I was not old enough to understand what really happened during the Nigerian elections organized by the military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo and Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua in 1979. I only remembered as a young boy in junior secondary school that it was keenly contested by the front runners. It was clear to even the uneducated persons in the villages that it was a contest between Alhaji Shehu Shagari of National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and Chief Obafemi Awolowo of Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). The Nigerian People’s Party (NPP) headed by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe came third. NPP had to form an alliance (the famous Accord Concordia) at the federal level with NPN in order to have an inclusive government. This gave the opportunity to some persons in the NPP to occupy some legislative and executive positions. Chief Edwin Ume- Ezeoke of NPP emerged as the speaker of the House of Representatives and Chief Paul Unongo became a federal minister, among others. Chief Awolowo and UPN challenged the victory of NPN in the court which led to the famous arithmetic question of “What is the 2/3 of 19?” Nigeria had 19 states then and to be declared winner, he who wanted to be president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria had to garner 25% of votes in 2/3 of the 19 states of the federation. However, that regime could not last.
By 1983 when the second election was held I was already a first year student in the School of Basic Studies. It gave me the opportunity to witness firsthand, the electoral process in the Nigeria. In all it was a caricature. I was a Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) ad hoc staff, and I witnessed thump printing of ballot papers and ballot box stuffing. The police was compromised and I witnessed the giving of cash incentives by a political timber and caliber (a la Ozumba Mbadiwe) to people and he never allowed prospective voters to exercise their franchise. He forced the FEDECO ad hoc staff to thumb print ballot papers in favour of his political party, in the full view of everyone and watchful eyes of the security personnel. Well, all that is now history. The military overthrew that regime and I remember then, 31st December, 1983, Nigerians celebrated the military takeover. I was happy myself because I thought that the messiah had come. Little did I know that it was like one selling his dog to buy monkey. I did not know that it was going to be like ‘what the woodworm could not destroy the cankerworm had come to devour’. My friends and I were proved wrong. We did not know then that democracy was a process.
We continue to compare democracy in Nigeria with democracy in other countries without appreciating our history. Our democracy has never been allowed to make her own mistakes and correct them. The military interference of 1965 when the first republic was sacked by the five young military officers led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzogwu was the beginning of our jaundiced vision of political leadership. The military remained in power for 14 years after that. Then the second republic was born which was also sacked on the last day of 1983 by the military after only four years of democratic governance. The military remained in power again for another 15 years. In 1999, we returned to democracy again and since then the military has continued to tell us that they have learnt their lessons and would not interfere in our democratic voyage again. It took the power prayers and dexterity of Nigerians to gain the current democratic dispensation. I now know that if the democratic process was not terminated the time it was, we would have matured better democratically than what we have today.
Between 1999 and today, we have had four elections and at each point, we have always improved on the previous process. We have had Electoral officers who compromised their positions and let the nation down. But in all these, one thing is becoming clearer to Nigerians that there is power in the ballot box. Nigerians are becoming aware that we have the power to vote in or vote out persons according to performance. Like the French people would say, we do not vote in, we only vote out. What does that mean? It simply means that I may not know the capability of the incoming person, but I cannot hesitate to vote out the incumbent to send a message to the incoming that he or she can also be voted out if there is no performance. Have we arrived there yet? No! Shall we get there? Certainly yes!
Never in the recent history of Nigerian election has the campaign being this fierce and unpredictable. Nigerians were used to the practice of winner takes all and the power of incumbency taking everything just for the asking. In many states of the country in the 2003 -2011 elections, those who won the primary elections of the ruling party at whatever level were taken to have been elected in the general elections. Nobody dared challenged the power of incumbency. Some people attribute this to the military hangover Nigeria was recovering from after the long period of military dictatorship. Nobody dared challenged the military governor/administrator! His words were laws and everything was done with immediate effect. That affected the mentality of the civilian governors at the advent of democracy. It took us some good time to realize that the electorate had power.
