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The Challenge of Electoral Democracy in Nigeria

By: Jude J. Ofor
Published September 7th, 2009

By whatever acronym coined, Nigeria’s electoral commissions have uniformly faced tremendous challenges in fulfilling their mandates, beginning from the first republic to the present. As their names (not structure) have changed, successive leaderships of these commissions have faced remarkably similar criticisms to the point where, as Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘all our words from loose using have lost their edge’.

Electoral systems and institutions lie at the heart of representative democracy. This critical role is reflected in their mandate to accurately capture the direction of public opinion, which politicians in turn, are periodically required to competitively mobilize to fashion the consensus necessary to make or implement policy. This dynamic relationship between the people and their leaders, in the full witness of democracy’s institutions, operates as both a political culture for regulating behavior within the system and an institutional framework for governance. This would immediately suggest that the true test of electoral democracy lies, not in individuals but in the strength of institutions.

It is instructive that halfway from the last elections and the 2011 elections, the legal and institutional frameworks on which electoral democracy are based on are yet to be properly debated much less defined. Instead what has been passed off as public debate is a haphazard focus on the person of the INEC Chairman, Prof. Maurice Iwu.

While it is true that individuals can and do inspire revolutionary change, in some cases simply steadying the ship of state by maintaining the status quo is as important as the former. It secures a beach head that enables the polity, a platform for incremental change. In turn institutions grow organically from challenges. They do not simply emerge from a vacuum. The history of Nigeria’s attempts at civilian democracy is littered with the carcasses of successive electoral commissions and their chairmen, felled by the staccato gunshots of persistent criticisms and misplaced expectations. The result is that we have repeatedly reconstituted electoral commissions, appointed new chairmen, and produced similar results. The search and destroy mission of INEC is such that conveniently ignored is the fact that nearly all professional bodies in Nigeria, community associations, including those in the diaspora, are bedeviled by crisis of succession! I’ve heard it said that one definition of madness is the repetition of the same action while expecting different results! It is in this specific regard that in my considered opinion, criticisms of INEC have often lacked intellectual rigor.

Sustainable democratic order is predicated on the emergence of a competitive market, a marketplace of ideas where politicians strategize to win public opinion, and through such competition establish an enduring political culture. This culture is secured by the appropriate functioning of institutions that include civil society, the security agencies, judiciary and the electoral commission. To effectively play its role, each of these institutions must be nurtured, from infancy through middle age to maturity. In the case of INEC, its effectiveness is further defined by the willingness of political actors to play by the rules, the ability of security agencies to police such rules and the dispassionate interpretation of such rules by the judiciary.

Two years to the next elections serious questions remain about the nature of our attempt at representative democracy. These questions are exacerbated by unresolved issues about the Niger Delta and the severe challenges these pose to both the relationships between federating units and increasingly both governance, security and public order. Inaction on the part of the National Assembly has in turn stalled action on defining a clear legal framework on which successful elections can be based. The result is a Nigerian political climate that is at best defined by uncertainty.

Building an efficient electoral system that accurately reflects the will of Nigerians is not rocket science. Simple technology exists to accurately capture, collate and record the will of Nigerians in a manner that nullifies multiple voting, ballot stuffing and thuggery, and forces politicians to actually campaign for votes and earn the peoples mandate.

The primary challenge of electoral reform re-INEC, is to reinforce the electoral umpire to enable it grow from a commission to an institution with the ability for long term planning rather than ad hoc reactions to events external to it. In the larger polity, there is a crying need for a rigorous debate on the necessary and sufficient conditions for electoral reforms and the joint role of both the institutions of government and civil society in making this possible.

The challenge of electoral democracy in Nigeria lies in the recognition of the critical role that civil society and the political class holds in ensuring both free and fair elections, and accountability in government. The institutions of government like INEC, important as they maybe, merely reinforce this role. What this immediately suggests is the joint role of all stakeholders, where effective performance of one facilitates the performance of the other. The failures we so readily assign to INEC are at worst equal and proportional to the failures of all other stakeholders in our political landscape. To insert INEC and its staff, from the ad hoc employee to the chairman, into this fractious landscape without a robust support system from other stakeholders, is asking them to voluntarily step into a minefield. He who thinks otherwise should take the first step!

Jude J. Ofor is a public affairs analyst




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