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On the Brink of Democracy

Nigeria is a confusing country for the stranger, and the situation only gets worse when you start looking at politics. 

As such I’m not going to try and give you a nicely crafted or rounded account of the recent elections, but instead just subject you to a mildly filtered version of the blizzard of information, misinformation and rumour that is the current groundstate here.

Let’s start with statistics, which are both incredibly informative and wildly unreliable.  The population is quoted as anywhere between 140 and 160 million – with the huge margin for error possibly accounted for in a few ways.  Firstly, I have been told that when the census was carried out in Lagos, everyone was given time off, which meant that huge numbers headed home to visit family, making the final count a huge underestimation.  Secondly, the formula which decides the distribution of oil money between states is decided using (amongst other things) population levels, meaning that there is a massive incentive for each state to claim a higher population than it in fact has.  Thirdly, the huge level of poverty (around 65% live below the poverty line) and the large rural population mean that there are masses of people that it is difficult to account for, or access. 

The recent violence that has erupted during the elections reinforces this last idea, with the numbers of dead and wounded not announced, primarily so as not to inflame further tension (or, I believe, make the government look bad), but also because many deaths go unreported, with corpses whisked away for burial, and the attention of the authorities scrupulously avoided.

Nigeria is, whatever the actual figure, undoubtedly the most populous nation in Africa, in the top ten most populous nations in the world, and one of the biggest global producers of oil.  97% of state revenue comes from this source, and one of the Wikileaks documents revealed Shell boasting that they had employees or suborned officials in every level of government.  This huge cash cow could be milked even more severely if Nigeria had a single functioning refinery.  As they do not, all oil is exported, before the refined product is re-imported.  The possibilities a functioning system of refineries would open up are huge in scope, and it’s crazy how often there is a petrol shortage in a country that is literally swimming in the stuff.

The country’s leaders are supposed to have swindled $440bn from the state since 1970.  This is only an estimate, and presumably doesn’t take account of the corruption that has leeched money away via “legitimate” public sector contracts.  As an example, 1.5 billion naira was voted for the establishment of 5 polytechnics in Delta state about 10 years ago.  Of this, only 10% made its way to the project itself.  And this was a project that was declared to be “not business as usual”.  

The flat I live in in Abuja had never been occupied before I moved in.  This despite it being able to command a rent of nearly £20,000 per year.  Apparently, this is a common problem, and the city has a chronic and acute accommodation problem.  One explanation I’ve been offered for this is that building property is seen as a safe and legitimate way to “park” illegally obtained cash – and the owners then don’t care about renting them out, because that was never their intention in the first place.  

Abuja is also littered with half finished or barely begun structures.  Often these are the result of public sector contracts where the payment kicks in at a certain point in construction, and once that point is reached, the building is simply abandoned.  There’s one in my neighbourhood where large chunks routinely fall off into the street below – but who’s going to take any action?

This is just a part of the backdrop against which this month’s elections have taken place, then.  A country with huge potential, not just from oil revenue, but from mineral resources that haven’t even been investigated, let alone tapped, and a pool of human labour that currently lies largely stagnant.  The public education system has all but collapsed, meaning that over 1 million students graduate secondary school each year with university level qualifications, but with nowhere to study.  Those that do get in take any degree course they can, simply to get a certificate, and the system itself is so compromised as to be effectively meaningless.  Staff are on strike half the time, students routinely bribe their way through, and lecturers commonly expect sexual favours in exchange for grades.   

The JAMB (Joint Accreditation and Matriculation Board) test, equivalent to SATs, that all students have to take before they can attend university, is specifically designed to be as hard to pass as possible.  It includes questions that, according to the Nigerian University Commission’s own regulations, students should not have studied until their second year at undergraduate level.  This is the solution to there not being enough places at university.

But despite, or perhaps because of all these problems, there’s a huge thirst for education, for opportunity, and to improve the country.  This same burning desire has been apparent in the elections, and these have been declared a huge improvement on the previous efforts in 1999, 2003 and 2007.  I think that is probably fair, but the spectacle as a whole is one that almost schizophrenically mixes hope for the future with howling despair.

Firstly, it’s worth noting how complex this whole procedure is.  Elections are split into 4 different ballots – for the House of Representatives, for the Senate, for the Presidency, and for State Governors.  Each of these votes takes place on a different day, usually a week apart, and on each occasion, in an attempt to reduce violence and unrest, the entire country is placed under curfew from 10pm the night before to 4pm on the day of voting.  This has been complicated further this time round by the first day of elections being postponed due to “logistical issues” with ballot papers and so forth being delivered.  Various conspiracy theories (as always) abound as to why this happened, but the end result has been extra days of curfew (and complete national shutdown) instituted at incredibly short notice.  

Secondly, there is the system of “indigenes”.  This goes against the Nigerian constitution, but doesn’t seem to be seen as a particular problem.  Basically, you can only be elected in a state where you are an indigene.  And this does not mean the state where you live, or even where you were born.  It means the state where you father came from, and your father’s father, and your father’s father’s father and so on.  And no matter how many generations live and are born somewhere else, they will remain indigenes of that arbitrary distant ancestor.   Jay Jay Okocha, the famous Nigerian footballer, for example, is claimed as the favourite son of a town he’s never lived in in his life, because that’s where his father is from.  And many administrations won’t employ anyone who isn’t an indigene of their state, even if they’ve lived there their whole lives and are better qualified for the job than the guy who was born and grew up hundreds of miles away, doesn’t know his arse from his elbow, but is one of us.  

This also means that many people have to travel hundreds of miles if they want to vote.  It is possible to register in a new state, but most people don’t bother. 73 million people registered to vote this time round, so you can imagine the scale of movement we’re talking about here. But again, no one seems to know how many actual voters there are.  I heard one radio station speculate that the official figure included up to 10 million “phantom” voters, with one state registering more voters than it had actual people, but it seems impossible to tell.  You use your thumbprint to vote here, but when challenged on ballot stuffing in one area here, INEC (the Electoral Commission) said they didn’t have the resources or the ability to check the thumbprints on the ballot slips anyway.

PDP have dominated politics here since the end of military rule in 1999, and before this election, their power in all areas of government was almost total.  But there were some predictions that this could change this time round, both because they had broken their usual pattern of alternation, and were going with a southerner (Goodluck Jonathan) as presidential candidate, and because there was felt to be a real hunger for change. The main presidential challengers were Buhari and Ribadu.  Buhari (representing CPC) is a former military leader who ruled for 18 months in the early 80s, is famously anti-corruption, and massively popular in the north.  He ended up polling around 27% of the vote.  Ribadu is the former head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, represents ACN, and polled less than 10% of the vote.  Goodluck Jonathan polled over 57%.

There was some surprise at this figure, as in the first round of elections that preceded the presidential ballot, PDP had taken something of a kicking, losing many seats, and not just those that it was expected to forfeit.  In the wake of Godluck’s crushing presidential victory, both CPC and ACN have accused PDP of various offences, from fairly transparent vote-rigging (for example, wards recording 100% turnout, where 99.9% of the vote was for PDP), to outright intimidation and violent corruption.  Some of this is undoubtedly true, and the newspapers record these allegations and counter allegations without ever really being able to say who is right.  Often the politicians themselves will take out full page “advertorials” to accuse or rebuff accusations, and there are similar bouts of propaganda on the radio.

More tragically, the declaration of Goodluck Jonathan’s victory prompted a wave of violence, predominantly in the north, and in places where Buhari is immensely popular.  But it’s hard to know if this violence is purely a result of political or popular resentment at the result, or any corruption.  The places where the rioting was worst are already and always tinderboxes, with populations divided between Muslim and Christian, and much conflict ensuing.  Equally, I’ve been told (by someone running for Senate) that most candidates will routinely have a budget set aside to pay their supporters to revolt if they lose.  There’s also a rumour that the governor in Kaduna South, one of the worst hit areas, was so dismayed at PDP’s poor showing in the senatorial elections that he was looking to stoke things up as much as he could in order to muddy the waters and try to save his own skin.  There are also secular rivalries to take into account, and the not inconsiderable temptation for the poorest to simply take out their frustration at life in general, and have a good loot into the bargain.

The end result though, is hundreds dead, to go with those already killed in the violence that punctuated the build up to the elections, tens of thousands fled from their homes, and huge swathes of properties burnt and destroyed.  Tales of charred, mutilated corpses in the streets filter through, but not via any official news media.  There is much discussion of the violence in the papers and on the radio, but only in the abstract, or to report what one politician or another is saying to condemn the action, assert that it was or wasn’t pre-planned and so on.

Yet there is cause for some cautious optimism, and there are flickerings of it to be found in all parts of the population.  Jonathan’s victory means that he has a mandate for many of the laudable reforms he has promised, and even amongst supporters of rival parties the opinion seems to be that he is a good man, and sincere.  There is deep distrust of PDP and the men that surround him, but there is also a sense that a new generation is coming through, one which is less focused on personal gain (most are already wealthy, for a start) and can see the need to break the current cycles of corruption and waste.

One of the new breed often invoked is Babatunde Fashola, the governor of Lagos.  He’s seen as having “transformed” that insane city, and is known as a principled and upright politician.  There’s a general sense that if he can make an impact on Lagos, he can succeed anywhere.  A group of twenty-something Nigerians I spoke to before the elections (all rich, all UK educated) felt that he was the hope for the future, and that he would be elected president in 2015 or 2019.  They also predicted that 2019 would be the first properly non-corrupt election the country would see, and that by then the younger generation of voters would have had a chance to take over.

I really hope they are right.  Because at the moment the corruption here is so endemic as to be an almost unchallenged part of life.  Yet, alongside this acceptance is a deep, and understandable resentment of the way that this makes the rest of the world see Nigeria.  People don’t want to be famous as a nation of internet scammers and lazy bribe extorters, even if there’s nothing they can do about it on a personal level.  

Social media, whose role has been massively overplayed in some Western reports I’ve read on Nigeria, has started to make a splash here, with, for example, half a million people following Goodluck Jonathan’s Facebook page.  At the moment this is under-developed for any real activist purpose (witness a quaint article in last week’s This Day earnestly telling people that they honestly weren’t going to die if they didn’t forward on that chain email to ten people in the next hour), but the potential is there.  

In fact, that serves as a summary of the whole crazy situation.  The potential is there – in the people, in the wealth of the nation, in the developing communication networks, in the fact that the media is free and reasonably fair, if of a largely mediocre standard at present.  The potential is there, and even if the dream of a properly democratic election hasn’t quite been realised this time round, steps forward have been made.  Millions of people queued for hours to make their voices heard, there is the possibility of coherent opposition for the first time, and if Goodluck Jonathan lives up to even some of his word, then Nigeria will be on its best footing in decades by the time 2015 comes around.  

You have to hope this comes to pass, otherwise all the death and displacement has truly been for nothing, and the cycle of violence and retaliation will begin all over again.  Nigeria, and the Nigerians, surely deserve better than that.  But it’s a stretch to believe they’re going to get it any time soon.

Image: africa / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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