American Culture

Nigeria, or the idiots guide to stealing an election

In 1492 Rodrigo Borgia, a Spanish cardinal, is said to have bribed all his rivals the equivalent of millions of dollars in order to become Alexander VI, the 215th Catholic Pope. In comparison to Nigerian elections, he got in cheap.

Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua is rumoured to have spent more than US$ 100 million securing his election as president. Most Nigerians had an inkling he would win as he never bothered campaigning.

“His victory was like Maradona’s Hand of God goal that allowed Argentina to win their 1986 quarter-final World Cup match against England. When Yar’Adua won he said, ‘Don’t blame me for winning, I didn’t declare myself president.’ Maradona cheated, but the referee was the one who allowed it.”

Father Matthew Kukah is an engaging speaker. He has been a member of Nigeria’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was part of the commission that investigated their electoral system, and is the vicar-general of the Catholic Diocese of Nigeria. And he is in Cape Town to give his impressions of the recent election.

“It has massively expanded the vocabulary of Nigerians,” he laughs. “Everyone is learning new words: the election was a ‘charade’, it was ‘fraudulent’. Everyone has bought into the belief that these were the worst elections in Nigerian history. Which is why it is interesting that (South African) President Thabo Mbeki was the first to declare the elections free and fair and to congratulate Yar’Adua on his success. I don’t know what he sees that we don’t. Comparisons with Zimbabwe will not be mentioned,” he laughs again.

Kukah was alluding to Zimbabwe’s dictator, Robert Mugabe, who, after stealing the last pretence at elections in his country in 2003, received South African observers and ministers who also declared him freely elected. South Africa has abandoned any interest in promoting democracy in Africa over creating the delusion of African unity.

And everyone wants to know, “What does this mean?”

At the end of 1998, for reasons it will take too long to explain, I was walking through the muddy, slushy and muggy central part of Mozambique attempting to get back to South Africa. I had fallen in with a group of Nigerians travelling without passports and also making the long trip south. Sunny, one of the chaps, was about seven foot tall and had a voice that made James Earl Jones sound like a whiny school-girl.

General Sani Abacha had recently died of what was being called a heart attack. The Nigerians laughed cheerfully at this. “No,” said Sunny, “he had made the other generals angry, so they put poison in his Burantashi (a native Hausa-Fulani virility drug) when he was with some prostitutes.” Then they continued in even more surprising fashion. “It’s like Saro-wiwa, he also upset the wrong people.”

Ken Saro-wiwa was a famous Nigerian novelist from the Rivers Province in Southern Nigeria. The province houses the Niger Delta and is the site of Nigeria’s oil wealth. They are one of the largest producers in the world yet more than half of Nigerians live in absolute poverty, below the UN’s measure of US$1 per day. Saro-wiwa created the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in support of the Ogoni’s demand for Shell, which has the concession for oil extraction in the delta, to distribute the wealth more fairly and to clean up their astonishingly messy operations there.

He, along with 12 others, was arrested and executed. Most, including myself, had always believed he had been killed because of his confrontation with Abacha.

The Nigerians considered this naïve. Hadn’t Saro-wiwa been a mainstay of the institution until then, hadn’t he been a popular television producer and local star? No, he would never have achieved such success without the support of the right people. He was stealing from them. They punished him.

I repeat this not to promote different versions of history but to indicate that, whatever else I may have learned about Nigerians, the most important is their love of drama, intrigue and conspiracy. Nigeria’s version of Hollywood, Nollywood, is the third largest producer of films in the world. Most of them are predictable stories along the theme of conspiracy, murder, drama, intrigue, happy ending.

So Father Kukah’s presentation is like a Nollywood movie.

My notes are a mess, but I’ve extracted what I can.

Nigeria is comprised of 36 states, 764 local councils, over 400 ethnic groups and is largely divided between Muslim north, and Catholic south. 140 million people live in this chaotic nation. And they have exactly one important industry. Oil.

It is owned by the government. Whoever owns the government owns the oil. And pockets all the money. Spending a few hundred million to secure that largess is nothing.

