Looking back, from the election of our immediate former president, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, to the incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari, one could discern the underlying trend of many voters’ preference for candidates rather than political parties that fielded them. This phenomenal development was only evident in 1993 when millions of Nigerians across our ethno-religious divide voted overwhelmingly for the late business mogul, Bashorun Moshood K. Abiola, in the annulled June 12 presidential poll of the year.
However, as regards the current changing pattern of a large number of people voting on the basis of individual rather than party in Nigeria, it could be recalled that during the election that produced Dr Jonathan as president in 2011, under the platform of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), many of the electorate that voted for him were carried away by several exceptional circumstances that were shorn of captivating leadership attributes like vision, mission, pragmatism, dynamism, charisma and certain lofty values. One of the circumstances was his presumed humble beginnings – including coming from the economically, socially and politically marginalised oil-bearing Niger Delta region and his story of being “shoeless” while in school, which attracted “eyaa na one of us” kind of ordinary people’s way of expressing empathy in the country. There were also Jonathan’s superb academic credentials as capped by a doctorate degree. This is not to mention his stretch of luck, which catapulted him to somewhere assume to be the pinnacle of political position in Nigeria – the presidency. All these circumstances, coupled with Jonathan’s salivating promise of fresh air in governance in the country and the envisaged transformation in different facets of our national life if elected, made millions of ordinary Nigerians to stake their votes for him, hoping that he would reciprocate by improving their living conditions.
In any case, there are two key factors why the Nigerian electorate, who are increasingly becoming politically conscious, grabbed the opportunity offered by the presidential poll of March 28 of this year to speak out in righteous indignation with their votes. One factor was the considerable difficulties the Jonathan regime was facing in making progress in salient areas of governance in almost six years of being in power like leadership accountability and efficiency, anti-corruption war, economic revitalisation, provision of functional infrastructure and social services, poverty alleviation, creation of gainful employment and protection of lives and property amid the exacerbation of crime and violence in the country. The other factor was the proven inability of his government to tread on toes, no matter whose ox is gored, in order to ensure justice and protect the downtrodden, majority of whom voted for him in 2011 presidential election. As expected, the ultimate outcome was the electoral victory of Buhari, a forthright former head of state who contested the election under the ticket of the All Progressives Congress (APC). It is noteworthy that during his electioneering campaign, he pledged to rescue Nigeria from the wreckage of bad governance and, in so doing, give its expectant people a befitting national leadership with whom they would join hands to make a clean break from the retrogressive developments in our polity like official corruption, mismanagement, impunity, economic stagnation, decrepit amenities, mass poverty, acute unemployment (especially among youths), inequality of opportunities and insecurity.
Stemming from the amazing outcome of our recent national elections, it is obvious that our electorate are gradually becoming so dynamic, sophisticated, vociferous and resolute in taking the political destiny of Nigeria in their hands by voting candidates who they see as tested, proven and trusted despite all kinds of pressure from desperate politicians. Understandably, this is because some of our voters are now aware that material inducements during an election, for example, would not be to their advantage in the long run but to self-seeking politicians who are eager to go the whole hog in using such enticements to gain power and later mortgage their future through embezzlement of public fund. Furthermore, many Nigerian electorate are becoming more conscious that electing a wrong candidate on account of ethnic or religious appeal would not augur well for them in view of the repercussions of bad governance or poor political representation like abject poverty, joblessness, despondency and insecurity, which are no respecter of one’s communal background.
No doubt, the unfolding dynamics of voters’ power in Nigeria is a welcome development that would sound the death knell for incumbency factor in politics and the so-called political godfathers and cabals in the country. By this development, voters in our clime would now easily supplant sitting elected officials with candidates of their dream in an election. Lest we forget, the dilution of incumbency factor in our Fourth Republic started at the state level, with several governors losing their position during the 2003, 2007 and 2011 elections, and now at the centre, with the historic victory of Buhari in the March 28 Presidential poll of this year. Indeed, what was hitherto seen in certain quarters as unimaginable in Nigeria – an incumbent president with a huge war chest (or financial resources) and a panoply of security apparati like the armed forces, police and the intelligence community at his disposal being defeated in an election – was surprisingly realised through the popular mandate given to the former military leader after a presidential race that was too close to call. By the singular act of indomitable courage and determination displayed by our electorate in effecting leadership change at the national level, an event that is certain to influence the trajectory of party politics in the country for years to come, they have re-enacted the incredible feat by their counterparts in African states where incumbent presidents were voted out of office due to non-performance or political high-handedness and insensitivity like Senegal, Ghana, Guinea, Benin Republic, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Zambia and Malawi.
It is instructive that the idea of voters’ power, which bears a striking resemblance to that of people’s power, has gained currency since the popular agitation for multi-party democracy in many parts of the world in the 1990s following the lull in the Cold War. This led to the collapse of authoritarian regimes in former communist eastern and central Europe and other places like South America, Asia and Africa. In the recent past, towards the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, countries in the tension-soaked Middle East like Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Syria and Yemen, as well as those in North Africa, including Libya, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco, along with Sudan in East Africa, were rocked by a series of pro-democracy protests and demonstrations that started in Tunisia, termed “Arab Spring” by Marc Lynch, a Western political analyst – though the ones in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Egypt have gone awry by culminating into violent upheavals that have caused terrible carnage.
