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Abati: Are Nigerians ready to fight for democracy?

THE point has been made elsewhere that the enthusiasm and passion that Nigerians have shown in the course of the current voters’ registration are proof positive of their commitment to democracy and their willingness to defend their freedom. In the light of fresh revelations, however, is this really the case? Is there something more fundamental to the exertions that we have seen across the country that needs to be deconstructed beyond surface indications?  It would appear that surface realities mask subterranean truths more particularly in this case. Anyone looking at the voters’ registration exercise would immediately conclude that the average Nigerian is an apostle of democratic governance. Before the one-week extension, there were reports of persons arriving at the registration centres as early as one am. Would-be voters in Lagos, Abuja and elsewhere chose to sleep at registration centres! Some didn’t get registered until after days of trial and failure, and hundreds never got a chance at all. Security officials who had been deployed to maintain the peace began to issue tally numbers to persons on the queue and the people willingly paid for the slips.

Where there was no electricity, and this was nationwide, poor voters brought out their small generators (the type popularly known as I-better-pass-my-neighbour) and gave them to INEC officials free of charge. Landlords converted their compounds and living rooms to registration centres without demanding any rent. In many states, those who felt they were being disenfranchised organised public protests, including women in hijab insisting on their right to wear the hijab. Has anyone thought of how the process could be easily compromised by women in veil whose identity cannot be properly established? In Ikorodu, pregnant women collapsed while queuing up to be registered.

In many places, physical combats broke out on the registration queue, with the most dramatic being the photograph of two young ladies who fought over tally number in Gwagwalada, Abuja. The pictures (front page, National Mirror and The Nation, Friday, January 28), showed one of the ladies trying to pull off the other’s blouse and strip her naked. The photographer didn’t wait for the blouse to be prised loose before clicking the shutter (very unprofessional!)  or may be the editors deprived us of the more telling exposure for reasons of decency. Why would anyone risk going nude for democracy? In so many other places, would-be voters threatened to beat up registration officials for arriving late. They even offered money, food and other incentives to the officials to motivate them to do their work. On the surface, this shows determination, love of democracy, altruism and patriotism. But maybe not.

It is important to check the demographics of the people who seem to be desperate for democracy.  These are mostly poor, struggling people, whose interest in the voters’ registration exercise may be driven not by commitment or patriotism, but fear and opportunism. The people are desperate to register, they are willing to fight to get a tally number and even pay for a voter’s register, not because they want a particular candidate in power, but because they are afraid of what they will lose if they do not register. In many states, the state governments have made it clear that the failure to have a voter’s card could result in the loss of access to state-controlled privileges. In Ekiti state, civil servants have been told that those who do not get a voter’s card will not receive a salary at the end of the month.

In Bayelsa, the Governor told intending pilgrims, about 1, 000 of them, that if they cannot get a voter’s card, they could as well forget the idea of pilgrimage. Which is curious because pilgrimage is supposed to be a private affair and the state has no business meddling in religious affairs; rather, it should maintain the neutrality of the state.  In some other states, the threat has been subtler, but no less effective. People are afraid that if they do not register, their children may not be allowed to return to school, or their spouses may not be allowed to use public hospitals or their pensions may not be paid.  Who knows? The marriage registry could even ask for a voter’s card! Immunisation centres may do so, and spouses may be asked to show a voter’s card before they can be allowed to sleep in the same room with their partners!  

In a country where tomorrow is forever uncertain, persons who still depend on the state for services and opportunities are certainly not likely to take chances. They would rather lose sleep, dignity and money in order to protect themselves. They know that the Nigerian state can be cruel, and that it is.  Necessary measures have to be put in place to ensure that the people embrace democratic processes in Nigeria, not because they are afraid of reprisals, and not because they are protecting ethnic and religious interests,  but because they genuinely believe in the democratic process. The state’s emphasis should be on the people’s voluntary ownership not coercion or blackmail. Is it any wonder that the Nigerian middle class is entirely non-challant about the current voter’s registration exercise?  Most of the ladies who have been pulling at each other’s bras, and the men who have been having registration-queue erectile dysfunction, are all poor people who need the voter’s card as a means of relevance and advancement.

