Since its outbreak in West Africa in March 2014, the Ebola disease has spread rapidly in the three most affected countries – Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Today, with the total number of reported cases so far put at more than 21,373, the epidemic, the deadliest occurrence since its discovery in 1976, has gripped the entire world with fear and trepidation. By last Saturday, January 17, 2015, the World Health Organisation, WHO, reported that no fewer than 8,483 people had died from the disease in six countries – Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, the United States of America and Mali. In fact, the virus has killed more of its victims than all other previous outbreaks of the disease since 1976 combined.
But if the capacity of Ebola to wreak havoc was underestimated or its casualty figure underreported, it cannot be so for the forthcoming general elections in Nigeria. This is because elections in Nigeria are worse than Ebola spread. If past antecedents are anything to go by, the general election in Nigeria, scheduled to commence on February 14, 2015, is capable of causing tremor and acrimony in the polity, especially if the people are dissatisfied with the results. In other words, going by the pronouncements of some of the dramatis personae, if the elections are not free, fair, transparent and credible, there is the likelihood that those who might feel shortchanged will resort to self help in the form of violence and brigandage to protest the outcome as it happened in 2011.
The outbreak of deadly election-related violence in the northern part of Nigeria following the April 2011 presidential election left more than 800 people dead in three days of rioting. The incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, the candidate of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, PDP, was elected in that election. The violence began with widespread protests by supporters of the main opposition candidate, General Muhammadu Buhari, who contested the election on the platform of the Congress for Progressive Change, CPC. Buhari, a staunch Muslim and Nigeria’s former Military Head of State, is from the northern part of the country, while Jonathan is a Christian from the Niger Delta in the south of the country.
There has been no love lost between the largely Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south over whose turn it is to govern the country as a result of the sudden death in office of former President Umaru Yar’Adua. Yar’Adua, a Muslim from the core north, succeeded former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian from the south, as president on May 29, 2007. Shortly after being sworn in as president, Yar’Adua began a titanic battle to save his life from an acute kidney disease from which he had previously been in and out of hospital while he was governor of his home state, Katsina State. The battle to succeed him started in earnest while he was on his hospital bed in far away Saudi Arabia, as some of the hawks at the Presidential Villa, refused to allow the constitutional requirement which empowers his deputy, Jonathan, to assume office as Acting President under the circumstances, to prevail.
‘The talk about signing agreement of a violence-free election is mere semantics as it does not exist more than on the piece of paper on which it was signed. This is because it is not the political leaders who control this violence; it is their foot-soldiers whose livelihood may depend on the gravity of trouble they are able to ignite’
For a long time, the country drifted precariously towards a constitutional crisis until the National Assembly invoked the “Doctrine of Necessity” on February 9, 2010. This formally empowered the Vice President to exercise full powers as Acting President, as provided for under Section 145 of the country’s constitution. From then on, the Muslim north refused to be pacified. Not even the death of Yar’Adua on May 5, 2010 and the formal inauguration of Jonathan as Nigeria’s 14th President to succeed him could change things. The discord was whether another northerner should have succeeded Yar’Adua to complete his term as President or not. It was still simmering when the April 2011 presidential election was held. The implacable north quickly lined up behind Buhari and his CPC. As election results trickled in and it became clear that Buhari had lost, his supporters took to the streets of northern towns and cities to protest what they alleged to be the rigging of the results. The protests quickly snowballed into a violent conflagration and massive sectarian killings in some northern states.
Though the April 2011 elections were among the fairest in Nigeria’s political history, perhaps, coming behind only the annulled 1993 presidential election, but they have also been among the bloodiest so far. On May 11, 2011, President Jonathan appointed a 22-member panel to investigate the causes and extent of the election violence with a view to bringing to justice, those who orchestrated these horrific crimes and addressing the root causes of the violence. As usual, the panel’s report was tossed aside and allowed to gather dust while the nation carried on as if nothing had happened. It is therefore, not surprising to note that the 2011 presidential election succeeded in dividing the country along ethnic and religious lines.
With the 2015 elections less than four weeks away, there is no doubt that the nation has again been caught in the throes of another election fever as tell-tale signs everywhere across the nation’s landscape indicate. Reports have it that quite a number of Nigerians of southern descent are daily relocating either back to their home-bases in the south or out rightly out of the country for fear of possible eruption of violence during or after the forthcoming elections. Many politicians, chief executive officers, chairmen of companies, top businessmen and other wealthy Nigerians are also said to have started moving their families out of the county. As it is customary to him, one of my friends whose family is domiciled in the United States of America, left the country in the second week of December, 2014 to celebrate the Christmas and New Year festivities with his family. Usually, he returns to Nigeria early in the New Year, but this year, he told me, he would not be coming back until late in February. And, according to him: “That depends on what happens in February.” It is obvious from this last statement that my friend and many others like him have decided to keep a safe distance from the shores of the country in anticipation of the crisis that might come up in the aftermath of the February elections.
The simple truth is that Nigerians are skeptical, so also is the whole world, watching with bated breath and concealed anxiety over what the elections might portend for the country. This is understandable. The two front runners in the election – Jonathan and Buhari – were the same gladiators who engaged each other in the 2011 elections. Now, the stakes are even higher. Jonathan will not want to capitulate easily and be disgraced out of office; Buhari too, will not want to kiss the dust for the fourth time. So, both of them will fight with their last breath. Their supporters are also caught in this frenzied trajectory. Here is the big problem. Who blinks first?
The talk about signing agreement of a violence-free election is mere semantics as it does not exist more than on the piece of paper on which it was signed. This is because it is not the political leaders who control this violence; it is their foot-soldiers whose livelihood may depend on the gravity of trouble they are able to ignite. In other words, some people live by violence. The political gladiators know them; the security agents know them; those involved too, know themselves; we all know them. But by all means, we must stave off the looming Armageddon. We can only achieve this if our politicians will refrain from manipulating the election results. Electoral justice is the first condition for credible election. Therefore, our politicians should learn not just to preach peace but to do justice. They should play by the rules and not rob the electorate of their decisions. If the coming election is mismanaged, the casualty figure arising from that may far exceed that of the Ebola virus. Prevention, it is said, is better than cure!