Missing PVCs, Moved Election Dates, and the Transformative Power of Inky Thumbs.

Photo: Fingerprint
Photo: Fingerprint

On February 6, the news arrived that the Council of State had rejected current President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s request for the postponement of Nigeria’s elections from the 14th and 28th of February, 2015 to the 28th of March, 2015. On the 8th of February, some of us either went to sleep or woke up with different news. The elections had been postponed. Oh, no they did not!?! Oh, yes, they did.

The farce that has ensued in the last two and half days would normally have me in stitches (I have a peculiar sense of humour) if this were not my country and the case was not so sad. Femi Fani-Kayode, the somewhat hard to stomach media director for President Jonathan’s party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), released a statement shortly after the announcement of the election-day shift, which stated at more points than one could count that the decision to move the election date lay squarely on the shoulders of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and its boss, Attahiru Jega. The lady doth protest too much, me thinks.

In the ensuing days, rumours have swirled around that Jega was to be sent on terminal leave. Jega has responded that under no circumstances will he be retiring his post. He has rebutted Fani-Kayode’s claims that the shift was a result of INECs own logistical failures, saying instead that he was under pressure from the security forces who maintained that they would not be able to secure the country on election day and needed a further six weeks to press ahead with their anti-terror offensive. Fani-Kayode has gone to press to call Jega a liar.

The lawyers have their claws out, with one member of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) suing INEC over the elections postponement. The lawyers already had their claws out last week as it began to be apparent that should the elections take place on the 14th, a significant number of eligible voters would be disenfranchised as many have not been able to collect their Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs). The PVCs were recently made to replace temporary cards and are a condition of voting. The fact that some citizens had attempted to collect their cards, which were then nowhere to be found was already going to be a cause of legal contention even before the postponement occurred. Never again in Nigeria will the acronym PVC be mistaken to mean cheap fake leather.

Meanwhile from a wealthy street in Ikoyi where opposition party strongman Bola Ahmed Tinubu lives, cries of unfair play ring out. Yesterday, Tinubu accused the PDP of attempting to intimidate him by placing soldiers in surveillance of his house on Bourdillon Road, Ikoyi.

What a spectacle. I don’t know that I would pay for tickets, the script is a little juvenile for my taste; and yet, this is what the political powers that be have made of the lives of their citizenry. This is the current state of politics in Nigeria. It is a farce. But it is also one that most countries in the world have either been in or in which they currently remain in some shape or form. It may be under the simple and painfully obvious guise of Nigeria’s current example or the more sophisticated version. Though, of course, those countries that adore employing the international finger wag would have us all burn our history books and believe otherwise.

This is not, under any circumstances whatever, to be used as an excuse to remove Nigerians from our crucial responsibility of forcing the political change our country sorely needs. It is simply to remark that since the 1648 treaties of Westphalia – which established the modern system of states into which we are all currently herded – was not adopted to put an end to hundreds of years of cupcake parties across Europe; and since its institution did not engender the cessation of a barbaric political feudalism and bloodshed for hundreds more years, it would be well to remind Nigerians to keep our focus on finding our own solutions to our own problems whilst the self-proclaimed leaders of apparently “free” worlds continue to pretend to clean historic stains off impeccably modern suits. In the words of the international relations theorist, Martin Wight, “all states and nations, even welfare states, have been built by struggle and war. Hence the radical ambiguity of a position like that of the Western powers after 1919, who after a successful career as burglars tried to settle down as country-gentlemen making intermittent appearances on the magistrate’s bench.”

Suffice to say, the State Department of the United States expression of disappointment at INEC’s moving of the election date and the U.S. ambassador’s to Nigeria, James Entwistle, calling on the contesting political parties to swear a pledge of non-violence to him – it appears I blinked and the roles between diplomatic missions and in-country powers had been turned around – has done little but to irk ordinary Nigerians. We have, by and large, paid these public exhortations little attention. And it is quite right that Nigerians care a great deal less about what any other country has to say about our society than what we ourselves profess to view.