It was the winner takes all syndrome that made it possible for all members in some state’s House of Assembly to belong to the political party of the state governor. Even those who won election on the ticket of other parties promptly decamped to the governor’s party in order to belong. You were considered a rebel and enemy of progress to be in an opposition party. The Governor was un-challengeable and almost omnipotent. In such a situation, all constitutional provisions were set aside to assuage the ego of the omniscient governor general! The governor could afford to abandon the state for upward of two or three months to go on his many foreign trips. He couldn’t be queried rather such a governor was given heroic welcome. The state apparatus including legislators, judiciary and traditional rulers, in some cases offices, schools and markets were closed to welcome home the first citizen of the state.
But as the electioneering campaigns are going on, it is becoming clear that the day of reckoning has come. We are beginning to have situations where the governor and the deputy have parted ways and belong to different political parties. Politics is about opportunity and power to disagree on principles and programmes but not to become enemies. Politics should be about the people and governance. It is about being able to affect the life of the people through your programmes and projects. This is why I do not subscribe to the idea that the political party is supreme. It is true that candidates are put forward by political parties for the sake of election and not for sake of the political party itself. Once the party becomes anti-people I think it is justifiable for anyone to disagree with it and play anti-party. It is now becoming clearer to party leaders that anti-people politicians are more dangerous to their success at elections than anti-party politician. The anti- people politician is eventually a liability to the party.
What is coming clear from the electioneering campaign at the moment is that the power resides in the people. It is coming to the level in Nigeria where the electorates can now vote not for party but for individuals. Where the power of the party stops is where the individual candidate takes over from.
The progress being made through our democratic experience should also make it difficult for ethnic and religious jingoists to stimulate hatred and violence through sentiments. It is Nigeria that is at stake, not any tribe or religion. Those playing ethnic and religious cards are only being smart by half. It is time for people in such category of politics to close shop. This country already has more than enough external problems that we do not need internal saboteurs to ground the nation. The conspiracy that has made our crude oil less attractive and the free fall of our Naira against other foreign currencies should worry us more than which tribe or village wins the local government chairmanship seat or governor. Nigerians are talking of survival from Boko Haram and what Archbishop Anthony Obinna of Owerri Catholic Archdiocese calls “Biko Ham”. He explained that that is the Igbo version of Boko Haram. Kidnappers will take a person to their hideout and the person would plead in Igbo language, “Biko Ham”, please free me.
Gone are the days when the story of conversation between an American, a British and a Nigerian was true. The American boasted, “Our democracy is so developed that we know the result of our election within six hours of voting”. The British guy then said, “Britain receives the results of her elections within ten hours of voting”. The Nigerian bragged that that is nothing compared to what we have achieved in Nigeria. “In my country, we know the result of the election even before the voting starts”. That means that in Nigeria, before the voting starts, the results must have been written by politicians in conjunction with the compromised electoral umpire. That is no more our story. We are wiser than that now. Our Politicians are jittery and now they know that we know.
Those dragging the military and paramilitary forces into the political arena are not doing our nation any service. It is possible that some people may not have seen the handwriting on the wall that it is no longer business as usual. The military has taken its rightful place in the barracks and they should begin the process of equipping the officers and men on military science and defense. If our military is corrupted on the altar on politics then, it will be like the cry of the Israelites “To your tents all Israel!” So let the military be happy with the role of defending the nation against external aggression. Will politicians make mistakes? Yes. Will some of them cry to the armed forces? Very possible! What should the armed forces say? “Wetin concern fish with raincoat?” should be the reply.
It is clear now that whoever wins the presidency, governorship and other elections in this dispensation will have a rethink because our democracy has become real. None of them seems to be sure of victory anymore and they are not finding it funny. I believe that whatever hiccups we may experience during this coming election, barring any unnecessary violence, will only be the birth pang of our emerging democracy. Indeed, it is no longer business as usual. The power of the ballot has come to speak.
Rev. Fr. Ojaje Idoko
Is director, Pastoral Affairs Department of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria.