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Elections as a Litmus Test in Nigeria

The recent elections in Nigeria will prove a tough challenge for democracy and for the new president Alhaji Yar'Adua. While on the economic front Nigeria has in recent years registered encouraging success, its ambitions to be an African power will rest on Yar'Adua's ability to manage the country's diversity and to set in place vital improvements in the social sector.

Elections as a Litmus Test in Nigeria

The recent elections in Nigeria will prove a tough challenge for democracy and for the new president Alhaji Yar’Adua. While on the economic front Nigeria has in recent years registered encouraging success, its ambitions to be an African power will rest on Yar’Adua’s ability to manage the country’s diversity and to set in place vital improvements in the social sector.

PARVATHI VASUDEVAN

A
pril and May 2007 have been exciting for Nigerians everywhere: in Nigeria and the world over. Nearly 66 million Nigerians were registered to vote across 1,20,000 polling stations in a landmark poll. It was only in 1999 that Africa’s largest oil producer had finally embraced democracy after two decades of military rule. Most of May was filled with a lot of speculation on whether democracy in Nigeria was mature enough to live up to everyone’s expectations and hopes.1 On May 29, power was finally transferred from one civilian to another civilian government for the first time.

Electoral Stakes

All through these two trying months Nigeria withstood the intense glare of the world’s media. First to come under scrutiny were the elections held on April 14, to the houses of assembly and for the posts of governorships to all 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja. Elections at the state level are critical for it is at this level that decisions affecting the daily lives of 140 million Nigerians are implemented. Besides, most state governors are powerful persons in change of large budgets sustained by substantial oil revenues and can therefore influence the federal-state fiscal relationships as well as the presidential elections.2

Nigeria’s state elections generally perceived as fraudulent were followed by the parliamentary and presidential polls on April 21. Twenty-five candidates contested the presidency but there were only three principal contenders, all Moslems from northern Nigeria. They were Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (Yar’Adua hereafter) hand-picked for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, the incumbent vice-president who had defected from the PDP to the Action Congress (AC) and former military strongman major general (retired) Muhammed Buhari of the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP). The

Economic and Political Weekly June 30, 2007

Nigerian voters hoped that at least these elections would be free and fair. But all newspapers reported that almost everywhere, there was much fraud and bungling accompanied by violence in some areas. The media was full of reports “of stuffed boxes, intimidated voters and phony results”.3 The two leading opposition candidates of the AC and ANPP were the first to question the legitimacy of the polls when it was announced that Yar’Adua had won 70 per cent of the popular votes.

Nigeria’s independent observers’ group

– the Transitional Monitoring Group (TMG) called the elections a “sham”. The observers of the European Union observed that the elections could hardly be called “credible by basic international standards” and had “failed to meet the hopes and expectations of the Nigerian people”. Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of state, indicated that “the election process failed the Nigerian people”. The International Republican Institute, a US based non-governmental organisation argued that the elections in Nigeria were the worst that they had monitored, with standards below what they had seen even in backward, poverty-ridden Somalia.4 Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s Nobel Prize winner, called it “the most insulting elections in this country” and called for their cancellation given the massive irregularities. The Financial Standard, a newspaper of Nigeria, pointed out that nearly 70 per cent of the presidential ballot papers printed in South Africa were consciously and in connivance with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) hoarded in a warehouse in Johannesburg so as to deliberately create an artificial scarcity. The newspaper maintained that the INEC was a handmaiden of the PDP – the party in power and also wondered whether South Africa was an accidental accomplice.5 The Africa Report concluded that INEC itself was neither “independent” nor “credible”.6 The Human Rights Watch Group was more on target when it simply said that “Nigeria has not held a free and fair general election since the end of military rule”.7

Official reactions to the above allegations were on expected lines. Then incumbent president Obasanjo argued that no “human arrangement could be 100 per cent perfect” and that there “is no perfect democracy or perfect election” anywhere in the world. He commended the INEC for a job that he regarded was well done.8 Echoing the president’s stand was the verdict of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS – the only body to be officially invited) when it said that “a majority of voters were able to cast their ballots in a tranquil and orderly manner. The elections were also relatively free and fair”.9 The UN on its part confirmed that it was not invited to observe the elections though its secretary-general Ban ki-Moon had said that he was “keenly watching” the whole process.10

It should therefore surprise no one that in less than a decade – eight years since the military was sent back to the barracks, democracy to most Nigerians appears a charade if not a luxury. They feel deeply disappointed and shortchanged. The paper also pointed out that following the 1993 elections, 84 per cent of Nigerians had expressed their faith in democracy, by 2005 this was down to 25 per cent.11 Buhari pointed out that the public was told that elections had to be held so as to avoid a constitutional crisis and a socio-political breakdown. He maintained that this argument together with imperfect elections could not be accepted for that would not only lead to “institutionalising the massive rigging and unabashed fraud in the polity”, but also make the 2011 elections “a big farce”.12 The common perception is that democracy in Nigeria is long on rhetoric but short on credibility and is experiencing a backslide after much fanfare and brouhaha.

