Senator Nzeribe And Fixing Our Elections?—Kanayo Esinulo

Any time Nigeria is at the brink, cliff or about to go under, it could be traced very easily to elections or election-related matters. Every election since 1963 has led to one form of political problem or the other. It is either the opposition was forced to take the extreme measure of totally boycotting the election or the election results got cooked up, rejected and declared unacceptable. When the United Progressive Grand Alliance, UPGA, rejected the results of the 1964 general elections, Nigeria found itself at a critical crossroad. The 1993 presidential election whose result was already public knowledge and eventually annulled by a cabal, is too recent to detain us here. The annulment helped to reveal the fragile nature of our democratic practice and an electoral process that did not get certain basics right.

Oftentimes, we miss the vital points. Yes, our system is bad and needs to be re-visited. The level of corruption in Nigeria is still high, and directly impacts on our politics, particularly our electoral processes. And we must not try to isolate what happens during our elections from the level of corruption that our country has painfully attained. We are not yet there with democracy.

Democracy has everything to do with popular choice and the building and strengthening of its infrastructures and institutions. In Nigeria, we have the habit of forgetting to associate the quality of our leaders with the type of elections that produced them. I have argued elsewhere that one sure way of getting things right in Nigeria–politics and economy–is to get our elections right by simply ensuring only those who won majority of the votes cast are allowed to govern. The point could, therefore, be made that only a tiny population of our elected representatives may have really won.

For many years and in different dispensations, Chief Francis Arthur Nzeribe represented me and my

people at the Nigerian Senate. Yet, an interaction with people of varied social categories at my senatorial constituency – workers, farmers, students, retirees, lumpen-proletariat and the self-employed – could not produce anyone who admitted that he ever cast his vote for the “Oguta boy”, as one retired Headmaster described him at Mgbidi, the next town to Oguta. Again, no one ever remembers attending any political rally addressed by Chief Nzeribe before or during political campaigns. Yet, he wins all the time. Since 1983, when Nzeribe abandoned his “flourishing businesses in the UK ’’ to be part of Nigeria ’s murky politics, the man has ‘won’ all the elections he contested, whether my people liked it or not.

How was Chief Francis Arthur Nzeribe able to perform these series of magic? My answer is: the man simply understood the system, how Nigeria works and what it takes, period! Give it to Nzeribe. But the man knows that beside the 1983 elections in which the late Chief Sam Mbakwe and Chief RBK Okafor loaned him their political network and platform that enabled him defeat a more popular Collins Obi of African Continental Bank fame for the Senate seat, Nzeribe cannot in good conscience claim that he won clean in the other elections that he took part in.

His successes in retaining Orlu Senate seat were governed largely by his untested claim that he had the capacity to match naira for naira, rice for rice, and okporoko for okporoko. Yes, the man understood, more than majority of Nigerian politicians, the critical role of the mass media in our electoral process: namely, that once the announcement was made by those “boys at the radio station and the other news rooms pick it up”, the battle has been won, and the opponent conquered and routed. The rest, Nzeribe’s erstwhile aides would tell you, is left between the victim and the Election Tribunals.

But this piece is not all about the man who claimed to have represented me at Nigeria’s upper legislative House a good number of times. The more critical point I want to make is that when a politician gets into Government House, state House of Assembly, or goes to the Federal House or the Senate on his own steam, through his own methods and channels, he may not necessarily be answerable to his people. After all, he did not really get there through the people’s votes. Was that why Senator Nzeribe never bothered to mention the horrible state that Onitsha/Owerri road, which substantially criss-crossed the constituency that Nzeribe claimed to represent, was for so many years? The unmotorable condition of that strategic highway and the number of accidents that occurred on it never struck the distinguished senator as a matter worth throwing up for public discourse.

That may also explain why the criminal gas-flaring and the pollution of our environment by multinational oil corporations at Egbema and surrounding oil locations, did not receive as little as a condemnation from Senator Nzeribe all his days at the Senate. He never brought the agony of our people in the oil-bearing areas where Shell Petroleum and Agip have exploited crude for decades, to the attention of those who govern the Nigerian state. But why should we hold Nzeribe accountable, or for this gross dereliction of duty, as it were, when he could easily argue, as he often did, that we did not put him there.

The point I make is simple: for Nigeria to get there, we must do something fundamental about our electoral system. Our elections must reflect popular choice. Neither the Electoral Act of 2006 nor the 1999 Constitution which was dutifully packaged, sealed and delivered for us by the military is the ultimate answer or solution. We may have to give serious consideration to those things and those factors that made the June 12 1993 election rig-proof, and possibly borrow from them. We may have to think about the number of political parties that we now parade. The discarded Option A4 of the Humphrey Nwosu era now needs to be re-visited, and the practice of counting and announcing election results at polling stations is good for any country whose democratic institutions are still fragile.

It was good that President Umaru Yar’Adua recognised the inadequacies of the electoral system that produced him, for soon after he assumed office, hae publicly admitted that the processes needed to be revisited and re-jigged. The bottom-line, however, is for those who get the largest number of votes cast to be declared winners, and allowed to represent and govern us.


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