Monday, January 24, 2011

The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is the main political party in Nigeria. Its members hold many political positions at both the state government and the federal government level, including the executive office. And on January 13th, 2011, the party conducted it's primary elections to determine which individual would represent the party during the April presidential polls. While the event, which was televised and streamed live online was entertaining, especially with the one dimensional tone of a gentleman counting ballots, the main thing missing was the element of surprise. Meaning, it was clear to most that only one person would walk away with the ticket, which is what happened. This lack of surprise is a troubling aspect of Nigeria's road to true democracy. Depending on which angle it is considered from, it can be either negative or positive.

Some might believe that the element of surprise is overrated in politics. Particularly within the context of a country like Nigeria where surprises have ended in coups and other problems in the past. In that sense, surprise is a negative that can spur insecurity.

That belief is reinforced by international observers, some of whom now believe that current President and PDP presidential nominee, Goodluck Jonathan, will win elections in April. In fact, Nigeria's stock market, which is also the world's top performer, rose to an eight-month high immediately after Jonathan emerged the PDP nominee on January 13th. One analyst expressed his confidence in the Nigerian political scene and economy saying,

"We see a high probability that Jonathan will continue as president after the elections and so do not place as large a political risk premium as we might if there was more uncertainty around this..."
These examples highlight how political continuity, which is essentially a lack of surprise, can be very good as it helps to soothe the concerns of market forces. For a country like Nigeria which has experienced political upheavals, such confidence can be beneficial. One need only look to the neighboring West African nation of Cote D'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) to see how the element of surprise and thus change (the incumbent losing handily to a challenger) can result in domestic insecurity, violence and economic instability.

But just like a coin, this lack of political surprise is two-sided. Although it might encourage economic stability, it deters democratic growth by retarding political competition. And that is the exact opposite of what democracy should be. When foreign investors and local economic elites focus on economic stability, the incumbent will undoubtedly gain momentum and support. Support, in itself, is not a problem as it is to be expected, but within the context of Nigeria, it is a problem. Nigeria, like many other African countries, is one where people in power feel that they, and they alone, have a right to 'rule'. For this reason, Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military dictator-turned 'democratic' president, thought he should run for a third term and sought to have the laws changed to enable his desires. It is for that reason that certain families are trying to put as many of their relatives in power across the country. One need only mention the Sarakis, the Tinubus or even Maurice Iwu, the disgraced former chair of the nation's electoral body, whose daughter, Ijeoma Nwafor, was seeking for a seat in the National Assembly. Such overwhelming support, at the risk of drowning out opposing voices, can create dictatorships and destroy democratic growth by entrenching the current political elite which has done little to improve the fate of Nigerians in the last 12 years of continuous 'democratic rule'. This entrenchment further isolates alternative voices, weakening whatever possible democratic gains the country could make

The lack of political surprise also comes at a psychological cost that is equally detrimental. Even the youngest child in Nigeria believes in their heart and even knows that Goodluck Jonathan will win the Presidential election. It does not matter whether they are right or not. Despite his public utterances that he will ensure that elections are free and fair, the commonly held understanding is that Jonathan, who controls the national purse as the current president, will in fact win, come April 9th (the date of presidential polls). That surety contributes to a belief that regardless of who one votes for, the results are predetermined. And in a country like Nigeria where fraud and corruption do not go on vacation during elections, the lack of surprise boosts the belief that votes will not count, which in turn will discourage many from participating politically. That is anathema to real democracy.

And even if political continuity encourages economic stability, as economic analysts believe, one must take a step back and ask who will benefit from such stability? In Nigeria, it cannot be taken for granted that the lack of political surprises will indeed foster economic stability and thus better the country as a whole. Nigeria is a good example that it takes more than money to create stability. Despite years of oil wealth, the majority of Nigerians remain extremely poor and that poverty is one of many factors contributing to the country's malaise. From militants in the South and Muslim extremists in the north, to kidnapping and corruption in between, economic stability in Nigeria would do little to bring an end to the problems. The poor will remain poor and discontent will grows if serious changes are made at all levels of society. One such change being the true participation of Nigerians, in such a way where political surprise is a possibility. If not, an influx of money will simply act as a salve and not a solution to the growing insecurity. Besides, the only people who reap the rewards of economic growth are the tightly-knit economic and political elite. Therefore, although the prospect of economic stability might appear rewarding in the short term, in the long term, it could only serve to complicate matters further.

Ultimately, anything could happen in the weeks and months leading to elections. What is sure, however, is that the lack of surprises in Nigerian politics, especially at the presidential level, could prove problematic.

From The Archives:
- Nigeria 2011 Elections: Can INEC Do It?
Nigerian Voter Registration Videos

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