The most popular Nigerian slogan these days is ‘’Free, Fair and Credible Elections’’. You hear it everywhere, and read about it in every publication. Honestly, I am becoming tired of hearing or reading about it. The collective Nigerian psyche has now been so fixated on this slogan that people now actually believe that once we have free, fair and credible elections, it will automatically lead to the emergence of good leaders and ultimately result in good governance and a better Nigeria. Wrong!
First of all, free, fair, and credible elections are going to be a tall order for a country like Nigeria at this present time in our development, and even if we can actually achieve that laudable goal, it will certainly still not result in good governance. The concerned reader may justifiably ask why I hold such pessimistic views about the Nigerian electoral process and political evolution.
I am not a pessimist, I am just a realist. Nigerians should stop dreaming of a perfect election. The forthcoming elections will almost certainly be flawed. That in itself will not be a disaster per se, as all elections have some degree of flaw or the other. Even recent elections held in great and advanced democracies like the UK and the US were flawed to some extent. But our own elections will be grossly flawed, because we no longer have a culture of doing things properly and honestly in this country.
The last general elections of 2007 were seriously flawed no doubt, and the Nigerian public, and the press in particular, complained bitterly that the elections fell short of accepted international and even regional standards. The press was quick to point out in comparison, the near-perfect elections and seamless transition in Ghana the previous year.
I now ask my fellow Nigerians the following question before we start comparing ourselves with other nations. Which of our various institutions and services in Nigeria can measure up to International or even regional standards? Is our educational system up to any standard? Is our health system up to scratch? Is it our police force, military, judiciary, customs, civil service, rail service, roads, airports, PHCN, security of life and property or even politics that are up to international or regional standards?
When there is no institution or organisation or service that we can boast of that is well run in Nigeria, (except maybe for official corruption!) how can we then expect any Nigerian institution, this time INEC, to suddenly deliver perfect elections? Haba! Are we really being honest and objective about our expectations? We have no basis to expect perfect elections in this country, period! We may desire it, but we are unlikely to get it.
This is why I feel very sorry for Professor Attahiru Jega, the INEC chairman who has been given a ‘mission impossible’. I am somewhat relieved however that he himself has cleverly lowered expectations by saying recently that no one should expect perfect elections. He is certainly no magician, and can only deliver up to the present Nigerian standard.
We also need to downplay the significance of electoral irregularities in this country. The way we carry on, one would think electoral malpractice is the root of all Nigeria’s problems. Elections may be flawed but credible, so long as the outcome reflects the will of the people. Judges at election tribunals have to stop voiding elections in whole local governments simply because someone ran off with the odd ballot box, or because there was some fracas or over-voting at a polling station. These events will always occur and do not in my estimation constitute ‘significant’ irregularities .
There is also a general misconception that the Nigerian electorate, or indeed any electorate for that matter, if given the opportunity for a free and fair election have the requisite education, knowledge, insight and adequate information to elect good leaders. The painful truth is that most voters in most countries are either illiterate, uneducated, uninformed and often coerced or brainwashed into voting for candidates ‘imposed’ on them by community leaders and local champions. Democracy may presently be the only workable system of resolving issues of power, governance and succession in most countries, but it can very often produce unintended consequences and bad leaders.
In the famous words of the great Winston Churchill himself, and I quote, ‘’The best argument against democracy is a five minute discussion with the average voter!’’ Churchill obviously knew what most politicians and knowledgeable people have always known, that the average voter is an ignoramus, but that it would be political suicide to admit to it publicly. It is for this reason that many great western democracies like the US, UK and Japan do not allow the ‘’one man one vote’’ system for election of their leaders. Rather, they resort to an electoral college or a parliamentary system whereby the country’s leader is chosen only by ‘knowledgeable’ people.
The bigger problem with our electoral system however, and what constitutes the Nigerian tragedy, and the ‘raison d’etre’ for this article, is that even if we do get free, fair and credible elections, we will still end up with predominantly bad leaders. This is because most of the candidates presenting themselves for elective offices are corrupt or corruptible, lack a track record of excellence or achievements, are unpatriotic and are only seeking office for selfish reasons. It therefore doesn’t matter who the INEC chairman is, or who wins any election, we Nigerians will still lose out!
How then do we solve this problem? First of all we have to realise and accept that we need credible candidates more than we need credible elections. With credible candidates, it really would not matter much if the elections were flawed, because the winner will always be a patriotic, honest, diligent and committed Nigerian. This is what obtains in most civilised and western democracies, and why elections there are never do-or-die affairs because competing politicians know that their opponents are actually out to serve the people like themselves, albeit in a different fashion and maybe with different programmes. For example, would it have been a tragedy for the US if John McCain or Hilary Clinton had won the last election rather than Barrack Obama? Of course not, they were all credible and competent candidates! Ditto for the UK. If Gordon Brown had won last year’s election instead of David Cameron, the UK would still have had a credible Prime Minister.
Nigeria can only get credible candidates only if we make it impossible for holders of elective offices to benefit from such offices by enriching themselves, their family, political associates, tribesmen and friends. Then, and only then will elective offices attract truly credible candidates.
My recommendation to stop the corruption rot in Nigerian politics is to enact a new law that says, ‘’Any political office holder who is found to have assets or monies, or incurs expenses which cannot be explained from his or her legitimate earnings (to also include assets of immediate family members) shall be guilty of the crime of official corruption until otherwise proven’’ (with a statute of limitation extending to 10 years after leaving office, and MANDATORY sentencing of not less than ten years imprisonment and forfeiture of all involved assets). In other words, the burden of proof of innocence will be with the political office holder, and the traditional ‘’Innocent until proven guilty’’ doctrine which puts the burden of proof on the state or prosecutor will no longer operate.
We all know that it is almost impossible to convict a corrupt politician in a court of law in Nigeria with the present criminal justice system. The threshold for conviction in corruption cases is virtually insurmountable, not to talk of the unlimited financial resources of the indicted politician, which he or she can deploy to thwart and frustrate the present judicial system.
Some civil libertarians may begin to complain that this proposed law will be too draconian, but they will be wrong. Exceptional circumstances demand exceptional measures. This is the third world, and it’s a jungle out here. Jungle crimes demand jungle justice. When you have a state of anarchy, you declare a state of emergency. We should not use civilised laws to govern uncivilised and barbaric behaviour. And in any case, nobody is forced to accept public office. You seek it of your own free will. If you cannot live with the new law, just stay out of politics, period! If you are an honest politician, you will have nothing to fear.
My only fear is that Nigerians may never get a patriotic legislature that will pass such a law. And this unfortunately may be a law that may have to be imposed upon Nigerian politicians in future by “Force Majeure”, if our dear country must make progress.
My prayer is that the day comes soon when such a law is passed, and that it would not require extraordinary measures.
Dr. Seyi Roberts, a consultant Neurologist and a member of VOR, wrote from Lagos
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in various Nigerian newspapers in 2011.
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