70. Nigeria’s Magical Realism

The Guardian
February 25, 2019
Professor Adeyeke Adebajo

Nigeria’s presidential and legislative elections appear to have passed largely peaceably on Saturday, though final results are still being awaited, and state elections are due in two weeks.

An uncle of mine often likes to describe Nigeria’s many political intrigues with the words of its most famous magician, Professor Peller: “Abracadabra! The more you look, the less you see!” The recent postponement of the country’s polls by its Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) – in the middle of the night, five hours before polls were due to open – conjured up the magical realism that has defined much of the country’s politics.

As Nigerians awoke to what seemed like a nightmare a week ago, conspiracy theories and rumours spread like wildfire, even as the two main parties blamed each other for the postponement. Opposition presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, talked darkly of “the hand of Esau but the voice of Jacob”, in accusing the government and INEC of plotting to lower voter turn-out and conduct “anti-democratic acts.” Both parties in turn castigated INEC for its incompetence. Many puzzled Nigerians wondered if one or both sides were bluffing in a high-stakes political poker game.

The politically inept INEC chair, Mahmood Yakubu, gave a press conference in which he seemed not to realise the fiasco he had just overseen, causing huge national embarrassment in a country that often appears to have no sense of shame. Analysts estimated the economic cost at $1 billion. Yakubu talked in dry, technical terms of “logistical and operational challenges” and bad weather, ignoring the fact he had consistently assured the nation there would be no delays in the polls. Many wondered what the commission had spent the last four years doing. Yakubu expressed “regret” for the postponement, but arrogantly refused to apologise directly to Nigeria’s 84 million registered voters, many of whom had spent large sums travelling to their home districts. The INEC chief’s incompetence was further underlined when he seemed to have misinterpreted the electoral code allowing for continued campaigning until the eve of the postponed polls.

Yet, the postponement of this election was sadly not unusual, reflecting the state of gross decay of many of Nigeria’s denuded institutions and transport infrastructure. The last two polls in 2011 and 2015 were also postponed. The first postponement, by a week, in 2011, occurred after polling had already started in five states, and was reportedly caused by the late delivery of voting material. The second postponement, in 2015, lasted six weeks, after the country’s security chiefs warned that they could not guarantee the safety of voters in areas in the north-east devastated by Boko Haram militants. President Goodluck Jonathan – having earlier hired South African mercenaries – then used the time to launch blistering attacks on Boko Haram in what appeared to be a desperate staged drama, with many wondering why it had taken him five years to demonstrate this level of urgency.

In 2007, Nigeria had staged what was widely believed to be the most flawed and fraudulent elections in its history under the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo. Ballot boxes were stuffed and stolen, voters intimidated, and results appeared out of thin air in areas where voting had clearly not taken place, particularly in the Niger Delta. Arsonists burned down several INEC offices, and about 200 people were killed. Election tribunals eventually overturned the results of six governorship races and more than a dozen senate elections.

The most notorious recent case of Nigerian electoral skulduggery occurred following the still unexplained annulment of 1993 elections by the military autocracy of General Ibrahim Babangida. Protests in Lagos left a reported 200 demonstrators dead. The fact that 14 million Nigerians had voted in what was widely considered to have been one of the country’s best organised polls, did not seem to trouble the country’s military brass hats. Babangida handed a poisoned chalice to a weak interim government which collapsed within three months, resulting in yet another military coup and five years of the brutal tyranny of General Sani Abacha. The reported victor of the polls, Moshood Abiola, was jailed by Abacha when he tried to claim his mandate.

Based on these past diabolical experiments with electoral magic, Nigerians would do well to heed the lessons of history in concluding this democratic process, as the “Ides of March” approach.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is the Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.