Why Elections Matter In Democracy


I have been asked to speak today in the Plenary IV panel sesson titled “Do Elections Mean Good Democracy?” I thank the organisers (the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and the College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology (USA) and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University (USA), sponsors (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation) and host (Digital Bridge Institute of Nigeria) for the privilege and opportunity.

Let me begin by reminding you that the World Cup 2010 has just been concluded in South Africa, with Spain emerging as the “president” of soccer countries of the world for the next four years. An early favorite to win, Spain bested other countries like Brazil, Germany and England, not to talk of Nigeria, emerging from a rigorous four-year process that involved regional group play among about 100 countries, and culminating in a 32-country-64-match final-stage of group and elimination matches at various stadia on different days in South Africa from June 11 – July 11, 2010. There, in addition to hundreds of soccer players on the field, were an erratic Adidas ball named Jabulani, loud ear-splitting vuvuzelas, different weather conditions, and dozens of teams of referees and line judges (linesmen) required to enforce FIFA rules. Hundreds of fouls, yellow and red cards as well as penalty kicks were handed out and/or awarded. Lurking far away was a suspiciously prescient Germany-based English Octopus named Paul with an uncanny record for correct winner predictions.

The whole process was perfectly laid out, but the outcomes of each match and stage were not always perfect, particularly for the losers. Perhaps the greatest examples of imperfection – if for the moment we ignore Henry Thierry’s double-ball handling that got France into the World Cup in the first instance at the expense of Ireland – were the un-awarded, goal-line-technology-deficient goal by England’s Frank Lampard against Germany (which would have leveled scores at 2-2; Germany went on to win 4-1), and the “evil hand” of Uruguay’s last-man-at-goal-line-but-non-goalkeeper Luis Suarez which prevented Ghana’s Dominic Adiyiah from scoring a clear winning goal (later resulting in Uruguay winning the match by penalty shootout, and preventing Ghana from advancing to the quarter-finals.)

The point here is that virtually every interested person knew exactly how the World Cup winner would emerge, the deadlines, the rules of the game, etc., and agreed that the outcome would be accepted with little or no protest. When Spain won, almost everyone felt it deserved to do so despite all the earlier problems. In short, there was “substantial compliance” with the process, rules and regulations of the games over the four-year process, and any complaints later on about change of rules (like use of goal-line technology and anti-goal-tending penalty goal awards) would not result in changing who the World Champion is. Any legal challenge to award the World Cup to (say) Netherlands or Ghana would be laughed at with scorn.

That is how voter elections in a mature or even maturing electoral democracy should be, where the People get to choose their leaders in free, fair and periodic elections. When the process is unclear, goal-posts moved, and when in particular the referees and linesmen play favoritism (e.g. awarding or withholding PKs, fouls, offside calls, allowing more than 11 players on the field for one of the teams, or sending off the players of the other team gratuitously), then the end result is a very unhappy one indeed. The hackneyed notion that Nigerians are sore election losers is therefore a myth. When election umpires connive with the ruling party operatives, security forces and post-election judges to rig or maintain rigged elections to the detriment of the opposition, then that is clearly a recipe for sustained discontent.

In a participatory electoral democracy – and in Nigeria – it is only executive leaders (who initiate and implement policies) as well as legislators (who make laws and advise/consent to executive actions) that emerge from elections. In some countries (like the United States), they are joined by some judges and heads of police departments (Sheriffs), who also are elected. All of them (Executive, Legislature, Judiciary/Law Enforcement) are then supposed to be under the watchful eye of the Fourth Estate – that is the Press –which is expected to be the voice of the Electorate Masses.

