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The Limit of Electoral Reforms

June 3, 2009

(Being the speech delivered by Femi Falana on “Democracy Day” at the London Metropolitan University, Holloway Road, London, United Kingdom on Friday May 29 2009)
INTRODUCTION: In a puerile reaction to the decision of President Barrack Obama to visit Ghana in July the Peoples Democratic Party has accused the United States government of plotting with opposition political figures in Nigeria to destabilize the Umaru Musa Yaradua administration. Since the British government has refused to cancel this program Prime Minister Gordon Brown may also be accused of subverting democracy in Nigeria. Such jejune allegations clearly demonstrate the lack of basic understanding of the tenets of democracy on the part of the ruling party. The reactionary governing class must have thought that Mr. Obama was joking when he cautioned in his inauguration speech that, “To those leaders who cling to power by corruption and deceit…you will soon find out you are on the wrong side of history.”

 If Mr. Obama is not prepared to associate with election riggers in Kenya, his fatherland, why should he collaborate with those who have threatened to continue to capture power and impose themselves on the Nigerian people for 60 years? For goodness sake why should President Obama associate with a regime that lacks the political will to bring to book a few former government officials who have been indicted by foreign courts in the Siemens, Wilbros and Halliburton scandals? 
In 1997, President Bill Clinton visited Ghana and five other African nations. Nigeria was excluded from the tour because of her pariah status at the time. However, President Clinton met with leaders of the human rights and pro-democracy movement in Dakar, Senegal. The late Mr. Wada Nas accused the American president of engaging in treasonable conduct by hobnobbing with subversive elements in Nigeria. It is a pity that PDP leaders are merely echoing the unsubstantiated allegations credited to the Sani Abacha junta in similar circumstances over a decade ago.
Globally, elections have become the most acceptable means of political transition in any given political system. Ordinarily, in most democratic societies, elections are usually conducted by an institution set up by law and a representative government is often referred to as democracy where the authority of government is derived solely from the consent of the governed. The principal mechanism for translating that consent into governmental authority is the holding of free, fair and credible elections.

Historically, it is usually difficult to hold elections that are completely free and fair. In 2004, the elections that gave victory to former President George W Bush of the United States were alleged to have been marred by irregularities in the State of Florida. Studies on elections have revealed that transiting from one regime to another is often the problem in most African states. For instance, even in much touted Kenya, with all the hopes and expectations, as well as perception as the beckon of acclaimed smooth democratic transition in Africa, the last general election of December 2007 was marred by the illegal vote allocation to the ruling political party. The breakdown of order that ensued lasted more than a month until the international community intervened to avert a civil conflict. But that was after about a thousand persons have been reportedly killed and hundreds of thousands more rendered displaced.

Recently, Uganda's opposition parties made a strong representation to the national parliament, demanding reforms in the electoral commission as the country prepares for the presidential polls in 2011. In its presentation to parliament on 13th May, 2009, the opposition leaders suggested major facelifts in the way elections are conducted, the announcement of winners, and the reinstatement of the presidential term limits. Parliament abolished a constitutional limit on presidential terms in 2005, paving the way for Yoweri Museveni to seek a third elected term. Some other significant demands of the group are an end to army representation in parliament, establishment of a code of conduct for security agencies to regulate their activities during election time and an end to the militarization of elections. You may recall that Uganda was notorious for its gross human rights abuses, first during the military dictatorship of Idi Amin from 1971-79 and then after the return to power of Milton Obote, who had been ousted by Amin in the 1970s.

Between March and June, 2008, Cameroon and Zimbabwe held the most horrendous of elections which many categorized as sham. If Cameroon got away with the fraudulent elections which held in June 2008, Zimbabwe was not too ‘fortunate’. Even then, Cameroon’s political stability was threatened by days of mass protests which saw the excessive use of State-power to suppress the expression of popular wish of the people. Although the Paul Biya regime succeeded in suppressing the protests the challenges of a fragile state built on weak and ephemeral political institutions are still ominous for the country.

