To rig or not to rig: these are the 2015 questions

Alhaji Mujaheed Dokubo-Asari is in the news again. Never one to pass up the opportunity to galvanize foes and embarrass friends, the leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force /NDPVF, chose the occasion of his release from police detention in the Republic of Benin to boast of his high-level connections, and to repeat an earlier threat, the threat to wage war on Nigeria should the electors make the mistake of not returning his kinsman, President Goodluck Jonathan, to office in 2015.

By the way, the Alhaji had been held by the Beninoise gendarmes on what later turned out to be a trumped up charge–that of belonging to a dreaded organization, the Boko Haram. He dismissed the incident as an act of political vendetta. Those uncomfortable with his position on the 2015 presidential election, he alleged, had fabricated the story of his membership of the terrorist organization and passed the unreliable information on to the Beninoise authorities. Fortunately for him, President Jonathan was on hand to place a call to his Benin Republic counterpart and to secure the Alhaji’s immediate release ( Besides, the Nigerian President’s intervention on his behalf had, in his own words, raised his profile at the highest level of government not only in Nigeria but also in the Republic of Benin. In plain English, his brief incarceration in Benin let the government of Benin know how close he is to our own President and what it meant tangling with a Big Man of his calibre.

Indeed, if it is true that the NDPVF leader’s enemies were behind the conspiracy to implicate him in acts of terrorism, they have only succeeded in doing him a great service. Thanks to their sloppily hatched plot, there is no government office door in Cotonou today that Dokubo-Asari cannot gently tap and expect to be ushered in instantly and with honour! His extensive business interests in the sister Republic are now virtually guaranteed immunity from bureaucratic surveillance. His cross-border activities are now off-limits to nosy agencies in Benin and probably across the entire ECOWAS sub-region.

But we should not let the topic of Dokubo-Asari’s waxing in the glory of free PR detain us. We should instead focus on this other matter, President Jonathan’s chances at the 2015 presidential contest. While the President has not formally declared his interest, the signals transmitted by his proxies would seem suggest that the Number One citizen is to all intents and purposes on his mark, getting set to go. Never believe any protestations to the contrary; a quiet life in retirement is neither on the President’s mind nor in the public domain. Didn’t the G7 governors demand that the President forget about running in 2015? Didn’t the President’s men say that the G7 governors and the NewPDP should come to terms with what was a virtual done deal? How about Ahmed Gulak’s threat to “resign” as Political Adviser if the President refused to contest in 2015? Dokubo-Asari’s morbid and recurring fear of power slipping out President Jonathan’s fingers speaks volumes about the calculations leading up to 2015 race.

Let me say upfront that the question whether or not President Jonathan would run in 2015 is for the President and his party to answer. It is only when the President decides to run, and the PDP gives him its ticket, that the electorate at large would have to decide on options open to it. That is when the burden of answering the question of who wins shifts from both the candidate (and his party) to the People. After the candidate has declared his interest in the race, and his party, the PDP, has nominated him as its flag-bearer, the People will then decide whether to vote for him or for a rival candidate.

That is the theory—a sound one if you ask me. However, the practice in Nigeria is a completely different matter. The tradition over the years has been for an incumbent to declare his continued interest in his job and for the rest of us to either stay passive as he coasts to “landslide victory”, or “rally round him” and be part of his success. Those among us who prove difficult are liable either to be bribed or brow-beaten. Where money, subtle intimidation, and violence prove ineffective, the “consensus candidate” may still count on the cunning and inventiveness of his foot soldiers. Box snatching, ballot stuffing, miscounting of vote tallies, falsification of results, and collusion with polling officials are part of the repertoire of tricks that have been applied over the years to frustrate the will of the People.

It is possible that President Jonathan’s associates expect their man to win the 2015 race without any recourse to crooked methods. However, his opponents are not so sure that he would have a smooth ride in 2015 in a clean contest. Free and fair elections, they argue, are alien to our political culture.

The President’s opponents have genuine reasons to be sceptical about the likelihood of a hitch-free contest. With the possible exception of the 1993 presidential election, Nigeria’s record in the conduct of free and fair elections has been generally dismal. Cynics have further pointed out that the President would not be keen on running and the PDP would not be hell-bent on fielding him as a candidate if they (the President and his party) do not have a prior assurance of victory, or of the infallibility of their success strategy, whatever that happens to be.

