Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor/CEO, Financial Nigeria International Limited
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Nigeria's democracy as death threat 06 Mar 2019
Violence has been a recurring feature of general elections in Nigeria. Fellow citizens are harmed or killed as politicians use thugs, assassins and state security operatives to attack their opponents, election officials, voters and the ballot. The deadly politicians hardly ever face justice. This emboldens them to continue their heinous crimes against humanity and violate the electoral law repeatedly with impunity.
Less than two weeks before the 2019 elections were to commence as originally scheduled, Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai opened a new front for electoral violence in the country. During a live programme on national television, he threatened foreign observers who would “intervene” in the elections: “they would go back in body bags”.
El-Rufai is well accustomed to wanton killings in his state. In nearly four years of his governorship, thousands of lives have been lost to various violent clashes in Kaduna, including the summary execution of over 800 Shiite Muslims by the military. El-Rufai’s threat against foreign election observers, including those from some of the most powerful Western countries, showed how the Nigerian officialdom often lose their sense of proportion and humanity because of political gains.
However, President Muhammadu Buhari soon brought fellow citizens to the firing line. He announced that anyone who snatched the ballot during the elections would do so “at the expense of his or her own life” as he had briefed the security agents accordingly. He didn’t retract this statement as the elections got underway on February 23, in spite of the fact that ballot snatching is not, by Nigerian law, punishable by death.
Buhari and El-Rufai entered Nigeria’s electoral democracy from different professional backgrounds. The former is a retired military General and the latter a civilian technocrat. But both of them – and a horde of Nigerian politicians – operate an essentially ‘militarised’ democracy. The Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, again raised the issue last month in his interview with CNN’s Christine Amanpour.
20 years into the Fourth Republic, the Nigerian public governance system is neither civil nor democratic. The system has been a hostage of the military past that has refused to go away. Two out of the four presidents since the country returned to electoral democracy in 1999 are former military heads of state: Olusegun Obasanjo and the incumbent Muhammadu Buhari.
Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who was president between 2007 and 2010, was Obasanjo’s anointed successor. He was foisted on the country in spite of his ill-health. President Yar’Adua ultimately died in office. As his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan succeeded Yar’Adua and won the 2011 presidential election a year later. He is, nevertheless a single-term president, as he lost the 2015 election to General Buhari who had threatened to soak “the dog and the baboon” in blood if he lost. When Buhari lost the 2011 presidential election, his supporters went on a killing rampage that took the lives of over 800 Nigerians.
Nigeria’s presidents with military background have operated largely as autocrats. Under Obasanjo, elections were characterised as a “do or die” affair. His administration set the ugly electoral tone in the Fourth Republic, whereby electoral contests were war-like. Killing of political opponents was similar to killing enemy soldiers in wars because in both cases, there is no personal accountability. The elections were discredited as neither free nor fair, and further marred by violence.
Buhari’s directive that ballot snatchers should be summarily executed was not an antidote or a deterrence to election violence. As reports of the conduct of the 2019 elections trickled in, it was clear that military involvement helped to stop rigging in some locations; in others, it aided rigging and was part and parcel of the strategies for voter suppression in opposition strongholds.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, rigging, violence and killings have marred the February 23rd presidential election and elections into the National Assembly. The death toll from around the country is above 40 and still counting. Arsonist attacks on ballot papers by political thugs were widespread. Officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) were also recruited into the rigging schemes by unscrupulous politicians of the APC and PDP.
In a number of cases, citizens who were determined to vote and make their votes count, had to resort to self-help in repelling attempts by the thugs to disrupt voting. Such interventions were bloody in a number of cases and raised concerns about reprisal attacks by the thugs.
The fraught electoral process has crowded into the political space people who have no vision for the transformation of the Nigerian society and the economy. Political odd-jobbers are the ones in most of the state houses as governors, and in the legislative chambers as lawmakers. They have made fundamental progress impossible. They have been unable to harness the country’s economic potentials. Although the nominal democracy has brightened economic and investment prospects in the country, compared to the military era, poverty has grown in absolute number. Nigeria has now become the world’s capital for extreme poverty, with over 91 million Nigerians living on less than $1.90 per day.
Nigeria’s GDP has grown by 1,094% from $35 billion in 1999 to $383 billion in 2018. But the political officeholders and their cronies are the ones stupendously enriched. Economic opportunities have continued to dry up for the growing Nigerian youth population. Having nothing meaningful to do for the most part of four years, the frustrated jobless youths are easily recruited and armed to perpetrate violence during the quadrennial election cycle.
Even sadder, hapless citizens are often the victims. A poignant example of this were citizen Monsurut and his parents. The teenager was shot dead by thugs in Ibadan, Oyo State, during the February 23 election. His inconsolable parents cut the image of the average disempowered Nigerians.
Winning the 2019 election, especially the presidential election, was a pyrrhic victory. It was victory secured at the cost of human lives and at the expense of law and order. This cannot be celebrated. Rather, the country now needs a sober reflection.
We have to determine how to move forward to ensure our democracy is about protecting lives and enhancing human progress and not a death threat. In this regard, citizens and relevant civil society organisations must demand far-reaching electoral reform from the incoming administration, uncompromisingly as a top priority.