The Presidential and National Assembly elections of February 23 2019 and those for the Governorship and State Assemblies of March 9 2019 seem to have underlined two points: first is the eagerness of many Nigerians to be part of the processes of leadership selection, with many queuing up for hours under inclement weather – or despite the security challenges in their areas – to exercise their franchise. This will seem to suggest that a significant portion of Nigerians still believe that their votes can make a difference – despite the emergence of terminologies like ‘organic votes’ (actual votes cast) and ‘the other votes’ (those manufactured through ballot box stuffing or increasingly at the collation centres). The second issue raised by the elections is the huge cost of conducting them – not just in monetary terms but also in terms of human lives often lost during the exercises. There are equally indirect costs of our elections – such as what the nation loses each time movements are restricted and businesses closed just for elections to be conducted. Elections here have different meanings and different characters from what you have in other parts of the world.
There are various moods and varieties of democracy around the world such as Direct Democracy, Representative democracy, Presidential democracy, Parliamentary democracy, and social democracy. Though periodic elections are integral in any definition of liberal democracy, they are not sufficient conditions for designating a country democratic or not. In essence every country designs its democracy in accordance with its own historical experiences. What the elections of February 23 2019 and March 9 2019 seem to suggest is that elections in Nigeria do not perform the functions elections perform in other democracies. This therefore calls for honest conversation about the type of democracy that will be most appropriate to our condition. There are a number of observations:
One, most African states are sometimes called ‘new states’ in the sense that they were brought into being through the agglomeration of many previously independent nationalities by colonial fiat. In most of such states, the basis of statehood remains contested and multi party electoral competition often ends up deepening the fissures in those states, and consequently undermining the nation-building process. We have seen this tendency in several of our elections, including in the current election cycle in the country in which the two leading presidential candidates are both Fulani Muslims from the North.
Two, in many societies emerging from authoritarian rule or dictatorships (including military dictatorships), it is expected that in the short to medium terms, the free speech guarantees of liberal democracy will uncork bottled-up feelings and aggressions from the period of autocracy, which will consequently aggravate the structures of conflict. The supposition here is that if democracy is allowed to endure in such societies, contentious issues, leadership selection and institutionalized social conflicts will be resolved by subjecting rival ideas to the competition of the political marketplace. The problem here is that though our experiment with the current wave of liberal democracy is almost twenty years, our elections have continued to aggravate the structures of conflict and widen the social distance among Nigerians. So how long is the ‘short term’ and ‘medium term’ frame under which our elections are supposed to aggravate the structures of conflict in the society and then stabilize afterwards? Are we supposed to be hoping, arms akimbo, that in the long-run everything will be alright? Was it not the British economist John Maynard Keynes who told us (even if he didn’t exactly want to be misunderstood as a short-termist) that “In the long run we are all dead”?
Three, it may be germane to reflect on what we can consider the benefits of elections in our current experiment with democracy. What have we really gained from them – especially in relation to the cost? Elections are crucial mechanisms of leadership recruitment – on the supposition that the outcome reflects popular will. But do they really? My point is that elections are routinely rigged by all the contending parties such that quite often it is doubtful if many of the electoral outcomes truly reflect the will of the voters. Additionally, the anarchic character of the competition for power and the consequent militarization and commoditization of the contests force many otherwise decent and competent people to stay away. In our country, key ingredients of success as a politician include having tons of money, having rough edges and the ability to go about the business of hunting for political power without any moral unction. In essence our brand of democracy can only attract certain types of characters who can withstand the heat in the kitchen and who have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with their Machiavellian rivals. Therefore as an instrument of leadership recruitment, elections under our current model of liberal democracy fail the smell test.
Four, if our elections cannot guarantee that those elected to political offices reflect the will of the electorate, and if our democracy widens the social distance among Nigerians and grossly undermines the nation-building process, it therefore behoves on the country to embark on honest conversations about the type of elections (and democracy) that should be most appropriate for the country.
I believe trying to find answers to the above puzzle brings us to where most African states were at the dawn of independence. Virtually all the African states, on achieving independence, started as parliamentary democracies and shortly afterwards began experiencing the sort of challenges our elections currently face, including the weaponization of ethno-religious relations. Efforts were therefore made by different leaders in the continent to domesticate and adapt the nascent democracy – from the institution of one party rule in some countries to prolonged periods of military dictatorship in others. Some of the most prominent arguments at that time included postulations that political parties represent the institutionalization of division, which as the argument went, was un-African; it was also equally argued that Africa was in a sort of state of emergency, which made liberal democracy, and multiparty electoral competition, a luxury. Unfortunately, years of one party-state rule or military dictatorship in several African countries failed to either lead to economic development or make up for the weaknesses of liberal democracy in the continent.
Five, how do we solve the problem of our elections and what some now call ‘illiberal democracy’ in our country? I have no immediate solution but I believe that given our experiences with elections since 1999, including the 2007 elections that were more of daylight heists than elections, and the February 23 2019 and March 9 2019 elections that were simply shambolic, I believe it is time we started honest conversations on the way forward. It is obvious that rather than progress, the quality of our elections and democracy, (never really very high at any time), is regressing markedly.
Six, I believe that conversations on how to domesticate our elections should revolve around finding answers to the following questions: How can we make our elections less expensive and anarchic? How can we ensure that the exercise does not deepen the distrust among the different constituents of the country? How can we make the elections truly reflect the will of the electorate? How can we ensure that the democratic exercise does not discourage certain types of people from stepping forward to offer themselves up for service? How do we ensure that it neither leads to majority tyranny nor the despotism of the minority? How do we routinize elections such that we do not need to impose curfews or restrict movements whenever elections are conducted? Are we better off with the current winner- takes- all system (first-past- the- post) or will proportional representation be more suitable to our needs? If our elections grossly undermine the nation building process by widening the social distance and cementing the distrust among Nigerians, and if the outcome of many elections no longer reflect the will of the electorate, is it possible to evolve an alternative model to the current system?
We cannot pretend that everything is well with our democracy just because we continue to honour (in name only) the ritual of conducting periodic elections. As Henry Ford, the American founder of Ford Motor Company would put it, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”