Truth to power

Truth to power

Nigerians defy violence and bad technology in chaotic election

Standing up, being counted. EPA/STR

The 2015 elections in Nigeria were chaotic, but the country’s voters displayed immense courage in showing up at all. More than 20 people were killed, not in electoral violence between competing parties but by gunmen who didn’t want the elections to happen at all. A further 23 were rumoured beheaded on the eve of the vote.

But even in the troubled north of the country, people stubbornly queued for hours to participate in an exercise that they hoped against hope would not be rigged or violated.

Past elections in Nigeria have been marked by vast and brazen bribery and corruption. Parties and presidential candidates who had not cared for their constituencies suddenly reappeared to bestow lavish gifts on voters and officials alike – an unedifying spectacle of civilian democracy that still seemed preferable to the decades of military rule that had gone before.

But not every military ruler was a tyrant. The presidencies of Generals Gowon, Olusegun Obasanjo, and current candidate Muhammadu Buhari were dictatorial, yes – but in many ways, they were also aimed at reinvigorating a divided nation.

Technical hitch

Today, there seems to be an evolution underway. Nigeria’s corrupt governors will still steal, but they’ll also very conspicuously and publicly endow vast public works both with safeguarded public funds, and with their “own” funds which they acquire. It’s a best of both worlds scenario, where one both steals from the state and is praised for helping the poor with the resources one stole.

Both tendencies are on full display at these elections, but it is unlikely there will be any outright theft of the results. Instead, those who voted found a spectacle of monumental inefficiency and technological confusion.

In an effort to safeguard the vote and count against rigging, the electoral commission introduced one of those longwinded processes that’s too clever by half: prior registration got each voter an electronic voting card, complete with scanned fingerprint. At the polling station, one had to insert the card into something that resembled a credit card machine; the card was verified, and then one’s real fingerprint was also scanned by the machine and compared with the electronic version.

Goodluck Jonathan casts his vote – or tries to. EPA/George Esiri

Many of these machines simply didn’t work properly. Even Jonathan himself ended up waiting nearly an hour for his fingerprint to be verified; it never was, and he had to come back to be processed manually.

Slow to catch on

Adding to the confusion, it is close to impossible to distinguish the policies of the two leading candidates.

Goodluck Jonathan has an appalling track record, and his insouciance has embarrassed Nigeria around the world.

In the face of Boko Haram’s atrocities, he barely seemed to understand his country was in dire peril. He seems genuinely not to have cared about the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls, thinking at first the whole thing was a stunt pulled by his northern political rivals.

In fact, in its first incarnation some years ago, Boko Haram did involve northern politicians seeking leverage, but they have been left behind as the group has morphed. Jonathan did not realise until late in the game that what was afoot was an attempt to carve a separate nation out of Nigeria – not a conventional state, but a Nigerian edition of a caliphate.

He also seems to think that corruption is natural in Nigeria. Instead of taking the chance to tackle it, he sacked the internationally acclaimed central bank governor Lamido Sanusi for daring to complain about malfeasance.

One would think that Jonathan would want Sanusi’s support and advice. Here is someone who can command respect while speaking to both modernity and tradition, who has international support, and who can claim to understand how a financial capital like Lagos in the south actually works – but no.

Man of the north

By contrast, Buhari is an austere man. He seems relatively free from corruption, at least by the standards of Nigeria’s candidates. He is not the first military ruler in civilian clothes: Obasanjo became a civilian president years after his military rule came to an end, and his tenure went well. But Buhari may not be as open to new ideas.

Good luck. EPA/STR

Buhari is also very much a man of the north, and although he has strong organisational support from some southern governors, he may not have electoral support in the south. He has not declared a convincing agenda for the region – and not even for Lagos, Nigeria’s financial hub.

Meanwhile, while 70-year-old Buhari is not the face of a “new generation”, he has managed to muster a new movement behind him. He played his hand well to secure the nomination of the new All Progressive Congress (APC) party, which broke away from Jonathan’s PDP.

Governors and senators began defecting from Jonathan in astonishment at his ineptitude, and at the conceit that prevented him from realising how inept he was. Then, against all odds, they put aside their differences and came together in a single serious party.

This remarkable opposition unity is quite an accomplishment, and it shows that a government as poor as Jonathan’s will eventually become too much to bear. But the results are not in yet, and the violence and technical chaos of the election have made the state of Nigerian democracy plain to see.

And given the strange blend of great progress and terrible under-development over which Goodluck Jonathan has presided, it is perhaps fitting that his own fingerprint could not be verified when he tried to vote for himself.