Whereas experiences from other African countries confirmed that electoral disputes arise on the basis of results declared after conduct of elections, Zimbabwe’s elections results were not announced for more than five (5) weeks after the completion of the voting exercise! Hence the electoral dispute commenced initially from the non-release of the results. The month-long delay in announcing the results of the March 2008 presidential elections elicited protests from the main opposition party which alleged that the declared results were “cooked figures”. The country was forced into a run-off second round of elections amidst widespread violence and insecurity of the electorates, particularly opposition supporters.

In a repeat episode of the Zimbabwe example and what is seen as a dress rehearsal of what to expect in the general elections in 2011, the recent rerun Governorship elections in Ekiti State, Nigeria really showed the extent of political desperation and limit to which political actors will exploit their incumbency to retain their grips on political power. The Court of Appeal sitting at Ilorin had averred that the 14th April 2007 Governorship election held in my home state, Ekiti, was marred by vote rigging through fraudulent accreditation and ordered a rerun in sixty-three electoral wards spanning ten (10) out of the sixteen (16) Local Government Areas in the State. Pursuant to the Court order, rerun election was slated for 25th April 2009. The build up to the elections was characterized by widespread violence, voters’ harassment and intimidation. But the police refused to deal with the violators of the Electoral Act because of their membership of rhe ruling party.

In one of its major political rallies, led by the President Yar’adua himself, key leaders of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) declared that they would capture Ekiti “at all cost” re-echoing the “do-or-die” mantra of the erstwhile national garrison commander, President Olusegun Obasanjo. Honourable Dimeji Banole threatened armed soldiers would be deployed to ensure victory for the PDP. The electoral episode of 25th April 2009 resulted in a simulated stalemate that lasted for close to two weeks. During that period, the resident electoral commissioner, the 74-year old Mrs. Ayoka Adebayo, alleging threats to her life and intimidation from official quarters instructing her to accept and announce cooked up figures from Ido-Osi Local Government tendered her resignation letter and went into hiding for fear of her life. At a press conference jointly addressed by the Information Minister, Professor Dora Akinyuli, the INEC Chairman, Professor Maurice Iwu and the Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Mike Okiro it was stated that Mrs. Adebayo’s action was aimed  at discrediting the Federal Government and undermine the ‘fledging’ democracy. Accordingly, her “purported” resignation was rejected.

Without committing any criminal offence whatsoever, the Inspector-General of Police declared Mrs Adebayo wanted. As it were, the necessary state machinery was deployed to browbeat, harass and intimidate her into accepting the fraudulent Ido-Osi figures which later ensured ‘victory’ for the PDP candidate, Mr. Segun Oni. After the charade in Ekiti state it has since been disclosed that INEC officials  fixed the “results” with  “logistics” of N250 million .It has also been revealed that the police authorities ordered the release of the over 150 suspects, including 2 PDP senators, arrested for sundry electoral offences in connection with the election. Embarrassed by such disclosures the Federal Government has set up a panel to investigate the allegations of bribery and violence that took place during the elections!

It would be recalled that the 1999, 2003 and 2007 general elections were reported to have been heavily marred by irregularities. In April 2007 specifically, when Nigerians went into the third successive general elections in its chequered history of political development, the process was characterised by unprecedented electoral malfeasance which led to wide condemnation from local and international observers. Upon inauguration, the incumbent government condemned the flawed election that brought it to power and undertook to set up  a committee to  fashion out a system  that would ensure the conduct of credible elections and thereby “ deepen democracy” in Nigeria. Indeed, the  Electoral Reform Committee headed by the Hon. Mohammed Uwais, a former Chief Justice of Nigeria was put in place by the government  went round the country, collected and collated memoranda from a wide segment of the society and presented a detailed report.

 Apart from rejecting the report of the committee which that has been widely accepted as a basis to revamp the  faulty electoral system, the nation has  continued to  witness unabated irregularities that had characterised all rerun and local elections conducted since the inception of the present administration. President Yar’Adua’s rejection of the most critical and important recommendations of the Uwais’ Panel report also smack of gross hypocrisy on the part of the government.  It does appear that once the Supreme Court had ruled  that the April 2007 Presidential elections were ‘acceptable’ in law’ the legitimacy that was initially lacking was acquired and thus the recommendations of the Electoral Reform Committee were overtaken by events.


Since the transition from military dictatorship to the current civil  dispensation, Nigeria’s quest for effective democratic governance has been confronted by many challenges. The integrity of the electoral system is a major issue facing Nigeria’s new democracy. It is known from past history that turbulent elections have been a source of political crisis in Nigeria. Controversies surrounding elections have seriously undermined the legitimacy and stability of democracy in the country. There could be the most serious consequences for democratic development if political leaders are unable to reach consensus on rules of political conduct, and if the Nigerian public therefore becomes alienated from the electoral process as is presently the case. Nigerians have thus universally suffered from political crises or an interruption of democratic rule. As stated earlier, even President Umaru Musa Yar’adua severally acknowledged the fact that the Nigerian electoral system needed urgent overhaul. It was on the basis of the above that Yar’adua made the issue of electoral reforms an integral part of his seven point programme.

Many a skeptic had looked at the committee set up by the government to reform the electoral process. Questions and concerns were raised, and legitimately so. Can it deliver a workable, problem-proof electoral formula for Nigeria? Is its mandate broad enough? However, events of the past weeks have proven that the government is not committed to genuine electoral reforms. With President Yar’adua abridging the salient recommendations of the Uwais Report and the National Assembly playing ludo with the political destiny of the country, it appears that the electoral reforms are dead on arrival. There is no doubt that the electoral system and other institutions of democracy need to be deepened and made less amenable to manipulation by politicians. Such institutional reforms could render the self-interested and illegal interventions of powerful politicians, especially the president, less injurious to our democracy, if not completely impotent. It must be argued, however, that no electoral reform can stop a determined president or political class from engineering the kind of electoral outcome that they prefer, at least not under our current political structure of overbearing executive supremacy.

Erroneously, Nigerians seem to be carried away by assuming that a credible reform of the electoral system will remove the underlying motivation for rigging and electoral manipulations. Definitely, it will not. Rigging and other forms of election fraud come from a political desperation that, if backed by executive power, cannot be stopped by the most formidable of electoral laws. The provincial expertise of a good percent of the political actors is finding creative ways around laws that stand in the way of their political interests.  Perhaps, we are forgetting that what got us here was not just a bad electoral system, although that has played a major role in our democratic challenges. More than bad electoral laws and systems, the democratic setbacks that we have suffered in the last ten years were largely the results of the machinations of a group of narcissistic politicians led by Olusegun Obasanjo. This group of people had no qualms about breaking, ignoring, or strategically misinterpreting electoral laws to conform to their selfish interests.

 Many members of this rampaging gang are still active in politics at the federal executive level and planted their protégés at the state and local levels. If they had no hesitation in participating in the abuse of porous electoral laws, why should they behave any differently with better electoral laws? With the dangerous emphasis on technicalities by Nigerian Courts it is almost certain that a better electoral law will simply bring out the best of the criminal ingenuity of desperate politicians.

The quest for a credible, enduring democratic culture must then go beyond electoral reforms, laudable as these reforms might be. There is a compulsive need to devise a mechanism for preventing politicians with executive powers from rubbishing the electoral conventions of the land, or at least make it unprofitable for them to do so. To do this, we must remove the basis of political desperation, of political ‘do-or-die’. This entails preventing any group of people from having too much power and access to national resources, privileges which they then hesitate to relinquish and would rather preserve than respect any electoral and institutional conventions. We must prevent a group of politicians from becoming too invested in the national political system to the point of doing illegal, unconstitutional and unconscionable things to keep and nurture these investments.

