Opinion: As Nigerians Head to the Polls

By Nkannebe Raymond

Once again, Nigeria is at a critical juncture in her democratic history while the rest of the world looks on with bated breath to see whether Africa’s largest democracy will sink or swim. As millions of Nigerians troop out to go and vote on Saturday, February 16th, it would be the sixth time they’ll be doing that in succession since democracy returned to the country in 1999. As with every general election, Nigerians will be voting in a new president as it’s constitution allows for only a four-year renewable tenure. The last time Nigerians went to the polls in 2015, they ended up with a new president, in the person of Muhammadu Buhari. He defeated his closest rival, the then incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan in a historical election that saw the first transition of power from an incumbent President to an opposition candidate. It was a golden moment for Nigerian democracy for too many reasons. Here and now again, the incumbent president is also on the ballot seeking re-election for what he says will allow him “consolidate on some of the achievements of his administration”. In clearly unmistakable terms, the president and his political party say a re-election for them will fossilize in their taking Nigeria to the “Next Level”.

Whereas numerous other candidates have indicated interest in the nation’s top political office namely Kingsley Moghalu of the Young Progressive Party (YPP); Fela Durotoye of the Alliance for New Nigeria (ANN); and Omoyele Sowore of the African Action Congress (AAC) to keep the list short, political realists are of the view that Saturday’s presidential contest is a two-horse race between incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar─ the Waziri of Adamawa, of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Strikingly, both men share a lot in common: they belong to the old political class; they are septuagenarians and are also moslems of the Fulani stock. For a country with one of the largest youth population in the world, estimated at a staggering 60%, it rather leaves a sad taste in the mouth that the two leading contenders for her topmost political office are way above the average life expectancy of 52 years, and in a sense closer to their graves. “That is the contradiction of Nigeria, nay African politics”, a politically exposed friend tells me.

While a deluge of younger candidates averaging 40 years of age have also squared up to occupy the seat of the president, their campaigns have gained little or no traction among Nigerians in the corners of the country who constitute the highest voting bloc. Beyond their effective use of the social media to push their message, their campaigns have been less terrestrial. It appears these younger generation of Nigerian leaders will need a little more than a local legislation that pegs down the constitutional age to seek various elective office, to unseat the old leadership class. Jude Feranmi, a rising youth leader, tells me it will take a robust coalition of ‘mushroom’ political parties over time, to upset the current political apple cart in the country. But he’s pessimistic they’ll be able to do this.

For the candidate of the PDP Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, this is arguably his last opportunity to lead the country; a lifelong ambition which first came to national consciousness in 1992. At 72, it is inconceivable that he’ll be indicating any further interest in the sinecure by the next election cycle in 2023 when he’d have been 76, should he lose out on Saturday. With several attempts that came to nought in 2006; 2011 and 2015, he has never been in a good position to achieve this life long ambition as he is now, from what one can gather from the permutations here and there. He says he wants to get Nigeria Working Again. And will do that with the aid of a policy document he calls the “Atiku Plan”.

As a successful businessman and industrialist, the economy means a lot to him. He believes that with a performing economy, Nigerians can well again be on the path of prosperity. He wants to create jobs, and have cited the successes in his numerous business as the smoking gun of his capacity to do so for Nigeria’s teeming youth population as well as lift as many persons as possible out of poverty; of which Nigeria has since become it’s global capital as far as the findings of the Brooks Institution can be relied upon. But more importantly, he wants to restructure the country.

His campaigns have gained a lot of momentum with the outing in Kano, a perceived stronghold of candidate Muhammadu Buhari, last Sunday, sending shockwaves into the opposition camps. He’s however dogged by allegations of corruption around his person. His critics believe the source of his stupendous wealth are suspect and cannot be unconnected to appropriation of national assets in his capacity as the head of the National Economic Council while he served as vice president to former president Olusegun Obasanjo between 1999 and 2007. However, for all the allegations, no court of law has found him guilty neither has he been charged for any corrupt practices.

On the other side of the coin is incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari. In the period leading to the 2015 elections, he and his new party at the time had campaigned on a mantra of “Change”. It was a magical word that resonated with many Nigerians and which ended up in a victory for the party. Three and a half years down the line however, the fine details of the change has remained elusive to most Nigerians. Change was supposed to be felt in the fight against Corruption, a total turn around of the economy and improved national security. But his government has not quite delivered optimally on any of these fronts.

The much vaunted fight against Corruption has been dubbed by critics as one sided and without any coherence. Many believe the government deploys media trials and propaganda to push it’s avowed fight against corruption hence why it has not achieved any meaningful gain in that respect. It will appear that Nigeria’s performance in the recently released Global Corruption Perception Index corroborates these sentiments of the critics of the administration. While he has been able to guide the economy through recession, the economic numbers show that all is not well with the economy. With unemployment rate at its all time high as well as a ballooned debt profile rising to a whopping 22 Trillion Naira, the Nigerian economy it could be said is on autopilot. While the administration has tried to explain away these disturbing statistics and countering them with what they believe to be bold efforts at rejigging the Nigerian economy in a number of areas, the word on the street is that many Nigerians are not faring better than they did pre-2015.

The administration has also been caught flat footed in the security corridor. Shorn of the “technical defeat” of Boko Haram, little or nothing has been done to contain the war in the North East. Not long ago, a large number of school girls were ferried from their school in Dapchi, Borno State by the insurgents in a repeat of what happened in 2014 in Chibok. While most of the girls were released, one of the girls, Leah Sharibu remains in captivity. Late last year two relief workers of an international relief agency were beheaded by the splinter cell of the fundamentalists and in all, the administration has only issued statements reassuring decimation of the militants. Few days ago, the convoy of the Borno state governor, Kashim Shettima was attacked by the insurgents leading to the death of at least three persons.

