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Published On: Fri, May 9th, 2014

Some thoughts on the 2015 elections

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Question NigeriaBy Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed

Elections are critical turning points for all democratic systems. They express, in their pure essence, the exercise of sovereignty of the people, and represent the institutionalization of the consent to govern from the people to leaders. Citizens are most powerful during elections, not just as voters, but as people who hold opinions and views that will determine those who will exercise power. The degree to which elections genuinely involve citizens and voters in the manner leaders emerge is one of the few benchmarks for judging the quality of a particular democratic system.

Some preliminary comments may be necessary to put the linkages between elections and the nature and quality of the democratic process. First, it is important to note that elections on their own are not necessarily evidence that democracy exists. Pre-determined or rigged elections are very common, and in many instances, elections are merely routine rituals orchestrated to preserve the status-quo. Secondly, there is very little agreement over what represents genuine value added to democratic systems in terms of elections. In stable, advanced democracies, voter turn-out hovers around 30 – 45 per cent. In many instances it is lower. This suggests that a small percentage of the entire population decide who governs. On the other hand, large turn-outs in developing democracies have coincided with massively rigged elections in many instances. While citizens therefore demonstrate a deep and popular desire to influence the emergence of leaders, mandates are stolen by a handful of powerful people, thus rendering the electoral process into farce. Thirdly, there has been a raging debate over what the world should tolerate as credible or acceptable elections in developing democracies. Poorly – conducted elections have been accepted or tolerated in developing democracies by developed democracies because of the primacy attached to stability, and a questionable belief that with every successive election, the democratic system grows and develops.

Little attention is paid to the damage which successively rigged or disputed elections do to democratic systems in the manner they progressively shrink and violate the foundational values of the democratic system. Finally, citizens and voters expect elections to result in real changes in their lives or their social environments. Perceptions regarding the degree to which this happens are critical in determining dispositions towards democracy as a system of government, and, particularly in developing democracies where leadership plays such decisive roles in determining quality of life, elite competition for power very often draws citizens into serious conflicts over electoral outcomes.

Elections and the Political System.

The electoral process is a sub-set of the political system. All elections therefore reflect the basic issues and concerns of the political system. In developed democratic systems where most of the basic political issues such as the manner classes should compete for economic and political values; the form and structure of governments; nature and operations of basic institutions of state; processes and systems which determine citizen-state relations as well as group relations; the place of values such as faith and a few others are more or less settled, elections tend to be largely about choices within very limited political spectrum. On the other hand, in democracies where allocation of resources between classes and groups is a major issue, or where questions around values such as faith are still unresolved; or where loyalties to centripetal values are central to the political process; or where weaknesses of the elite are significant, elections tend to be volatile and massively destabilizing. If elections do not progressively capture, process and resolve some of these major issues, they merely reflect cumulative frustrations, and each election throws up more challenges to the capacity of the democratic system to resolve basic political issues.

In political contexts where basic issues remain unresolved, it is reasonable to expect that any or all of the following are responsible:

i. Elections merely compound the problems, for instance, by becoming one more arena and opportunity for competing values or interests. Leaders who emerge from the elections reflect and champion narrow interests that may not even qualify strictly as partisan interests.

ii. Democratic processes and institutions do not function between elections to resolve basic issues in the political system, as a result of which elections represent their highest levels of articulation;

iii. Elections do not reflect popular will, including the desire to resolve basic political questions and achieve progressive resolution of these questions. Consequently, leadership is isolated from the imperatives of exercising mandates in accordance with basic popular concerns.

Elections in Nigeria

Elite cohesion, a vital requirement for achievement of political hegemony has always been a major problem with the Nigerian political system. The build up to political independence exposed a weak elite rooted in powerful regions, collaborating only to achieve electoral victory or keep the opposition out. The goal of independence provided an incentive and a rallying point, but intense competition and the absence of unifying values among the political leadership left it exposed and weak. This explains in large part, both the relative ease with which the 1966 coup occurred, and the consequent split within the Armed Forces which was an organic appendage of the political elite.

The long stay of the military in power precluded the possibility of growth and development of a political elite, democratic values and institutions. That period coincided with the real beginning of a rentier state and a political system which was fuelled essentially by patronage. The brief period of civilian rule highlighted the huge chasms which had developed in the ranks of the political elite. Elite recruitment had suffered a major setback. The elite operated basically with the pre – 1966 values and worldviews in spite of efforts of the military to fragment their bases. The prime goal of capturing the state and bestowing patronage to sustain control was still visible and available to the military, and it moved once again to take back control of the state. The political elite was reduced to playing facilitating roles for a military whose own project was principally the control of resources of the state and political power. This singular goal made control and governance difficult and unstable, and the military itself went through a damaging process which progressively robbed it of cohesion and integrity.

The 1999 collaboration involving the rump of the non-military elite from the North and a military desperate to exit without further damage produced the current democratic dispensation. The 1999 elections were a comparatively tame affair, reflecting as they did, a basic consensus around candidates and outcomes at the national level. Subsequently, however, elections became principally about concentrating power around President Obasanjo and leaders of the PDP. His first term taught Obasanjo the lesson that power is best concentrated around his office and person, and his second term was a study in the process of imprinting a powerful leader on a political process.

Nigeria today bears all the hallmarks of a political system centered around powerful leaders who sustain control by subverting basic processes and values that give democracy its basic character. State resources are plundered to build and sustain loyalties, or prove access to patronage which reproduce the basic parasitic nature of the state. Subversion of the rule of law and due processes in the operations of core governance institutions have led to massive declines in their efficacy and integrity. Corruption and the collapse of policing institutions as well erosion of integrity of the judicial system have robbed the state of the capacity to perform its two basic functions: to protect life and pursue the economic well-being of citizens. This is the context in which the 2015 elections will be conducted.

Context of the 2015 Elections.

The 2015 elections will test and stretch the democratic process to their limits, or beyond. It is already the most pronounced aspect of our political process and the period until the elections will cumulatively challenge the security of the nation, the integrity and capacity of the electoral process, and the peace and livelihood of citizens. No elections have held such potentials to deepen the nation’s problems, or


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