One of the indelible memories of the period of Nigeria’s return to democracy firmly etched in my mind was the 1999 Peoples Democratic Party primary election in Jos, Plateau State. I still recall, distinctly, how the votes were counted and broadcast on live TV. Everyone who stayed awake through the night endured the voice of the announcer as he picked the ballot paper one after the other from the ballot boxes and counted, “Obasanjo…. Obasanjo… Obasanjo… Ekwueme…”
On Monday, that memory came flashing back when we were once again forced to endure endless hours of viewing the collation of election results as it was being transmitted on live TV. The tedium of the process possibly made everyone gnash their teeth at some point. Come to think of it, 20 years after we first had ballots hand-counted and read out on live television, we should have transcended the slow and labourious method of chanting election scores on TV.
The other rankling part was watching the university vice chancellors, who served as returning officers, read out the figures, some of them stumbling in the execution of this rather banal task. If they could not competently perform the easy chore of reading out numbers, we should wonder how much diligence and intelligent oversight they contributed to the mission of the collation of the results.
After several election cycles, we should have realised now that the premise of using academics in the electoral process is in itself inherently flawed. The genius idea started under former INEC Chairman, Prof Attahiru Jega. It is understandable why Jega, a reputable academic himself, would imagine that plugging his colleagues across Nigerian universities into that role would improve the integrity of the electoral process. Academics are supposed to be an embodiment of charisma and intellect. We will like to believe that they will be less susceptible to inducements by unscrupulous politicians who will try to seduce them to subvert the will of the electorate. We want to think that they know their honour and integrity, as elite members of the society, are at stake, and they will not soil themselves by getting entangled in partisan murk.
Having been Nigerian long enough, we also know that none of the above is necessarily true. Academics, either in the classroom or in administration, are human and therefore corruptible. An arrangement that uses professors to determine the fate of politicians can facilitate the exchange of favours between the two. There have been some problems that show that the plan is an imperfect one. In 2015, there was the case of Prof. John Etu Efeotor, the Vice-Chancellor of the Federal University of Petroleum Resources and returning officer for Rivers State, who was unable to read out the results before him because, according to him, they were written under “special circumstances.” A few days ago, INEC apologised over the conduct of a Prof. Musa Izam, the Collation Officer assigned to Bokkos Local Government Area of Plateau State, who absconded from his duty post after he allegedly got drunk on Election Day.
Then, there is what I see as the bigger problem of the use – and consequently, abuse- of the symbolic capital the professoriate represents.
Nigerian elections are frequently tainted by all kinds of statistical manipulations, voter intimidation, all sorts of electoral frauds that are never redressed, and violence. For instance, Saturday’s elections, the first set in this electoral cycle, claimed between 16 to 39 lives, depending on which media report you go by. From Lagos to Rivers, and to Akwa Ibom states, politicians who vowed “body bags” delivered on their promises. All over Nigeria, there were reports of logistics incompetently mobilised and many voters disenfranchised. The returning officer for Imo West (Orlu) senatorial zone, one Prof Ibeabuchi Izuchukwu Innocent of the Federal University of Technology Owerri, made the shocking allegation that he was held under duress and made to announce election results in favour of the APC candidate, Governor Rochas Okorocha. Then, after the election, we were treated to a menu of videos of blatant rigging; and as we’ve come to expect, cases of underage voting from the northern region of Nigeria.
In an ideal society, all of these shortcomings of Nigerian elections would be vigorously challenged by members of the intelligentsia. This is because, by virtue of their training, they are equipped with the intellectual resources necessary to carry out a post-mortem of the elections and insist on reforms. Instead, they call them up on live television to read out electoral results and thereby validate a process already fouled by the Nigerian factor. When we have a situation where some of the most senior members of the intelligentsia put a stamp of approval over the elections, which junior academics or even their peers at the rank level will defy the dynamics of power within that community to speak against the failures of such elections?
Early January, the President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, Prof Biodun Ogunyemi, announced that despite the ongoing strike action by lecturers, they would release their members to participate as Returning and Collation Officers in the general elections. According to Ogunyemi, ASUU members’ participation in the election is part of their “community service.” While we can all agree with him that working with INEC should indeed be considered as community service, the third component of activities expected of academics, we should also question why their role in elections, particularly for those who have risen to the status of professors, should not be much more than that of Returning Officers. Elsewhere, where academics are not working with civil society groups, they bring vitality to elections through their other contributions. They study trends, conduct and analyse polls, develop models to make informed predictions on the imperatives driving electoral choices, moderate and guide enlightened discussions with the public, and assess how the nation’s history might be unfolding from the spate of events.
About a week to the presidential election, The Guardian UK, had the interesting report about an analysis they had run on the Nigerian voter register. They observed that the number of new voters that were registered in Nigeria since January 2018 has gone up by almost the same percentage in each of the 36 states. They think that level of consistency is “mathematically impossible” because the pattern flattens out any idiosyncratic nuance between individual states. I share their suspicions, and their effort at making a scientific assessment of registration figures should also make us ask why it was a foreign organisation that made that observation. With all the departments of Mathematics and Statistics that are strewn across the country’s universities, that insight should not have come from abroad. We should have discovered that by ourselves.
Even more worrying is this curious coincidence whereby ASUU goes on extended strike action in an election year. This year too was no different, except that the strike action was called off shortly before the elections. However, strike actions by lecturers have been a feature of an election year. So, we have this awkward situation whereby universities are shut down because of a stand-off between a recalcitrant government and an equally obstinate labour union that has no other bargaining chip other than throwing down its tools. The government co-opts the labour of this same group of people while the more critical work that academics are primarily trained to do – teaching and research- gets sidelined. The government that will not yield grounds on their requests somehow uses them to endorse a process that ultimately benefits politicians. So, for a brief moment that climaxes on live TV, we are allowed a glimpse of a utopian society where the town and gown interface. At the end of the day, neither the election process nor the fortune of universities is necessarily better off as a result of the interaction.