Article

PrintPrint EmailEmail ShareShare CiteCite
Style:MLAAPAChicagoClose

loading...

Electoral Reform: The Next Milestone in Nigeria's Democracy

Author: Princeton N. Lyman
March 19, 2005
Council on Foreign Relations

ELECTORAL REFORM: THE NEXT MILESTONE IN NIGERIA’S DEMOCRACY

Address at the Conference on Electoral Reform National Programme of CommemorationYar’Adua Memorial Forum

by Princeton N. Lyman

His Excellency Olusegun Obasanjo, President, Federal Republic of Nigeria

His Excellency Atiku Baubakar, Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria

H.E Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, Executive Governor, Katsina State

Honorable executive Governors

Distinguished members of the National House of Representatives and Senate

Members of the Diplomatic Corps

Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a special honor for me to address this Memorial Forum in the presence of the President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo. I had the privilege of representing my country as Ambassador to Nigeria in the mid-1980s, and at that time came to know the president , then a farmer but a rather special one, and in the years since as he worked on behalf of development and good governance across Africa, and as he has assumed Nigeria’ highest office. Thank you Mr. President for your presence here tonight on this special occasion.

I want to express my appreciation to the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Memorial Forum for hosting this important conference on electoral reform. It is in the tradition of the Forum and the man in whose memory it operates that we have participated here at a conference on one of the most vital challenges of democracy: the electoral process. Whatever else is essential to make democracy effective and sustainable, elections are the lifeblood of the system, the constant affirmation of legitimacy for its leaders and the bond that links the leaders with their people.

I wish to thank also His Excellency the Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, who opened this conference and presided at the commemoration this morning.

The Importance of Nigeria

If it were only Nigeria’s democracy at stake in the effectiveness of its electoral process, that would be serious enough. But the truth is that Nigeria’s importance runs far beyond its borders. Nigeria is a leader in much of what is happening throughout the continent. It was President Obasanjo, along with South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki, Senegal’s President Wade, and Algerian President Bouteflika, who developed the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) that set out principles of good governance and economic management that is now a key policy framework of the Africa Union. NEPAD has also become the foundation for the evolving new partnership between Africa and the industrialized countries of the world. Because of NEPAD, there now exists an Africa Action Plan that charts the future relationship between the G8 and Africa in terms of trade, aid and security.

Beyond just words and principles, Nigeria has become the key actor in pushing back efforts to undermine democratic progress in West Africa. In Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe, and most recently in Togo, Nigeria together with its allies in the Economic Commission for West Africa (ECOWAS) forced reversal of coups and the undermining of constitutional processes. Had these actions not been taken, NEPAD would have been only words on a page. Now these principles are a part of reality.

Finally, Nigeria has been playing a central role in resolving conflicts. Nigerians have paid a heavy price for peace, in the many lives lost and in the treasure expended in the peacekeeping operations of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Nigerians have not flinched from this responsibility. In Burundi, in Congo, and most recently in the Darfur region of Sudan, Nigeria dedicates peacekeepers, money, and time to end the terrible conflicts that have afflicted those countries. Today, it is Nigeria that is providing the leadership and the venue for the political talks that are critical to ending the tragedy in Darfur.

What this means for the subject we have been discussing these last three days is that the future of Nigeria’s democracy has repercussions far beyond Nigeria. Nigeria is very much a bellwether for the progress of democracy in Africa. Moreover, should the worst happen, should problems in the elections in 2007 lead to unrest and instability in Nigeria, the impact would be even greater, unsettling the region and weakening one of the most important forces for peace and progress on the continent.

Nigeria thus carries a heavy responsibility, first and foremost for its people but also for the continent. This is not new for Nigeria. And I know that Nigeria will not shy from the responsibility just as it has not shied away from the responsibilities I have already mentioned.

A Watershed Moment

This is a critical moment for Nigeria and indeed one that is exciting. The first major step on the restoration of democracy occurred in 1999 with the end of military rule and the election of a civilian government. The second, in 2003, was the election carried out under a civilian government. Now, the third and very significant one is the change in administration in 2007 called for in the constitution as the present administration completes its second and final term. If that is achieved successfully, with steady improvement in the electoral process, it will signify the institutionalizing of democracy in Nigeria and the underlying strength of the system.

That milestone would come along with the economic reforms that have been achieved under the current administration and which are in the process of being institutionalized. We have had the pleasure just two weeks ago of hosting the Nigerian Finance Minister, Madame Ngozi Okonjo-Iwaela, and members of her economic team. She outlined to audiences in New York and Washington the tremendous progress that has been made in establishing fiscal discipline, transparency in budget allocations, reforms of federal procurement and other steps to fight corruption, and a major commitment to a complete audit of the oil sector in accordance with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, in which Nigeria has now taken a leading role. The New York Times wrote following her visit that it was time to take a new look at Nigeria, one which recognized the real progress being made and the appropriateness of giving Nigeria strong international support.

But economic and political developments are linked and this is very much in the minds of international watchers. Economic development cannot be sustained in a dysfunctional political system. While Nigeria has passed two major political milestones, and much has been accomplished, there is concern over the balance of the process of transition. How much will both economic and political reform be institutionalized by 2007? The question is of course most of all important to Nigeria.