The New President

To buy into the above arguments would, however, not do full justice to the credentials of the new president nor would it be fair to the common man’s trust and commitment to democracy in Nigeria. That is why Buhari, an incorruptible military person, could not capture public imagination. The distinct dislike for the man in uniform clearly explains why the Nigerian public opted for Yar’ Adua, a soft-spoken, honest and gentlemanly politician who was the first to declare his personal assets when he entered public life, choosing to move away from the world of academia (he is Nigeria’s first degree-holding elected president). As governor of Katsina from 1999 till he became president, he ensured that the state had made enormous progress in agriculture, education, healthcare, road building in rural and urban areas, electricity and water supply. Katsina today has a surplus budget, with taxation as the major source of revenue and with a focus on agricultural exports, especially neem and neem products. His record of accountability, transparency and prudence won him acclaim as the best governor in 2005.

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Economic and Political Weekly June 30, 2007

But repeating the Katsina’s success story is not easy. Nigeria is not just Katsina. The latter is basically peopled with one religion, while Nigeria has about 300 different ethnic groups making it a “fragile, fractious and rancorous polity”.13

In view of the allegations of fraud, Yar’Adua indicated early in May that he would examine the April 2007 elections and set up “a committee to review the electoral laws in the country with a view to removing all the pitfalls” and run an “inclusive government which should help take the country to the next level”. He pointed out that under the Nigerian Constitution there are “adequate provisions for remedies” to redress grievances over the election results. He said that adherence to law alone would help “take Nigeria from an underdeveloped to a developed modern economy and to rank among the top 20 countries by 2020”.14 Would Nigerians agree with him? Not Wole Soyinka. The writer has observed that while he has nothing personal against Yar’ Adua he sees little future for Nigeria where corruption has become a way of life and Nigeria with so much annual oil and gas revenue still underperforms as compared to its democratic peers on the continent. As if to prove his point he got 48 other Nobel laureates (that include the Dalai Lama, Kenneth Arrow and Desmond Tutu) to issue a statement that called for fresh polls in Nigeria within 18 months as the April polls were flawed. The statement also called for a “conference of national unity comprising of government officials, civil society groups as well as religious and business leaders to resolve the situation in Nigeria”.15

In his inaugural address on May 29, (the occasion of “Democracy Day”) Yar’ Adua re-affirmed his commitments. He pledged to adhere to the rule of law as opposed to the rule of the thumb. He indicated his awareness of the importance of infrastructure and especially the power sector for sustainable economic growth and promised to restore uninterrupted generation, transmission and distribution of power. The president assured his administration had taken note of the imperatives of strengthening education and human capital, employment creation and the security of people and property. He added that he would not merely continue with but also “accelerate the economic reforms embarked by the Obasanjo administration”. Most importantly, he sent a clear message to the rebels and militants of the Niger Delta that restoration of peace, on the basis of dialogue and shared values was the need of the hour. In effect the president reassured the Nigerians that he would not deviate from the election manifesto he had based his campaign on or the subsequent pronouncements he had made.16

Yar’Adua’s Challenges

Yar’Adua has inherited a vibrant economy.17 The GDP per capita has gone up from 673.01 in 2004 to $ 1,011.73 in 2006; the non-oil GDP growth has gone up from 3 per cent in the 1994-99 period to 7.61 per cent in the 2003-06 period. Inflation was in single digit by end 2006. Nigeria is now the fastest growing telecom market in sub-Saharan Africa. Adult literacy rates in 2006 have gone up and real minimum wage has moved upward, facts that portend well for the youth who can make it, provided they can arm themselves with good education and are appropriately skilled. The problem of joblessness in the rural areas and skill formation would be addressed by the Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency in Nigeria (SMEDAN) set up during the Obasanjo administration. Nigeria’s external debt in 2006 was mere $ 3.54 billion, 2.5 per cent of the country’s GDP; in contrast, the country’s domestic debt in 2006 was $ 13.67 billion, about 9.56 per cent of GDP. Most significantly, Nigeria has paid back its debt to the London and Paris Clubs amounting to about $ 30 billion. The resources thus freed from debt servicing could be used for meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). By early 2007 the difference between the official and the parallel market was narrowed to

– 0.77 per cent, down from –5.52 per cent as of 2006. Nigeria’s external reserves at $ 42,298 billion cover 25 months of imports. Foreign investor interest in the areas of food and beverages, automobiles, aviation, banking and insurance has also been high. The International Finance Corporation – an organ of the World Bank – has indicated that its largest investment in insurance in Africa is in Nigeria and was looking forward to financing infrastructure activities.18

