Nigeria: Elections Underway, Hope and Blood

Policemen in Abuja, Nigeria, stand near a portrait of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, during the final campaign rally before the country's presidential elections. Sunday Alamba / AP

The ongoing Nigerian electioneering perversely calls to mind the title of a work I read decades ago—Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death. What she would have written on Nigeria's democratic culture, especially of its rapacious consumption, one can only conjecture. The present Nigerian democratic system is supposedly modeled on the American, where the cost of electioneering is also astronomical. There, however, all similarities end. In the U.S., for a start, funding is regulated and monitored. Infringements are punished.

Most pertinent, however, is that the U.S. does not appear to give any sign of dying through the ballot box. Casualties are hardly reported, and each exercise appears to strengthen that nation's democratic culture. In Nigeria's distorted version of America's expensive electoral system, more than just the national treasury is bled to death. Contenders die—their supporters also—in droves. Their relations are not exempted. Some are kidnapped to exert pressure on their ambitious kin to step down. Ultimately, the democratic project also dies, as does the sense of nationhood, casualties of the manipulation of economic, ethnic, religious, and economic disparities.

A hopeful feature of the 2011 elections, however, is the entry of a new electoral commissioner, Attahiru Jega. A professor and former academic trade unionist, he is a different cut, most Nigerians agree, from his corrupt predecessor. Threatening to overwhelm this plus is that, perhaps for the very same reason, the current elections are looking more and more like a contest for body counts. The explanation is straightforward: even as democracy does not begin and end with elections, the seeds for its demise are sown long before an electoral exercise. In the Nigerian case, one can actually assign a date to the current harvest from those seeds.

We must travel back in time. The nation endured military dictatorships for more than three fifths of its independence. After the death of the sadistic dictator Gen. Sanni Abacha in 1998, Nigeria underwent a one-year transitional military administration headed by Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, who uncharacteristically bowed out precisely on the promised date for military disengagement. Did the military truly disengage, however? No. Not only did that unregistered political party, the armed forces, impose a constitution on the nation, it ensured that its entrenched "party" members and obliging civilian partners were inserted into a large number of political offices—governorships, state and national legislatures, and—the jewel in the crown—the presidency itself.

The 1999 presidential election was a farce, but Nigerians chose to go along—anything to be rid of the disastrous, violently corrupt rule of soldiers. Three years into his presidency, the Army nominee, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, became entirely preoccupied not only with his reelection in 2003, but also with obtaining an unconstitutional third term in office. As I wrote when his maneuvers had become undeniable, the nation was headed for a West African Mugabe scenario. Its failure took years, however—all of his second tenure—and the consequences of that abortive effort are very much what now threaten the democratic survival of the Nigerian nation as it looks over its shoulder at Zimbabwe and the Ivory Coast of Laurent Gbagbo.

Determined to consolidate his hold on power, General Obasanjo began an onslaught on democratic structures—the judiciary included—with military ruthlessness. If the 1999 election was tolerated as the price of military disengagement, the election in 2003 was seen as its consolidation under a change of clothing. An unusual unanimity characterized the reports of virtually every internal and international monitoring organization: 2003 was a macabre joke. Several of the electoral results would be eventually overturned by election tribunals and the judiciary.

That 2003 election registered few casualties, but the reason was obvious: opposition parties were caught totally unaware. Very few believed that Obasanjo's ruling party would revert to such an in-your-face contempt of the electoral process. Even a hypocritical genuflection toward minimal democratic appearances went missing. The opposition was hoodwinked, additionally, by the lofty, reassuring pronouncements of the then-chairman of the electoral commission, one "professor" Maurice Iwu, today acknowledged nationwide as the most corrupt, obsequious electoral umpire ever to preside over a national election.

The lessons learned the hard way are responsible for the high fatality level of the current election. Normal avenues for rigging have been blocked—there's a computerized electoral register, an adoption of the "secret open" ballot system where the voter marks his ballot behind a screen, and drops it into the transparent ballot box placed in public view. Votes are counted in front of the voters, then transmitted immediately to the collation center—such safeguards have left a number of illegitimate incumbents in a quandary. Example: in one ward in Osun state, eligible voters peaked at about 2,000, whereas votes for the ruling party in that same sector in the past had consistently numbered more than 20,000.

How do the exposed beneficiaries guarantee their survival? Only through preelection intimidation, thuggery, assassinations, and the like. The opposing side, its morale bolstered by the new electoral controls, has equally primed itself for a robust resistance. The results are easily predicted.

Are there other causes for this assisted suicide mission? Certainly. Before leaving office in 1999, after a total of nearly three decades in government, the militricians—as they are locally known—crafted every legislature into a glorified House of Spoils. The chairman of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Lamido Sanusi, stoutly affirmed this view when summoned by outraged legislators: the overheads incurred in maintaining the two chambers, he declared, ate up 25.1 percent of government budget. The inmates of the House of Spoils compete to eat the nation to death. The basic salary of the lowest-earning legislator, even without taking into account perquisites and other unrecorded earnings, exceeds the salary of the president of the United States.

No wonder that no party raises fundamental questions: Is the Nigerian variant of the democratic systems of other countries appropriate for the nation? Does the nation require full-time legislators or would it better served part time, as in some other, more highly developed nations? Would this reduce the statistics of political morbidity through the diminished monetary attraction? Evasion of these questions makes one despair if, among the political office seekers, change will ever emerge, even a minority with the moral courage to initiate the assault on a fundamentally flawed Constitution imposed upon the nation by self-serving militricians, and in an arbitrary manner that even the former colonial masters never dared?

That even the opposition parties today—most of them without a manifesto—are giving no consideration to overturning a system that merely gives a crude impersonation of democracy bodes ill for the future. Its rapacious, high-cost maintenance renders it ultimately self-consuming.

Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986.