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Africans need for a change in attitude toward elections

BY ABDULLAHI USMAN

Special to USAfricaonline.com
USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston and
NigeriaCentral.com

"Look, I don't mean to be a sore loser, but when it's done - if I'm dead kill him!"
- Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

It would seem that Butch Cassidy had the African political class in mind when he made the statement leading into this commentary.

Why? The attitude of the average politician on the continent, to a large extent, depicts this outlook, methods of fighting political opponents; and in many ways, it would seem to be their guiding philosophy. For such politicians, public office is something that must be attained at the shortest possible time and in the quest to achieve it, any means can be employed (including maiming or killing one's opponents and/or their followers) and is indeed considered legal and acceptable.


From Cape to Cairo, our political class does not seem to buy the argument put forward by the late renowned reggae musician and acclaimed philosopher, Robert Nesta Marley in one of his songs where he said: 'He who fights and run away, lives to fight another day.' In other words, very few of them believe in waiting for the next elections to achieve what they might not have been able to do during the current one. Majority of them would have sworn that Abraham Lincoln was not from this planet when he kept contesting for and losing subsequent elections until he was able to attain the ultimate ambition any citizen could aim for, the Presidency of his country.

On the contrary, it appears that their attitude does not give room for sharpening one's arsenal in readiness for another battle on another day. It matters little to them that their failure to win the current election might have been the result of some shoddy preparation or even avoidable mistakes on their part, which they could work on with a view to ensuring success during the next elections. No one should get me wrong here. I will be the first to admit that the electoral process in my own country (Nigeria), for instance, and indeed Africa as a whole is not without its own problems or inadequacies ranging from voter intimidation to outright rigging of elections, amongst many others.

It must, however, be quickly stated here that even the losers in an election, who are usually the ones that shout to high heavens claiming that they have been victims of election rigging, cannot in all honesty exonerate themselves from the act in those areas where they have influence or are able to do so. To put it more succinctly, the level of rigging is directly proportional to one's ability (or lack of it) to successfully do so in those areas where one is most likely to escape with it. One easily recalls the 'verdict' passed by one of the independent international observers after the 1999 presidential elections in Nigeria to the effect that ìthe rigging was free and fairî in response to the claim by the losing candidate that the election was rigged. In other words, if the election was not free and fair, at least the rigging was!

The bottom line in all of this, after everything is considered, is that we are simply not democratic, or at least, our political class is not. The most disheartening aspect of it all is that even the so-called traditional institution, which should normally assist in such matters by using their acclaimed wise counsel, is not helping matters. But then, expecting them to throw their weight behind the people by enlightening the political class on the need to imbibe the culture of democracy would appear to be asking too much of them in view of the fact that the basic foundation of the entire system that produces them and serves as the basis of their continuous existence is itself undemocratic. Moreover, they have on numerous occasions in the past, clearly demonstrated through their individual and collective actions just how averse they are to the idea of democracy in whatever form and shape.

A perfect example was the strident clamour for the rotation of the chairmanship of the Council of Traditional Rulers in the old Oyo State in western Nigeria during the military era. The Alaafin of Oyo, a traditional ruler in the State was vehement in his insistence that the chairmanship be rotated amongst the traditional rulers in the State but the Ooni of Ife would not hear any of that and used all his powers and contacts to scuttle the idea. His reason? He wanted to remain the permanent chairman and was not ready to accept any change in the status quo. The Aalafin sought and obtained the support of some traditional rulers like the Soun of Ogbomoso who went as far as joining him in boycotting meetings either called or presided by the Ooni as the chairman of the Council.

It was this show of strength (which threatened the peace of the state on numerous occasions), amongst other reasons, that led to the creation of Osun State from Oyo State by the Babangida administration in 1991, thereby moving the Ooni's domain to the new state and leaving the Alaafin as the most senior traditional ruler in the new Oyo State.

One would have thought that was the end of the problem. Or was it? The other traditional rulers who supported the Alaafin in his battle for the rotation of the chairmanship naturally felt that he would be democratic enough to accept the application of the rotational chairmanship principle in the new Oyo State, more so since he was championing that same cause in the old Oyo State, but he would have none of that! He would rather be the permanent chairman, the same idea that he was totally against up to few hours leading to the announcement of the creation of the two states from the old Oyo State.

It is also this same undemocratic disposition that has ensured that Kano State, another state in Nigeria (located in the North this time), still has only one Emir despite the fact that it has well over forty local governments. The Emir has consistently used all his influence (which he has in abundance!) to ensure that successive governments did not grant the wishes of the citizens despite their clamour for the creation of more emirates and chiefdoms.

I recall that the voice of the traditional institution as represented by the Traditional Rulers and Leaders of Thought Forum was one of the loudest amongst those in support of the infamous self-succession campaign of the Abacha era. Whatever their motives might be (and they could come up with a thousand and one reasons to justify their behaviour), the traditional rulers, at least in Nigeria, have individually and collectively demonstrated that they are simply not amongst those that could be counted on by the population to line up in support democracy. But then, in the first place, it may even be a misconception to expect an undemocratic institution to be anything close to being pro democracy!

The political class on their part would, in most cases, rather see a situation where the entire system is disrupted than allow their opponents who might have won elections at their expense to successfully govern or complete their terms in office. They immediately start calling their followers out to the streets to protest the elections as soon as the results do not appear to be in their favour.

If they are not trying to cause enough confusion to force a re-run of the election, they are either forming a parallel government by declaring themselves (co) winners - as we have seen just recently in Madagascar or indeed using every available opportunity to instigate the military by calling for a change of government. An example of this last attitude can be found in Nigeria where politicians have been calling for a change in Obasanjo's government with some of them falling just short of extending an open invitation to the military.

It is clear that an urgent change in attitude is desperately needed if we must succeed in establishing an enduring democratic system on the continent. Our political class must stop seeing winning an election as a matter of life and death where the incumbent would use any means possible to ensure that he retains power while the opponent would also use the same means to unseat him as we have seen in the just concluded elections in Zimbabwe. The system of governance must also be made transparent enough to discourage people from viewing it as the quickest route of making a fortune.

This can be achieved by ensuring that the system not only recovers looted funds from past and present leaders or their agents, but also sanctions the looters with a view to deterring others. When this is done, leadership will lose some of its morbid attraction that tends to push our politicians into using all means, legal and otherwise to aspire to it.

There is no gainsaying the fact that any system that encourages politicians to view public office not as a public service, but rather as a business venture where one expects to recover not only one's 'investment' but also make an (un)reasonable level of 'profit', cannot be expected to produce anything less than the fierce and sometimes deadly competition we are currently witnessing on our shores.
Usman is based in Nigeria, from where he plans to contribute editorial perspectives to USAfricaonline.com and NigeriaCentral.com. His report on the Arms trade in Africa appeared in the print edition of USAfrica The Newspaper, last year.

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