas which suffer from insecurity from the polling booths to places of worship because the polling booths tend to be in villages, remote communities where they are under staffed and vulnerable to the activities of thugs. However, those who know Nigeria well know that in every community there is a religious place of worship and in a place like the Eastern parts of Nigeria and the Niger Delta which are almost 100% Christian about the only place people feel secure in is a place of worship. This explains the fact that though there is some insecurity in these regions which affects movements of people during the week and at night, there is always a huge turnout at religious places of worship. This is the only way in my view that the INEC can get the people in those areas of Nigeria to vote on election day.

Finally, let me say that the International community and friends of Nigeria are focused on the conduct of the 2011 elections and this is good. Nigeria should be supported in any way possible with infrastructure, logistics and finances that will enable her conduct credible elections in April. However, what the international community should also consider are the events that will occur post elections. In an environment that has been charged by ethnic and religious tension, regional rivalry and class struggles particularly in the North east and Middle Belt of Nigeria how are people going to react when their favoured candidate loses? What steps are being taken to contain the uprising that is currently percolating in the North east and Jos where boko haram terrorist have gunned down major politicians they disagree with and where bombings and other acts of terrorism whose intentions were undoubtedly to affect the outcome of the coming elections still remain unresolved? What steps are being taken to ensure that the flow of arms to the Niger Delta is blocked and the theft of oil which fuels the militancy in the region is halted? What steps are being taken to ensure that the Nigerian judiciary is kept insulated from politics and is able to quickly and objectively dispense with post-election disputes from the political class. Pondering the answers to these and other questions are as important as the actual elections themselves.


B. Reno Omokri

President, Build Up Nigeria Project