Electoral integrity in Africa: Lessons from Nigeria

As the head of Nigeria’s elections body, Prof Attahihu Jega is widely acknowledged to have delivered a credible election, with abiding lessons for Africa. For him, a credible election requires planning, effective organisation, focus, resilience, relative autonomy of the electoral body, as well as its impartiality and integrity.

No region of the globe has escaped the “wave of democratisation,” which hit the world from the early 1990s. While regular elections by themselves do not and cannot guarantee true democracy, they serve as one of the major barometers for measuring an effective democratic process. This is especially because elections provide the electorate with the opportunity to change a government which fails to deliver.

The UN Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security in its September 2012 Report noted that “Elections can further democracy, development, human rights, and security, or undermine them, and for this reason alone, they (elections) should command attention.”

But the Commission in the same report argued that “for elections to embody democracy, further development and promote security, they must be conducted with integrity.”

Relating this global phenomena to Africa, Prof. Attahihu Jega, who presided over Nigeria’s 2011 and 2015 presidential elections, posits that while “there is no African exceptionalism” when it comes to flawed elections, “the scale of (electoral) irregularities in Africa is immense and arguably more than in any other region of the world.”

So much has been said and written about those two highly contested presidential polls in Nigeria supervised by Jega as chair of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC). But it suffices to say that only a few heads of electoral bodies in Africa have supervised elections where an incumbent government lost power to the opposition. So to a very large extent, Prof Jega is and will remain an authority in electoral management, especially from the African perspective.

Even before he assumed the INEC leadership from 2010-2015, the Political Science professor and former Vice-Chancellor of Bayero University, Kano, in Northern Nigeria, had acquitted himself creditably as leader of the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU) during the difficult years of military rule in the early 1990s.

In a lecture he delivered 1 March 2017 at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, UK, where he has been on sabbatical, Prof. Jega acknowledged that “poorly conducted elections have become the “norm in Africa,” with the attendant “remarkable constraints on stability, regime legitimacy and good, democratic governance”

Of the 167 countries including 43 in Africa assessed and documented in its latest report, the Democracy Index, Economist Intelligence Unit, quoted by Jega, only one African country is classified as “Fully Democratic,” while seven are “Flawed Democracies,” 14 are ranked as “Hybrid Democracies,” and 21 of the 43, “Authoritarian.”

Nonetheless, Jega underscores the significance of elections and why “increasing the scope of electoral integrity has therefore become central to the concern for democratic consolidation in Africa.”

Narrating his experience while also quoting scholars, researchers and election experts in his presentation titled: “Electoral Integrity in Africa: Lessons from Nigeria’s 2011 and 2015 General Elections,” the former INEC Chair examined the dynamics that shape the integrity of African elections; how to address challenges faced in conducting elections with integrity; and proffered some solutions on the way forward.

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By Paul Ejime

Credit picture: An official of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) registers the finger print of a voter with biometric system at a polling station at Apapa district of Lagos, on April 11, 2015. Pius Sawa/Getty Images.