The Sources of Concern

In this conference participants have focused in particular on electoral reform. The causes of concern are clear. In spite of the historic milestones of the last two elections, the 2003 elections were marred by controversy, irregularities, and charges of fraud. Both Nigerian and international election observers documented violations of electoral law and other problems. In parts of the country there is deep bitterness over the process. This feeling places a greater premium on reform to be carried out by the government and parties. Putting it starkly, any candidate who wins in 2007 will have difficulty if the election results are not credible to the vast majority of Nigerians. Potential difficulties could range from growing apathy and lack of confidence in government to unrest.

Nigeria would also lose prestige in the eyes of the international community. Democracy has now become a dominant theme in international discourse. For my country, President Bush has made this objective the cornerstone of his international policies. The trend is however worldwide, with dramatic movements toward democracy in Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Nigeria does not want to nor should it be on the margins of this trend. Rather, for its own sake, and for its whole agenda with the international community, it should be a leader as it was in 1999.

In this conference the basic areas of electoral reform have emerged quite clearly. It is for others to define the specifics for addressing these needs, but the priorities are these:

  • Enhancing the independence and strengthening the capacity of the Independent National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (INEC). INEC must be seen as independent of partisan bias or control, even of the incumbent administration. That relates to the selection of its members, the autonomy of its budget, and the authority it exerts to enforce the election laws and regulations. These reforms must extend down through the state and local government level.
  • The system for counting and aggregation of votes must be made more transparent and verifiable.
  • There must be evidence of prosecution of violators. A climate of impunity will undo the best rules or regulations.

In carrying forward the reform agenda, many entities must be involved. Government has to take a leading role, making reform a priority and initiating the steps toward enhancing INEC’s independence and budget autonomy, the training of security services, and other official actions. But political party leadership is also critical. Party leaders, and the leading potential candidates for president and other positions, must come together and agree that they all have a stake in improving the system. Only by all pledging to work toward reform will the parties have the incentive to give up the reputed advantages of rigging. We had a workshop in the conference titled “competitive rigging.” What is needed is cooperative reform. The incentive for that should be clear. No winning candidate will have the leeway to rule effectively if the 2007 election is not credible.

Civil society has a crucial role, and it should be welcomed by both government and the parties. Monitoring, training, assistance, and voter education are all roles civil society can and must play. Without that watchdog role, democracy does not function, not in my country nor any other.

The need for action on all these fronts is urgent. There are only two years to the next election. The reforms that are required to make that election a success will take time and a great deal of effort. It is a time for leadership.

A Time for Leadership

In the past few days, even as we heard of the issues and the possible solutions, a current of pessimism, indeed cynicism ran through the conference. Many participants, more often in private conversations than in open discussion, confided that they felt the obstacles to reform were in fact too deeply ingrained to be overcome—ingrained in the culture, in the winner take all attitude of the parties, in the drive for wealth that comes so much in Nigeria from public office, in the apathy of voters, in the corruption of the system, in the weakness of the security services and the judiciary. So many obstacles, so difficult a challenge. It was almost too easy to give up.

But one wise participant, who indeed had articulated these difficulties most convincingly, then said there was a way to break through. How, we asked? By great leadership, he said. Truly great leaders, those who could see beyond the shorter term gains from the present system, those who could see to the future and the needs of the state and the Nigerian people in the years ahead –such leaders could break through. They could initiate the process of reform, they could mobilize supporters, they could make progress.

We have seen such leaders elsewhere. Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Ernesto Zedillo in Mexico, Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic. Indeed we have seen them in Nigeria’s past—the magnanimous policy of reconciliation after the civil war, the passage to elected rule in 1979, the agreement to end military rule in 1999. These were historic steps by which Nigerian leaders moved the country away from crisis and internal bitterness to unity and democracy.

I have no doubt that such leadership exists in Nigeria today. We have already seen it in courageous economic reforms, a potential legacy of far reaching significance. We have seen it among politicians and civic leaders who have broken with the patterns of the past, and have spoken out for reform. President Obasanjo has put the issue of electoral reform along with many others before the recently convened National Political Reform Conference.

What a legacy for the future lays ahead for this generation of leaders! A legacy of both political and economic restructuring that places Nigeria on an unerring path toward greater stability, greater democracy and desperately needed economic development. A legacy that will be recognized around the world for the courage, the principles, and the contribution of those who have made it possible. With such a legacy, Nigeria will continue to be a leader. And the continent and the world will be safer and better for it.

Electoral reform may sound pretty small within such a grand vision. But electoral reform is the key, the opening up the political system, the means for restoring hope and confidence to the Nigerian people. I salute Nigeria and its leaders for their recognition of this fact and their readiness to undertake it.

More on This Topic

Must Read

NYT: Nigeria's Promise, Africa's Hope

Author: Chinua Achebe

Nigerian author and Brown University professor, Chinua Achebe, writes an op-ed piece in order to "restore the postcolonial dream of political...