Of course, at high diplomatic levels, this patronising posturing matters. But since Nigeria is not diplomatically important enough to the United States to afford Nigerian passport holders on U.S. bound flights the pleasure of not being uniformly flagged for full body, bag, and swab searches at every international airport, then what the State Department has to say about most things concerning our politics fails to register its relevance to most ordinary Nigerians. We simply wonder how, with its problems of ingrained structural racism, an astounding gun and drug problem, high levels of childhood poverty and malnutrition, rocketing obesity rates, not to mention the elephant military complex in the room, the United States manages to cock its eyebrows at the world without a single note of self-enlightened irony.

It is the incapacity of my own state to protect my basic human determination to physical, intellectual, and emotional survival that means that I have to be aware of the world around me. That I know anything about the United States or the United Kingdom or anywhere else for that matter, never mind having a working knowledge of their everyday societies, is a supreme testament to the failure of my country to cater to my needs and to all the potential that a God-given freedom ought to afford. And on the continuation of such a state of affairs, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

The notion that there is a Nigerian out there who will voluntarily make the decision on March 28 not to vote is one that ought to make the national blood run cold. Low voter turnout is usually only a feature of more economically advanced societies, where most people are mostly alright, most of the time. Most Nigerians are, most of the time, mostly suffering. That neither party has put up credible candidates from which to choose is an excuse I have heard in the last few weeks from both members of the middle and working classes. While staging a sit-in come the 28th of March is a tactic that could work in a different country at a different time by forcing emergency electoral rules that would cause both parties to select new candidates and re-run the election, that country is not Nigeria and that time in not now. Such a tactic would require a level of civil society organization rarely seen in these parts and a stable legal and electoral framework in which party “strongmen” had little sway. We have a ways to go.

Despite the fact that most experts and academics are well agreed that elections constitute merely the front face of democracy; despite the fact that democracy requires the verification of deeper features including the existence of a free and rigorous judicial and court system, a robust legislature, transparent property and business laws and regulations, and a stable civil bureaucracy among many other and less tangible things; still vast efforts continue to be dedicated to the study of elections and electoral politics and volumes spent on electoral models that surely ought to constitute an alternative remedy to insomnia. It is for good reason.

J.S. Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville are commonly noted for asserting that democracy was the best of a bad bunch. Aristotle is often lumped in as saying the same though he did not. For Aristotle, democracy was not an acceptable and euphemistic “tyranny” by the mass poor, it was, for him, a deviant and actual tyranny by other means. His advice for most societies was the adoption of what he called polity- a kind of mixture of a democratic and oligarchic regime type – rule by the rich and the poor, “of wealth and freedom.” Whether it is due to a lack innovative inspiration or of having reached the height of our cumulative cognitive ability, we are all here with democracy as our most favoured and most workable form of government, and for its basic function, elections, free and fair, must run.

But elections are not, and do not have to be, mere perfunctory exercises for the selection of figureheads, the policies of whom are already determined by forces beyond the gaze and outside the influence of the mass electorate. Up till 1868 in England, the electorate voted for men and not for parties. In the double member districts that once pervaded the English electoral system, most voters engaged in an activity called vote-splitting, whereby they would use the two votes afforded them by the electoral system on two different candidates from two different parties. By 1868, the electorate stopped splitting its votes and citizens began using both votes on a single party. Not only did this change the electoral system itself into a single vote system but it has become a plausible explanation for the strength of the party system in the United Kingdom. And so emerges the phrase, an Englishman would ‘vote for a pig if the party put one up.”

Many Nigerians have remained resolute in the face of the disgraceful display by the political class over the last few days. While they are unimpressed that they will have to face another six weeks of loud and invasive party campaigning as yet more rallies and campaign buses further enhance already trying traffic jams on the mainland, many are unperturbed by the delay. They will vote and nobody will stop them. Bravo. However, should this display of a remorseless idiocy by the Nigerian political class go so far as to remove Attahiru Jega from his post, then not only should we be perturbed but we should be vehemently and unshakably opposed. For while the purpose of elections might be to stay the hand of political forces from moving beyond the parameters set by the populace, and while on a good day the convening of elections might even drastically shift the entire political landscape so that it may be known to all that governments did not found societies, it is societies that called governments into existence, the transformative power of elections, whatever their scope, is of no consequence without a most rudimentary framework in which the head of the country’s INDEPENDENT electoral body is not manipulated, threatened, or  in any other way prevented from doing his job; and is himself protected from having to be engaged in, and with, malign political forces.



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