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2019 Polls: Political intrigues and limits of Presidential interventions

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Atiku Abubakar

Since Nigeria’s return to civil rule in 1999, the push to deepen democracy by protecting the sanctity of the vote has often been undermined by certain factors.

In the first place, Nigeria’s democracy operates on a paradoxical foundation: the nation wants to run a democracy without democrats. It is akin to running a hospital without doctors or other health professionals who understand what is required in that environment.

In Nigeria also, the political class has clearly portrayed itself as lacking the discipline to adhere to the ground rules and the norms governing democratic conduct.

Within the confines of the party structure, the politician frowns at any objective attempt to make political competition fair; he would rather twist ground rules to favour his own camp. It is the same thing in a general election.

The Nigerian politician neither has patience for democratic norms, nor respect for the verdict of the people.

In Nigeria, the politicians would never stomach the possibility of losing an election, and would never come to the realisation that the political process makes room for winners and losers in a political contest.

In line with its character, a proper democracy creates a platform for the ultimate renewal of the political system. The opposition at any given point gets the space to hone its alternative ideas, and present them to voters at the next round of elections.

The idea at every point is that if the opposition plays its cards well, it could leverage voters discontent over policy to worm its way to the corridors of power. For this system to operate smoothly, the key actors must be disciplined, not flippant and rascally.

Also, there must be respect for the rule of law, without which self help becomes the immediate resort, turning the political process into a chaotic, violent, brainless and meaningless contest for power. These attitudes are poisonous to the health of the polity; the same way the politician approaches a political contest is the same way he would approach governance.

The curious logic here is that since the political process was driven by the quest to subvert the popular will, the process of governance itself becomes good ground for self aggrandizement.

The reality is that at every point the politician makes his self interest the sole objective of participating in politics or governance, the public interest suffers, and as such public resources are funneled to service private tastes.

In practical terms, the contemporary history of Nigeria’s most recent democratic experiment points to the clear abuse of state institutions to further narrow political objectives.

One of the institutions, which has been serially debased as elites struggle over political power is the Presidency. There are other institutions such as the military, the police and other agencies in the security arm of the state, whose mandate is to work in the public interest.

The Presidency stands out for its susceptibility to partisan abuse because it is the institution used to drive the misuse of the other sets of institutions. This is the case because the Constitution vests so much power in the office of the President.

As such, left in the hands of an unrestrained politician, those powers could be deployed in any direction, including to subvert the will of the people as expressed in an election.

Also, the lack of or weak accountability mechanisms around the institution of the Presidency makes it a very problematic institution for Nigeria’s democratic stability.

As seen in many cases in the recent past, the Presidency could undermine the credibility of the vote, and by extension sovereignty, which according to the constitution belongs to the people.

The 2019 general elections presented a litmus test on whether the powers of the Presidency would be brought to bear in the usual attempt to undermine the credibility of the process. Firstly, President Buhari jarred with the right noise by declaring that government money should not be used to campaign for him.

Although vote buying on all sides of the partisan divide still tainted the electoral outcomes, it would be interesting as part of the post election analysis for INEC to audit political parties with a view to knowing how they funded their campaigns and whether they violated thresholds as stipulated in the Electoral Act.

That is when it will be known whether Buhari his party men listened to him not to fund elections with government money. And you ask where else did they fund the elections!

Another reality, which pointed to old habits dying hard, was the expression of desperation by some state governors, who have been running around the President to seek for his assistance to help them win their elections in their states.

Although it is the norm that the President as a party man is at liberty to campaign for the candidates of his party in the states, the assistance being requested apparently goes beyond the legal boundaries.

Still very much welded to the idea of abuse and misuse of presidential power as a means to subvert electoral outcomes, those party chieftains are apparently asking him to tilt the advantage towards them using the enormous powers of his office.

The President’s retort that he will not intervene to sway the outcome of the election the way of his party, has not been cheering news to some of his party men who believe they should be getting a helping hand because their party is in power at the centre. This principled rebuke of the calls for Presidential meddling and abuse of state institutions to sway the vote is the right thing to do.

However, it is not enough for the President to announce his intention not to meddle. Other institutions under his command, which are being allegedly used to violently disrupt the electoral process, must be immediately reined in. For instance, in Rivers State, the election has been very bloody, with several deaths during the presidential and governorship polls.

From the fact finding committee report of INEC to ascertain what informed the stalemate in Rivers, INEC has alleged that some soldiers took part in the disruption of the result collation process. It has also indicated its readiness to engage stakeholders at higher levels of the military to address the issue of officers who went beyond their bounds by getting involved in the electoral process.

The Nigerian Army has in turn fumed over the INEC report insisting its officers were attacked by armed gangs supporting one of the political parties.

The Army is even threatening to review cooperation with the Police in Rivers State over alleged lack of appreciation of the roles the military plays to help secure the electoral space.

The back and forth between INEC and the Army brings to the fore the role of the military in elections. When the APC was in opposition, it kicked against deployment of the military for elections. Now in power, it is not averse to using the military for election security, a move that is precipitating problems.

In the final analysis, the core issues around election security have to be looked at dispassionately; this is so because even with the Inter Agency Consultative Committee on Elections Security, there appears to be a lack of proper coordination of the process of securing the electoral space. The Committee should ordinarily be the clearing house for all issues relating to securing the space for elections.

The clear lack of coordination is therefore opening the military up to allegations of meddling and election rigging. The President is duty bound to address this problem; INEC on its part should be much more assertive in using the Inter Agency Committee. That is the only mechanism that can solve the problem of the military playing or be seen to be playing a partisan role in the electoral process.


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