We must also not forget the power of incumbency. This indeed is what the ruling party, the PDP, counts on to swing the election in its favour. As the incumbent, President Jonathan has almost unfettered access to funds, enjoys media exposure gratis, and is in a position to issue directives of a general or specific nature to officials in the executive branch of government. The head of the agency that plans and organizes the elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission/INEC, owes his job to the President. The Inspector-General of Police and his staff answer directly to the President. All those “instructions from above” emanate, not from God Almighty, but from the Presidency here on earth or from individuals close to the seat of worldly power. And most ominous of all, THE MILITARY IS INCREASINGLY GETTING DRAWN INTO PARTISAN POLITICS as troops show up at polling booths or are, at short notice, drafted to political flashpoints.

Against the backdrop to the challenges we have faced since the dawn of independence, we need urgent answers to two questions–two questions that are often but erroneously treated as one and the same. First, should the conduct of elections be business as usual or, second, is a radical departure from the past overdue? Or to rephrase the questions, who deserves public condemnation—one who wilfully rigs an election or one who is opposed to any form of rigging? These are two separate questions. And where there is justice, two different questions must elicit two different answers. Unfortunately, depending on who is asking, the tendency has been to take one answer as synonymous with another, and to allow emotion to eclipse historical fact or to becloud pure logic.

Let’s take for instance reactions in some quarters to a statement credited to Major General Muhammadu Buhari shortly before the 2011 elections. The former Head of State had, as I recall, advised Nigerians to guard their votes. He had proceeded further to serve notice on riggers, warning them of the consequences of their actions. When this cautionary message landed on a few listeners’ ears, what they heard was not an affirmation of an incontrovertible historical fact but a call to arms. I was in Nigeria when the General made the statement and I noticed that nobody felt compelled by the statement to go out and break something, let alone commit acts of arson or vandalism. I personally did (and do) not interpret his statement as an instruction to go and attack anybody, and certainly not as another “do-or-die” exhortation. What I heard Buhari say is that your vote is sacred and this sanctity must be jealously guarded at all costs. If anybody has any objection to that—that is, to guarding the sanctity of his/her votes, s/he should simply come out and say so. A simple “I won’t rig” pledge is all Buhari asked for, not mayhem.

Any one that is familiar with the history of election violence in Nigeria—from the early 1960s, through the 1980s to the present–would realize that the enraged voter does not need anyone to push him to defend the sanctity of his/her vote with all means available. All one needs to do is recall the antecedents to ‘operation wet’e’ in the former Western Region, and the devastation accompanying the 1983 elections in the former Ondo State. Ditto the civil disturbances triggered by the handling of the 2007 elections.

Like the majority of Nigerians, Buhari included, I am definitely against election violence. However, we cannot stop violence until we address the root causes. When we gloss over rigging, quibble in an attempt at minimizing its impact, and ignore the painful lessons taught by past electoral shenanigans, we simply empower the riggers. By laying the blame for post-election violence on the opponents of rigging and sparing the perpetrators of the nefarious act, we are not only evading the fundamental questions, but are also implicitly condoning daylight pilfering of our collective patrimony. Whether anyone says it loud or keeps it to himself, rigging is the worst form of violence and harbinger of large-scale trouble. A stolen election produces an illegitimate, unaccountable, insensitive, and vastly corrupt administration. A stolen election denies the People the only chance they have to explore alternatives of tackling poverty, disease, criminality, anarchy and other problems that break their backs and shorten their lives.

Incidentally, a high-powered commission of inquiry set up by the government eventually exonerated Buhari and laid the blame for the post-2011 election violence at the right doorstep—the riggers’. This has of course not stopped Buhari’s opponents from harping on his admittedly harsh views on rigging. The plain talking General gave his opponents new ammunitions in May 2013 when a delegation of Niger State CPC members paid him a courtesy call in Kaduna. Reiterating his demand for genuinely free and fair elections, Buhari warned, “If what happened in 2011 should again happen in 2015, by the grace of God, the dog and the baboon would all be soaked in blood.” Stern as this warning may sound in some ears, it will be too much of a stretch equating it with a declaration of war on Nigeria. A declaration of war on rigging? Yes. A call for the dismemberment of Nigeria? Certainly not.

