| THE GUARDIAN
CONSCIENCE, NURTURED BY TRUTH
LAGOS, NIGERIA. Wednesday, May 21 2003
THE Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) participated actively in the monitoring of all the elections held on April 12, April 19 and May 3 this year under the aegis of the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), being one of TMG's 170 affiliate civil society organisations. The TMG has issued preliminary reports on all the elections and we subscribe fully to the findings therein. We have also taken time to review reports by other independent local and international observers, and must condemn the attempt to harass international observers who came at the invitation of the Nigerian government.
It is in the light of our participation and review that we have formed the view that the degree of irregularities which were observed in many parts of the country during all the elections detract fundamentally from any claims that they were free and fair. The elections were indeed peaceful. But the CLO doubts that peace can endure in the absence of justice. Quite apart from the violence and numerous attempts to stifle the political process in the run-up to the elections, the voting itself witnessed inflation of figures (resulting in voter turn-out statistics which were quite simply ridiculous), ballot stuffing, multiple voting, under-age voting, ballot box snatching, bribery, falsification of results, and intimidation of voters and party agents by thugs and some unscrupulous law enforcement agents. All this against an almost complete failure to uphold the cardinal requirement of secrecy for voters! In the circumstances, it is impossible to deny that the will of the electorate was thwarted in a substantial number of cases, leaving many of the victories thereby attained open to serious question.
The main victims of these unfortunate developments have been the Nigerian people, who have once more been denied their right to choose those who will govern them. Our yet-to-be-born democracy has also suffered a serious shock, since any dispensation enthroned through such questionable elections must inevitably lack legitimacy. The CLO fears that the price paid - and to be paid - for such "victories" will be incompatible with good governance.
Nonetheless, the CLO's faith in the democratic future of Nigeria remains unshaken. We see in the unflinching commitment of the Nigerian electorate to the democratic process a solid foundation upon which a free society can be built. We congratulate the millions of Nigerians who voted despite obstacles thrown up by those whose duty it was to protect and uphold their democratic rights. We urge them not to be discouraged by what happened at the just-concluded elections. Rather we must all intensify the struggle to reform the electoral system to make it transparent and devoid of all the anti-democratic elements that made the widespread fraud that marked the last elections possible.
With Nigeria's rich historical diversity of identities and interests, the CLO has deep reservations about the emerging dominance of one party across the country, more so as it is clearly artificially" and, we dare say, fraudulently" contrived. We reject President Olusegun Obasanjo's recent statement that there are too many political parties in the country, and are concerned that his claim that 30 parties was "confusing the people", might foreshadow an official plan to close down the hardwon democratic space and drastically curtail partisan opposition, especially against a background of "landslide" elections "victories", which may allow the Constitution to be amended at the whim of the ruling party.
It should not, in our view, lie in the mouth of President to dismiss as "too many", parties that were duly registered in accordance with the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court. Rather a genuinely pluralist policy can only emerge through the unfettered blossoming of political alternatives on a level playing field over time. In any case, with INEC having denied the new parties time to prepare for the elections by deliberately refusing to register them until forced to do so by the Supreme Court on the eve of the elections, quite apart from the questionable elections themselves, it would be a grotesque error to judge the new parties on the results of the 2003 elections.
In the circumstances, the CLO will support all legitimate and lawful steps by any Nigerian to challenge specific cases of malpractice at the last elections, as these will curb impunity and contribute to the democratic advancement of our society. While we appreciate the fears in some quarters that election tribunals might be unable to redress the magnitude of observed and alleged irregularities that marked the elections, we believe that election tribunals remain an important arena for seeking redress for electoral violations. At the very least, those aggrieved will be able to expose specific election malpractices. We recognise the enormity of the work to be done in compiling the evidence needed to prove such cases, but urge those with genuine grievances to give the tribunals the benefit of the doubt by taking their cases before them rather than writing them off ab initio.
On the other hand, we reject the hostile and bellicose stance of the government and its apologists towards calls for mass action to protest the rigging of elections. In a genuine democracy, it is not only through litigation that the people can assert their will. Rather, we consider responsibly organised and sustained peaceful protest a legitimate and crucial channel for the expression of popular grievances. Nigeria's recent history shows that mass action was a cardinal strategy in the popular fight against military autocracy. Indeed, given that the current civilian dispensation is a direct outcome of that struggle, the attempt to malign the tradition of mass action by equating it to military coups is doubly astonishing and deplorable. It was and remains a valid method by which the people can bring about peaceful change where the instrumentality of the ballot box is denied them.
Rather than threaten advocates of peaceful protest with fire and brimstone, or blackmail them with charges of trying to scuttle democracy, the Obasanjo government ought to be trying to head off simmering mass anger by apologising for having lost a golden opportunity to rise above mundane party political considerations when it insisted and explaining clearly untenable and ridiculous election results. Indeed, nothing that happened during the elections has shaken the CLO's long-held view that Nigeria's problems can only be addressed through a Sovereign National Conference at which all parties" aggrieved or otherwise" may dialogue with a view to working out acceptable solutions to both the present messy situation and the nation's future.
Finally, we must emphasise for the avoidance of doubt, that any form of military intervention in the present crisis would be unacceptable. We remain confident that the Nigerian people will resolve the problems currently facing our nascent democracy within the framework of a number of civil and democratic means. We urge the Nigerian people not to lose hope. Rather, we must remain vigilant and steadfast, and build for the future, since another democratic opportunity will certainly arise. At that time, we must be prepared to resist any encroachment on our democratic rights. The struggle continues. The victory of the Nigerian people is certain.