Creating a sustainable and accountable democratic system
I am very worried about the state of Nigeria’s democracy. Not because I think that we have witnessed anything unusual in our 2019 elections, but because we think it is unusual. We seem to think that our democratic process took a step back during this political process. It didn’t. It has always been this way, all we have seen is the exploitation of the same flaws that have existed for a very long time, and which ultimately have the potential to create such division, that our integrity as a nation is under threat.
For a young, and immature democracy, and that is what we remain, there is a certain expectation that the system will have flaws. That it will be imperfect. But the requirement for the population to continue to believe in that system is that it shows progress towards a better, more inclusive, more representative solution to our democratic needs.
To understand the trajectory of this problem, we just need to look at voter turnout in our Presidential and then Gubernatorial elections. In 2015, voter turnout at a national level, as a percentage of registered voters, was around 40%. I think 69 million registered voters result- ed in approximately 30 million votes. In 2019, with registered voters up to over 80 million, we saw fewer votes. As a simple metric, when more people have the ability to vote, and less do, there is something wrong with the system. Less people have belief in its integrity, less people believe that if they vote it will change anything, more people feel that voting puts them at risk and so we end up with a government that is elected by a small- er and smaller percentage of the population. Continuing that journey only has one result. Government by the few over the many.
Despite the disappointing trajectory, I do not believe that all is lost. There are solutions to these problems, which with proper leadership can be implemented quickly. I want to talk about four key areas of intervention that can help put us on the right track, and I hope that this triggers some debate. I am not taking a partisan position. These views are expressed with no agenda beyond the desire to see some of the fundamental building blocks our nation needs to thrive, be built. The starting point and the focus of this article is a clear understanding of the numbers, and that starts at the very basic question about our population, its size, its growth rate and its geographic diversity. We must know how many people live in Nigeria, where they live and some basic information about them. You cannot operate an independent, transparent and accountable political system without this. I will present some views on how to solve this later on.
The second intervention is the depth of political, and broader, education of our people. The manipulation of elections is only possible because the population allows it. Whether you are a hired thug, a vote seller, a compromised agent, a greedy INEC official or an intimidated activist, your complicity in a broken system starts from a lack of understanding and is extenuated by a lack of belief in its integrity. Which brings me to the third intervention? We must take action to reform the structure, number and governance of our political parties. They must be accountable and the rules that govern them must be enforced.
Finally, we must make some changes to the voting system that we use. I don’t think it is possible for any truly independent commentator to look at how the elections were conducted and claim that the system works. It absolutely does not. It remains hugely susceptible to manipulation. By both sides. But some simple reforms, the more nuanced use of technology, and a voters database that reflects the actual population would dramatically enhance the integrity of the process. I will interrogate each of these themes in individual articles over the coming weeks, and I want to reiterate that this process is one of reflection. It has no political bias. I have spent nearly five decades in pursuit of a system that can empower Nigeria to achieve its potential. I have seen, and understand many of our mistakes. I know the flaws that exist that politicians retain, in order to exploit, and I believe that failing to address them means that the ethnic, religious, demographic and kleptocratic drivers that seek to exploit division, will remain in the ascendancy, with dire consequences.
I believe that they can be countered. That investment in education, political institutions, data and technology are the solution and that with the appropriate political will can be achieved quickly.
• Dr. Cole, former Managing Director of “Daily Times”, Nigeria’s former envoy to Brazil is a consultant to the Editorial Board.
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