The difference between Buhari’s stand on rigging, and say, Dokubo-Asari’s view on Jonathan’s 2015 chances are so stark that it is difficult to see how one can be confused with the other. Yet, Buhari’s opponents never feel a sense of accomplishment unless and until they demonize him. As if rationalize Dokubo-Asari’s declaration of war on Nigeria, Buhari’s opponents regard his opposition to rigging as another declaration of war. Am I missing something here?!

To bring the contrast between Buhari’s anti-rigging stance and Dokubo-Asari’s rants in bold relief–and in the interest of clarity–it is necessary to recast the two earlier questions as crudely as possible. Here are the two questions again but in different language:

(a) If our favourite candidate is running for office, are we not justified in rigging the election in his/her favour and in waging war on the entire country if, after all our efforts, victory still eludes him/her? (Dokubo-Asari’s view)
(b) Regardless of who is running for office, is rigging not the worst crime that could be perpetrated against the People of Nigeria, a crime deserving of the stiffest, possibly, the ultimate, penalty? (Buhari’s view).

The second question, as indicated above, sums up Buhari’s position on rigging. However, because of the strong language employed by the former Head of State, his critics have put him in the same category as Dokubo-Asari who implicitly poses the first question with his threat to wage war on Nigeria if Jonathan was not returned to office in 2015. As far as the former Niger Delta activist, turned businessman and university proprietor, is concerned, the constitution stipulates that an incumbent President is eligible to run for a maximum of two terms. Since, by Dokubo-Asari’s calculation, Jonathan had only done one term, he must be allowed to complete his constitutionally mandated two terms, with the second term starting from 2015.

Interestingly, the President’s Special Adviser on Niger Delta Affairs, Kingsley Kuku, shared Dokubo-Asari’s views on the 2015 race. During a visit to the US, Kuku warned of dire consequences if Jonathan was not re-elected in 2015. It took the Presidency one whole week to distance itself from Dokubo-Asari while keeping mute on Kuku’s equally unguarded utterances.

Dokubo-Asari, is a convert to Jonathan’s cause. A few days before making an about-turn, he had assessed the President’s performance and found it wanting. He did not see how the President could return to office in 2015 if he failed to step up. The former activist has within a short span of time re-assessed the President and found him worthy of returning for a second term.

No one can begrudge Dokubo-Asari the right to change his mind. However, since he has hinged his argument for the President’s “automatic” re-election on the constitution, it is essential that any rebuttal be grounded on provisions of the fundamental law. The Alhaji may not have noticed, but the constitution that he cites gleefully refers to a maximum (not minimum) number of terms for which a candidate could run. Besides, the Alhaji is probably not aware of the fact that the constitution is but a mere document, a document containing general guidelines on how specific issues should be resolved. With regard to the topic on the table, the constitution sets the parameters for the election and re-election of candidates to the office of President. It does not make the election or re-election of a specific person mandatory. For Dokubo-Asari to return his man to Aso Rock villa in 2015, he would have to manipulate or bully the PDP into anointing President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan as its “consensus candidate”. To get the job done properly, Dokubo-Asari would need to go further and command the voters to file behind one another like sheep in a herd. Under his watchful eyes, and with his koboko in both hands, every voter would be compelled to cast his/her ballot for no other candidate except Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.

Strange as it may sound, the NDPVF leader believes that he has it all worked out. He relies on the power of intimidation to get him what may, in ordinary circumstances, be beyond his reach. Was it not in May 2013 when he first came up with this crazy idea of it’s either Jonathan or total war. Nigeria, he promised, would know no peace unless President Jonathan was allowed to complete his first term and to return for a second term in 2015.

It is now up to Nigerians to decide whether they wish to continue to tolerate rigging (including intimidation), or they want a clean break with the past. If Nigerians see nothing wrong with rigging, they should simply queue behind Dokubo-Asari right now and in 2015 throw their ballots in one box to the exclusion of others. If, however, the electorate decides that, after sixty years, it is now ready to take its destiny in its own hands, Dokubo-Asari can rest assured that neither his koboko nor his limitless war chest would be enough to halt the change momentum.

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