Written by the Editorial Board of The Guardian Newspaper
It is a sad commentary on political developments in Nigeria that five general elections and several by-elections since 1999 have not produced enough evidence that Bernard Shaw could be wrong after all, when he noted long ago that “we learn from history that we learn nothing from history”.
That was what happened recently when President Muhammadu Buhari was so frustrated by build-ups to the elections in Ondo and Rivers states that he observed that general elections in 2019 could be a mirage, after all. The president was responding to a bout of violent acts that has consistently led to postponement of re-run elections in Rivers State and drums of violence in Ondo where a governorship election comes up this weekend. The Nigerian leader specifically noted that elections in the two states in the south-south and south-west zones could be seen as a litmus test for general elections in 2019. This is directed at the election management agency, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and political leaders who stand for elections.
The concerned President who expressed the uncertainty of 2019 through his Senior Special Assistant Media and Publicity, Ghaba Shehu, said: “What happened in the last elections in Kogi, Bayelsa and Rivers states disturbs me a lot. I think we should go beyond these actions. Why do we kill each other, putting tyres on people and setting them ablaze…I have told the law enforcement agencies, if we can’t conduct an election in one state, then we should forget about 2019”. Democracy stands diminished when violent elections are involved in the ingredients that nurture it periodically.
There are clear lessons from history of how violent elections had ended many republics but no one cares to learn any lessons as Bernard Shaw had warned. Specifically, the post-independence election 1964 ended the republic in 1966 when the army took over government from politicians who were apparently smarting from political violence.
The President who might have been guided by this background before his statement on violent elections and 2019 is expected to go beyond mere lamentation on such a critical national issue that has earned the election management agency, INEC, a sobriquet: conductor of “inconclusive elections.” There have been inconclusive elections in Bayelsa, Kogi and Rivers states. No one is ignorant of the fact that elections are inconclusive not only when INEC could not conduct elections. They are not concluded when political thugs take over the process for personal gains. There are, therefore, two political parties, namely the governing APC and the opposition PDP. The president’s party, the APC has been participating in elections without proper organisation and indeed periodic meetings of the highest decision-making bodies of the party since election of the president in March 2015. Most of the leaders of the ruling APC in South West, for instance, were not in Akure, Ondo State when the president himself was there on a campaign tour at the weekend. There have been reported leadership tussles in the party. The same thing can be said of the opposition PDP that ruled Nigeria for 16 years until 2015. It is not for trite reasons that the 1999 Constitution as amended states that political office holders who have to contest elections have to do so on the platform of a political party.
These parties are supposed to organise their members to observe the rules governing elections to the letter. It is when party members and leaders resort to self-help during elections that violence erupts. That is why most elections observers in the context of peer and other review mechanisms insist on the laws to rule election processes. When the law rules, there will be no recourse to violence. There is a need for the president and his men to insist on value reorientation so that members would not see election outcome as a do-or-die affair.
In Rivers State, killings, arsons and kidnappings are common features in political violence. In Ondo State, destruction of campaign bill boards and posters, bribery, fractionalisation of political parties, alleged substitution of candidates, inconclusive primaries and loss of confidence in INEC and the judiciary have not allowed the political terrain to be smooth. When people lose confidence in institution’s capacity to be fair, they resort to violence too. That is why the president’s foreboding should not be taken lightly.
Meanwhile, the fact that elections are never concluded until the courts have affirmed the candidates already declared by-elections management agencies, should be worrisome. Even if candidates scale through elections to the points of declaration of results, politicians hardly accept results. They rush to election tribunals to get victory. But the fact that most of the victories declared in courts have been questionable through investigations of judges suspected to have collected gifts from litigants should be worrisome to the government and people of Nigeria too.
All told, the President should stop lamenting. The buck for ensuring peaceful elections stops at his powerful desk. After all, the successor administration was generally believed to have conducted a free and fair election that it lost to the president’s party. Besides, the leadership of INEC then enjoyed some free atmosphere under which that was achieved. In the same vein, the president has a responsibility to ensure that security and intelligence agencies, for instance, do not interfere in election datelines and other critical factors as they allegedly did in Edo where they caused a questionable postponement that triggered some credibility crisis for the election, after all. So, let the broken walls of elections be fixed before the 2019 general elections.
Another litmus test comes up on Saturday in Ondo State where a governorship election will be held. That election must be peacefully concluded.