Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Letter to President Yar'Adua

DEAR President Yar'Adua, welcome back from South Africa. I am happy you were invited to President Jacob Zuma's inauguration, and doubly happy that you accepted the invitation and were, indeed, able to honour it. For you as President of Nigeria at this material time, it must have been a humbling situation and learning experience. In many ways, this looks very much like Nigeria's season of education from the South.

Yes, South Africa, until barely two decades ago, the site of one of the most cruel and barbaric racist regimes in the history of humankind, was, indeed, inaugurating its third president since the apartheid system came to a painful, inglorious end in 1990, and genuine democracy commenced in 1994. Not far from you, on the dais reserved for dignitaries, were the country's two former presidents - Mr. Zuma's predecessors: the inimitable Nelson Mandela, veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, and first democratically elected leader of South Africa; then Thabo Mbeki, his successor, the cerebral, patriotic, and honourable man who stepped down from office when asked to without bringing down the entire country with him.

Two enviable statesmen, no doubt, respectable and worthily respected, their places assured in history as memorable nurturers of democracy and the electoral process which serves as its engine of continuity. They are genuine heroes of democracy because they went into office in the democratic way and left office in the democratic way, thus laying the foundation for a tradition of smooth and civilised succession. They never used 'the power of incumbency', as is the practice in Nigeria, to imperil their country's political peace. I am sure you must have noticed the peaceful, celebratory atmosphere, the ebullient dignity and sense of purpose that characterised the entire occasion. You must have felt the pulse of a country poised for development and progress, history's shackles and contemporary challenges notwithstanding. You must have seen a truly 'nascent democracy' at work.

Were you surprised, Mr. President, that the grandeur and significance of the occasion was not marred by grim-faced, discontented opposition party members cheated out of victory through electoral fraud? Were you surprised the inauguration site was not besieged by placard-carrying demonstrators with banners loud with proclamations such as Down With The Electoral Commission; Vote-Robbers, Shame On You!; We Want Real Election, Not Fraudulent Selection; Mr President, How Much Did You Buy Your Victory? In your exploration of the mass media, did you find newspaper pages dripping with words and phrases such as 'rig', 'ballot box-snatching', 'thugs', 'collation errors', 'INECGATE', 'ballot papers with missing serial numbers'. Did you read about any ward where the number of votes supposedly cast was double the number of potential voters in the voter's register? Did you discover any cases of bribery and subornation of electoral officers? Did you find a South African Tatalo Alamu protesting the 'abolition' of the South African electorate? Did you observe citizens clamouring for the electoral petition tribunal as though it were a natural, inevitable, extension of the voting process? Did you see demonstrators in the streets carrying the coffin of democracy and performing mock burials of its murderers?

Mr. President, April was, indeed, the cruelest month for you. For while you were in South Africa toasting the healthy culmination of a working electoral (and political) process, the country over which you rule was unraveling from a shameful but customary electoral brigandage in one of its vital parts. The story of the famous 're-rerun election' in Ekiti is now so familiar that even the roadside grass knows its pith and plot. But to refresh your memory, and for History's sake, here it is in a nutshell. In February this year, an election tribunal presiding over the chaotic 2007 elections nullified the votes in 63 wards in 10 local governments in Ekiti, sacked the sitting governor who owed his electoral victory to those illegal votes, and ordered a fresh election in the affected areas. April 25 was fixed for this election. The campaigns leading up to the election were fierce and frightening. You should know because Your Excellency and the top guns of your party stormed Ekiti State with spectacular federal might to campaign for your candidate. Your party leaders vowed to recapture Ekiti 'by all means', including the use of the Mobile Police and soldiers. Many well-meaning Nigerians wondered why your party, the PDP, was so insistent on the deployment of armed personnel in a civil election, and not on a 'free and fair' election that the other party was demanding.

Well, April 25 arrived and polling commenced with all the dread and violence foretold. The situation in Oye was so tense that polling in its two wards had to be postponed. A federal senator from that town was reportedly arrested along with about 65 weapon-wielding thugs found in his house. In Oye, Ifaki, and some other places, accredited journalists and election observers were beaten up and/or detained, their professional equipment seized or damaged. But somehow, polling was relatively peaceful in other areas, and the returns started coming in, with the vote tally virtually even for the two candidates.

Then came the now famous Ido-Osi figures which allocated nearly 16,000 votes to the PDP and barely over 3,000 to the AC. These figures got red flags flashing everywhere in the way they violated every law of probability, and the amazing manner they ran against the voting trend in all other areas. And to make the curious curiouser still, on-the-spot reports later revealed that these Ido-Osi jumbo figures were collated at a police station, the designated collation centre having been burnt down. And these returns were reportedly not endorsed by the appropriate party agents as required by law.

The arrival of the Ido-Osi figures opened up another act in the re-run's macabre drama. Ekiti Resident Electoral Officer, 74 year-old Mrs Ayoka Adebayo, JP, discerned the fraud in the figures and refused to announce the results, disappearing instead into the dark anonymity of Ado Ekiti night, and shocking a bewildered nation hours later with a letter of resignation from her REC position. She had to abscond, the letter said, instead of succumbing to pressures from powerful quarters to announce what she described as 'fake results', an act grievously against her 'Christian conscience'. Significantly enough, this letter was addressed to you as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, although I am not sure if it ever got a reply. The nation's political heart stopped beating, for a while, as people pondered the uncommon, un-Nigerian, courage that produced Ayoka Adebayo's unprecedented action.

But the federal response to the REC's resignation was jittery, awkward, and unmistakably suspect. Mrs Ayoka Adebayo was treated like someone whose act was likely to bring about the collapse of the Republic. First, the nation's Inspector-General of Police declared her wanted; Maurice Iwu, INEC boss, lied to the nation that she was ill but wanted her in Abuja all the same. As for Professor Dora Akunyili, your Minister of Information and Matron of the Re-Brand-Nigeria campaign, what mattered most was not the electoral bringandage in Ekitiland, but the damage the Ekiti REC's resgnation would do to Nigeria's international image. The Ekiti REC remained underground, the nation held its breath, wondering what next.