“And you don’t start campaigning right away. Whoever wins an election will get to serve both terms allowed under the constitution. No-one loses a second-term election,” says Kukah. “This allows candidates to spend a long time planning.”

When Abacha went the “right” people decided to bring Olusegun Obasanjo out of retirement to be president. Obasanjo had previously been a military dictator of Nigeria but handed over to the civilian government kicked out by Sani Abacha. The “right” people felt that Obasanjo would be easily pliable and easy to push out at the end of one term.

Obasanjo had different ideas. He filled the cabinet and all the provinces with supporters and went on to hold the country for a second term. Approaching the end of that term he called on Kukah to be secretary of a commission to investigate the Nigerian electoral code. Hundreds of lawyers spent months creating a massive document to ease fraud at the ballot and reduce confusion.

“But this was all a ruse,” says Kukah. “He wasn’t interested in reforming the election process. Abacha wanted to stand for a third term and change the constitution.” But here everything fell apart. Nigeria’s parliament rejected that proposal and, for good measure, all the hard negotiated plans for electoral reform.

“The election was not stolen on election day,” says Kukah. “Box stuffing, intimidation, violence, voter roll fraud, killings … these are all symptoms. The election was stolen right from the beginning.”

Obasanjo started looking for a way to maintain power while not in government. His party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), called for applications. It cost US$ 35 000 merely to be considered to receive an application form to request permission to apply to become a candidate for the PDP. To win the right to contest the elections cost a fortune. It became a bit like venture capital. Shadowy figures would put up the money on condition that certain things be agreed in advance.

At the same time Obasanjo began the second phase of his machinations. The government appointed Financial and Economic Crimes Commission declared that they would publish a list of public figures guilty of corruption. Many of the most attractive candidates found themselves listed. This went to court.

“Court after court declared that the commission did not have the right to simply publish names. Investigations must be conducted by the courts, not appointed commissions. But it was done. The burden of proof was not necessary and many candidates were simply excluded.”

Then the last phase. “Poll after poll, organised by the PDP, declared that General Mohammadu Buhari and Umari Yar’Adua were neck and neck. By April 14 Nigerians were already traumatised and confused,” says Kukah.

Yet one of the most popular candidates, Vice-president Atiku Abubakar, was entirely neglected. Now he and Buhari are seeking to contest the election through the various electoral tribunals.

“How can you contest in the tribunals if the tribunals all belong to the government?” asks Kukah. “The tribunals tell us that Yar’Adua is good, but in what way? I’ve travelled in the state where he is senator, and it is no different than anywhere else in Nigeria.”

So, now what? Can anything beneficial come out of this election?

“Notice that the three candidates were all Muslims. I think that it is very encouraging that so many Catholics were prepared to help Muslims steal the presidency. It indicates that we are crossing our cultural divides,” says Kukah, possibly seriously.

“The legitimacy of the elections won’t come from the ballot; it will come from the actions. In one state the people went to the courts to have a senator who they accused of stealing an election removed. After three years the courts agreed, but then the people didn’t want him to go, because he’d done a good job. The real test will be whether there is electricity for more than four hours a day, whether there is sanitation, or running water. If Yar’Adua delivers this, then he will be a good president.”

Professor Laurence Schlemmer, a South African analyst of African politics, once said, “Africans are very sceptical of politics and politicians. They know that all politicians lie. So they are pragmatic and vote for the ones who tell the best lies. It is only in more developed countries that you react in shock when politicians sometimes don’t do exactly what they promised.”

Nigeria is a populous nation filled with creative and ambitious people. The only reason it remains poor is because of corrupt and venal politicians. With that much money up for grabs it is no wonder that fraud abounds. Whoever won the elections would have bribed their way into that position.

At which point, during question time, the agitated young man sitting to my left leapt to his feet and ranted on, “MOSOP and Shell in Ogoni Land … you are helping Shell … Ogoni people power … something in 1965 … again in 79 …” oh, hell, I give up.

