My friend Nizam Ahmed came into Nigeria on April 5, a few days before elections started in India, his home country. As we had dinner that night, he spoke excitedly about the democratic process of choosing the next crop of leaders into their parliament. His hopes for a change, predicated on the emergence of new leaders unnerved me. India is a vast country and with a population of about 1.27 billion, it is almost ten times the Nigerian population. This year alone, about 100 million qualified to vote since the last parliamentary election was held in 2009. The electoral process is elaborate, spanning a period close to two months.
Like Nigeria, India was overrun by British overlords who held the vast country as a colonial possession. Like Nigeria, it also emerged as an independent country from British rule deeply divided on many crack lines. The parting of ways with Pakistan, an event that deeply pained Mahatma Ghandi – the founder of modern India – is the greatest evidence of the religious and nationality contradictions that faced and still face India. These divisions are made worse by a caste system that dates back from time immemorial and despite advances in science and statecraft has simply refused to fade away.
A visitor to India like yours sincerely did in 1990, sees these obstacles to nation building starring him in the face everywhere. Still, India remains the worlds biggest democratic Nation. This status has come with great cost. Beginning from Mahatma Ghandi, Indian leaders have almost become used to leaving the stage in a coffin instead of on their feet. That is how far the Indians go. After killing their leaders, they let the democratic train to move on.
Like with any other country that believes in democracy, elections in India play a crucial role in stabilizing democracy. For a country as vast and deeply divided as India, this is no mean feat. Like in Nigeria, electoral violence in India is common. In fact the Indian Maoists, who say they draw inspiration from the Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Dezong have unleashed a wave of terror in their bid to disrupt the current exercise. When you compare the size of India and the magnitude of divisions in that country with what we have in Nigeria, you will realize that our problems here are not only self-inflicted but completely avoidable.
Why are the Indians, for instance, able to hold elections that are acceptable to all the political actors while every election in Nigeria is fraught with fraud, disputes, litigation and so on? Mr. Nizam places the credibility of the Indian electoral process on the doorsteps of its electoral commission. As the electoral process started last week, he proudly proclaimed that the Electoral Commissioner, their counterpart of INEC Chairman here, would become the de facto Prime Minister of the country until the elections are over.
In India, the powers of the electoral commission are awesome. Nobody screens or touches the budget of the commission. Unlike in Nigeria where the commission is independent only in name, the Indian counterpart enjoys unlimited powers – the parliament, the Prime Minister and the courts all depend on the decisions of the electoral body. This is worlds apart from our system here that circumvents the powers of INEC at every stage of the process.
The appointment of Prof Jega as the INEC chief raised a lot of hopes for those who have advocated for electoral integrity in Nigeria. His antecedents, particularly as leader of University dons during the military era spoke volumes in his favour. But four years down the line, it is beginning to look as if those hopes were misplaced.
First, it would appear as if there is a sharp division in INEC itself between Jega and the team he took there and the INEC establishment. When one talks to some INEC staff these days, one gets the feeling that some people there are only too willing to make sure he bungles the process. How else could one explain the late arrival of electoral materials in 2011, necessitating the cancellation of parliamentary elections a few hours to the time they had been scheduled? And then the debacle of the Anambara gubernatorial election last year!
It is becoming clearer by the day that it is not making a man of integrity the chairman of INEC that creates electoral integrity. The circumstances of the establishment of INEC, the laws governing its performance are all such that it will be a miracle if the commission performs creditably.
Perhaps one of the boldest actions taken by late President Yar Adua was to attempt an overhaul of the electoral process and the commission. He set up the Uwais committee which did a good job. Tragically, even Yar adua who initiated the reform process was prevailed on by the hawks in his government to reject the reforms which would have given the electoral commission some lee way, close to the Indian model.
The culture of electoral malfeasance is sustained in Nigeria by what happens in states where shameless lackeys of the governors in power preside over states ‘independent’ electoral commissions. They simply manufacture figures and fabricate results, in almost all cases giving the party in power 100% victory at local government polls.
The 2015 elections portend grave danger for Nigeria. The country is split down the line on ethnic, regional and religious lines. The security challenges – terrorism, kidnappings, armed robbery, cultism etc are all at their possible worse. It is difficult to see how the INEC we know – the weak institution that it is- will pull this country away from the precipice.