Nigeria: Rehearsals in Anarchy

by Chidi Amuta

Ekiti -Whichever way the electoral nonsense in Ekiti resolves itself; it is already a preface to a tragedy foretold. More importantly, we have before our eyes the first real time test of the sincerity of the Nigerian President, Umaru Musa Yar’dua’s avowed commitment to electoral reform and institutional transparency. Prior to Ekiti, the informed public had come to an increasing consensus that perhaps this commitment deserved a  closer look. The most fundamental aspects of the recommendations of the Justice Mohammed Uwais Electoral Reforms Committee had been either jettisoned or tragically mangled by the government in power with the tacit approval of the National Council of State.
While the theoretical debate on how best to reform our electoral system raged, I was interested in two significant propositions and how they would play out. First: How would a political party and a president who came to power through monumental electoral fraud reform a system that produced them? Two: How would an administration that has not decided on how to dispose of the institutional garbage symbolized by Prof. Maurice Iwu and his Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) proceed with electoral reform?
But there was some form of consolation by way of our recent political history. The recent interventions of the judiciary in our electoral outcomes, especially the 2007 governorship elections had produced unique opportunities for the system; if indeed there is one, to self correct. In my political naivety, I proposed that following the nullification or rectification of governorship elections in a number of states such as Rivers, Anambra, Edo, Ondo and perhaps Ekiti, it was a positive development that governorship elections in Nigeria would no longer hold on the same day all over the country.
This would ordinarily mean that national and international attention on our electoral system would be concentrated on a particular state when it is time for it to elect a new governor. My provisional conclusion was then that this would be an opportunity to ensure that credible elections take place in the affected states. These possible successes would then be used to further refine and perfect the system nationwide and thus end the shame of electoral fraud in our country. Each time I proffered this argument in the presence of my politician friends, I received looks of pity. As it turns out, the level of cynicism among our people about our electoral system is almost total. The larger Nigerian public now believes that most of the people who decide on the vital matters that affect their lives are rude impositions of a defective electoral system.
Then came Ekiti. Since the opposition Action Congress (AC) had been unrelenting in its claims to victory in the 2007 governorship elections, the court ordered a rerun of the poll in key areas of the state which would offer an opportunity for the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to re-validate its claim to gubernatorial power in that state. Ekiti also offered yet another opportunity for Iwu to begin to seriously retrieve the institutional credibility, if any, of INEC. His personal matter is perhaps beyond redemption since he has remained insensitive to all the loud signs that should ordinarily get decent people to quit. But no. Sustained in office by a bloody cabal that routinely manipulates the legal system to protect their service personnel, this embodiment of supreme infamy continues to preside over the critical agency for electoral outcomes and thus closing the door to the possibility of democratic redemption.
Ekiti is by no means a normal state politically. Coming so closely after the loss of the Ondo State governorship by the PDP, Ekiti is in a sense the last milestone on the road to the electoral map of 2011. Here at last, the indefatigable ghost of the sage of Ikene comes face to face with the burly mass of the Owu Chief. The ghost of Awo versus the lingering excrescence of Obasanjo’s bayonet democracy. Here is the classic confrontation that Nigerians have long waited for: between a dead legend and a living professional malefactor (some would say traitor). 
If Ondo was the equivalent of soccer yellow card to the PDP, the loss of Ekiti would be the dreaded red card. At the heart of the matter lies the ancient political truism that the South-west would ordinarily elect to retain its political cohesion as a way of posing a credible opposition and policy alternative to the compromise driven Nigerian mainstream. So, the larger political question in Ekiti is bigger than a confrontation between the PDP and the AC even if both parties symbolically represent emaciated versions of the critical partisan divide that has historically characterised political contest in the Nigerian South-west.
Given the state’s relative political and economic insignificance in the country, a governorship rerun there would ordinarily not attract much attention nor should it graduate into a pitched battle. But every war, including undeclared ones, must find a theatre. By some historical irony, an illustrious son of the South-west vicariously chose Ekiti for the gruesome role that is playing out before our very eyes. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo prepared this battle ground, defined its parameters and chose the combatants. But he is no longer in a position to define the rules of engagement. His insistence on “capturing” the South-west by all means in 2007 has brought Ekiti and the nation to this sorry pass. Yar’dua is perhaps left carrying a dying baby whose mother he knows but cannot find.
While we wait for this tragedy to unfold, some of the ugliest markings of a political tradition of politics of bile are in full display. Politics as war is on. Ekiti has become a battle ground of sorts. Reports to date indicate familiar features. How else can we explain the fact that a remedial poll in a tiny state with miniscule economic import but large political significance should degenerate into a mini civil war.
The outlines of a “war” are everywhere in evidence. The hardening of stances and perspectives. A grave division among partisan and moral lines, the amassing of field “troops” by both sides, the invocation of incendiary rhetoric, the deployment of weapons-seen and unseen. In the run up to the rerun poll, there was a veiled threat by denizens of the presiding PDP to call in federal troops ostensibly to ensure peaceful poll. Some governor of one of South-west states was allegedly caught on tape ordering the setting up, arming and deployment of an emergency private army to ensure that the ruling party effectively “re-captured” the state. So far in the poll itself, we have seen houses burnt, free for all fights, the use of violence and intimidation and other curious terror tactics by both sides. And now the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) has resigned, is wanted by the police and may disappear.
Nor has there been an absence of reprisal rehearsals on the other side. The AC and other opposition parties in the state find themselves as latter day carriers of the cross of political restitution in the region with a specific theatre in Ekiti. What the old AD lost to Obasanjo’s garrison politics in 2007, the AC is intent on reclaiming between now and 2011. It seems the AC battle think tank fully realize that they were going to deal with a lethal opponent.
The overriding doctrine is an ancient one. As it were, political normalcy in the South-west has always been defined in terms of fidelity to the oppositional solidarity bequeathed by the great Awo. Previous attempts to challenge this view have been met with predictable violence and blatant rejection. Recall the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) days with bloody battles in Ondo and Oyo States. It goes further back in time to the historic confrontations between the Awo and Akintola camps. The only reason why the 2007 political overrun of the South-west was received with relative equanimity was that it was initiated and supervised by a son of the South-west.
Incidentally, the spirited opposition to the PDP in Ekiti is perhaps a reflection of the democratic configuration of the state. There would seem to be a general rule in these matters in spite of the vast anomalies in our system. Where an electoral outcome coincides with the wishes of the critical mass of the people, there are hardly any aftermath contestations, judicial or otherwise. But where an electoral outcome that runs counter to the wishes of the people is sanctioned by presiding authorities, they are often greeted with stone throwing, endless court cases and violent reruns. This is not just a Nigerian rule. Respect for the wishes of the majority expressed through the ballot is perhaps the most fundamental assumption of electoral democracy and therefore the basis for order in any free society.
Obasanjo’s garrison politics vastly negated this truism in most parts of the country. In Ekiti, the scenario is a bit more complicated. Obasanjo’s buccaneer politics has created a different political group of beneficiaries and followers of the PDP in Ekiti and the South-west. The fear of reprisals and loss of patronage in the event of a reversal of electoral fortunes is the real driving fuel in the ensuing battles in Ekiti. This battle for political (and economic survival) can mean the difference between life and death for many in a society where political power governs access to basic livelihood.
However, the real meaning of whatever outcome we get in Ekiti belongs to the larger Nigerian polity. What is sickeningly and humiliatingly clear is that in the run up to the 2011 general elections, we are witnessing in Ekiti ugly dress rehearsals of the electoral warfare that might engulf the country when that time comes.