On April 22, South Africans went to the polls for the fourth national elections since apartheid ended. These were orderly and peaceful. Three days later in Nigeria, a country just a year from its 50th anniversary, thuggery and ballot-box snatching returned in force in a partial re-run of the 2007 gubernatorial elections in Ekiti State. Even accredited election monitors and journalists were brutalized.
Why the difference? Why can large and populous democracies such as Brazil and India conduct elections that are not discredited by fraud and violence, and not Nigeria?
Since the restoration of democratic government in 1999, elections in Nigeria have steadily declined in quality and legitimacy. Will the Ekiti debacle serve as a wake-up call that not just democracy but Nigeria as a nation is imperiled by the meshing of elections and warfare?
In Kunle Ajibade’s new book, What A Country, he cites the martyred Dele Giwa’s insistence that “the tough march into the future” required Nigerians to put nation above self. What occurred in Ekiti on April 25 demonstrated that the tough march in Nigeria is heading in the wrong direction.
Pluralist democracy rests on the premise that parties can compete fervently for votes but, come election day, they stand aside and allow the voting process to be conducted fairly. I oversaw the monitoring of transitional elections in Zambia in 1991 and Ghana in 1992 and so I know what a profoundly uplifting, and nation-asserting, process they can be.
At a conference at Northwestern University in November 2006, Wole Soyinka spoke of Nigerians’ attempts to draw near to democracy and the ways in which they have been regularly pushed back. What, we must ask, can now be done to break this Sisyphean cycle before it ends in the national catastrophes we have witnessed in Kenya and Zimbabwe?
If Nigeria is to establish its democracy on a firm basis, a major non-partisan national movement may be needed. Such a movement, bringing together civic activists, religious leaders, academics, business persons, community leaders, and others – and speaking for the Nigerian nation itself – must be prepared to wage a relentless struggle to win the right of all Nigerians to express their electoral preferences free of violence and intimidation.
Could Ekiti become a turning-point in Nigeria’s fitful march to democracy? In the history of every struggle for freedom and justice, there are such defining moments.
National leaders of the contending parties descended on Ekiti before the election. The Independent National Electoral Commission shuffled its personnel and thousands of police officers were rushed there from other states. Ekiti therefore became the arena in which the commitment to build democracy through free and fair elections would be demonstrated to a distrusting nation. Those expectations were cruelly dashed, but the struggle continues.
Many eyes throughout Nigeria, Africa, and the world will be focused on the further progress of polling in Ekiti. Nigerian authorities and party leaders will be tasked with demonstrating that Nigerians, as recently Ghanaians, South Africans, and Sierra Leonians, can exercise their fundamental right to choose freely those who will govern them. Had we not fought for such a right in the United States over decades, Barack Obama would not today be the American President.
There are Nigerian Obamas awaiting the opportunity to help lead the tough march of this nation into the future. To fulfill its destiny, they must be given a fair chance to win the support of the people via peaceful and honest elections.
An earlier version of this column appeared in NEXT newspaper, Nigeria.