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Nigeria election brings out the complex dynamics of an underachieving nation

By Anyang' Nyong'o | March 29th 2015

Saturday, close to 80 million registered voters in Nigeria carried their Permanent Voting Cards (PVC) into polling booths across the hills, valleys and plains of this vast nation of 170 million people to elect their President. The choice was between Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)—the incumbent—and Mohammad Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Goodluck had been the vice president under Yar’Adua when the latter died in office. Two years later in 2011, he was elected on a PDP ticket with the support of the former PDP Leader Olusegun Obasanjo. Since then, however, General Obasanjo has decamped from his own party, tore up his membership card, and declared Jonathan unfit to hold that high office.

I was there as part of the Commonwealth Election Observation Team of about 12 people led by former Malawi President Bakili Muluzi. Our mission was to observe the election process up to polling day: the state of readiness of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), its degree of independence and impartiality, and the degree of confidence the players have in the commission. We were further interested in evaluating registration of voters, the validity of registers, availability of the Permanent Voter Cards to voters, sanctity of the voting process and security of the votes cast. We were further interested in assessing the voting environment: are parties and candidates able to campaign freely and seek support, to what extent was the media free to report on the political process, how did the judicial process work in safeguarding the rule of law and to what extent was the state playing a neutral and fair role as the “prefect in a fair play”?

Nigeria has a great deal of similarity with Kenya. It is the most prosperous economy on the West African Coast; Kenya enjoys the same status on the East African Coast. It recently rebased its GDP and became the leading economy in Africa; Kenya followed suit and jumped into the rank of a Middle Income Country. It has seen the military play a very important role in politics; Kenya is envious of this and President Uhuru Kenyatta has been in military fatigues and uniform whenever the opportunity arises.

Growing unemployment, corruption gone wild, vicious battle among “eating chiefs”, mega projects conceived to provide opportunities for galloping rent seeking and militias hired to protect men and women in the Mafioso world dominate the media; Kenya has its fair measure of all these on the East Coast. Just this week a multi-million dollar bridge collapsed two days after the President inaugurated it; Uhuru Kenyattta has not had such a misfortune but then our elections are still two and half years away.

While Boko Haram has wreaked havoc on Nigerian society, killing people wantonly in the name of a mission to establish a Caliphate and Islamise all and sundry, the Al Shabaab in Kenya has done its best to outdo its counterparts here by carrying out horrendous blood-letting missions in the name of its version of an Islamic Jihad.

On both coasts of Africa the armed forces have scored victory over the Satanic forces, but the jury is still out why Nigeria and Kenya remain vulnerable to such backward forces.

Occupying centre stage in this election contest was the INEC led by the calm, self-assured and dignified Prof Jega. Curiously it was the ruling party PDP which has expressed tremendous misgivings about INEC: it had insisted Jega was sympathetic to their opponents in the APC; what was even worse was its claim  the commission was planning to rig the election in favour of Buhari. Since we did not manage to meet the PDP officials, these claims were difficult to verify. Quite often they were the stuff with which the PDP advertisements were made in the media, and no single individual appeared before us to own them. The APC, however, sent its top leadership to discourse with us, expressing tremendous confidence in the commission.

The worrying issue remained the role of the military and the security forces. Except in the North West where Boko Haram’s presence is still a factor, and in places where Internally Displaced Persons is still problematic, the INEC had made it very clear, following three court rulings, that the security forces have no role to play in the electoral process. Like everybody else, they were not to be found within 300 metres of any polling station.

Their presence on the streets and among the people was to be strictly limited to personnel who normally engage with civilian security. There had been apprehension, especially from the Opposition, that the government did not mean well regarding the mobilisation of security forces on elections day. Local and international observers had in the meantime appealed to the government to ensure the independence of the INEC in managing the electoral process, and only giving complementary support where and when needed within the confines of the constitution and the election laws.

The two contenders tried their best to impress the public to vote for them: Jonathan claimed good performance in office that should be renewed if Nigeria is to continue on the upswing trend. Buhari pointed out that if you scratch the surface of what seems to glitter, the Jonathan regime was rotten with corruption, inefficiency, nepotism, shoddy projects and lack of vision: it was time for change. Change was the theme of the APC campaign everywhere; and Buhari was lifted high as the man who has the guts and the moral credibility to fight corruption and bring the needed change in all facets of governance and development that Nigerians are yearning for.

Critics recalled Buhari’s performance as chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund during the Abacha regime and raised several question marks: one argument, which Jonathan partisans put out for public consumption, was that he favoured the North in the distribution of the discretionary fund when he run it like a Tsar. The South suffered in return.

Before the elections, we spent seven hours at the crowded airport waiting to take a flight to Ibadan. No announcement was made until one came saying it was cancelled, with absolutely no explanation regarding what was to happen next.

The next day we re-booked our flight to travel through Lagos. The plane was meant to take off at one o’clock. We are still here at two o’clock, and scene two of the ongoing act may still await us.

Nigeria? I am not sure the puzzle of a nation of great potential but a hopeless under-achiever will ever be solved in our lifetime.

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