Analysts are also of the view that quite apart from the fight against Boko Haram, the administration have also failed in the handling of security breaches elsewhere in the middle belt and North West where armed banditry has reached alarming proportions. Through and through, the security score card of the administration has been anything but impressive.
Outside the security front, critics of the administration believe that it has not been able to foster national unity and cohesion citing the administration’s somewhat strategic alienation of a section of the country in a skewed manner of political appointments that favour only the president’s kinsmen. The hierarchy of the legal community are of the view that this attitude of the president is far in excess of the Country’s Federal Character Principle sanctioned by the Constitution. Buhari counters this narrative however and says his appointment of persons to key governmental positions is informed by the appointee’s character and competence. A columnist of a leading newspaper tells me that no administration has polarized and divided the country along ethnic lines more than the Buhari administration.

A former military dictator, it has been difficult for the president to shed his military toga. His administration is characterised with a record of flouting court orders and disrespect for the rule of law. Last September, he told a conclave of lawyers in Abuja that the “rule of law must be subject to national security” and has blamed the rule of law for the slow pace of his anticorruption fight at different fora. Only recently, he sent the head of the judicial arm of government packing, through subterranean means against the grain of constitutionalism and rule of law.

His administration has however made some appreciable impact in improving the infrastructure deficit of the country and providing social welfare for the poorest of the poor through policies such as the School Feeding Programme, the N-power Scheme, the Growth Enterprise and Empowerment Programme (GEEP), and recently, the Trader-Money Scheme.

Critics however say these policies will achieve little or nothing in lifting people out of poverty, and have described the Trader-money scheme as a disguised way of voters’ inducement. These criticisms notwithstanding, the administration believes it is still popular and will win a landslide victory on Saturday.

Electoral violence and disruption of voting unfortunately has been a standard feature of Nigerian elections. The Electoral umpire, INEC has however reiterated that it will deliver a world class election this time. With about 84 million registered voters with the largest chunk of them in Lagos and Kano states, the commission says it is prepared to ensure a free, fair and transparent election in so far as other stakeholders in the process such as the political parties and the security agencies, play in accordance with the rules laid down by the law. Despite suffering some set backs in the last two weeks with fire outbreaks in three of its local offices in Abia, Anambra and Plateau states which destroyed election materials such as uncollected Permanent Voter Cards, the commission has remained unfazed and as at the time of this writing, already reprinted the burnt PVCs and inviting their owners to come get them. The chairman of the commission, Prof Mahmood Yakubu has never left anyone in doubt of the commission’s determination to midwife a rancour free election, and at a press conference last week in Abuja reiterated the commission’s resolve to be neutral and aloof throughout the process of the election and beyond. It remains however to be seen whether these words will be matched with actions.

Another sore feature of Nigerian elections is the extent of neutrality displayed by the security agencies at the various polling units. Nigeria is a unitary federal state where all federal government agencies including the security institutions have a tendency of subservience to the head of the federal arm who doubles as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Pundits believe that members of these security agencies have at various times been used by the ruling party to intimidate voters and supporters of opposition parties to enhance their chances at the ballot. At the recently held Ekiti and Osun gubernatorial elections, this ugly situation reared its ugly head. Both elections are today subjects of litigation at various courts.

Under the former Police Chief, Idris Kpotum; believed by many to be one of the most compromised officer to ever occupy the office, the conduct of the police, was anything but complimentary. However, there is a new sheriff in town, namely Mohammed Abubakar Adamu, who has told Nigerians that men and officers of the force will display the highest sense of professionalism and discharge their duties within the ambits set by the electoral law under his watch. Some 300,000 police men have been detailed to cover the exercise across the 119, 973 polling units comprised in the Country with support from the military, air force and other civil security outfit. There are concerns in some quaters however that this number is insufficient and might not be able to provide enough cover especially in the event of outbreak of violence. Already, flashpoint states such as Adamawa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Plateau, Kano, Kaduna and other parts of the North East have been isolated. These are states notorious for pre and post-election violence and thus would be needing more security cover to contain any outbreak of violence. One expects that the capacity of the security agencies won’t be stretched as they go into this important exercise.

Nigeria is an interesting country in many respects. 49 years after her civil war, she has always found a way to emerge from every political storm without bruises. In the lead up to the last 2015 polls, western interests had predicted that the country will engulf in a political crisis that might lead to its disintegration. Somehow, the country emerged from the elections even more united thanks to the statesmanship shown by the former president, Goodluck Jonathan. Nearly four years after that episode, she is once again at that critical juncture. Few days ago, a National Peace Committee headed by a former military Head of State and top cleric brought the two leading contenders as well as other presidential aspirants together to sign a peace accord where they made commitments to accept the result of the elections. In 2015, the committee played a very instrumental role in ensuring the presidential election was largely peaceful. Yet, whether this round of elections will derail or consolidate Nigeria’s gains on her democratic journey must bide the outcome of the polls.

For many Nigerians, what they want are the basic things of life: good drinking water; affordable healthcare and housing; good roads; improved security and a stable and productive economy. Saturday polls to a large extent will be a referendum on how the incumbent administration has performed in some, if not all of these critical indices.

Raymond Nkannebe is a Legal Practitioner

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