Viewpoint: Elections in Nigeria


Interview with H.E. Gordon H. Bristol, Ambassador of Nigeria to France, led by Margaret Egbula, 26 April 2011

"The elections were adjudged to be free and fair, and the votes of Nigerians were counted. The elections have dispelled quite a number of long-held myths about Nigeria in terms of their outcome. For instance, a Nigerian, irrespective of where he or she comes from, who is popular with Nigerians generally has a good chance of winning the presidency, be it from a minority ethnic group or from any of the majority ethnic groups. […] This election will go down in history as the elections that have finally put Nigeria on an inexorable path of democracy and development, unity and cohesion."


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What is your overall assessment of the elections in Nigeria?


The elections have dispelled quite a number of long-held myths about Nigeria in terms of their outcome. The elections were adjudged to be free and fair, and the votes of Nigerians were counted. Of course I’m mindful of the fact that after the presidential election we had some incidents in some states, some parts of the federation, some post-election incidents. But during the election process itself, there was hardly any incident, and Nigerians were able to therefore express their preferences and choices in terms of who their leaders should be.


Local and international observers have judged them to be the most credible elections in Nigeria since the return of civilian government in 1999. What’s your reaction?


They are the most credible elections. They also have brought about new revelations. For instance, a Nigerian, irrespective of where he or she comes from, who is popular with Nigerians generally has a good chance of winning the presidency, be it from a minority ethnic group or from any of the majority ethnic groups. As you know, President Goodluck Jonathan is from a relatively minority ethnic group, the Ijaw people, in spite of which his acceptability is nationwide.

I think that the election has diminished the role of ethnicity, the role of regions, as far as our democracy is concerned. Quite unlike the slants that some analysts, especially some foreign analysts, are giving to the elections, I think that, on the contrary, the election has revealed that being from a certain ethnic group is not a major issue in our politics. Because if someone like Goodluck Jonathan could garner such a support across the nation, across geographic divides, across ethnic divides, I think it says something about the growth and maturity of Nigeria’s democracy. Overall I think that there are great prospects for Nigeria, and Nigerians should be very proud of the outcome of this election and the role they have played in deepening and widening our democracy.


Speaking of the role of regions and ethnicity, what are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding the zoning agreement in the ruling party?


I think the issue of zoning, first, has been over-flogged. Second, I think it has been misrepresented. There is no constitutional requirement of zoning. The Nigerian constitution does not talk about zoning. Zoning was and will always be a party affair. In the case of the PDP and the presidential election, there was a huge controversy as to whether such a decision was taken, and in the end, the party resolved that the field should be open to everybody who was interested in contesting the presidency, including President Goodluck Jonathan, whose quest for a second term was seen by the party as a continuation of the Yar’Adua/Jonathan ticket.


The conduct of past elections has disappointed Nigerians and the international community. What was the difference this time?


I clearly think that the difference is leadership. President Jonathan from the beginning made it very clear that he was going to allow the process to have a free rein that in fact either way he was going to emerge as the winner. If he allowed the process that yielded free and fair elections during his time as president, whether or not he won, he would have still won in the sense that his administration would have bequeathed a transparent, free, fair and credible process for the Nigerian nation. Clearly the commitment of President Goodluck Jonathan and his administration to ensure credible elections was crucial. This commitment led to a revival of the body that is statutorily responsible for elections, the “Independent National Electoral Commission” (INEC). It is composed of very credible people, including the Chairman Professor Attahiru Jega and people of integrity and great determination.

Also the role played by other actors  of government including the National Assembly in making sure that monies were voted and released for INEC on time to enable them to put all the structures and mechanisms in place to give us free and fair elections. We also must not forget the role played by the international community. I think that the elections in Nigeria will be ranked among the most observed elections. Domestic observers (civil society, NGOs…) and everyone else were determined that this time around, Nigeria was going to have a free and fair election. For example, members of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) were deployed to help monitor the various polling booths. They have gone to great lengths. It is unfortunate and I say this with every sense of frustration and regret, that some NYSC members have fallen victim to the post-election violence that we saw happen in parts of the country. The nation will not forget them.

Do you think there is still room for improvement? In what areas?


Yes of course. There is hardly any election that is 100 percent hitch-free. Even in democracies of developed countries, you find that elections are bound to run into one or two problems here and there. There is always room for improvement. Everywhere, in the United States, in the UK, even here in France, we have seen situations where people are disenfranchised. There are all kinds of unforeseen issues that could arise and that do arise in the process of conducting elections. It would be careless on my part to say that there were not any such issues and everything was ship shape. No, the most important thing is to learn from the experience during this election and increasingly improve the situation to such a point where we have very minimal issues associated with our elections. I have no doubt that we will get there because this election was a quantum leap from what we have had before.


So, you are optimistic that the country is on the road to stable democracy?

I have no doubt about that. We have no choice as a mater of fact. Given the multiplicity of ethnic groups, nationalities and cultures, there are three fundamentals that we have adopted that are not negotiable: democracy, federalism and republicanism. I think that given the nature of things in Nigeria, these are the principles of government that will best serve our interests.


Were you surprised by the outcome in the National Assembly or in any other area?


Yes, there were some surprises actually. Some people that were said to be political heavyweights, people with name recognition and holding high offices were worsted in the elections. I acknowledge the sportsmanlike spirit with which some of them conceded. Here I must not fail mentioning the outgoing speaker of the House of Representatives, the Honourable Dimeji Bankole, who conceded and congratulated his opponent who won his federal constituency in Ogun state. This is exactly how it should be. His statement highlighting that elections are not a “do or die affair” is commendable.

