Votes and Voices: A Nigerian Experience
I leapt out of bed that morning, excited and eager to face the day that would mark my initiation into political adulthood. By that evening I’d be deflated like a punctured balloon. I would lie face down on a couch writing an article that I would later shred and angry tears would fall from my eyes to the paper, smudging the ink. It was April 14 2007, the first time I would ever vote. A day I had anticipated for so long because I believed my vote would carry my voice amplifying it to influence the direction of my country.
In the months leading up to the election, I basked in the politically charged atmosphere, following the televised party conventions, campaign rallies and gubernatorial debates. I had debated friends and family about whether voting mattered or not, and sent text messages to almost every number on my cell phone, admonishing everyone to vote. I managed to convince most of my friends and family members to vote. Some could not be convinced. Thus that evening, as I lay on that couch, totally disillusioned with the electoral system, I felt foolish for having hoped at all for having gone all out to convince others. I half expected some of my more cheeky friends to text me with witty “I told you sos’” None did. Whether they voted or not, by the time the massively rigged 2007 general elections were over, Nigerians were fully aware that their mandates had been stolen.
The 2007 general elections were of historical significance in Nigeria. It was the first time in the 47 year history of Nigeria that one president would hand the office over to another as an independent nation. The abortion via coup d’etat of earlier periods of civilian rule were both precipitated by massively rigged elections. The nation’s 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. From my grandfather’s accounts and the dusty pages of his old newspapers and yearbooks that make me cough as I read them, I 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 in celebration 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 many 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, journalists and few courageous individuals. Many of them such as Madam Kudirat Abiola were murdered in the course of their valiant fight for democracy. However, though we are now under a democracy, most leaders still rule like dictators. This is evident in the utter disregard for the rule of law and unfaithfulness to campaign promises by political office holders. Most got to their positions through rigging and are cocksure that they can do it again.
I was well aware of the history of rigging in elections in my country. Therefore I made up my mind not to leave the polling centre until the votes were collated. So that April morning armed with my voter’s registration slip I marched down to the polling station at road 9 junction with a few friends, then 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. Eager to cast our votes, we craned our necks whenever we reached one of the empty locations where there had been registration points.
But 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, and we approached the pooling point cautiously. I knew many of the people there, mostly residents of the University staff quarters like myself. Professors, administrators and their young adult children, all in shorts, Ankara and other Saturday wear. Most were in colourful bathroom slippers, testimony to the fact that they had hoped to vote within walking distance from their homes, and had driven this far into the deserted campus because they too 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 couldn’t vote. The beleaguered electoral officers had no satisfactory answer to major question that was 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 in October. During this exercise, INEC introduced what it called electronic registration. Supposedly this mode of registration would enable access to the total database of voters at each polling booth, making it easier for Nigerians to cast their votes. This method was also expected to prevent rigging and multiple voting. INEC purchased 33,000 computerised Direct Data Capture Machine to be used in registering voters; this number was grossly inadequate and couldn’t service the 120,000 registration centres across the country. Consequently, the machines weren’t available in many wards and instead of making registration easier, they made it more difficult. Even where these machines were available, there was often no electricity to charge the batteries. There were instances where Nigerians made contributions to hire electricity generators or buy petrol to generate power to operate the registration machines. The machines worked well in some areas such as the university staff quarters where I was able to register within 15 minutes. Perhaps it was my rosy experience with this much touted method that blinded me to the problems the system of registration would later cause when polling started.
At the polling station in Awolowo hall, the raised voices faded away as we headed back to the staff quarters. By the time we got there, the polling station at the road 9 Junction had been set up and I voted. I went home and returned with a friend at 4PM when voting was supposed to stop. We waited with party officers, the INEC officers and other citizens as polling was extended 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, and we eyed the electoral officers suspiciously.
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 fought back angry tears, clenching my fists in a bid to rid myself of the feeling of powerlessness that washed over me like sloppy water.
The election and election results were rejected by many civil liberties organisations and election monitoring groups. Women were involved in this 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 unfortunate that the defects in the Nigerian electoral system made the efforts of the women groups almost ineffectual.
2007 is gone, but the year continues to cause ripples in the political climate of Nigeria. Since then, some of these ripples have given 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 state 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. The HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL election 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. Following this, 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.
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! The solution to the electoral problems we now face can be found in amending the constitution to make INEC truly independent of 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 finance of the Commission lies in the hands of the Federal Minister of Finance who is appointed by the President. As long as the executive determines the modes and levels of funding and disbursement to the Commission, it will be susceptible to manipulation from the political class. It is also important that those who are convicted of committing electoral crimes also be duly punished regardless of their status in the society.
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, recent happenings, especially the outcomes of some electoral tribunals shine a ray of hope on our hearts. 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.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.