Despite the several advantages that Yar’Adua enjoys to start with, he needs to focus on the unenviable tasks of job creation, skill formation and skills upgradation. He has to also find the funds to get the higher education system back

Economic and Political Weekly June 30, 2007

on track, with emphasis on research in science and technology if Nigeria has to compete with its counterparts in Asia and Latin America. He needs to bestow utmost priority to healthcare for tackling malaria, other water-borne diseases and most importantly the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Can all this be done in a reasonable time frame? Not unless Nigeria can pull up itself by the bootstraps, says a study done for The Business Day. It points out that Nigeria contributes a mere 11 per cent to Africa’s economic output. It ranks 34 out of the 47 countries surveyed trailing behind South Africa, Mauritius, Ghana, Namibia, Lesotho and even Zimbabwe. Government consumption is very high and corruption is rampant while people have less disposable incomes.19

The new president has to ensure that growth and development are broad-based and visible for all to see. He has to ensure that revenues from the sale of Nigeria’s high quality sweet crude and natural gas are used judiciously. In this context, he needs to make the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) deliver what is expected of it without any delay.20 Yar’Adua has to make the restoration of the flow of oil a top priority of 2007 – designated as the Minerals and Mines Year (MAMY) and overcome the challenges posed by the militants in the Niger Delta led by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).

Nigeria today has abundant economic potential beyond oil. The non-oil sector has recorded an annual growth rate of 8.9 per cent in 2006 up from 8.2 per cent in 2005, 7.4 per cent in 2004 and 5.9 per cent in 2003.21 Nigerians do not lack entrepreneurial talents or economic opportunities. There is no noticeable gender injustice either. The reforms based on the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS) now in place could help “improve the macroeconomic environment, engineer structural reforms in the economy, strengthen public expenditure management, as well as implement institutional and governance reforms”.22

Now that a chance has been given to democracy notwithstanding the initial misgivings, Yar’ Adua will have to proceed with care, especially while choosing his cabinet colleagues. Yet, to place the burden on him and him alone will not be fair. For, a successful and mature democracy needs supportive institutional mechanisms backed by appropriate political choices. Everyone in Nigeria – the public, those in high positions of power, civil society, and the media need to understand that democracy can survive and prosper only if societies, economies and polities not merely want democracy but can nurture, cherish and respect it. This fairly lengthy process cannot be achieved overnight. For democracy to be rewarding, there has to be mutual respect among the winners and the losers, and accountability, transparency, zero tolerance for corruption and good governance must make up the basic standards to be upheld. Elections are merely the first stop on the road to democracy.

EPW

Email: parvathivasudevan@gmail.com

Notes

1 All the Nigerian newspapers and a number of international writings and broadcasters have carried reports on the processes and outcomes of the elections as well as the issues of peaceful transfer of power. Prominent among them are This Day, The Guardian, The Business Day, The Financial Standard, and the Daily Trust from Nigeria, The Economist, New York Times, BBC News and the SABCA of South Africa.

2 For example, Peter Odili, the governor of the oil rich Rivers State, had in 2006 a budget of $ 1.33 billion to spend – an amount which was higher than the budgets of Mali and Niger. See

The Economist, May 8, 2007. 3 The New York Times, May 3, 2007. 4 This Day, April 26, 2007. 5 April 26, 2007. 6 Africa Report, No 123, March 28, 2007. 7 Human Rights Watch, ‘Election or

Selection? Human Rights Abuse and Threats to Free and Fair Elections in Nigeria’, April 2007.

8 This Day, April 26, 2007.

9 This Day, editorial, April 19, 2007.

10 The Guardian, April 20, 2007.

11 New York Times, April 23, 2007.

12 This Day, May 01, 2007.

13 The Economist, April 28, 2007.

14 The quotations in this paragraph so far are taken from This Day of May 3 and May 24, 2007.

15 This Day, May 23, 2007.

16 This Day, May 30, 2007.

17 See Chukwuma C Soludo’s Presentation to the Nigeria Development Forum before president Obasanjo and the then president-elect, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua on ‘From a Pariah, Failed State to an Emerging Market Economy: The Obasanjo Legacy and the Yar’ Adua Challenge’, Abuja, May 10, 2007.

18 The Financial Standard, May 15, 2007.

19 The Business Day, ‘Nigeria’s Socio-economic Performance in sub-Saharan Africa: 19992007’, May 12, 2007.

20 The Initiative is to ensure that what the government earns by way of the extractive industries is rightfully earned and rightfully distributed to the various stakeholders. Details of how to achieve the aims of the initiative are given in This Day, May 01, 2007.

21 This Day, May 30, 2007.

22 This Day, May 30, 2007.

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