Admittedly, Nigeria has come a long way in her difficult journey towards democratic consolidation since the disengagement of our armed forces from governance on May 29, 1999. Apart from her uninterrupted civilian-to-civilian political transition in 2007 (from Chief Olusegun Obasanjo to Alhaji Umaru Yar’ Adua under the same umbrella of PDP), this is illuminated by the latest change of power from one party to another at the federal level (PDP to APC). This is in sharp contrast with what happened in our short-lived first, second and third republics, which were truncated by the military through coups d’etat provoked by maladministration, corruption, endless inter-party feuds and social unrest.
Now the power pendulum in Nigeria has swung to our popular masses that have now become a powerful force for political change, our politicians, some of whom are self-centred, are well-advised to take note of this dramatic development. Henceforth, instead of taking our populace for granted anymore, they are expected to strive to be public-spirited or else they would await the payback time of election day to be voted out of office by strong-willed angry voters who have been compelled by the indignities of privation, deprivation, impoverishment and alienation they have suffered over the years, because of bad governance and lacklustre political representation, to reject material overture and ethno-religious prodding as the criteria for voting candidates. Coupled with the innovative and fraud-proof system of biometric permanent voter’s card (PVC) and card reader (CR) recently adopted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), this new era of voters’ power in Nigeria would not have any certain guarantee for unscrupulous politicians who have the overwhelming urge to commit electoral malpractices.
It is hopeful that some of our electorate would be actuated to stop their ad nauseam lamentations about being neglected, deprived or oppressed by those in authority in Nigeria. This is mainly because the power to change their dismal situations lies in their PVC. With it, they can effectively elect or remove political office-holders at their own volition. Suffice it to say that it is due to the awesome power of the PVC that some politicians do all sorts of funny things nowadays in order to garner their votes. These include doing odd things that appear to be acts of humility and common touch as part of their political theatricals aimed at using such means to secure votes from some of our gullible electorate like stopping along the road with their entourage to buy fried beans cake or roasted yam or corn, boarding a commercial bike (okada), distributing branded foodstuffs (stomach infrastructure), going to market to buy foodstuffs (including kpomo) or even clearing drainage system or rubbish dump. That is bizarre or comical politics of “eyaa na one of us” for you in Nigeria. In advanced democracies like the United States (US), Britain, Canada, France and Japan, the enormous power of voter’s card is the reason why public opinion counts for those in government because of the backlash of its negation during the reckoning day of election time.
To build on the gains of the unfolding dynamics of voters’ power in Nigeria, efforts should be made to strengthen catalytic institutions that would help in deepening democratic viability and sustainability in the country. On this score, our political parties should be re-positioned for internal democracy and normative politics devoid of quest for power at all costs, pecuniary advantage, propaganda, primordial sectionalism, exclusion, violence, bloodshed and destruction. For INEC, it should be granted full autonomy, as well as provided with necessary materials and human resources, to enable it discharge its duties and obligations as unbiased umpire in our electoral system. Apart from updating the electoral register, perfecting the use of CR and providing a level playing field for credible elections in Nigeria, the electoral body should also press for electoral reforms in the country. Such reforms should consider reducing the high cost of election campaign that often comes with a desire for primitive accumulation of our collective wealth by elected officials in a blatant attempt to recoup their huge election expense, in addition to making provision for independent candidate in our Electoral Act to enable voters have a wide variety of choices not just through political parties but individuals in an election. Concerning the law enforcement agencies (especially the Nigerian police), their personnel should be trained in how to ensure transparent, free, fair and peaceful election in a non-partisan manner. As regards the judiciary, which is the last hope of the common man, it should be energised for impartial adjudication on electoral matters (including electoral fraud). Last but not least, it is incumbent on the National Orientation Agency (NOA), the media and civil society organisations (CSOs) to redouble efforts in mass mobilisation for institutionalisation of popular participation in our electoral process through public enlightenment and advocacy campaigns against voter apathy, voter intimidation, vote-buying, vote-rigging and voting based on sectional sentiments.
In conclusion, there is no iota of doubt that the unfolding dynamics of voters’ power in Nigeria is indicative of the prospects of democratic consolidation in the country after many years of undergoing travails through frequent military interventions. Now that our populace have awakened from their slumber and docility in shaping the democratic future of our polity, the great challenge at this crucial moment of our national history is how to maintain eternal vigilance as a price to pay for safeguarding our political system. This is because untoward tendencies like lack of leadership accountability, travesty of political values (including tolerance and credible election) and ethno-religious politics are often the enemies of democracy as an open society. The Nigerian people, who are now exercising their popular sovereignty as enlightened voters, should gird up their loins to confront such threatening challenges with all their heart for political stability, social cohesion, economic rejuvenation and sustainable development in our land.
• Emeh, an Abuja-based social researcher, sent this piece via email@example.com and can be reached on GSM through 08036895746