The national elections in Nigeria this April started inauspiciously. In some places heavy rains swept away the flimsy shacks meant to serve as polling booths. At some polling centres, due to the rains and poor preparation, election officials arrived several hours after voting started. Sometimes voters turned up where they had registered to vote to find their names not on the voters’ list. But most Nigerians bore these irritations patiently, going from one polling centre to another searching for their names in the chaotic records of the electoral commission and standing in the rain for as long as it took to cast their votes.
It was thus doubly distressing that their exemplary perseverance was rewarded with a sad but all too familiar drama. As in the mid-1960s, in 1983 and again in 1999, opposition parties rejected the election results, alleging widespread fraud. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the winners and also the ruling party, described the opposition as bad losers. The opposition parties announced that they would not recognize a government whose mandate derived from fraudulent elections. The PDP denounced them as dangerous enemies of democracy, who were deliberately creating the conditions for a military coup d’état.
Nigerian and international election observers had reported many examples of election rigging in parts of the country. Even the PDP, with touching candour, conceded that there were ‘irregularities’ here and there, but insisted that such irregularities did not affect the overall result. Election observers, however, believe that in 6 out of Nigeria’s 36 states rigging was so bad that the outcome could not be said to reflect the popular will. In one of the six, Rivers State, both the voter turnout and votes cast for the ruling party were in the high 90-per-cent range – a feat usually associated with sham elections run by dictatorships. Observers saw election officials and police stuffing ballot boxes. In some states votes were summarily ‘allocated’ by electoral officials too lazy even to bother with the stuffing.
The PDP has argued that even if their votes in the six states were not counted, they would still have comfortably won the presidential elections. They challenge their opponents to go to court. Nigeria’s jurisprudence of election petitions is, however, dismal. Strikingly similar cases have been decided quite differently and sometimes procedural devices are used by the courts to frustrate election petitions.
In other African countries where disputes have arisen, the judicial route has also proved frustrating. In Zambia local and international observers concluded that President Levy Mwanawasa won the December 2001 presidential elections fraudulently. The case challenging his victory has been before the Zambian Supreme Court for more than a year. Meanwhile Mwanawasa has remained president. Witnesses gave sensational evidence in November 2002 of how the elections were rigged. But Mwanawasa’s lawyers countered by filing an application to strike out the petition on the ground that there is no provision in the Zambian constitution for removing a sitting president – even if that president is fraudulently elected. In Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change’s challenge to President Mugabe’s election is still before the courts over a year after the election. The country remains in a state of political stalemate.
Any sort of civilian government, even a fraudulently elected one, seems to many a better choice than military dictatorship
Even among Nigerians sympathetic to the demands of the opposition parties for justice, there is a concern that they should not go too far in pressing their case. Nigerians remember how the dispute over the fraudulent 1983 elections contributed to the overthrow of the civilian government, ushering in 16 years of sometimes quite brutal military dictatorship. Any sort of civilian government, even a fraudulently elected one, seems to many a better choice than military dictatorship. Thus when one of the defeated presidential candidates, Muhammadu Buhari, suggested that his party would seek to overturn the PDP’s victory through ‘mass action’, there was considerable alarm. The PDP has skilfully played on these fears, equating nearly every protest against electoral fraud with subversion.
The PDP and its supporters argue that ours is a growing democracy and we should expect these problems as part of a natural process of development. And they point to the messy ending to the US presidential elections in 2000 as an example of how even longstanding democracies sometimes have difficulties with elections.
But it is precisely because our democracies are yet to take root that we need to be extremely vigilant about the integrity of electoral processes. Many forces across Africa regard democracy as an inconvenience, including groups of extremists and power-profiteers seeking shortcuts to power. Electoral fraud severely undermines democracy and strengthens these opportunistic forces. So those who resist or protest against electoral fraud are in fact crucial defenders of democracy.
In the April elections the people of Nigeria’s Kano State provided an example of how to defend democracy from fraudulent politicians. As results of the state governorship elections began to flow in from the districts, it became clear that the PDP candidate and incumbent state governor was going down to defeat. Then, mysteriously, the flow of results ceased. A sense of unease began to grow in the state capital, the ancient city of Kano. Rumours began to circulate that the PDP was trying to manipulate the results. Unable to take the suspense any longer, people began to gather at the vote-collation centres. The crowds grew in size and confidence, and began to demand the immediate release of the results. This demonstration of people’s power became so determined that police, used by the ruling party to cow opposition elsewhere, were powerless. The cornered electoral commission reluctantly announced the results and Kano State ended up getting the governor people had actually voted for.