The election brought about quite a number of surprises: For example, the scale on which President Jonathan won! Of course, we knew that he was a popular leader. But he won across the country. He has a truly national mandate which is overwhelming. This election will go down in history as the elections that have finally put Nigeria on an inexorable path of democracy and development, unity and cohesion.


What message do you think voters were sending by electing President Jonathan while rejecting PDP candidates for the National Assembly?


Voters are giving a number of messages. First, they are watching the performance of individual leaders. It was clear that people voted for candidates, not for parties as such. Even though the ballot paper did not have the names of the candidates, it had the symbols of the various parties, but you find that in the end, the choice of candidates was decisive. President Jonathan won this election clearly, not so much because he ran on the platform of the PDP but because of his personality.
The election also revealed the enthusiasm of the Nigerian electorate. There are few parts in the world where you will have voters queue up for four hours to get registered and then stay on to vote and stay on to see the votes counted. In effect, they devoted their entire day to the democratic process. This has happened in Nigeria. I think that the Nigerian voter and the Nigerian electorate deserve commendation.


How will President Jonathan deal with dissatisfaction in the north? How will the government foster reconciliation and national unity?


I don’t know what you mean by dissatisfaction in the north. I disagree with this formulation.


Dissatisfaction among certain groups in the north, particularly the young people who were protesting the results…


What happened was sheer lawlessness. It cannot be described as dissatisfaction. A group of lawless elements decided to go on a rampage of murder and mayhem. The law must catch up with them and punish them accordingly. It cannot be dissatisfaction because where these incidents occurred were in states where the opposition party won. The states where the disturbances occurred were states in which the Congress for Progressive Change won the presidential election. These are actions of lawlessness and they should be identified as such and dealt with according to the law.

If everyone that is dissatisfied in society, for one reason or another, goes on a rampage committing murder and mayhem, then there will not be a wholesome society, no rule of law, no order. If you are dissatisfied with any government or any candidate, use your ballot box to speak for yourself.

I would like to underline that these were isolated incidents. It was not all of the north but only some parts in some states of the north where criminal elements unleashed murder and mayhem.


Do you think Nigeria will be able to overcome this and move forward quickly?


We have already overcome it. The elections have continued. People are voting. Nigeria has the capacity to deal with occasional incidents, infringements of law and order. Please remember, Nigeria is a nation that fought a civil war six-seven years after independence and survived. This is nothing.

What are your thoughts on the state of democracy in the West African region? What impact will Nigeria’s election have in the region?


Nigeria has been at the forefront of promoting democracy, deepening democracy, upholding the leaders of democracy up and down the West African region and in fact in the African continent as a whole. It is a role for which Nigeria has not always been given its due commendation, but those who are knowledgeable enough know that Nigeria is instrumental to fostering, promoting, deepening and widening democracy. The last manifestation of this role by Nigeria was in Côte d’Ivoire. This is why we cannot afford to have it wrong domestically. We cannot possibly be preaching democracy abroad and practicing something else at home.

Elsewhere in West Africa, in Sierra Leone, in Liberia historically, in São Tomé, we have acted in favour of democracy. We have acted in favour of the people. Nigeria has been playing a very great role. This is consistent with our foreign policy objectives. We have to set a good example.


You have said that the first 50 years of Nigeria’s independence was a crucial learning period, and the next 50 years should be a period of consolidation, development and fulfillment of Nigeria’s potential. What is the government’s approach to realising this vision?


In one sentence, good governance should be the aim of every government in power. If we say that the first 50 years were years during which we were learning the ropes, we cannot, in my view, justifiably make such a case for the next 50 years. By now we should begin to show the rest of the international community where and what our ultimate destination will be. That is to develop a united, indivisible, cohesive, developed African democratic nation that will occupy its right place in the community of nations, contributing to world peace and global security.

Nigeria cannot afford to be careless with the fulfillment of its manifest destiny as the foremost black nation on earth. I believe that with President Goodluck Jonathan winning such a clear and wide mandate from the Nigerian people, the process of launching Nigeria on the path of good governance has begun in earnest.

As representative of Nigeria in France, what kind of image or message would you and the Nigerian government like to send to the rest of the world?


Nigeria is a responsible, law-abiding, democratic member of the community of nations. That Nigeria is prepared to do its bit to promote world peace and security, which is why we take an active interest in participating in peacekeeping and peace-building missions and post-conflict construction programmes at the level of the United Nations, the African Union and ECOWAS.

But we also expect that other members of the global community adopt measures that would enable developing countries like Nigeria to fulfill their quest to satisfy the aspirations of their people. Not only in political terms but also in social and economic terms. Nigeria is committed to acting jointly with other members of the international community, for instance, to reduce poverty in Africa. We see the poverty as a violation of human rights ; Each citizen should have the right to decent conditions of living.

Nigeria is committed to building fairer and more representative global governance architecture.. Africa has no permanent voice in the UN Security Council, the Council that takes ultimate decisions regarding global peace and security. Over 60 percent the issues the Council deals with are African issues, and yet there are no single African permanent members. The same applies to the Bretton Woods institutions, the IMF and the World Bank. Africa is inadequately represented, and these are institutions and organisations that discuss African issues  almost on a daily basis. Nigeria is in favour of a reordering of the global governance architecture to ensure that decision-making in these global organisations that make decision on behalf of mankind will be more equitable.

We are delighted that France is in the presidency of both the G8 and the G20 for this year. We are expecting that France would use the opportunity of its presidency of these two groups to bring about, or at least set in motion, the process for this reconstruction of the global governance architecture that I just talked about. Nigeria is prepared to collaborate with France in this regard. We have to reorganise decision-making in the world. The very nations that preach and practice democracy must be in favor of democratising these organisations that make decisions for all of humanity.


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