Miracle in Abuja: A Largely Democratic and Peaceful Handover of Power (SPECIAL REPORT)

image“THEY RIGGED AND rigged right until the very last moment,” says one Western diplomat of Nigeria’s March election. A variety of techniques were employed. First, the police and the army insisted on the election being postponed by six weeks, arguing that they needed extra time to ensure security. But most people believed that the delay was instigated by the ruling party, which feared it was at risk of losing and hoped that this would give it more time to buy votes. More blatantly, states around the Niger Delta saw ballot-box stuffing and submission of false counts, and across the country bags of cash were being handed out to prospective supporters. As a result the local currency, the naira, weakened as politicians converted it into dollars. These came in high denominations, taking up less space in the suitcases used to cart them about on the campaign trail.

To be fair, both sides were guilty of malpractices. Observers in the north say that supporters of the governing PDP were threatened, and many stayed at home. Some also reported seeing large numbers of children voting for the winning APC. All the same, the outcome broadly reflected the will of the electorate in what most observers said was the fairest election in decades—even though some informed sources reckon that a more accurate count of the vote would have delivered about 60% of the total to Mr Buhari, rather than the 54% he was officially credited with. So how did democracy triumph against the odds?

Elections and voting
Much of the credit goes to Attahiru Jega, a soft-spoken academic who was put in charge of the independent electoral commission in 2010. His appointment came too late to influence the 2011 election, but he has spent the past five years cleaning up the voters’ roll and introducing electronic ID verification that makes it much more difficult to stuff ballot boxes. He has also proved to be stubbornly non-partisan, to the chagrin of many in the PDP.

Even Mr Jonathan’s sternest critics give him credit for stepping down quickly once it became clear he had lost

A second factor was the PDP’s sheer incompetence. With little leadership or direction emerging from Aso Villa, the presidential compound, the party had become so weak in government that it seemed incapable of defending its position. “They were too incompetent even to rig the election properly,” says one insider.

Third, many voters had become deeply frustrated with Mr Jonathan’s government and were desperate for change. Tempted by the ruling party’s bribes, they may have worked out their own moral compromise. As one observer put it, “people took the money and then voted their conscience.”

Last, across the country independent monitors kept an eye on the polling stations. Many took photos of the results recorded at each station and posted them on social media, making it difficult for officials subsequently to fiddle with the numbers. Others submitted results to a parallel vote count run by the Transition Monitoring Group, a non-government organisation. This flagged up instances of ballot-box stuffing by the PDP in the Niger Delta and helped limit its extent. It also encouraged the police and army to stay largely neutral, even as senior figures within the PDP tried to get them to take sides. Pressure from abroad, mainly America and Britain, played a part too.

Though Mr Jonathan’s presidency was in most respects a failure, even his sternest critics give him credit for stepping down quickly once it became clear he had lost, even before the final tally was in. In doing so he pulled the rug from under senior PDP members who were said to be plotting to try to keep the party in power. One plan was to try to kidnap Mr Jega to disrupt the count, according to Reuters, a news agency.

The democratic outcome, however tenuously achieved, sets an important precedent. Having spent the past 16 years under the rule of a single party, and most of its history before that under military rule, Nigeria has matured into a multi-party democracy that is not ruled along ethnic or religious lines. The PDP, for all its failings, was a largely national party. When it came to power in 1999 under Olusegun Obasanjo, it managed to unite the country’s north behind a president from the south. Mr Obasanjo, a Yoruba-speaker from Ogun state in the south-west of the country who had ruled as military dictator in 1976-79 before handing over to a short-lived civilian government, managed to win the trust of northerners.

North v south
Nigeria’s population is about half Muslim and half Christian, and for some time it was widely argued that the PDP was the only party that could overcome the country’s religious and ethnic divisions, not least thanks to its policy of “zoning” whereby the presidential candidates it nominated would alternate between northerners and southerners. The opposition, by contrast, was seen as dominated by northerners and Muslims, who are concentrated in the north and west of the country, and was divided. That changed in 2013 when the three biggest opposition parties joined to form the APC, offering policies slightly to the left of the PDP’s.

Yet despite the apparent victory for democracy, concerns remain. In his previous terms as a military ruler, Mr Buhari was no democratic pin-up. He banned political meetings and free speech, executed people for crimes that were not capital offences when they were perpetrated and sent whip-wielding soldiers onto the streets in a “war against indiscipline”. Mr Buhari has since said that he is committed to democracy, but many Nigerians fret that he may try to rule by decree. Before his inauguration he threatened to expel critical journalists from press conferences, but his party did a swift about-turn on that.

Even if democracy has now taken root at the centre, it has yet to establish itself in state governments, most of which are little more than the fiefs of their governors. State governors often control the party apparatus in their states and thus dole out seats in the assemblies to loyal followers, and the state assemblies that should hold the executive to account are often vehicles for patronage. Many local governments are still more of a mess. There may be a need for constitutional reform to make all levels of government answerable to the citizens as well as to clarify how powers are to be divided among states and central government.

The election also highlighted the urgent need for political reform, not least in campaign finance. Contesting elections in Nigeria costs a fortune. Rigging them costs even more, leaving presidents and state governors in hock to various “Ogas”, the local slang for big-man or godfather. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a long-standing PDP finance minister, recalled in her memoir, “Reforming the Unreformable”, that in the latter part of Olusegun Obasanjo’s second presidential term, in 2006, businessmen and party patrons asked her to waive a 50% tax on imports of rice. She reckoned such a waiver might be worth $1 billion to the importers and party funders, but would ruin many rice farmers who had been encouraged to plant by an import-substitution policy that included hefty tariffs. So she refused, and was kicked out of the finance ministry soon afterwards.

Keeping the Ogas at bay
The way Nigeria’s main political parties are run, too, needs to be made more democratic. Voters get to vote for one presidential candidate or another, but there is very little transparency over how each party selects its nominee. For the two main parties this is meant to be done at party congresses, yet there is talk of bidding wars as Ogas buy votes for their preferred presidential candidates. Once in office, politicians can dispense patronage to their supporters and influence legislation to benefit their Ogas. One solution might be to move to American-style open primaries in which voters elect their parties’ candidates directly. If overseen by an independent electoral commission, such primaries might make parties more responsive to voters and force them to come up with new ideas and policies. Nigeria’s recent election was fought mainly on perceptions of which candidate would be more effective and less corrupt, rather than on their policies or ideologies. But policies also matter, not least on how the government collects and spends money.


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