Votes and Voices, my frontline journal first draft.
Co correspondents, Mentors, Midwives,Friends, Everyone. At last! Here is my first draft for the frontline journal. Please post your comments. It is still above the word limit by about 600 words so I still need to cut. I will also appreciate title suggestions. Eager to hear from you!
Votes and Voices: The Nigerian Experience
That morning I leapt out of bed excited and eager to face the day that would mark my initiation into political adulthood. By that evening I would be dejected and deflated like a punctured balloon. I would lie face down on the living room couch writing an article that I would later shred and angry tears would fall from my eyes to the paper, blotting the ink. It was April 14 2007, it was the first time I would ever vote. It was a day I had anticipated for so long. I believed that through my vote I could affect the direction of my country. In the weeks and months leading up to the election, I basked in the politically charged atmosphere, following the televised gubernatorial debates, national party conventions and campaign rallies. I also debated friends and family, face to face and on phone about whether it mattered if they voted or not. I managed to convince most of my friends and family members to vote. I bought some phone credit and sent text messages to almost ever number on my cell phone admonishing everyone to come and vote. In spite of my points and pleas, a number adamantly refused to vote, declaring that there was no point to it. Thus that evening, as I lay on that couch, totally disillusioned with the electoral system, I felt foolish for having hoped at all. I half expected some of my more cheeky friends to text me with witty “I told you sos’” None did. I have since realised that in spite of what their loudly proclaimed apathy towards the electoral system, they were nonetheless disappointed by the massive rigging that took place during the 2007 general elections.
The 2007 general elections were of historical significance in Nigeria. It was the first time a president would hand over to another in the 47 year history of Nigeria as an independent nation. The abortion via coup de tat of the various periods of civilian rule before this time were both precipitated by massively rigged elections. The nation chequered history with elections goes as far back as 1966 when the western region came to be tagged the wild wild west. It was called wet e politics. As much as I wish I could have witnessed the cataclysmic events that engulfed the south west then, I was not in that part of Nigeria at that time because I hadn’t been born. From my grandfather’s accounts and that of his decade old newspapers and yearbooks that make me cough as I read them, I can imagine the southwest erupting in one huge inferno as buildings, cars and sometimes people were set ablaze after wetting them with petrol. It is no wonder that people trooped into the streets after the military took over power months later. Again in 1983, four years after the country had returned to democratic rule, another round of elections led to the death of many Nigerians. This volatile history has made a large number of people wary of the electoral process.
The long period which Nigeria spent under military rule has created a culture of high handedness and lack of accountability amongst political leaders. One must keep in mind that under the military system, the army men did not answer to any body. They ruled by decrees which were questioned only by civil society groups and journalist like Dele Giwa who was killed by a parcel bomb in 1989.Unfortunately, this mentality has been carried over into the democratic days. This can be seen in the utter disregard for the rule of law and unfaithfulness to campaign promises by the political office holders. It is crucial that the electoral process in Nigeria becomes one that results in credible elections that reflect the desires of the citizenry. This remains the major if not only way by which leaders can be held accountable for their actions. They act the way they do now, with no regard for the citizens because they did not get to such positions through the power of the vote. Most got to their positions through rigging and are cocksure that they can do it again. Until the people really determine the outcome of elections in Nigeria, we cannot really say we are operating a democratic system of government. It is such highhandedness that made the sitting President to declare to Nigerians that the elections were to be “a do or die affair.” Nigerians were familiar with this kind of talk and some made up their minds not to approach the polling booths in April 2207. The major argument was “If we vote, they will still rig, so what is the point?”
I had thought about this ahead of time so I made up my mind to stay at the polling centre and watch the votes being counted at the end of the day. So that April morning I got up, had my bath and armed with my voter’s registration slip headed to the polling station with a few friends. The nearest polling centre to our home was at the Road 9 junction. When we got there we waited and waited and waited. When nobody showed up after an hour, we got into someone’s car and headed for the campus area looking for another polling centre. The car was filled with excitement and vibrant voices as we debated the credibility of each candidate, we craned our necks when we got to the empty points where there had been registration points during the voter’s registration period, eager to cast our votes. It wasn’t until we got to Awolowo hall that we found a polling centre. As we approached the centre, we could hear high pitched voices engaged in a heated argument, we alighted from the vehicle and approached the pooling point cautiously. There were quite a number of people there, most of whom I knew, mostly residents of the University staff quarters like myself. Professors, administrators and their young adult children, all in shorts, Ankara and other Saturday wears. Most were in colourful bathroom slippers, testimony to the fact that most had hoped to vote a walking distance from there home and had driven this far into the deserted campus because they were looking for a polling booth. We soon learnt the cause of the brouhaha; the electoral officers had insisted that only those who had registered on the campus could vote at that polling point. That meant that others like myself who had registered in the staff Quarters could not vote. The beleaguered electoral officers had no satisfactory answer to major question that were thrown at them by the agitated voters “What was the point of the electronic registration?”
