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Free and fair elections: A priority for effective self-governance


Taiwo Odukoya

Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times (Exodus 18:21)

In September 2017, the Kenyan Supreme Court annulled the Presidential elections conducted in August, because it was “neither transparent nor verifiable.” The ruling was hailed all over the world as historical, and as a stellar example of an independent judiciary, plaudits against the backdrop of Africa’s dismal record of conducting elections. Critical development is an offshoot of effective self-governance, and effective self-governance, in many ways, is expressed in the ability to elect leadership representatives in an atmosphere of freedom, fairness and equity. In other words, Africa’s underdevelopment is a reflection of its failure of self-governance. To rob the people of choice is to rob them of their voice and to rob them of their voice is to deny them their right to a decent existence. This is important. It was the former Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano that said, “Organising free and fair elections is more important that the result itself.” If we cannot get the basics of organising credible elections or conducting a precise census, then there is little else we can get right.

Contentions arising from census figures and election results have been at the base of some of the ethnic and political divides in the developing world and Nigeria has and continues to have its fair share of it, and this is why they have remained developing, and the process of becoming developed is perpetually jettisoned. In Nigeria, for example, almost every post independence census figure has been controversial and every election has been like fighting a war. In a 1974 speech disputing the 1973 census, Obafemi Awolowo said: “We should go back and stick to the 1963 figures; not because they are accurate – of course, they are not – but because they represent a mutual compromise among the entire people of this country at the time they were produced and concocted and, therefore, the most acceptable of all our bad, ugly and disputable census results from 1931 to 1973.” So, the issue is this, if we cannot agree on how to effectively count ourselves and conduct our elections, how can we have the consensus to build infrastructure like roads, world-class public schools and hospitals, provide stable power supply and build institutions required for an egalitarian and democratic society.


I think at this point, it should be a matter of priority and urgency for countries like Nigeria that have DECIDED to function as a democracy, to develop systems and institutions that uphold its very tenets. To fail at this is to fail at governance itself. As former UN Secretary General, Kofi Anan aptly put it, “democracy is not just about legality, critical though the rule of law is for a peaceful society; it is about legitimacy. Elections must offer genuine choice. On the other hand, if elections that brought a government to power are seen as rigged or unfair, and the subsequent government does not govern in a democratic manner, it will not enjoy any of the benefits associated with democracy. Indeed, it will find it ever harder to govern at all.”

One of the greatest challenges to the Nigerian project, historically, and an ever present danger, has been the inability of leadership to sustain a political system that allows fair representation for our over 250 different ethnic groups.

We cannot unlock the inherent potential in our sheer size and the abundance of gifts and contributions in our diversity, if we do not fix this in a sustainable manner. Unlike what we see in developing world, and sometimes in the developed world, elections must not depend on the temperament of the government in power, but on unimpeachable institutions that command the respect of all and are beholden to no one. It is true that Nigeria is a young democracy with still a lot of room to grow. But we have centuries of democratic practices, with diverse variations from across the world, to leapfrog. We shouldn’t be at this level at this time.

Politicians and electorate alike have to rise to the challenge of building a decent and better society for us all, and one place to start from, is by refusing to allow elections become a violently divisive affair, a platform for renewed suspicions, or a home turf for corruption. It is important to keep this in mind, as we seek to build on the legacy of the 2015 election in the coming months. I believe we can strengthen our existing institutions. I believe we can make informed electoral choices, where there is mutual respect of the different groups and appreciation of our diversity. I believe we are working towards a goal matured enough for a globally respected self-governance system and conduct ourselves decently. I believe we can self-govern. I believe we are working towards a greater Nigeria.

Nigeria Has A Great Future!

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