by Andrew Meaux, Johns Hopkins/SAIS
Event Title: “Do Not Die: The Nigerian Voter Restored”
Date: February 23, 2011
Location: SAIS Bernstein-Offit Building
Sponsor: SAIS African Studies Program
- Okey Ndibe – Visiting professor of African literature at Brown University and professor of literature at Trinity College
- Dimieari von Kemedi – Director General of the Due Process and e-Governance Bureau for Rayelsa State in Nigeria
The title of the event “Do Not Die” aptly played on the common characterization of Nigerian politics as a “do or die” affair, by expressing a sense of optimism that this time Nigerian voters would have a fair say in the upcoming April 2011 elections. This optimism was not shared by everyone and the panel provided an informative range of opinions on the electoral prospects.
Okey Ndibe began the session presenting the more pessimistic perspective as he read through facebook messages sent to him recently. Memorable among these quotes were “remember to tell them Nigeria is a bottomless pit of corruption” and “these elections will be the costliest elections on the planet.” Ndibe is admittedly doubtful about the upcoming elections. He fears that despite improvements in the political climate, events could rapidly degenerate, as occurred in the 2007 elections in which more than 500 Nigerians died. He asserted that Nigeria is a “criminalized space”, where once you get into public office you can proceed to disregard notions of law and order. The difficult thing in analyzing Nigerian politics is that what happens in the public view is inconsequential compared to what happens in the background, implying the importance of intra-party dynamics over inter-party dynamics. In his ending remarks he said the key to changing the tide of the Nigerian democracy is to support the “credibility and integrity of the electoral process.”
Dimieari von Kemedi followed Okey Ndibe with a rather more optimistic view of the upcoming elections. He cited often the successes in the recent state elections as evidence for general confidence in the upcoming presidential elections. Kemedi pointed out that almost everyone agrees Goodluck Jonathan, chose the best man, Attahiru Jega, to head the electoral commission (INEC), and he did so in a legitimate and meritocratic way. He pointed out that INEC has purportedly registered 67 million voters in only three weeks using biometric registry. Successful registration is often cited as a major step in a successful electoral process. He ended by stating that he was “confident that the elections will be free and fair.”
Peter Lewis, the director of the SAIS African studies program, followed up Kemedi’s comments, stating that for the first time in a long while he shares in Kemedi’s optimism about the elections and the prospects for positive change in Nigeria. Lewis reminded the audience that the presidential camp of Goodluck Jonathan has made clear statements advocating fair and free elections. Nonetheless, according to Lewis the real problem will be whether President Jonathan can contend with the “inherited party machine” with interests “varying from that of the president” such as the “god fathers and party barons that operate with autonomy, especially at the state level.”
Kemedi continued the discussion explaining that for President Jonathan “free and fair” elections are a win/win scenario, whether he actually wins the race or not. If he wins a free and fair election he will be considered the legitimate leader of the country and be able to make reforms over the following four years. If he loses the elections he will be seen as the leader that presided over Nigeria’s first truly free and fair elections, in which he himself was a candidate, thereby gaining credibility in the eyes of the Nigerian people and International Community.
Ndibe agreed with Kemedi’s assessment of President Jonathan, but shared Lewis’s pessimism regarding entrenched interests that could sway the election. He stated “even if Jonathan means well and intends to oversee free and fair elections, he is embedded with interests and with characters whose antecedents lie in the forging of elections.” Nbide continued saying that the informal sector or “other contending interests” ultimately assert themselves and overwhelm reformist leaders such as President Jonathan. To emphasize this point, he referred to the undemocratic nature of the party politics. He explained that it was a process in which party members voted for the highest “giver” not for the “best” man.
Throughout the discussion the commentators exchanged contrasting remarks about the credibility of the registration process. Ndibe cast skepticism on the registration process and the number of alleged registered voters. Kemedi admitted that the first week of voter registration was bad. However, the next two weeks were much better and he believes that due to the biometric requirements of this type of registration, the process was done in a legitimate manner. Lewis corroborated this argument pointing to figures from the National Democratic Institute that showed 86% of the registration centers were operating and working at capacity.
The event concluded on an ominous note with a discussion of the potential for ethnic and religious inspired violence. As Africa’s third biggest economy, renewed violence in the country would be detrimental not only to the country itself, but to its surrounding neighbors.
The event provided a brief overview of the key issues, but for a more in depth analysis the International Crisis Group has recently released a report entitled “Nigerian Elections: Reversing the Degeneration.” The ICG report shares the event’s overall optimism in what a free, fair, and accepted election would mean for the development of the country. Unfortunately, as I look at Nigeria, I cannot help be reminded of the optimism for last fall’s elections in nearby Cote d’Ivoire, and hope that Nigeria will not fall into a similar trap.