History of elections in Nigeria from independence

The history of democratic elections in Nigeria especially ones that would be adjudged and accepted by the electorates as free and fair had always been a problem in the country.

In 1960, shortly after Nigeria’s independence there was a transition from the colonial rule to the country’s first ever election process.

However it is common knowledge that Nigeria’s electoral process has persistently come short the glory of what the electoral process should mean for a democratic society.

Nigerian electoral history has not been a pleasant one. Nigerians have participated in many elections, beginning with the colonial era when the concept of elections was first introduced. The electorate has also grown from about 5,000 adults with 100 pounds sterling income per annum as qualification to be eligible to vote, to over 90 million voters of 18 years of age and above.

Since its attainment of independence in 1960, Nigeria has been tormented by political instability fueled largely by an electoral process in crisis. The country and her leaders have refused to learn from history and avoid the pitfalls of past mistakes in order to pave the pathway for a secure political future.

Instead, the electorates and politicians alike have continued to perpetuate the worst forms of our political processes characterized by ugly incidents of political thuggery and violence, electoral malpractices both at political party level and general elections, unending law suits, crisis of legitimacy, instability and chaos.

Over the period of Nigeria’s existence as an independent nation-state, all these negative attributes of her political processes have often provided compelling reasons for military adventurists to seize power from its civilian collaborators.

The problems associated with the first post independence national election of 1964 and the 1965 Western Region election culminated in the January 15, 1966 coup. The former was characterized by wide spread rigging, intimidation and chaos that some of the major political parties decided to boycott the election, creating in its aftermath serious constitutional dilemma. The latter election of the Western Region was also marred by the problem of massive rigging and other irregularities plus wide spread violence, giving the impetus for the first military coup in Nigeria and the culture of instability that was to beset the country for over three decades.

Other elections that have taken place in Nigeria after the 1964 and 1965 elections have not fared better. The 1979 elections that saw the emergence of Mallam Shehu Shagari as Civilian president was criticized by international observers as having been massively rigged. The 1983 election, four years later was even worse, marred by corruption, political violence and polling irregularities; it provided another set of military adventurers the impetus to seize power on December 31, 1983, citing electoral malpractices as one of its reasons for overthrowing the civilian government.

The 1999, 2003 and 2007 elections, three elections conducted during this period of ten years of Nigeria’s democracy have been lampooned by many critics as far from free and fair. In fact, the election of April 2007, conducted by the existing electoral body, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) under the leadership of Maurice Iwu has been described as the worst election ever held in this country as a result of indescribable irregularities which marred the elections.

Perhaps the freest and fairest election in the history of Nigeria was the June 12, 1993 election that was annulled by General Ibrahim Babangida, erstwhile self styled military President of Nigeria.

Unfortunately, the country was deprived of the opportunity of taking advantage of this successful achievement to launch itself on the road to true democracy by a greedy and rabid political and military class interested in perpetuating itself in power. The vital lesson though from this experience, is that a sound electoral process is dependent on having a solid democratic infrastructure in place and vice versa.

The electoral bodies had changed since 1983 from Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) to National Electoral Commission (NEC) to INEC. In spite of appointing eminent jurists and supposedly credible people as heads of these bodies, the elections most of the time had been flawed. But that is not to say that there had not been free, fair and peacefully conducted elections in Nigeria. They were those held in 1959, 1979, 1993 and 1999, while the most chaotic, violent and disputed were those in 1964 and 1983.

According to Dr. Festus Iyayi, in a paper delivered at the Nigerian Bar Association conference held in Abuja in 2004: “The reason for this is that the first three were ‘transition’ elections, in which the regimes in power and responsible for organising the elections had to hand over power to a democratic civilian administration.

“In contrast, the other elections can be viewed as potential ‘consolidation’ elections, in which an elected civilian government was responsible for organising elections to hand over power to a successor administration.”

The Abubakar Abdulsalami military regime that midwifed the Transition Program to the third republic that ushered in the present democracy hurriedly put together a new constitution, defined a new electoral process for the country and inserted the word “Independent” into the name of the electoral body and renamed it Independent National Electoral Commission, granting the Commission powers to register political parties and conduct elections.

The rest they say is history as the performance of the Independent National Electoral Commission has shown that it is everything but independent. Electoral mayhem, violence, polling irregularities and various forms of inconsistencies have again brought pressure on the Nigerian government and its political class to offer remedial action to our electoral problems.

After his election, President Umaru Yar’Adua succumbed to popular pressure and “conceded that a robbery had indeed taken place” with the elections that brought him to power. Politics is not warfare.”

African literary icon, Professor Chinua Achebe, on his historic return to the country after 19 years of self-exile, expressed his disappointment with the electoral system in Africa. In a remark made in the presence of the Chairman of INEC, Professor Maurice Iwu, Achebe said “I must confess very profound disappointment with what is happening on the African continent….The idea of a civilised society is one where power is transferred willingly because the law is there but somehow in Africa we still have not learnt that simple but profoundly important fact; that unless you have a process that makes succession easy, even friendly that even opponents can smile, unless we get there, we still have a very long way to go.