Members of the middle class have largely shunned the exercise, and the few who deign to show up at the registration centres consider it infra dig to pay for a tally number or to queue up for hours. The structural exclusion of that critical mass from the registration exercise automatically renders it ineffectual. Of what use is a democracy that is ignored by the country’s middle class? The Nigerian middle class is condescending perhaps because it has nothing to be afraid of: it is not under pressure to patronize public schools or hospitals, it is not in any way dependent on the state, and so its members can afford to ignore the state and its processes.  Where the tragedy lies is that there are many in the Nigerian middle and upper middle classes who may not even be aware that a voters’ registration exercise is taking place in the country: they belong to a class of local aliens who do not read local newspapers nor do they watch local television, and who do not care who wins a Nigerian election.

It may be added that a bulk of the voters’ registration enthusiasts are not animals of fear but opportunism: in this category, we locate those who are selling and receiving and buying at the registration centres because for them everything Nigerian is a “business”, that is an opportunity to make quick profit, and the voters’ registration exercise looks like a good business.  Here you would find the security men who have turned the exercise into an opportunity for the sale of tally numbers, the touts who sell positions on queues, and the would-be voters who are desperate to get a card so they too can sell it when it is election time. The latter reason explains why there have been reports of double registration, with people travelling from one state to the other to register, convinced that INEC is so disorganized and its machines so weak, their impunity cannot be detected. Politicians, for example, are said to be monitoring the process and they are already buying up the cards ahead of election week.  State governments are also bribing INEC officials openly and claiming that this is “African hospitality”. Where are the intelligence agencies, then? What have they done or are doing to check this blatant a priori rigging of the 2011 general elections? There is an inherent paradox that the country lacks 24-hour power supply, and those who provide electricity to electoral agents can be freely opportunistic. The question of citizenship has also not been fully addressed; hence voters’ registration only offers a random sample of people living in a particular area.

If Nigerians are incensed by the poor performance of the last 12 years, they have been relatively restrained, but the temper for outrage could be ignited explosively. In Iran, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, and Egypt, we have seen how people’s rebellion could be triggered by seemingly ordinary circumstances. There has been a copy cat outbreak of people’s revolt in Gabon also in the last two weeks, which all African leaders should note carefully.  It may be said that people’s revolt is not unknown in Nigeria but it is noteworthy as an example, that the struggle against military misrule in Nigeria, 1993 – 1999,  was in its resolution (content and outcomes) treated more as an ethnic dilemma rather than an ideological, principle-based issue.

There are lessons to be learnt from the kind of protest that is on-going in the Middle East for it is in reality, a people’s earnest demand for change. Unfortunately, the Nigerian power elite has lost sight of the more basic lessons. The current voters’ registration exercise is being conducted under the veil of ethnic and religious objections. The country is practically divided with regard to the choice of Presidential candidates, especially in the ruling party. Efforts need to be made now to ensure that the battle over the April polls will not be about ethic or sectarian differences, but democracy as an ideal. The present seeds of religious and ethnic polarisation may prove to be far more destructive than envisaged.  What we need clearly is not an electorate that is ritualistically enthusiastic about voters’ registration, out of fear or opportunism, but an electorate that is determined to defend its freedoms. Nigerians like events and episodes. Every event in their lives is a festival to which they are willing to devote maximum energy. But if the people are truly interested in democracy and its ideals, they should at all times carry a banner for human freedoms, which are under major assault in the country.

By this, I mean that the kind of passion that we should seek is an electorate that is ready and willing to ask questions beyond the value of the voter’s card in their possession. This is the surest antidote against the constructive omissions at the heart of the Nigerian democracy. Nigerians show much interest during voters’ registration and elections but thereafter they go to sleep. They all admit and conclude that the public arena is for people who want to steal nor do they feel compelled to expose same. The middle class that is supposed to do so is so disenchanted it cares only about its continued survival. Whereas, a vibrant electorate has a duty to monitor electoral outcomes and their ancillary consequences and insist on the people’s votes being made to count. That is the next level for Nigeria. By now, there should have been protests on the streets over the killing of innocent people, with political affiliations in Borno state. 50% of the Senate members have lost their tickets and close to 80% of the Federal House of Representatives members will not return.

Nigerians should be dancing in the streets. These are the same lawmakers who earned more money than the work that they were doing on behalf of the Nigerian people. The Nigerian electorate appears disconnected and it is why the enthusiasm on the voters’ registration queue, cannot be easily taken as a positive indication at face value. There is no real democracy where the people are driven by fear and opportunism. The operational reality of conducting an election in April has been compromised in too many ways at this pre-election stage.  INEC must be willing to do a proper audit of what has gone wrong, with a view to learning necessary lessons.

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Posted by on Jan 30 2011. Filed under Columnists, NNP Columnists, Reuben Abati. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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