By Ado U. Mohammed

Former president Olusegun Obasanjo?s recent confession (Daily Trust, 13/11/2012) that he could have rigged Malam Ibrahim Shekarau?s election as governor of Kano state in 2003 if he had allowed himself to succumb to pressure was indeed shocking, even though it was not surprising. It was not surprising because this same man had in 2004 narrated a story that clearly hinted, to the amazement of Nigerians, that those entrusted with power actually meddled flagrantly with election results to suit their whims and caprices.

Election rigging is in fact not new in Nigeria. Almost all the general elections conducted before the first military intervention in 1966 triggered off violence because they were suspected to have been rigged by those in power. However, most of the evidence adduced by witnesses at that time were generally doubted, discounted or dismissed even in courts, as no concrete evidence was advanced to prove that rigging took place beyond reasonable doubt.

In 2004 however Obasanjo as president shocked Nigerians when he announced publicly that one of his henchmen, Chris Ubah, while arguing with the then Anambra state governor, Dr. Chris Ngige, had disclosed to his hearing that he (governor) did not win his election but was rigged in by him. However, even though this revelation came from the horse?s mouth some Nigerians doubted its veracity as it was common knowledge that Obasanjo was naturally given to such gaffes and even theatricals.

His recent confession must have cleared all doubts that might still be lingering in the minds of those people.  In any case, keen observers of Obasanjo?s eight-year presidency, from 1999-2007, have seen enough evidence to classify it as one of the worst in our history in terms of its failure to adhere to the rule of law. So why should anyone doubt that something like that, outrageous as it was, actually took place?

In fact, cases abound of instances where his government either disobeyed court orders or acted with impunity in contravention of the laws of the land. For that reason, therefore, the only thing that is surprising is that Obasanjo had no qualms about telling the world that elections were rigged in Nigeria and that he could have been pressurized to do so himself.

The question now is, how do we in future ensure that no one in power will ever be in a position to meddle with election results? How can we make the so-called Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) truly and permanently independent of the executive?

Without doubt, the woeful failure to conduct free and fair elections since the return of civil rule in 1999, with Obasanjo at the helm of affairs, has been one of the major reasons why democracy has failed to flourish in Nigeria. On the three occasions that the civilian administrations conducted elections, with two done under Obasanjo himself, we have seen how the matter of their credibility has gone from bad to worse.

Even though all the major parties can be accused of being involved in the unfortunate actions that truncated democracy, by engaging in rigging where they could do so, it cannot be denied that the party in power that allegedly influences INEC officials and security agents to do its bidding, is the worst culprit because it is able to commit the offence on a larger scale.

But generally speaking, desperate politicians hankering to assume power in order to control our meager resources have been adept at devising new tactics of rigging that are always worse than previous ones. Hence, rather than give their maximum cooperation for us to conduct better elections by learning from our past mistakes, the politicians are only concerned about winning power by hook or by crook. In the process, they ?don?t give a damn? about corrupting the system to achieve their objectives.

For instance, the general elections of 2003 and 2007 were characterized by such common rigging tactics as destruction of ballot papers (belonging to opponents? supporters), multiple-voting, buying of votes, and snatching of ballot boxes and stuffing them with fake ballot papers. Election officials were also bribed to alter recorded figures at collation centers, while agents of other parties were intimidated and driven away from the centers to enable the riggers to do as they liked. In one case that I remember, a party agent was hacked and killed for refusing to leave a collation center.

The fake ballot papers were printed by non-reputable publishers, as many of them were reported to have been arrested for the offence. Because of that, the ballots were identifiable being of less quality. By and by, however, they assumed superior quality as the desperate riggers tried to make them look as good as the genuine ones.

But by the 2007 general elections and that of last year, the issue of fake ballot papers was taken to the next level. Supporters of the party in power were on the two occasions supplied with genuine ballot papers for them to find means of stuffing the ballot boxes in order to win their respective states.

Whether the genuine extra ballot papers were supplied to those in authority by INEC or obtained fraudulently is not the issue here. The point is that genuine ballot papers were used by those who have abused the privilege of their being in power in order to rig elections.

How can I prove this? Well, where I voted last year I saw with my own eyes some women caught trying to stuff ballot boxes with ballot papers that turned out to be very genuine. These papers were earlier thumb-printed and given to the women to hide in their hijabs before they came to cast their votes.

As they bent down to do so, they covered the ballot box with the hijabs and attempted to slot in as many of the already thumb-printed papers hidden in their dresses as they could. Some of them were caught by vigilant party agents and handed over to the police, but that was the end of the matter. None of them was prosecuted, as the politicians who sent them went and freed them.

One other evidence of rigging that I witnessed included clear signs that election officials, high and low, were compromised. How else can you explain the case of party agents, especially those of the ruling party, getting some quantities of the official indelible ink which they rubbed in their hairs and touched frequently in order to deface and invalidate the ballot papers of those who voted for their opponents?

Thousands of such invalidated ballot papers were recorded where I voted, allowing the riggers to win easily. The pathetic thing about it is that when this was brought before it as part of evidence that rigging took place the so-called state election tribunal did not even bother to look at the defaced ballot papers, as apparently they had better papers to look at that were crisp and fresh!

There were also stories of how compromised and partisan election and security officials were used to help the favored party at collation centers. Many of them looked away as figures scored by the parties were increased or decreased as the case may be. Sometimes opponents? agents were forced to accept bribes or risk bodily harm or even death.

The solution to this elite problem can be found only in the realm of morality. But morality and politics are incompatible, which is why people say politics is a dirty game. Even as this is a fact, if religious and morally upright people could venture to vie for and win political offices they might be able to make a difference.

As for the need for INEC to be autonomous it is the duty of the honorable members of the National Assembly to tackle the problem now that they are about to amend some contentious provisions of the Nigerian constitution. INEC?s source of funding and appointments of its top functionaries should no longer be the responsibility of the executive but by law a matter to be sanctioned by the legislature.

In this way it will no longer be answerable to one person or influenced to do any unwarranted acts that would favor any party. Also, the commendable idea of using university lecturers as returning officers should be extended by INEC to cover lower election posts by using corps members and idealistic university students, hoping that they would be able to resist being compromised as well.

Until we are able to conduct credible elections in Nigeria that are generally adjudged to be free and fair, no one (much less those who conduct elections by virtue of their being in power) should expect us to be less rancorous after elections. We can only be gallant losers of elections, to the extent that we can congratulate those announced by INEC as winners, if we are convinced that no one abused his office to do any untoward thing to rig the elections.

Mohammed wrote in from Hotoro, Kano ([email protected])

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