The example of Olusegun Obasanjo and his allies who hijacked the Nigerian state in the period under review is instructive. Part of Obasanjo’s perverse brilliance is his ability to deploy a discourse of “economic reform” to seduce the West and to engineer international consent and admiration while destroying democracy at home. How did Obasanjo manage to achieve such an incredible feat? The answer cannot be farfetched. All he did was to initiate a set of reforms palatable to the IMF and the World Bank and then recruit Nigerian technocrats committed to the visions of these Breton Woods organizations to superintend the reforms. To go along with this, a stable rhetorical diet of “reform” and respect for “technocratic competence” was served to the admiration and applause of the West. This political sleight of hand muted and mitigated Western democratic vigilance, allowing Obasanjo and his allies to subvert democracy and rule of law  while pretending to be committed to free market and democracy. Without international outrage and repercussions, Obasanjo was able to break and manipulate our admittedly faulty electoral laws and institutions to his heart’s content.

Our legitimate fear is thus premised on knowing that even if the on-going electoral reforms succeed in fashioning an electoral system that is formidable, present and future presidents may simply deploy Obasanjo’s playbook, initiating pro-Western reforms to deflect Western criticism and to extract Western consent, while concocting electoral outcomes of their preference in disregard for Nigeria’s electoral laws. If future presidents choose to be good students of Obasanjo’s perversely fraudulent politics of winning international admiration while shrinking the democratic space at home, Nigeria’s democracy is doomed, no matter how sound our electoral system(s) may be.

Be that as it may, one must accord Obasanjo credit for successfully deflecting Western criticisms while systematically ruining democracy by excluding and including people and tendencies according to his whims and interests. But it is pertinent to situate the reason he and his allies were so committed to holding on to power, to excluding their opponents from the democratic space, and to ignoring or breaking electoral and constitutional conventions in the process. The reason is quite simple: Obasanjo and his allies captured the Nigerian state and its resources and were determined to hold on to it. Backed by the overreaching executive power of an imperial presidency, the PDP and its corporate allies sought to inaugurate a political dynasty, with some of them even gleefully declaring that the PDP was set for a sixty year rule!

Under the current state of lawlessness any other political party or political class would have done exactly the same thing. This includes the ANPP, the AC, or any other political tendency. They would also probably have sought to subvert the electoral process and the laws of the land to retain their privileged perch on power. The undemocratic primaries conducted by most other political parties and the local government elections held in all the states of the federation have confirmed the lack of commitment to democratic principles on the part of a visionless governing class. In fact, President Yar’adua has conceded the control of state independent electoral commissions to state governors in the electoral reforms!

It is pertinent to note that the attractiveness of federal executive power is a function of the immense access to resources that it bestows on those who wield that power. In the same vein, executive power enables the power wielder to subvert the electoral system and to undertake unethical and undemocratic acts in order to preserve access to resources. It is a depressing duo, a perfect mélange for political desperation, and the type that can make nonsense of any electoral laws or system no matter how well-crafted.

In such a climate, power and the access to resources that it confers must be maintained at all cost. This is the source of the resort to the sort of reform talk and the repressive and unconstitutional acts that characterized the Obasanjo presidency. A lot of people were too deeply invested (literally and figuratively) in power to let go; to let the electoral laws and conventions hold sway; to let the constitution mediate the electoral process. From PDP chieftains to pro-Obasanjo business moguls dependent on state patronage, to political appointees, to international lobbyists—a whole slew of interests and groups of people became so invested in the Obasanjo presidency and/or its reforms that they either participated in or acquiesced to the wanton dismemberment of the electoral system in the quest for so-called continuity.

Continuity and reform became intertwined slogans authorizing the most brazen electoral frauds and the most insensitive subversion of democracy in Nigeria. The culmination of this process was Obasanjo’s undemocratic declaration that he would not hand over power to anyone not committed to continuing of his “reforms.” Curiously but understandably, this scandalous declaration did not attract even a whimper of criticism from the self-appointed monitors of democracy in the West. “Continuity” and “reform” were deeply implicated in the electoral fraud of April 2007 and in the numerous undemocratic and unconstitutional actions that led to it.

To recap, electoral reform is laudable but it is meaningless in the face of a dogged determination on the part of a political group to maintain the status quo and their privileged access to state resources and power. This is why electoral reforms must not skirt or precede the fundamental issue of the structure of the Nigerian state: the fact that the federal government controls too much resource revenue and has too much power over its distribution. This is the root of political desperation, which has doomed our presidential electoral contests till date.

