Nigeria’s first failed election came as early as 1960. Since then, politicians have used democracy to convince the people that the power is in their hands. But the truth remains that the people who cast the votes don’t decide an election, the people who count the votes do. For us, our election petition tribunals have recounted our votes.
The nation has been alert as the election petition tribunal rulings have disturbed the peace in the Niger Delta and most recently, Taraba State. With Akwa Ibom and Rivers State governors facing electoral re-runs, Delta and Plateau elections upheld, the first female governor in Taraba, and the Bayelsa and Kogi elections approaching, there is enough reason for the democratic deficit in Nigeria to be revisited.
A lot of this electoral activity has felt like old news. This is because the election petition tribunals do not offer unequivocal change, or as Lai Mohammed put it, an end to impunity. Instead, they serve as a reminder of the unstable political setting in Nigeria. Undoubtedly, elections were rigged across the nation, in all 36 states – to varying degrees. Rivers State infamously descended into serious violence at the gubernatorial and presidential elections, so there is little surprise at the outcome of that tribunal. But it also paints another picture. Democracy is wonderful in theory, but in practice, it is quite often a failure. Nigeria’s electoral tribunals, if determined to overturn all elections with irregularities, would need to overturn the elections in every state, not just Rivers, Plateau and Akwa Ibom. Instead, they have chosen to embrace relativity. As opposed to overturning all elections, Nigerians can assume that the tribunals have decided to overturn elections were irregularities were so gross that it would have been blatantly undemocratic to uphold them.
Relative democracy as in this case, is antithetical to the rule of law which has become a buzzword in Nigerian politics. And this is a mismatch many democracy advocates find difficult to reconcile. The best democratic processes are never imposed on the people, instead, they are chosen, developed and integrated by the people. Therefore, as a nation, we must face up to our political setting and accept partial democracy as a reality, or remain deceived by the shadow of full democracy.
So if we were to accept this, would Nigerian votes even count?
President Buhari has officially appointed Professor Yakubu Mahmood as the new Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman, in a move which lays the foundation for the next round of national elections. But his appointment, still fresh, is unlikely to instantly enfranchise voters. In any good democracy, the minority will have their say, but the majority should have their way. In Nigeria, the masses are the majority, but the minority seem to have their way. Not many people believe their votes are counted as accurately as they are cast, but in the few polling stations where democracy is upheld, the story is likely to fall to ruin among the many others which are not so free and fair.
And this leads on to a more fundamental question for Nigerian democracy, how much democracy do we need to be content with our claim as a democratic nation?
Democratic deficits exist when institutions which explicitly claim democratic ideals fall short of the required standard in practice. Nigeria’s case is more fairly described as a vacuum than a deficit, a massive gap which is unlikely to be filled by overturning some gubernatorial elections. But it is a step forward. The political parties have described it as witch hunting of political enemies, but the polity can celebrate the use of due process to achieve legitimacy, rather than the violence Nigerians have so commonly used to attain political power.
As the appellants continue to employ legal tactics to retain their political offices, it is time for Nigerians to prepare themselves to face another round of elections, now with the ability to judge the All Progressives Congress on what they have delivered so far, as opposed to promises as in the earlier 2015 elections. Most people are not wrong to expect more disappointment, because the public officers have failed to inspire the people. But it is an opportunity to exercise the political freedoms that many have died and fought so hard for. While the voters return, Hilary Clinton’s words could not be any more apt, because ‘voting is the most precious right of every citizen, and we have a moral obligation to ensure the integrity of the voting process’.