Electoral law, election petitions and the future of democracy in Nigeria

by Mar 9, 2019

Presentation by Chief Wole Olanipekun OFR, SAN, LLD, FCIArb, FNIALs at the Nigeria in Transition Workshop organised by The African Studies Centre, Oxford School of Global Studies, University of Oxford 28th February 2019

Chief Wole Olanipekun stated that a review of democracy in Nigeria is important because as the giant of Africa when the country sneezes the Black race catches a cold. Nigeria has been in transition since Lord Lugard formed the state in 1914 and the transition has subsequently been evolving from that colonial phase to its current state. The 1999 constitution stipulates the election process, how officials are elected, relevant qualifications, how resources should be channelled and conditions for parties to challenge results through the courts and specifically, National Assembly tribunals. It makes elaborate provisions for adjudicatory bodies in terms of courts and tribunals in resolving election disputes and imposed time limits when actions must be filed and resolved. Nigeria is noted for a tendency to challenge results, citing the fact that all governor elections have been challenged and the 730 appeals brought to tribunals even though there are only 36 states in the country. The main reason for this situation he noted is because politics is the most lucrative profession in the country, allowing elected officials huge opportunities to channel resources as they see fit often for their personal benefit and those of family and friends.

Nigerians, he noted take advantage of the minutia of the political process not just as a shield but as a sword. He highlighted the USA and India, much larger democracies which do not have as much complications as Nigeria in managing elections, with only fractions of electoral disputes and litigations as Nigeria. He cited the work of Anthony Akinola who has pointed out that the country’s resources being channelled into the political process means there is very little available for economic development. Mr Akinola noted that “most (politicians) go into politics to accumulate wealth, hence the do or die politics in electoral contests”. Chief Olanipekun cited the America President Abraham Lincoln who stated that democracy is “government of the people, by the people and for the people”, noting that under democracy, the citizens should witness economic growth, educational advancement, enjoy good health care delivery and old age care, employment opportunities, social welfare and constant electricity supply.

In his concluding remarks Chief Olanipekun noted that the major issue was developing trust in the political system, noting that the fault lies with the electorate at large and the current constitution which was promulgated by the military and has not been addressed by subsequent civilian administrations lies to the nation. He highlighted the stipulation that does not allow the participation of independent candidates as a major impediment to the democratic process. Institutions have been weakened and need to be strengthened and he called on the Buhari administration to amend the constitution and asked Professor Wale Adebanwi, Rhodes Professor of Race Relations, Director , African Studies Centre who convened the event to make representation to the Nigerian government to make the relevant amendment to the constitution.

In discussions by the panel and audience it was noted that the electoral laws and history were stacked against petitioners. Elections must focus on visions and a particular focus could be Nigeria’s move away from the predominance of oil. It was noted that while elections are important, the country must not lose sight of salient issues such as Boko Haram which both political parties failed to mention. It was noted that the electoral legislation requires parties to have a national infrastructure necessitating vast resources which in theory could be paid for by ordinary members but in practice rich donors provide the funds which means they call the shots. Governors typically use public funds for their political parties. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), it was noted, was involved in far more than its original mandate of ensuring free and fair election, including voter registration and prosecuting election fraud. Chief Dele Momodu, a panellist and supporter of the unsuccessful presidential contender stated that while he opposed President Buhari’s lurch to inappropriate 1970s type solutions to current issues, for democracy to thrive, sacrifices must be made and called on presidential contender Atiku to concede defeat in the presidential elections. It was noted that with so little trust in the Nigerian federal government and courts, there was little incentive to go through the courts to resolve disputes and a huge incentive to make use of the godfather system. The issue of the denial of votes of the Nigerian diaspora was raised and there was a general consensus that efforts must be made to grant the diaspora voting rights.

This event was very timely, coming soon after the Nigerian elections which are being contested by the opposition presidential candidate. It places the numerous other petitions that are likely to follow in perspective. One glaring and sad point raised by the speaker is the statement that “politics is the most lucrative profession” in Nigeria That and the observation by Anthony Akinola highlights the major challenge facing Nigeria the sleeping giant who will continue sleeping until the country’s politicians realise that they must seek office, not to enrich themselves but rather the country. The resources of this potentially great nation must be channelled into policies and infrastructure that will uplift the whole nation and not just a few politicians and their family and friends.

President Buhari is a unique leader in Nigeria and Africa in terms of his personal disposition and policies Vis-a viz corruption. Interestingly, if the accusations swirling around Trump on corruption charges are validated, Nigeria, which has often been castigated by the US for corruption now, has a leader that is less corrupt than the US president. However at the end of the day for him to leave a significant and long lasting legacy he must deliver along the lines of the terms specified above by Chief Olanipekun when he cited Abraham Lincoln. This means he must develop the country’s physical and soft infrastructure. The physical infrastructure includes roads, electricity, railroads etc and soft infrastructure includes governance, education, security, health etc. This combined with appropriate macroeconomic policies and management would result in investment and economic growth to wake up the African giant from its slumber. Admittedly Buhari has made inroads in these areas, often stymied by politicians who do not share his vision and/or want to maintain the status quo for selfish reasons, but in his second term he needs to significantly increase the scale and pace. His fight against corruption, part of improvements in governance needs to include measures to minimise the cost of governance by reducing the unduly high government funds politicians routinely have available to literally buy their way through office. Only by doing this will he redress the perverse tendency as Chief Olanipekun notes which makes politics the “most lucrative profession” and ensure that funds are channelled in the most productive way for the benefit of all Nigerians.

It should also be noted that accusations that Buhari is seeking 1970s solutions to current issues misses the point in a number of ways. Firstly, the interventionist approach has been adopted by most states, none so more than China which has experienced the most dramatic improvements in the living standards of its people in modern history. The apparent laissez faire economic model that these critics appear to suggest fails to realise that when it has been applied in Nigeria, for example under the Jonathan regime, it has involved sales of state assets at a fraction of their true value to cronies who have not demonstrated that they have the capacity perform the duties that their new ownership entails, notably the privatisation of electricity distribution under the Jonathan regime. This flaw in applying market liberalisation as the sole panacea to issues is compounded by the current state of Nigeria’s infrastructure where for example the country’s national grid produces only 10% of the level of the South African electrical grid. Buhari’s review and reform of the country’s soft infrastructure must precede any market liberalisation initiative. And, this does not in any way preclude the role of the state in developing and managing the infrastructure, either in the form of ownership and/or an open and transparent regulatory framework as has happened in many of states in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Democracy is always an evolving process and the administration must consider points made by Chief Olanipekun regarding amendments to the constitution if he can make a good case that such amendments will actually strengthen the institutions thereby improve the democratic, social and economic framework.

J Boima Rogers is Principal Consultant at Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO) www.oxfordmemo.co.uk