Without reducing the attractiveness of the presidency and of other elective federal offices through the institution of fiscal federalism and without the devolution of control over resources to Nigeria’s constituent units and the equitable distribution of resources among the people, electoral contests will remain contests for access to resources, and the desperation and greed that fuel these contests will continue to undermine our electoral system.

Along with fiscal federalism, a comprehensive constitutional review should whittle down the power, reach, and influence of the presidency, devolving power, developmental initiative and the most consequential electoral contests to the local levels where the Nigerian people can best mobilize to counter the election-rigging and democracy-subverting actions of politicians. Because people have a direct stake and investment in the politics of their constituencies, the determination of politicians to rubbish electoral laws and conventions are unlikely to succeed at those levels.

It is hard to imagine how electoral reforms can succeed when an  executive power fueled by the desperation and greed that follow logically from the enormous resources controlled by the state can override any electoral convention. We seem to be putting the cart of electoral reforms before the horse of constitutional reforms. The latter, if carried out properly to reduce the economic attractiveness of public office, especially of federal elective office, can constitute the most important electoral reform and thus make the type of electoral reform that is being chorused by President Yar'Adua either unnecessary or simply complementary.

Despite the identified challenges facing the electoral system, it must be acknowledged that there are still opportunities available to Nigeria to institutionalize a viable and efficient electoral system. However, Nigerians should not expect the beneficiaries of the status quo to reform the system to their own detriment. The challenge before progressive political parties and other democratic forces is to organize and mobilize Nigerians to compel the Federal Government to adopt the basic recommendations of the Uwais Panel. In particular, political leaders from all political parties should affirm their commitment to basic principles for a free, fair, and violence-free election in the future. Contestants and major participants in elections must be made to abide by  common standards of conduct .

 The general view among Nigerians is that all the electoral bodies set up to conduct elections often lack sufficient independence or effectiveness to administer fair and transparent elections. Above all, a credible election process requires an independent, non-partisan, competent, and professional election administration. The process of appointment of members of electoral bodies should guarantee their independence and neutrality. Electoral officers should be appointed from accredited representatives of credible civil society organizations. The members should appoint a chairperson among themselves.

The anti-corruption agencies should move speedily to check corruption in politics as it undermines democracy. The relevant laws  stemming political corruption and regulations on contributions and campaign expenditures by parties and candidates should be strictly enforce .Given Nigeria’s diversity, it is obvious that democracy is the sole political choice for its survival, and the best system for managing the nation’s current challenges is by fostering better governance, and ensuring popular welfare. This can be achieved through an efficient electoral system which enjoys the support of the people.

Finally, as political stability cannot be guaranteed in a state of lawlessness there is the urgent need to combat the pervasive culture of impunity in the land. The scores of suspects who were arrested by the police and other law enforcement agencies including those who were indicted by several election petition tribunals over their role in disrupting the 2007 general elections should be prosecuted without any further delay.

1.    Banji Akintoye, “The Vision and the Challenge”, Unpublished article on June 12 and the vision of political development in Nigeria, Dec 2007
2.    Larry Diamond, “The Democratic Rollback: The Resurgence of the Predatory State”, Council of Foreign Affairs, March/April 2008
3.    Jibrin Ibrahim, “Deepening Democracy: The limits of electoral reform”, The West African Insight, Centre for Democracy and Development, May 10, 2009.
4.    P Musoni, “Reconstructing Governance and Public Administration Institutions for Effective, Conflict-Sensitive Rule of Law”, A Paper Presented at UN Ad-Hoc Expert Group Meeting, Yaoundé, Cameroon (July 2003) (Unpublished).
5.    Moses Ebe Ochonu, “The Limits of Electoral Reform, October 2007, (Unpublished)
6.    Dayo Oluyemi-Kusa, “Electoral reforms in Nigeria…A Critic”, Development Policy Management Network Bulletin, Vol. XIII, N° 3, September 2001, pp. 27-29
7.    C Willis, “Essays on Modern Ethiopian Constitutionalism: Lectures to Young Lawyers” (1997) 3 (unpublished).
8.    The Report of the Electoral Reform Panel.

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