Sam Amadi, Former Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, and Director, Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts

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  • Economic Governance
  • Electric Power
  • Law & Economy
  • Public Sector Reform

Election justice and state stability 06 Jun 2023

Nigerians and the rest of Africans whose societies are going through serious destabilisation need to take electoral justice seriously. Elections have been promoted as the essence of democracy. Hence, we now speak mostly of electoral democracy for what Robert Dahl termed ‘Polyarchy’. At the heart of electoral democracy is electoral justice.

Electoral justice has three elements. First, all adult citizens should have the right to choose their leaders through voting. Second, exercise of franchise should be free and voluntary. Three, all votes should be counted equally. No person’s vote should weigh more than the other.

Free and fair elections have both intrinsic and instrumental values. First, without free and fair elections, citizens do not have political autonomy or self-determination. Unless we can say that by the fiction of representation, people govern themselves, we cannot ascribe the tag of democracy to our political system. Some political scientists like Adam Przeworski have argued that democracy as political equality is dubious. But nevertheless, representative democracy is not even imaginable unless it is based on the morality that no one’s life should be determined by the whims and caprices of another. So, if elections are not free and fair, then we have breached the fundamental tenet of a democratic society, which is political equality.

But elections have another important value, the instrumental value. Intrinsic value means that as human beings we desire to choose our leaders because that makes us truly human. The right to elect leaders is part of our autonomy. Instrumental value means that we value the right to vote because it serves some social utility. For example, with elections we can legitimately resolve the fundamental dispute of who exercises political power in a society.

Bringing together the intrinsic and instrumental verities of electoral democracy is urgent in today’s Nigeria. We are a destabilising society with many centripetal forces drawing away from the centre of collective commitment to a common nationality. Nigeria has not been as divided and illegitimate as it is today. So, legitimacy and effectiveness should be priority norms of the Nigerian state.

If our national aspiration remains to be democratic, we must take the management of elections seriously. First, Nigerian elite must develop a consensus on the priority of electoral justice over electoral success. The triumphalism of winning by all means,  indicated in both President Obasanjo’s ‘do-or-die’ proclamation and Bola Tinubu’s 'smash, take it and run away’ advisory, is dangerous for electoral justice. This national mindset is the reason the first republic collapsed.

Notwithstanding the structural contradictions and incoherencies of the Nigerian state as constituted by colonial authority, Nigerian democracy in the First Republic could have survived if the political culture was not defined by unrelenting and unrestrained pursuit of political power. This culture has gotten worse. Nigerian politicians work had to make sure electoral innovations that will curb illegitimate capture of political power are rendered ineffective. The directive principle is “win at all costs and let us meet at the tribunal”. Politicians exploit the fragility of the courts in managing polycentric political disputes and maximise the returns of political swashbuckling.

The lack of legitimacy of electoral results has been the most recurrent cause of democracy failure in Nigeria. In the Second Republic, the culture of political triumphalism exemplified by violence and reckless manipulation gutted that effort at democracy. Today, because of the reckless manipulation of the 2023 election, we are bound to have an executive government with limited and contested mandate, further reducing state effectiveness.

This is frustrating because evidence of decades of developmentalism in the continent proves that not getting politics right will hurt efforts at revising Africa’s underdevelopment. No matter how efficient your market-based solutions are, you need to have a politically viable state to make them work. In the language of project management, you need a holding environment before you start adaptive work of transformation.

At this juncture of grave economic crisis and pervasive insecurity, Nigeria should take political stability seriously. Unfortunately, in the past we have chanted ‘to keep Nigeria together as one is a task that must be done’, without doing the work that needs to be done. As Nigeria’s pluralism gets more radical, and as poverty and inequality increase, the Nigerian state will struggle to be an effective state, able to deliver socioeconomic goods to its citizens and to counter external and internal challenges. The most dreaded situation for Nigeria today would be political illegitimacy. Political illegitimacy will further weaken state effectiveness, further reinforcing state collapse.

If we improve the quality of elections and enhance the experience of political and economic freedom for citizens, we may still survive the gale of destabilising forces against the state. With all its frailties, free and fair elections should be a priority embraced by the Nigerian elite because it holds the key to its political survival. Nigeria needs a re-founding of a sort, and only an administration that achieves widespread acceptance and legitimacy will be able to mobilise disgruntled and grieving ethno-religious and social groups in the country and push them towards new consensus for national rebirth.

If political leaders emerge through free and fair elections, they have the political legitimacy to begin the conversations of national unity and integration because there will be a hearing. Because they have a stable social order, they can begin the hard work of revitalising the technical efficiency of the state to produce quality goods and services and guarantee lived experiences of political and economic freedoms.

It is when the state is strong because it is legitimate that it can engage insurgents and be assured that the centre of national life can hold together during such stressful engagement.

Sam Amadi, PhD, a former Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, is the Director of Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts.