Elections, Democratic Governance, Restoring Leadership: A Keynote Address by the UNDP Democratic Governance for Development Project Director at the Priscilla Kuye Law and Good Governance Colloquium

Aug 31, 2013

Speech delivered at the Nicon Luxury Hotel, Abuja

I wish to express my deepest appreciation for the invitation to give the keynote address at this conference on the important theme of “Elections, leadership and democratic governance.” It is an honor to address such a distinguished gathering at this key stage in Nigeria’s political and democratic development. We hope that this conference can make a significant contribution to identifying some of the obstacles to good governance, democratization and institution building in Nigeria, and considering some policy options that can help overcome those obstacles.

The theme identified by the conference organizers for this address is a particularly relevant one. I think we can all agree that the challenges to credible elections, leadership and good governance cannot be underestimated in Nigeria. As such I will reflect on these issues by looking at elections and governance in Nigeria including the 2011 elections seen as a turning point. I think the relationship between elections and leadership is clear as leadership does not emerge from a vacuum but a process of choice. Legitimate leadership isn't imposed or stolen, but delivered through a democratic process. Following this, I will turn to the importance of leadership in promoting good governance.

There is a universal consensus around the idea that elected government through credible and regular elections are the foundation of any emerging democratic process. Abraham Lincoln suggested that “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent”. Each nation gives life to democracy and governance on its own way, and in line with its own tradition. But history offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not.

There are other thresholds that countries and leaders seeking to establish consolidated democracies must cross: the non-violent resolution of political competition, the acceptance of alternation in power, and the supremacy of the rule of law. In assessing Nigeria’s performance during its half-century of independent government, it is evident that progress has been made in some key governance issues. Despite shortcomings, Nigeria has one of the better judicial systems and legal professions in Africa. While the protection of rights and liberties is never certain, their abuse can be vigorously contested and redress often achieved. It remains, however, for Nigeria to cross other thresholds to realize the full promise of governance upon which development depends.

Nigeria’s political history since independence (1960) has been characterized by long periods of instability alternating frequently between civilian and military rule. Of the 50 years of independence only 20 years have seen civilian governments in power, while 30 years were ruled by the military. The period between 1966 and 1999 was dominated by military rule with a civilian interlude of only 4 years (1979-1983). That period featured for the first time a peaceful handover from military to civilian government. One consequence of these developments was that elections were held only intermittently with limited or no consideration for building institutional capacity for conducting credible elections, and with very limited impact on building a democratic polity.

The three elections of 1999, 2003 and 2007 were marked by deficiencies and deliberate manipulations, including ballot box stuffing and changing of results. Despite these shortcomings the 1999 elections enjoyed a strong degree of goodwill by the people of Nigeria and the international community for concluding the transition from military to civilian rule. The 2003 elections did not improve on the 1999 record. The results of its presidential elections were considered lacking credibility by observation missions, thus casting doubts over the viability of the overall result. The 2007 elections were considered not credible at all. Money politics and rigging expanded during the 2007 elections to almost every state, exacerbated by poor planning and on many levels incompetent electoral administration by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

The 2011 elections, was a turning point from which much progress can be achieved. Whilst not perfect, the 2011 elections were considered a watershed moment for Nigerian democracy. After a brief false start, Nigeria’s elections went smoothly. And during the first round of the 2011 elections, we all remember dedicated Nigerian poll workers count presidential ballots using only light from their cell phones.

The commitment Nigeria’s young poll workers, the hundreds of thousands of Nigerians who waited in lines for hours to vote, and all those in Nigeria who worked to keep Nigeria's political process on track ensured the success of the 2011 elections and encapsulated Africa’s newfound opportunity and optimism. Local and international observers alike hailed the process as Nigeria’s most free, fair and credible since the return of democracy in 1999 and described the poll as a “Major step forward in advancing Nigeria’s democracy”

Since the 2011 elections, we have witnessed significant changes in our democratic structures and processes. We have witnessed transformational progress in terms of increased sophistication in the discussions around credible elections. Despite having the largest voting population of all African countries, we have witnessed the review and reconstruction of the voter’s register. We have witnessed a comprehensive review of the electoral legislation through consultative and transparent processes which engaged citizens, CSOs and which led to the submission of a set of reforms to the National Assembly by dedicated stakeholders. INEC has developed a strategic plan to guide its actions and to better achieve its mandate. We have witnessed a maturing, both of the Commission and the level of awareness and engagement of citizens in the democratic process. These are accomplishments of which all Nigerians should be proud.

Despite the success of those crucial elections, gaps remain. They remain in terms of access to political and electoral participation; in terms of efficiencies, and in terms of constitutional, electoral and legislative reforms yet to be addressed. Our political parties are still young in terms of policy-driven structures. And we are all painfully mindful of the security situation and threats to our democratic progress posed by electoral violence and division.

Free, fair, and meaningful elections are essential—but they are not enough if they bring new autocrats to power or disenfranchise minorities. And any democracy that does not include half its population—its women—is a contradiction in terms. Just few months ago, the World Economic Forum released a report on the remarkable benefits countries see when they bridge the social, economic, and political gap separating women from men, and helping them get there should be a governance priority. Durable democracies also depend on strong civil societies, respect for the rule of law, independent institutions, free expression, and a free press.

The process and commitment to the conduct of substantially free, fair and credible elections should continue with the objective of significantly improved elections in each subsequent cycle: 2015, 2019, and beyond. The river of political contestation in Nigeria will grow in the months leading to governorship elections and to the lead up to 2015. Whenever electoral officials endeavor to conduct substantially free, fair and credible elections, there must arise in Nigeria a broad movement committed to building a bridge that will get Nigeria safely across the turbulent river of political contestation. And the leaders and electoral contestants themselves must have a dual commitment: to try and win as fairly as possible and also to display leadership. Democratic ideals in Nigeria belong to no particular subgroup of the population.

As the only true federation in Africa, Nigeria has a major role to play among democratic nation-states in Africa but also in the global arena. Nigeria is the only major nation in the world in which Islam and Christianity have a roughly equal number of adherents. It therefore has much to contribute to bridging this growing divide in international affairs. So there is no fundamental dispute in Nigeria over the desirability of a stable and consolidated democracy. But something has to be given up to acquire it, and that something is the pursuit of victory at any cost. “Do or Die” are words that should never be expressed regarding the conduct of elections in any nation seeking to strengthen its democracy.

In a democracy reasonable people can disagree on a lot, but there are things that all parties, leaders and contestants must get right. Legitimate political parties cannot have youth militia wing. Parties have to accept the results of free and fair elections. If they are committed to democracy, they must reject violence. Over the past years we have seen in the continent repeated peaceful transfers of power even in the wake of closely contested elections where the minority and majority deserve credit.

Political parties must abide by the rule of law and respect the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and assembly; they must respect the rights of women and minorities; they must let go of power if defeated at the polls. they must arrive at models of codes of conduct across the political spectrum and hold people accountable for following the norms. We should move forward with clear convictions. Parties and candidates must respect the rules of democracy, to take part in elections, and hold elective office. And no one has the right to use the trappings of democracy to deny the rights and security of others.

As Nigeria, Brazil experienced many years of military rule, some of it very authoritarian and repressive. That tradition was decisively broken in Brazil in the late 1980s and the country has since enjoyed successive peaceful elections and power transfers. An article in the Financial Times compared the achievements of Brazil’s former president, Lula da Silva, with South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. Gideon Rachman writes that, in both leaders, “a moving personal story has merged with a compelling national story, turning a single man into a potent symbol of a whole country’s transformation.” Although “Brazil grew richer and more powerful during his presidency”, Rachman continues, “Like Mr. Mandela, Lula resisted the temptation to cling to power. He has not tried to rewrite the rules to get a third term in office.”Across Africa, we have seen the opposite phenomenon of leaders of new electoral democracies rewriting constitutional provisions that limit the number of consecutive terms of office. We had Nkrumah, Kenyatta and many others who determined the future of Africa during the liberations struggles.

For just as it is important to emerge from the control of other nations, it is also extremely important to build one's own nation. The transformation that has taken place in Brazil and South Africa from authoritarian systems to democracies required leadership of a high order. I know that such leaders exist among the political class in Nigeria. They must be encouraged to be resolute in seeking to win office fairly and credibly and then to devote substantial attention to promoting good governance.

Of course, governance, democracy and human rights are about much more than holding elections. This means independent courts, legislatures, and electoral commissions. It means a free press, rule of law, and local civil society organizations with the room to operate and speak freely without intimidation from government authorities. And it means respecting opposition parties’ ability to hold peaceful public protests and openly criticize those in power.

It requires partnership with media and civil society organizations to promote and protect press freedoms; support to rule of law programs to strengthen courts and national human rights commissions that are so vital for eliminating impunity and ensuring justice for all people, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, religion.

The aspirations of the African people have not been matched by what politicians actually do once they are elected. Democracy and governance should not be compressed into a voting act performed every four or five years. It is also what happens between elections. Capable, reliable, and transparent institutions are the key to success and to governance--- strong parliaments, honest police forces, independent judges, a vibrant private sector, a civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy and governance, because that is what matters in people's everyday lives. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent of the top. No person want to live where the rule of law give away to the rule of brutality and bribery.

That is not democracy.

Better governance in Nigeria depends on better elections. If elected officials do not really owe their positions to the electorate, they are unlikely to regard public service as the main reason for holding office. We have seen how new leaders in a number of states in Nigeria have radically transformed awareness of what can be done to improve the lives of Nigerians and build the physical infrastructures required for accelerated growth. If office-holders do not believe they will be held accountable by the electorate for how they perform, then all the self-serving practices will be manifested.

Nigeria will not get its economics right until it gets its politics right. Its political system must be democratic, and federal, for reasons of its own history and its diverse composition. Wole Soyinka made a comment few years ago “The Nigerian people have always approached democracy and the elites have always pushed them back.”
The essential truth of democracy is that each nation determines ins own destiny. But it will require responsible individuals and responsible institutions, with a focus on supporting good governance, parliaments which check abuses of power, the rule of law, which ensures the equal administration of justice, on civic participation so people get involved.

With better governance, a country holds the promise of a broader base for prosperity and where there is good governance, we can broaden prosperity through public-private partnership that invest in better roads and electricity, capacity building that trains to grow a business; financial services that reach not just the cities but also the poor and rural areas and the disadvantaged.

Thank you.

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