I turned around. Suddenly the whole room was waving placards. Kukah looked worried. Perhaps the man has spent too long wondering in the corridors of power and some of the mud has splattered. Perhaps. But Nigeria is a chaotic soap-opera and everyone is related in some way to each other. The invective being shouted back and forth showed the incredible interconnectedness of the power-struggle.

Until one person’s success does not entirely infuriate another, leading to violence and repression, Africa will not stabilise and grow.

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6 replies »

  1. At a time when all kinds of prominent people are doing all they can to save Africa (Bill Gates, Bono, Oprah) I’m mindful of some more defeatist things I’ve read. Maybe it started several years back with Bruce Sterling’s ISLANDS IN THE NET, which makes the continent seem almost unsalvageable. Then more recently I read a piece – can’t recall where – by an African (I believe it was a white South African, but am not sure) whose thesis was about how incredibly cheap life is there. He went on for awhile, and eventually winds around to an impossibly dire conclusion: “Africa cannot be saved. Let it die.”

    I’m not sure what to think about those sorts of pronouncements, although to some extent you look at the size of the population, the morbidity and mortality stats, the associated health figures, and the economic realities and you realize you’re looking at a math problem. And not one with an easy solution.

    You’re the expert here, not me. So I’d love to pose the Great Big Question: can Africa be saved?

  2. Short answer, “tough love”. A significant amount of the problem is this aid-based mentality. No-one ever ended dependency by reinforcing it. Sometimes you just have to throw the kids out of the house and tell them to get on with it.

    Africa also has an astonishment of riches. This is usually followed by instability. I’m hopeful, but I think the future lies in disintermediating government. Cell phones create networks of information that governments can’t control. Internet gives them access to financial information and transactions. Plus, investment is everything.

    Go around governments, not through them.

    It amazes me, with all the anti-government feeling in Europe and America, that activists are always so keen to work with governments in failed states. Why?

    Oh, and invent something that replaces oil. You’ll be amazed at what that will achieve.

  3. Okay, I get that. Invest. Don’t give them fish, teach them how to fish. But a lot of what undermines Africa right now doesn’t automatically lend itself to investment/profit efforts – things like AIDS. So there has to be a humanitarian component, right?

  4. It’s plainer than “don’t give them fish, teach them how to fish” – I’m planning a lengthier post about this since I imagine that it will be of interest – but it is this: moral hazard.

    Any time you do something for another person you take a bit of their responsibility for doing it away from them. HIV/AIDS has consequences. Bad policy has consequences. Corruption has consequences.

    There’s an old saying, why do you hate me, what have I ever done for you? Do things for people and they start to hold you accountable for their mistakes.

    The World Bank and IMF are lenders of last resort. That means that you have already hideously fucked yourself by the time you get to these organisations and no-one else trusts you. Blaming the organisation giving you a grant for the fact that you did it to yourself is a bit like blaming your doctor for cutting your chest open and causing you pain as a result of your last fat-and-fries induced heart attack.

    The best thing for any incompetently governed nation is to realise that incompetence has consequences.

    You realise that the UK is still the largest cash donor to Zimbabwe? I haven’t noticed anyone thanking them for the largesse. Or it working.

  5. Hmmm. So, on the one end you have a fairly straight-up Darwinism, which tends to be fairly inhumane and immoral. On the other you have the pure charity impulse, which is counterproductive. Because obviously we want to cultivate self-sufficiency.

    Neither of those is terribly appealing, so we find ourselves looking at the middle and trying to find a line where you satisfy the humane requisite while at the same time sparking productivity. Here in the US there’s been talk for years about replacing welfare with “workfare,” which is designed to get those in need the resources they have to have while at the same time helping them contribute, pay their way, etc. You can argue what’s really going on here a couple of ways, as you’d imagine.

    I’m really sympathetic to the principle you’re talking about – anyone who has ever had to borrow money to pay the bills knows the difference between that feeling and the feeling of supporting yourself. I’m guessing your promised post will look at that hypothetical line I’m wondering about?