Achebe’s comments came in tandem with the feelings of many Nigerians who remain skeptical about the sincerity of late President Umaru Yar’Adua and his PDP government to true electoral reforms in Nigeria; and their skepticism is not without reason. President Yar’Adua in his response during the submission of the NERC report to him said his government would do everything within its powers to ensure that the recommendations are fully implemented in order to usher in a credible electoral process in the country.

However, later events have created serious doubts in the minds of observers of Nigerian political process of where exactly the government is headed.

One of such events was the President’s feeble response to the botched Ekiti re-run election which was trailed by controversy and intrigues. The election itself was delayed by INEC due to security concerns over gang-related violence believed to be sponsored by some of the political parties. Then the Residential Electoral Commissioner, Mrs. Ayoka Adebayo, resigned her commission over an unwillingness to participate in a process that went “against her conscience,” but suddenly returned to her seat again after conferring with the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Nigeria’s election story can never be complete without mentioning the violent aspect that has since followed such elections since independence.

At independence, the country adopted a parliamentary system of government akin to the British type. The first post-independence election organized by that government led by Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa\President Nnamdi Azikiwe in 1964 and 1965 were characterized by widespread complaints of fraud, violence and intimidation. Protests in the wake of the regional elections, which in some areas degenerated into a violent exercise in competitive rigging, led to widespread violence and inter-communal rioting that claimed more than 200 lives.

Later in January 1966, the military struck and the fledging Nigerian democracy was thwarted by the action of its very own practitioners. From 1966, the military held sway until 1979 when they handed over to another civilian government headed by Alhaji Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN).

The Shagari-Ied government organized a civilian to civilian transition election but again like its First Republic counterparts, repeated history and massively rigged the 1983 general elections through very violent means in connivance with the election management body, Federal Election Commission (FEDECO) and security forces.

That again set the stage for the second wave of military intervention in the nation’s politics on December 31, 1983. The military from then remained in power until May 29, 1999 after, several attempts to democratize.

In between independence in 1960 and 1999 when civilian rule was restored, Nigeria produced only two elected governments and both were overthrown in military coup de’tats before completing a second term in office. In all, Nigeria’s military ruled the country for nearly 30 of its first 54 years of independence, excluding the three months of short-lived Interim National Government (ING).

Since the restoration of civil rule, attempts have not been made by politicians to deepen and strengthen democracy. Instead, Nigeria has only added to its history fraudulent and violent elections. The 1999, 2003 and 2007 general elections that brought President Olusegun Obasanjo and later late President Umaru Yar’ Adua to power were marred by such widespread violence and fraud.

For example, the US-based Jimmy Carter Centre for Democracy which monitored the 1999 election as an international observer concluded its report on the outcome of the presidential election like the others before it thus: “It is not possible for us to make an accurate judgment about the outcome of the presidential election”. In the same vein, the 2003 elections were more pervasively and openly rigged than the flawed 1999 polls, and far more bloody.

These events set the stage for the 2007 elections which both domestic and foreign observers succinctly described as the worst in Nigeria’s history ranking among the worst conducted anywhere in the world in recent times. For instance, the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) stated in its post-election statement that the electoral process “failed the Nigerian people”.

The Human Rights Watch (2007) which monitored the election in its report said the Nigeria’s failed April 2007 polls cast a harsh and very public light on patterns of violence, corruption and outright criminality that have come to characterize Nigeria’s political system-and on the extent to which officials and institutions at all levels of government accept, encourage and participate in those abuses.

The 2007 and 2011 general elections had come and gone with some cases still in courts, Nigerians .are afraid of future elections especially the 2015 elections that is holding today.

It is true that electoral violence has characterized our political elections since independence. This trend can be reversed only if we can change our mindsets on what politics and governance is all about.

Politics should not be conceived as the most lucrative industry in Nigeria. It is this mindset that makes aspirant or political office seekers to exhaust “all means” in capturing the position. It should be seen as a service to humanity and protecting the lives and the welfare of our prosperity.

The 2011 election was also culminated into violence that initially started with widespread protests by supporters of the main opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), following the re-election of incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, who was the candidate for the ruling People’s Democratic Party.

The protests snowballed into violent riots or sectarian killings in the northern states of Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Niger, Sokoto, Yobe, and Zamfara. Relief officials estimate that more than 65,000 people have been displaced.

The April 2011 presidential election has no doubt further divided the country along ethnic and religious lines. Electorates now vote candidates based on sentiments of religion or ethnicity rather than pedigree, conviction, or a political party’s manifesto that spells-out what the candidate would ensure done when elected.

As results from yesterday’s presidential and National assembly elections may have started to trickle-in it is still not clear to whether this year’s election would culminate into another frenzy of violence considering the keen contest involving the duo of PDP presidential candidate, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan and his erstwhile rival from the APC, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari.