April 7, 2015 By Abu-Bakarr Sheriff
Africa’s most populace nation, Nigeria, may have just done itself and the continent proud by conducting a presidential election many, including local and international observers, say was free, fair and credible.
As historic as that feat may be, if past elections are anything to go by, the fact that the opposition candidate, General Muhammadu Buhari, won the polls, defeating incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, is itself a watershed in the tumultuous political history of Nigeria. What is more remarkable is the show of grace and statesman’s posture by the outgoing president, who conceded defeat and congratulated his political rival, within a record time!
Many were apprehensive that the elections could further exacerbate insecurity in the country, which is battling with Islamist insurgents – Boko Haram – for its soul and dignity. The election, postponed from its initial date of 14 February to 28 May, did not pass without violence. Yet millions of Nigerians were determined and showed characteristic stoicism to elect their new president, senators and representatives.
It came as a huge surprise and probably relief that Nigerians made history, as the African giant had been trailing others in West Africa in the league of peaceful democratic transition from one democratically elected government, led by one party, to another.
Hence, on 28 and 29 March, Nigerians spoke in no uncertain terms that sovereignty belongs to the people and that they are capable and willing to facilitate a peaceful transition from one political party – Peoples Democratic Party, which has ruled since the end of military rule in 1999 – to another – the All Progressives Congress, a coalition of opposition parties and likeminded politicians determined to checkmate the PDP dominance of politics in democratic Nigeria.
As the world congratulates Nigerians and the protagonists in this epoch making feat, including President Barack Obama of America, former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, to name a few, Africa in general and Sierra Leone in particular should learn few lessons from the Nigeria democratisation case study.
Sovereignty Belongs to the People
The first lesson to be learned from this rare Nigeria success story is that sovereignty belongs to the people, as it is only through them that any government can obtain entrance legitimacy. President-elect, General Muhammadu Buhari, is a former junta leader and self-professed ‘democracy convert’. After three previous failed bids as top honcho at Aso Rock, he no doubt epitomises a true convert and believer of democracy. His human rights record as a junta head of state was severally called to question, but he was able to convince the electorate that democracy was the sole legitimate path to gaining power, and he re-echoed that in his victory speech by underlying that power belongs to the people, as democracy is government of, for and by the people.
The former ruling party, PDP, may have realised perhaps belatedly that the electorate should not be taken for granted. Party chieftains are on record to have vowed they would rule for 60 years! Alas, the people held the ace, and they amply demonstrated that election day by showing the PDP the red card. And this despite an impressive record in infrastructure development, as the people decided based on the government’s record on corruption and its inability to ease insecurity posed by Boko Haram, albeit some remarkable progress during six weeks of postponement of the election. But that proved too late to sway support and momentum for the PDP.
In Africa, where the winner takes all principal holds sway, elections are a matter of life and death. And perhaps nowhere that is evident than in Nigeria, which has huge oil and gas reserves.
Yet the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) of Nigeria may have charted a way out of the challenges of managing complex elections on the continent. Led by a university don, Professor Attahiru Jega, INEC acquitted themselves pretty well in the elections, perhaps surpassing the expectation of millions of Nigerians and observers around the world.
Professor Jega’s relaxed demeanour even under intense pressure and scrutiny, and verbal attack, the highlight of which was the shameful tantrum by a PDP former minister, was beyond reproach. He showed strong will and determination, yet fairness was his hallmark. He showcased this by calling for an immediate investigation into opposition claims that the poll was rigged in Rivers State, a Jonathan stronghold. His respect for due process and all parties is legendary; no time did he infamously and inflammatorily tell any aggrieved party to “go to the Police!”
That said, arguably the best lesson we could learn from the Nigeria elections is the use of Electronic Card Readers. For me, that held the ace in ensuring that the votes of millions of Nigerians counted. It ensured that the principle of ‘one man one vote’ was respected, albeit there were allegations of rigging even at collation centres.
But in all, the Electronic Card Reader is the reason we all are celebrating this great victory by our Nigerian brothers and sisters. I hope new Elections boss, Nfa Allie Conteh, will take note and start planning ahead of 2018 for a replication of the system here.
Calumny and Hate Messages are Redundant, Issues Relevant
As expected, the winner, Buhari was subjected to intense calumny and hate messages by the PDP, with some of its apparatchiks apparently suggesting that aspirant Buhari should take a medical examination, a subtle allusion to his perceived poor health and diabolical thought of imminent death. Some questioned his education credentials, while others lampooned his human rights record as a former junta leader.
While some might argue that such scrutiny is needed in a vibrant democracy, however some of the vitriol clearly went overboard. Thankfully, they failed to wash with the electorate this time around. Even attempts to label him as an Islamic fundamentalist failed abysmally.
Instead, what the masses were interested in is mundane issues which affect their daily lives – bread and butter, unemployment, corruption, insecurity, energy, and health. As a result, the ruling party failed to repeat previous feat, despite a good track record in infrastructure.
A lesson to be learned here is that though infrastructure development matters, the wellbeing of the citizenry matters most. A government which fails to provide basic necessities like water, electricity, security, and end endemic corruption and cronyism is just as bad as that which falters in building infrastructure.
Independent and Proactive Media Monitoring
Another lesson we could learn from the Nigeria elections is the need for an independent and proactive body to monitor the media during electioneering. Because the stakes are very high, some sections of the media take sides, for pecuniary reasons or personal interest.
In Nigeria, president-elect General Muhammadu Buhari threatened to take legal action against the Nigerian Television Authority and the African Independent Television, for airing hate broadcasts against his personality. Both private and public media outlets were roundly condemned by the National Broadcasting Commission and the Human Rights Commission of Nigeria after they were deemed to have violated the Media Code on Elections Coverage by spreading hate message and giving the incumbent undue coverage.
During the 2012 elections, the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) was accused by European Union observers to have given undue coverage to the ruling party and President Koroma. Although they strenuously denied the claim, it was no secret that the ‘independent’ public broadcaster was inordinately biased in their reportage in favour of the ruling party.
It is hoped that anomaly will be remedied in 2018 to give everyone a fair playing field in coverage and visibility.
Politicians should Lead by Example
The acceptance of defeat at the polls by President Goodluck Jonathan demonstrates he has a large heart and that he did not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. He will forever be remembered for diffusing tension as Nigeria edged slowly and precariously on the precipice of a violent backlash from the election. That singular act was brave and classy, and may have prevented hundreds of deaths as at least 800 died in 2011 when Buhari lost.
Also, the winning party celebrated their hard fought victory but within the confines of the law. They have been magnanimous in victory and their supporters have not gone on a rampage, attacking their opponents.
Again, I hope Sierra Leoneans will learn that politics is a contest, a battle of wits and not war. Hence winners should embrace losers and losers accept winners in the spirit of fair play and healthy competition. Post-election violence should have no place in our democracy, and leaders of political parties should lead by example by speaking and acting peace before, during and after election.
The new president of Nigeria will not be inaugurated until 29 May, in accordance with the electoral and national laws of the country. This allows for a smooth transition as ample time is given to the outgoing president to handover to his successor. The same is not the case in Sierra Leone, where a presidential candidate is rather hurriedly sworn in hot on the heels of the Returning Officer declaring him winner.
As we are about to review the 1991 Constitution, I hope the drafters will take note and design a similar pattern for Sierra Leone. Such, in my opinion, would prevent the chaos and uncertainty which ensued particularly in 2007, when the current regime ousted the previous administration.
In conclusion, the above lessons, though no way exhaustive, if emulated here, could help deepen our democracy and enhance our credentials as a great democratic nation.