Monday, April 11, 2011

After the disappointing and embarrassing postponement of National Assembly elections on April 2nd, Nigeria managed to conclude legislative polling one week later as promised. Some of the results have been interesting and may indicate a change in Nigerian politics that could prove beneficial for the future of the country's democracy.

The defeat of Dimeji Bankole is a positive for Nigerian democracy because it indicates that citizens are willing to give the opposition a chance. Bankole, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, belongs to Nigeria’s ruling party,  the peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Bankole was also the number four politician in the country. He is also the son of a an affluent and powerful chief. Despite his name recognition and wealth, factors that have previously mattered, he and other members of his party in southwestern Nigeria, lost their positions. Dimeji has accepted defeat.

Similarly, the daughter of former president, Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello, lost a seat she had held for years. Like Bankole, Obasanjo-Bello is from a prestigious and rich Nigerian family. Obasanjo-Bello was famously involved in a N3.5 billion scandal that brought down a former Minister of Health in 2007. She famously went into hiding when news broke and questions began to swirl. Despite these stunning defeats, the PDP managed to maintain its lead in the National Assembly as voters in other parts of the country chose their PDP incumbents.

The exit of these and other powerful politicians highlight that the ruling party is losing it's foothold over power. Particularly in the southwestern region were the PDP suffered significant losses. More importantly, however, these losses suggest that Independent National Election Commission (INEC) succeeded at orchestrating free and fair elections. This reality is reinforced by the comments of Festus Mogae, former president of Botswana, one of Africa’s most stable countries. While representing the Commonwealth as an election observer, Mogae reflected on the National Assembly polls saying,

“The National Assembly elections generally took place in a peaceful and orderly manner. We noted several logistical deficiencies and procedural inconsistencies across the country. We do not believe that these called into question the overall credibility of the process.”

Mogae’s comments are high praise for a Commission that has consistently sought more money and postponements in the run up to the election. Only last week, the body’s chair was being encouraged to resign by this writer and several others for the failure to conduct National Assembly voting on time.

Sadly, this ‘win’ for INEC will be short lived if it fails to conduct next weekend’s presidential elections in a timely and effective manner. Also, it must be noted that National Assembly polling did not happen everywhere as materials still managed to reach certain parts of the country, forcing a further postponement in those areas. And in certain places where elections were scheduled to hold, like Aba in Abia State, there were insufficient voting materials.

INEC continues to face the challenges of logistics and of course, violence. On the eve of the National Assembly polls, INEC’s Suleja offices were rocked by an explosion that killed at least 12 people. And, clashes between opposing party supporters and threats from MEND raise the stakes even further. Still, these issues must be faced squarely as INEC has no room for failure over the coming weeks. Much goodwill has been squandered and in order to limit further decay to the credibility the election results need, everything must go according to plan.

Despite the violence and the threats of insecurity, the fact that Nigerians came out to vote and that some of them opted to give opposing candidates a chance, is a reason to be optimistic for Nigeria. This is because Nigerians have historically witnessed fraudulent elections that are violent enough to discourage many from participating. Instead, registered voters were peaceful in most parts of the country and powerful incumbents surprisingly fell. And, arguably, these politicians could only lose because the actual polling results, and not some version of it, were released to the public.

This could be a sign that Nigerian voters are achieving a measure of democratic maturity previously unseen in the years since the return to democracy in 1999. One can hope that the presidential elections will not be rigged to create a result that is beneficial to any one political party or presidential aspirant. Nigerians may just be one step closer to creating the truly Nigerian-democracy that the country needs.

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