The conduct of the 2023 presidential election in Nigeria by the Independent National Electoral Commission was a big blow to many Nigerians. It was not the result that was devastating but the process of arriving at the result. It got many people, especially the young ones who decided to vote for the first time, disillusioned. Consequently, many vowed never to vote again, as INEC had proved that change is not possible through the electoral ballot. Some publicly burnt their permanent voter cards.
The reason for the disillusionment was that after INEC had repeatedly raised the hopes of Nigerians that it would conduct an election that would be free from human manipulation because of the deployment of technology, it brazenly breached its own rules, employing the manual process of collation of results, which can be manipulated.
In a democracy, the people are constantly told to eschew violence and take legal means in any demand for a change of any form. The people are told that the ballot is the silver bullet for expressing any dissatisfaction against the system. However, INEC’s U-turn made some voters conclude that there is no possibility for the people’s wish to reign through the electoral process.
The effect is that many who excitedly trooped out on February 25 to cast their vote may never bother to do so again. Their conclusion is that whether they vote or not, INEC will announce a winner and then give them the arrogant and pregnant message to go to court. And in a country where the judiciary is unpredictable and has never overturned a presidential election, it is difficult to convince most people to place their trust in the judiciary. The consequence is that the people may relapse into despair.
In developed democracies, the law courts don’t determine the winners of elections. Voters do. Nigeria is big enough to join that club.
But rather than relapsing into despair, there is a need for the 2023 election to be seen as a sign that it is possible to change Nigeria to the country of our dream. Sometimes when I want to give up on Nigeria, I compare and contrast what happened in some other countries with what is happening in Nigeria and I see that Nigerians have not even passed through worse situations.
Imagine how it was for people of African ancestry in the United States some decades ago. From being slaves to being supposedly free people who faced the worst form of discrimination and inhumanity backed by law, the American Blacks reached where they are today through peaceful protests, civil disobedience, court judgments, perseverance and patience. There was a time Blacks could not vote in the United States. There was a time when Blacks could not attend the same school with Whites or enter the same restaurants or sit down on a bus when there was a White person standing.
Not only that, it was common for Blacks to be lynched and their houses burnt over one issue or the other. I remember the former principal of my secondary school, Sir C.C. Okoye, telling me in an interview that while he was studying in the United States in the late 1940 and 1950s, they were advised to always wear Nigerian clothes to distinguish themselves from the African Americans. The racists in America would not want to create a diplomatic row by attacking a foreigner. But the native African Americans were fair game to be targeted any time. Interestingly, the same men and women of the U.S., who fought against the injustice of being ruled by the United Kingdom, saw nothing wrong in keeping their fellow human beings as slaves or treating them inhumanely because of their skin colour.
For example, the “separate but equal” doctrine was one interesting battle for Blacks to overcome. In 1896, the United States Supreme Court had manipulatively interpreted the law to uphold the “separate but equal” doctrine that promoted racial segregation laws. The plaintiff in the case was Homer Plessy, a Creole man who was one-eighth Black. In 1992, he bought a first-class ticket and sat in a train cabin designated for Whites only. He refused to stand up when he was told to do so and was subsequently arrested. Plessy and the Citizens’ Committee of New Orleans (a civil rights organisation) took the case all the way to the Supreme Court of Louisiana and then the US Supreme Court. Eventually, the US Supreme Court ruled that as long as separate facilities were equal in quality, they did not violate the US Constitution. It was a big blow to Blacks.
But the Blacks did not give up. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States finally gave a unanimous ruling that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. Stating that “separate is not equal,” the Court noted that segregation breached the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It was a landmark ruling that destroyed the official endorsement of an evil that had been perpetrated for decades.
Even after the Supreme Court ruling which ordered schools to desegregate within six years, Southern states resisted the ruling. On November 14, 1960, six-year-old Ruby Nell Bridges Hall became the first Black girl to attend a Whites-only school: William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana. The little girl and her mother were escorted to and from the school by four federal marshals that first day. A large crowd of White people gathered in front of the school, hurling things and expletives at them as they arrived at the school.
The moment they saw the little Ruby walk into the school, the White parents pulled their own children out of the school. To them it was inconceivable that their children should share the same school with a Black girl, who obviously was less than a human being. The protest did not end there. All the teachers of the school except one refused to teach as long as a Black child was a pupil of the school. That lone teacher was Barbara Henry, who was from the Northeastern state of Massachusetts, where racism was not entrenched like in the South. For over a year, she taught Ruby alone. Federal marshals continued to escort the little girl to school every day for a while.
Through all the centuries of humiliation and dehumanisation, the African Americans kept on pushing for a better deal in the U.S. They did not throw their hands in the air when they were dehumanised or denied their right by the country or the court. They kept pushing, getting little wins as the years progressed. Even when some of their leaders such as Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. and Malcolm X were assassinated, they did not lose hope; they did not give up.
That same spirit should be adopted by Nigerians who feel aggrieved over the actions of INEC in the 2023 presidential election. In spite of the inconsistencies in the conduct of INEC, the results released showed that the establishment was rattled by the doggedness of the people. Little-known individuals, including a commercial motorcycle rider, defeated political gladiators for legislative positions in different parts of the country.
There is a need to push harder for the type of democracy that will turn the country around. That type of democracy is that in which the decision of who gets elected solely rests on the votes cast by the electorate. That will make political parties give their tickets to the most popular candidates rather than the highest bidders. That is only when it will be said with certainty that power belongs to the people in Nigeria.