Two seemingly disparate events over the past week have made me realize where we are today in Nigerian politics and governance. The first is the rather “public” appeal for money to prepare the electoral petition courts launched by the President of the Court of Appeal, Judge Monica Dongban-Mensem. “The fund to prosecute the 2023 general election petition courts,” the appeals court president told her colleagues and the nation at an event marking the start of the 2022/2023 judicial year of the court, “has still not been unblocked. This becomes worrying as it may hamper the draft constitutions of the various tribunals and courts”.
The second is President Muhammadu Buhari’s “public admission” that one of his “most lasting legacies” will be a free and fair election next year. “As president,” our president told his peers at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week, “I have set the goal that one of the lasting legacies I would like to leave is to ‘entrench a free, fair and transparent process and credible elections through which Nigerians elect leaders of their choice’.
Inasmuch as some things seem normal but are not, these statements are actually a good indication of how Nigerian affairs have sunk. The President of the Court of Appeal, for example, is convinced – and she invites us all to be convinced – that the Petitions Courts are so important that failure to release funds for them will hamper the entire electoral process. But a truly serious electoral system should have little or no room for the courts. Where in the world, even in Africa, do people worry about electoral petition courts or funding the training of judges, judges and registration staff for them in an election?
By all means, the funds should be turned over to the court. But we need to be clear on two issues here. First, the electoral petitions courts occupy such an important place in our system because our politicians mainly deal with frivolities. Many politicians simply cannot accept defeat because they view elections as a matter of death or death, and if they cannot win on the ballot, then they must seek to overturn the popular will in court. . One of the most important tenets of democracy is that the losers in an election will easily accept defeat, provided the process is free and fair. Without it, democracy collapses.
But our politicians will insist on going to court even though it is clear that they have lost soundly at the ballot box. Moreover, as columnist Mahmud Jega once wrote, politicians who have lost elections go to court, not necessarily because they have sufficient evidence to challenge the integrity of the process, but because the fact to go to court is a strategic device to keep their supporters in line with the hope that there is something ahead of them. The real problem is therefore not the lack of funding for the courts but the indiscipline of our politicians.
Second, since at least 2011, the quality and integrity of our elections have improved markedly. This is evident by the fact that opposition candidates in presidential, gubernatorial, national and state legislative elections can now win elections in this country if they receive the most votes, unlike the period before 2011. INEC and its leaders do not get enough credit for this, but the results of recent gubernatorial elections in Edo, Anambra, Ekiti and Osun states speak for ‘themselves. In addition, as our elections have improved dramatically in quality and integrity, the number and duration of electoral petitions tribunals have also decreased significantly.
We may not have noticed it, but Nigeria is long past the kinds of post-election legal and judicial dramas we witnessed around 2003 and 2007, as the elections were generally free and fair. No court has overturned the results of a major election in Nigeria since 2011, and most of the petitions filed in the courts in recent years are nothing more than legal trivia designed solely to drag out the election and ensure that politicians feel good about themselves. This means that we should worry less about the electoral petition courts. Instead, we should care more about having to pay for the indiscipline of our politicians, which Judge Dongban-Mensem invites us all to do.
All of which brings me to President Buhari and his free and fair electoral legacy. Reading the president’s address to the United Nations General Assembly, you can almost feel the strategic efforts of his advisers to situate a free and fair election as an “enduring legacy” of his administration. In his speech, the President underscores his government’s commitment to the rule of law and favorably compares his oft-stated intention not to seek a “third term” to other African leaders who have done so, not to mention their nouns. He also highlights the efforts of his administration in promoting democracy and political stability in The Gambia and Chad over the past few years. All this is true and good for Nigeria’s image in the community of nations.
But they are far from having a lasting legacy. First, most of the credit for the enduring legacy of free and fair elections in Nigeria goes to the late President Musa Yar’adua who sparked the most sincere efforts to reform our elections, and to the leadership of the INEC from 2011 to date. who faithfully implemented and improved these reforms. It is true that President Buhari generally did not interfere with elections within his party and across the country. But if he deserves credit for that — and he does — it’s none more than what former President Goodluck Jonathan deserves for not interfering with the 2011 and 2015 elections.
More importantly, it is quite amazing that after nearly eight years in government, all the president claims as his legacy is free and fair elections. When President Buhari took office in 2015, free and fair elections were not much of an issue in Nigeria, although he helped improve and entrench them. Everyone knows what were and have remained the real problems. Poverty used to be a problem, but has only gotten worse since 2015. Unemployment was a huge problem, but it has only gotten worse. The ASUU strikes were a problem and the teachers are still on strike today.
Power cuts were a problem, but only slightly improved today. Roads were a problem in 2015, but eight years later the Abuja-Kano road remains unfinished, like many others across the country. Insecurity was a problem in 2015, but it still killed dozens of people in Zamfara and elsewhere in the past few days. Civil service dysfunction was a problem in 2015, but it was hardly worse than it is today. Corruption was a problem in 2015, and today a former Accountant General is accused of stealing over N100 billion. We can go on and on, but the point should be clear by now. These are the areas where a two-term president would like to leave a lasting legacy worthy of the name, whatever else he does with elections and the rule of law. And whatever else the government may claim, Nigerians know what the true legacies of this administration are and have been.