Predictably, the Nigerian Government has rejected the 2007 Human Rights Watch which severely criticized political practice in the country. The government said the report made “unfair submissions about Nigeria on issues of violence, human rights abuse and corruption.”
It is important to clarify that the government’s knee-jerk reaction is its own. As a Nigerian, I know that the majority of my compatriots agree with the conclusions of the report.
To begin with, I do not believe that the government spokesman had even read the report, because it is far more brutal than the rebuttal seemed to recognize. I will offer a very brief summary.
This report stops half an inch short of calling our government officials criminals. This is the heart of its theory of Nigeria being “mired in a crisis of governance” since 1999. From a human rights perspective, it describes the violence, manipulation and corruption through which our governments emerge, and how that affects the practice of governance once those “elected” officials get into office.
What part of this is false or “unfair”?
There is no Nigerian adult that does not know of the institutionalized farce that we call elections. We know how candidates and parties use money and thugs to make sure they ‘win.’ In 1999, 2003 and the 2004 local government elections, this was a practice we demonstrated before the world.
In 2007, it was hoped that things would be different partly because of the outcry against those previous elections, and partly because of President Olusegun Obasanjo’s pretence to being interested in free and fair elections.
But it was clear to those who were paying attention that Obasanjo was not honest. To begin with, he appointed to head the Independent National Electoral Commission a man called Maurice Iwu. Not only was there nothing in his background to suggest he knew the meaning of fairness, his attitude and pronouncements were proof he was a hatchet man.
Then there was Obasanjo himself. He insisted his party would rule “for 60 years,” and repeatedly described the 2007 elections as “do or die,” for his party. It is also significant that even when his friend, Chris Uba, confessed to having rigged the 2003 elections for his party in Anambra State, Obasanjo did not once seek to invoke the rule of law in honour of his oath of office. In the same Anambra State, Obasanjo backed Chris’ Uba’s brother, the heavily-criticized “Andy,” for governor, armed with plane-loads of cash.
In addition, it should also be remembered that ahead of the 2007 elections, the police reported finding ballot boxes in the home of the Ibadan local PDP champion, Lamidi Adedibu. The President of Nigeria specifically ordered that the man be left alone. The political parties have also used the police to manipulate elections.
In the states, it is common knowledge that many gubernatorial candidates formed and armed local gangs to protect their electoral interests. We have seen such gangs at work in many states. In some of them, such as Anambra, Rivers and Oyo, such gangs are currently presenting a serious challenge to established order.
If federal government officials care about the truth, this was the background to the electoral farce of last April. Even within the PDP, it will be remembered that the current President was imposed by the outgoing President; he did not emerge through a democratic process. And the current President has acknowledged, again and again, that he is the product of a flawed process.
This is why it is such a shame that the same government is responsible for the irresponsible rebuttal of the new HRW report, in direct contradiction of President Yar’Adua’s frank admission. It is on account of his acceptance of the international e evaluation of the elections that the President said he would review our electoral process. He has fulfilled part of his promise by setting up the Electoral Reform Panel.
Let us be clear, then: either the President’s admission, or the rebuttal of the report, is a ruse. The government cannot have it both ways. And if we seriously intend to rectify the situation, we must begin by humbly accepting the sad truth: rigging elections and ripping-off the voter has become our political way of life. This situation is championed by the PDP, and last week’s nullification of a governorship and Senatorial election in two states is evidence of this.
The Nigerian voter is also guilty of helping political criminals to defraud our country.
Rigging is much more than vote-counting. Nigerians all know the harassment at polling stations. Sometimes, we are victims; at other times, we are the perpetrators. We stand by when the potential beneficiary of a political violation is our relative or friend or townsman or tribesman or partyman. When you stand by without denouncing the act, you are a participant, a perpetrator.
Sometimes, we stand back. We stand back when those hired to wield the machetes or guns or cudgels, or inflammable liquids or matches are our relatives. We do not stop them, we do not protest. We justify our response by looking at their “employment.” They are just trying to earn something.
We do not think of the opposition as someone entitled to fairness. We do not think about his office, or listen to his ideas, or permit his voice. He is not a competitor, he is an enemy. Even when we know him, even when everything tells us that he is a better person and candidate than our own candidate, we are comfortable with putting his life on the line. We resent the truth, and in our sleep, count the profits when our own man assumes an office he is the least qualified for.
But if we do not think of the candidate as a person, how can we think about tomorrow? How can we think about the water we know he will never provide for the community, or about the schools and hospitals he will never support? How can we think about all the flesh and blood he will seek to deny or destroy simply because they said they believed in someone else?
And so, out of selfishness or shortsightedness or cowardice, we foster, or support rigging. A man to whom we should say, “Get Behind Me, Satan!” is permitted ahead of the community, and we celebrate him like an angel. Criminals we should be handing over to the police become the officers who manage the prison.
This is where we are. This is what HRW describes in its well-researched, balanced and well-meaning report. In rejecting it, however, the government indicates it has no intention of listening to the thoughtful recommendations contained in the report.
This is sad because if we cannot stand the truth, no matter how bitter, how can we say we are committed to change? Our system is rotten, and that is why, since 1999, Nigeria has continued to earn tremendous revenues that, like popular confidence in government, continue to evaporate before our eyes.
That is why our governors are often called thieves in public, and they react by carting even more money out of the country. That is why almost every public office holder in our country is scared to declare his assets. That is why our infrastructure is decaying, human security is deteriorating, Nigeria’s best brains are heading in the other direction, and foreign investment is going to Ghana and Botswana.
In my view, none of these ailments can be cured by an aspirin. Nigeria needs radical surgery. If President Yar’Adua actually has the stomach for History, he should pick up the scapel. He should reject the rotten dish he has been served, and seek a new start by quickly revamping our relevant laws and calling for credible new elections no later than 2009.