In 2006, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) started the voter’s registration exercise on the 7 October 2006 in specific areas across the country while the nationwide registration exercise started on 25 October, 2006. In a sense, this particular registration exercise was the first of its kind in Nigeria. During this exercise, INEC introduced what it called electronic registration. One of the supposed advantages of this mode of registration was that it would enable access to the total database of voters at each polling booth making it easier for Nigerians to cast their votes. The machines were also expected to prevent rigging and multiple voting. INEC purchased 33,000 computerised Direct Data Capture Machine to be used in registering voters across the country. The snag in this seemingly laudable development is that there were 120,000 registration centres. To say the least, the number of machines provided was inadequate. At the commencement of the registration, only about 1,500 machines were available in the country. Consequently, the machines were not available in many wards and instead of making registration easier, in some areas of the country this new development actually made it more difficult. In some areas where these machines were available, there was no electricity to charge the batteries. There were instances where Nigerians made contributions to hire electricity generators or to buy petrol to generate light in order to operate the registration machines. The use of these machines had been strongly debated by Nigerians prior to the registration. Thus, a few days before the commencement of registration, the INEC chairman, Professor Maurice Iwu was invited to appear before the upper house of the National Assembly- the Senate. When he stood before the legislator’s on the 10th of October, 2006,in order to prove the reliability if the controversial machines, Maurice Iwu operated one of the registration machines on the floor of the upper chamber. The machined utilised to convince the legislators stopped working after a mock registration of ten Senators. The machines worked well in some areas such as the OAU staff Quarter’s where I was able to register within 15 minutes. Perhaps it was my rosy experience with this much touted method that caused me to be blinded to the problems the system of registration would later cause when polling started. The registration period for the elections were eventually extended, the registration, which ought to have ended in December 2006, ended on 2nd of February 2007. At the end of the exercise, INEC claimed it registered about 61.5 million voters out of the estimated 140 Million Nigerian population.
At the polling station in Awolowo hall, many lambasted both the government and the electoral officials over the apparent failure of the e registration system before getting into their cars and heading back home. We headed back to the staff quarters too and by the time we got there, the polling station at Road 9 junction had been set up and I was able to vote. I went home and came back at 4PMMM when voting was supposed to have been concluded with a friend. There were quite a number of people waiting to watch the vote counted. The party officers, the INEC officers and ourselves, citizens waited. The polling was extended for some more time because of its late start so that people could vote. By this time news had started filtering in from the town about polling centres where people were simply told to go back home because their votes had been cast for them. This kind of news made the atmosphere at the polling booth very tense, we eyed the electoral officers suspiciously and even more people waited to watch the count. The votes were counted. The procedure would have been for the officer to record the votes in a particular form. However, the officer claimed he had forgotten it and that he would write his report at the main office. There was palpable anger in the air as the officer started to get into a vehicle and start to leave with other officers, then as though in a desperate search for truth, a man grabbed the officer violently and reached into his pocket, out came the form. There was quite uproar and everyone insisted that the man record the votes. He did. As I rode back home in my friends car, he asked “How are we sure he wont change the figures.” I had no answer. I felt powerless as though someone had stripped me naked and pushed me into an hailstorm.
The election and election results were condemned by many civil liberties organisations and election monitoring groups. Some even called for the election results to be cancelled but they were not. Women were involved in the important role of monitoring the election as women groups such as the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations of Nigeria(FOMWAN) and Women in Nigeria (WIN) were actively involved. Before the elections, Women’s Aid Collective (WACOL) a non governmental dedicated to promoting the rights of women and young people published and disseminated a pamphlet titled “Electoral Process in Nigeria”. This pamphlet contained information that would educate readers on the full ramifications of their rights and responsibility to vote. Though it was published in 2002, the information in the pamphlet was very relevant to the sensitisation of Nigerians towards their civic responsibility.
It is unfourtunate that the defects in the Nigerian electoral system made the efforts of the women groups almost ineffectual. As another election year approaches, it is imperative that the Nigerian government stops merely talking about electoral reforms and start doing something. If the reform will be effective by 2011 when the next round of general elections are to take place, something must start now! If elections will ever be free and fair in Nigeria, the present laws pertaining to the process must be revised. It is very important that INEC become independent of the executive arm of government and whatever party may be in power per time. The constitution must be amended to effect this. Section 156 (1) (a) of the Constitution provides that those to be appointed as electoral commissioners must be qualified to be members of the House of Representatives. The interpretation of this which may not actually be in the spirit and letter of the Constitution, is that those appointed as members of the electoral Commission should be party members, as party membership is a major criteria for being elected into the House of Representatives in Nigeria. This is a dangerous loophole that could lead to the appointment of card carrying party members to a position that should be non partisan. The Independent National Electoral commission is too dependent on the executive. In spite of the improvement on the Electoral Act 2002 which led to the enactment of the 2006 Electoral Act, INEC remains a potential tool in the hands of the executive. The financial fate of the Commission is at the mercy of the Federal Minister of Finance who is appointed by the President. The executive determines the levels of funding and disbursement to the Commission, it also determines when and how the allocation to INEC will be released. These loopholes make INEC susceptible to manipulations from the political class. It is also important that those who are convicted of committing electoral crimes also be duly punished. This punishment should be meted out regardless of the status of such people in the society, even if they are former presidents.
2007 is gone, but the year continues to cause ripples in the political climate of Nigeria. Some of these ripples give hope in a situation that otherwise seemed almost hopeless. A number of the election results have been challenged at election tribunals. The Governors of Edo and Ondo sate were sent packing and those whom the court adjudged to be the real winners in the elections were put in their place. In Ekiti state, a rerun was ordered by the court. After the HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL election which was marked by irregularity and high drama, which included the resident electoral commissioner absconding after declaring that she was under serious pressure from powerful quarters to announce fake results, women in the state took to the street in a demonstration. The elderly ones led the way, half naked. In Yoruba culture, when elderly women threaten to or actually go naked or half naked, it is a sign of protest, a warning and a curse. By taking to the streets, these women insisted that if their votes could be stolen, there voices could not and they sought to get their votes to matter through their voices. The case is now back in court again.
Elections represent the people’s voice, their power, their stake in a democratic system of government. Although the events in Nigerian political history are quite disheartening, It is important that Nigerians keep in mind that the countries that enjoy free and fair elections today also had their own trying periods. When a crawling baby attempts to walk and falls on her bottom, she does not sit there, she simply stands up again. One day, hopefully sooner than later, if Nigerians keep voting and speaking out for change, the good people of Nigeria will wake up to a truly great nation.