Nigeria's electoral challenge: What is to blame, the ballot-box or the political culture?


Dr. Victor Oguejiofor Okafor
Professor of African American Studies
Eastern Michigan University
Ypsilanti, Michigan 48198
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As Nigerians and students of Nigerian politics look forward to another election year in 2007, Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has announced its decision to use voting machines in place of ballot boxes for the presidential, governorship and legislative elections that it's scheduled to conduct that year. The voting machine decision has received mixed reactions from Nigerian political parties. The ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) is reported to be in favor of the system and is supported in that stance by the main opposition party, the All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP). But other opposition parties, such as the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP), the Alliance for Democracy (AD), and the National Democratic Party (NDP) have cried foul, charging that the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) intends to use the new voting device to return itself to power. They also argue that Nigeria is not ready for the technicalities of electronic voting and that the system is vulnerable to manipulation. On the other hand, proponents of electronic voting contend that the system could minimize electoral malpractices and that it could guarantee that the people's Election Day choices will protected. Supporters also say that the brand of electronic voting machine in question has been used successfully in India, and so, it should work in Nigeria, given that both countries belong to the "third world."

Although Nigeria's Supreme Court has upheld the validity of the 2003 re-election of President Olusegun Obasanjo for a second four-year term that ends next year, continuing comments from Opposition spokespersons indicate that sections of Nigerian public opinion still harbor misgivings about the conduct and results of the 2003 general elections. Opposition spokespersons have continued to refer derisively to the elections of 2003 as "selections." By this, they mean that the declared winners of those elections did not represent the wishes of the majority of the electorate. The local government elections of 2004, which were won predominantly by the ruling PDP, met with similar charges of fraud and unfairness. In fact, both the Nigerian Labor Congress (NLC) and the Conference of National Political Parties (CNPP) rejected the outcome of those local government elections.

While the Supreme Court validated the outcome of the presidential election of 2003, a few of the other elections won by the ruling party have been invalidated by electoral petitions tribunals. Prime examples include two state governorship elections, namely those of Adamawa and Anambra states, both of which were won by PDP candidates. In both cases, the incumbent governors whose electoral "victories" were invalidated by the electoral petitions process, subsequently filed appeals with the Federal Appeals Court. The Adamawa appeal was upheld and so the victorious PDP governor remains in office; but Anambra's appeal is still pending. Of the two, the Anambra situation has been the most controversial and has come to symbolize the illness that plagues the Nigerian electoral process. In short, it's alleged that in the Anambra case, a god-father with alleged Abuja connections simply "selected" the incumbent governor, the wishes of the people who cast their ballots in that election not withstanding. The god-father has not only been quoted by newspapers as affirming opposition claims that he was the political juggernaut that installed the incumbent PDP governor in office (despite that fact that the job was supposed to be filled by the electorate through the ballot box), he has also been reported as boasting that he would sponsor a candidate in the upcoming election of 2007. Even President Obasanjo--the chief executive of the nation and thus the nation's chief law-enforcement officer-- has himself spoken out about what he believed to be the fraud associated with the 2003 governorship election in Anambra state. He put this way in his famous 2004 letter to Chief Audu Ogeh (the erstwhile chairman of PDP): "Š I got the real shock of my life when Chris Uba looked Ngige straight in the face and said, "You know you did not win the election" and Ngige answered "Yes, I know I did not win." Chris Uba went further to say to Ngige, "You don't know in detail how it was done." I was horrified and told both of them to leave my residence."

Selected or not, the incumbent governor of Anambra state was declared the winner of the 2003 election by INEC. By Nigeria's electoral law, electoral fraud, such as the one by which a god-father allegedly "selected" a governor that was supposed to be elected by the people, constitutes a crime. In announcing that the current Anambra state governor was not duly elected, having won fewer votes than his APGA challenger, the state electoral petitions tribunal left several questions unanswered. When did the supposedly independent electoral commission become aware that the incumbent governor was not the lawful winner of the 2003 governorship election? Was the commission aware of this fact at the time it was declaring and certifying the governor as the winner of the governorship election? Another lingering question is this: why is it that the so-called god-father (who openly boasted that he master-minded the "selection" of the incumbent governor of Anambra state), goes about a free person without any charges being brought against him? As a "god-father," is he above the law, given his alleged Abuja connections?

One would like to assume that the independent electoral commission really wants to conduct a reasonably free and fair election, come 2007. One would also like to assume that in deciding to adopt the voting machine, instead of the ballot box, the commission is motivated by a desire to forestall rigging in the upcoming election. The problem is that the federal government has not taken what I consider a necessary foundational step in preparing for 2007. That foundational step is to conduct an investigative public hearing on the serious allegations surrounding the elections of 2003 and 2004 in order to identify factors that marred the credibility of those elections in the eyes of the Nigerian public. Such a public, fact-finding hearing should be conducted by a commission made up of equal representatives of all the existing political parties in Nigeria, representatives of key non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and representatives of religious groups in the country. It should be headed by a retired Supreme Court judge.