Due to party politics, and despite claims of separation of powers, the Executive and the Legislature are generally not really independent of each other. Furthermore, the Executive gets to nominate and choose many members of the Judiciary, sometimes with but oftentimes without the necessity of consent by the Legislature. Therefore, if the Executive branch arises from a corrupt or fraudulent electoral process, the tendency is for it to choose a Judiciary that is also corrupt or corruptible. If the legislature arises from a fraudulent electoral process, it will be inhibited from making laws to check the more egregious forms of corruption in society. Under such executive and legislative thumb, the Judiciary and Law Enforcement become tools of manipulation and intimidation of the opposition. Most insidiously, the Press also becomes targets of enticement (bribery) as well as of intimidation, causing the electorate to lose some of its voice. Finally, tired of having their welfare ignored, and cynical of their ability to change their situation, apathy sets in among the voting masses, leading to mass withdrawal from the political process entirely. As the worst outcome, general instability sets in, leading either a peoples’ revolution or to military coups.

For the discerning recovered Nigerian, these are not theoretical linkages. The very first military coup in Nigeria in January 1966 by Nzeogwu (after just over five years of independence) was due to the ripple effects of outrageous December 1964 federal and October 1965 (western) regional elections. Pogroms, secession, civil war and many coups followed that first coup for thirteen years. The Buhari coup of December 1983 was a result of a severely flawed electoral process of the same year (August 1983) conducted by a Shagari administration which never recovered from the August 1979 twelve-is-two-thirds-of-nineteen electoral debacle of Akinjide that ushered that administration into power. Along these same lines, we cannot forget the June 12, 1993 elections of MKO Abiola outrageously cancelled by Babangida (who overthrew Buhari in 1985) that led to six wilderness years of more military rule under Abacha and Abdusalam Abubakar, only to lead to progressively worsening elections of April 1999 and April 2003 (both of which led to the election and re-election of Obasanjo as president) as well as April 2007 (which saw Umar Musa Yar’Adua emerge as President, only to die in office in May 2010 after a six-month medical leave).

Here is the bottom line: if elections in a democracy do not lead to accountable governance, where:
– Ineffective and incompetent elected persons genuinely fear losing the next set of elections;
– Effective and competent elected persons are reasonably confident of being returned; and
– Promisingly effective and competent candidates are given an opportunity to offer themselves up for election and have a good chance of being elected then any democracy is under threat, and the chances for political, economic and social development of that national polity is remote. This is because no number of suggestions, policy statements and frameworks or intellectual discourse, etc. matters if the political leaders feel no iota of accountability to the voting masses, and do not fear for their jobs in the next elections.

That is why a credible electoral process matters, and it is only its absence in Nigeria so far that can account for our present parlous socio-economic state after fifty years of independence despite our stupendous richness in material and human resources. That is what INEC must deliver by all means necessary in 2011, another so-called “watershed year in our nascent democracy” in Nigeria’s history. At the end of the day, election administration by INEC should be seen not outright as a political function but as a database management function of who you are voting for (candidates), who are the voters (registration); when are they supposed to vote (time table); where (polling units); how will the voting be done (secret, confidential yet transparent); who will do the counting (officials); and who, where and how the announcement of results (both local and aggregatory) will be done. It is only when the outcome is more important to electoral officials than the process that “wuru-wuru” (fraud and corruption) sets in.

Time is short, and the ball is in Attahiru Jega’s INEC court for 2011.

Finally, let me end by stating that it is a true commitment to democracy in all of its ramifications; independent, effective and efficient Election Commission; use of information and communications technology (ICT) geared towards fostering participation in as well gathering evidence on the electoral process that is tenderable in court of law during dispute resolution; mass mobilization for participation in and protection of the voting process; and commitment to legal recourse all the way to the end that are essential for credible elections. It is the last three (use of pre-emptive ICT; mass mobilization and legal recourse) by the opposition that have put Ekiti – and Ido-Osi – on the political map in Nigeria and internationally arising from controversy over its 2007 governorship election and its 2009 re-run.

• Prof Mobolaji E. Aluko,teaches at Howard University, USA. He presented this paper at a conference on “ICT & Civic Engagement in Nigeria: A Focus on the 2011 Elections and Beyond” Plenary IV: “Do Elections Mean Good Democracy?” held in Abuja, Nigeria on July 19-20, 2010.

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