In order to solve a problem, a first step is to find out the cause or causes of the problem. Having identified the cause or causes of the problem, one can then move to the second step of articulating options for solving the problem. If, as part of this discovery process that I have advocated, Nigeria determines that somehow the ballot box, as an electoral tool, was the primary reason for the shortcomings and fraudulent practices associated with the past elections of 2003 and 2004, then alternative solutions could be explored, including the option of the voting machine-as long as there is convincing evidence that the country, given its adult literacy rate 66.8%, is ready to make use of such a tool effectively and efficiently. What about the perennial problem of electric outages in Nigeria? Can INEC guarantee that power outages alone will not make non-sense of electronic voting in Nigeria? Perhaps, the machines for Nigeria will be custom designed to make them use batteries instead of electricity since Nigeria cannot guarantee uninterrupted electricity supply for any occasion, big or small. Where this to happen, can INEC guarantee that on the day of elections, those contracted to supply needed batteries will perform as expected, given the endemic corruption that goes hand in hand with contracts in Nigeria? What about the Nigerian police? Given the deep-seated corruption that makes that institution an embarrassment to Nigerians at home and abroad, can INEC rely on it to effectively protect polling stations and voters and to protect equally all electoral office contestants without according special treatment to anyone of them?

Since, in my view, the federal government has not taken the first fact-finding step that I articulated in the preceding, it is reasonable to ask whether the federal electoral commission's decision to go with the voting machine in the 2007 election springs from a studied knowledge of the ills that plagued past elections.

While one acknowledges that there is no perfect political culture anywhere (witness the controversies that surrounded the albeit successful US presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, not to talk of the pre-1960s era of widespread black disenfranchisement in the southern United States of America), one is also constrained to ask whether the ills associated with the aforementioned past elections in Nigeria were due more to significant defects in the political culture than to the instruments employed in the voting process. Here, I employ Claude Ake's (1967) definition of political culture as "the system of empirical beliefs, expressive symbols and values which defines the situation in which political action takes place" (p. 2). If the political culture, such as Nigeria's, is characterized by a behavioral pattern among the political elite that tends to disrespect the electoral law with impunity (and even allows political fraud stars to boastfully parade themselves as celebrities), can that pattern of behavior be checkmated by the substitution of one voting instrument for another? When a so-called god-father boasts openly that he was the one that foisted a governor in office, rather than the electorate (in other words, he is saying to the world that he flouted the electoral law of the land), and he goes about a free and boastful man, the political culture has been ridiculed and debased. Inaction, when action is needed on the part of those charged with law-enforcement in the land, is bound to further erode trust in government on the part of the bewildered watching public. Such inaction in the face of a situation that calls for swift action to show that the law is no respecter of persons in Nigeria is bound to make the citizenry cynical about the efficacy of the electoral process. Election malfeasance, as a variant of public corruption, is symptomatic of the country's defective political culture. Obasanjo's ongoing war on corruption cannot succeed without a simultaneous assault on electoral fraud stars that seem to litter the body politic. Speaking recently while on an official visit to Spain, Obasanjo was reported as assuring that Nigeria's 2007 elections would not be impeded by violence. The report quoted him as saying that "We have no fear whatsoever that 2007 and beyond would be peaceful." While I applaud the president's optimism, I would like to point out that a concrete step by which he can convince his primary constituency, namely Nigerians, that 2007 would witness a free and fear general election is by opening a new front, right away, in his historic war on corruption-one that will focus upon the alleged electoral crimes of 2003 and 2004.

Nigeria' political history since independence in 1960 has been characterized by bitter electoral disputes that eventually led to the collapse of its several republics (including the first indigenous Republic led by Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and the second Republic led by President Shehu Shagari). In addition, General Ibrahim Babangida blemished Nigeria's political history for all time by nullifying a reportedly successful June 1993 presidential election that was won by the late Mudaseru Abiola. It's more than a bewildering irony of history that this same general who shamed Nigeria and the entire black race by his despotic action of nullifying the will of the people in 1993 is now scheming to return himself to power (come 2007) through the same balloting process that he so disrespected in 1993. The mere fact that Nigeria's political culture can accommodate such an effrontery, such a slap on its national face speaks volumes about its decadence.

In December 2004, Ghana held a widely hailed presidential election that returned the incumbent president to office. Internally and externally, that election was heralded as among the freest and fairest elections ever conducted in Africa's post-independence history. Did Ghana have to resort to electronic voting machines in order to conduct that successful election? Prior to Ghana's successful election, South Africa also conducted post-apartheid parliamentary general elections that were widely hailed as successes. Did South Africa have to substitute the ballot box for the electronic machine?

Finally, I have an additional suggestion for Nigeria's INEC, in addition to the public fact-finding hearing that I recommended in the foregoing. As it prepares for 2007, INEC should take a trip to both Ghana and South Africa in order to compare notes with electoral institutions in those sister African nations. Find out if they had to resort to electronic contraptions in order to conduct reasonably free and fair elections.


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Ghana's gentle giant re-elected. (2004, December 10). BBC NEWS.

How Anambra Governorship Poll was rigged. (2005, July 8). (

NLC Rejects LG Polls Results: Says Democracy Under Threat. (2004, March 31). (

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