• Thursday, July 25, 2024
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BusinessDay

A tale of two general elections

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Most Nigerians in the UK will be obsessed with two upcoming events this year: next month’s general elections in Nigeria and the May 7general election in the UK. Many Nigerians at home, who are aficionados of everything British, will also be gripped by the two elections. Both elections will be unlike any before them. Some British media have dubbed the May election “the most critical in a generation”. The Nigerian elections will be critical too. The air is thick with hopes and forebodings in equal measure. In this context, a preview of both elections will be in order to highlight some of their interesting similarities and differences.
Of course, comparing general elections in Britain and Nigeria is not exactly like comparing apple to apple. For a start, both countries have different systems of government: Britain’s parliamentary, Nigeria’s presidential. Furthermore, Britain is a democratic Methuselah, with the first English Parliament formed in 1264, while Nigeria is a ‘young’ democracy. However, age is not necessarily a determinant of good democratic practice, but having the right institutions and processes, and the commitment to make them work. Thus, notwithstanding the differences, we can still compare the coming general elections in both countries, using common themes, such as electoral institutions and processes, as the frame of reference. So, let’s consider the structures for both elections.
Take, first, the political parties. Both countries have two major parties: the PDP and APC in Nigeria, and the Conservatives and Labour in Britain, with a third, relatively minor, party, the Liberal Democrats. However, unlike in Nigeria, where, despite having 26 registered parties, next month’s elections will be a two-horse race between the PDP and the APC, next May’s general election in Britain is highly unpredictable, with the resurgence of smaller parties, like the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Green Party and the Scottish National Party, posing a potential threat to the major parties.
The spending patterns of the major parties in both countries are also similar. Conservative parties, often favoured by big business, generally tend to raise and spend more money at elections than progressive parties. For instance, in the 2010 general election in Britain, the UK political parties spent £31.1 million, of which Conservatives spent 53 percent, Labour 25 percent and the Liberal Democrats 15 percent. So, it’s not surprising that the PDP raised N21.27 billion at a fund-raising dinner, while the APC has set up a committee to raise only N5 billion.
But that’s where the similarities end. Although the British party leaders will aim for each other’s jugular, the election in the UK will be dominated by debates on issues, notably the economy and immigration. By contrast, no big picture issue will define the elections in Nigeria, and the parties will only talk in generalities, if at all, on issues. But why would British politicians be focusing on issues and Nigeria’s politicians won’t? The answer is simple. The structure of the campaign in the UK makes it impossible for any serious political party to duck the issues. The gruelling TV leaders’ debates, and the ubiquitous and inquisitive British media, provide no hiding place. The shifting opinion polls can only be ignored by any party’s at its peril. Then politicians often need to canvass for votes, and sell their policies, house to house and in small meetings. None of these levers is effective in Nigeria. Campaigning is like carnivals and driven by the cult of personality, which precludes any serious debate on issues. But no candidate should win an election by default without proper scrutiny. Thus, in next month’s elections, NGOs should hold town hall meetings for the candidates. And the media should organise serious presidential and gubernatorial debates.
Talking of the media brings us to how they cover elections. In Britain, the Office of Communications (Ofcom) Broadcast Code imposes “special impartiality requirements” on broadcasters, and the BBC, which is funded by taxpayers through the license fee, is sworn to its own stringent code of impartiality. In Nigeria, the media organisations too have signed up to the Media Code of Election Coverage, and are subject to other regulations. But what will happen in practice? Well, the British broadcasters, both private and public, will maintain strict impartiality, but their Nigerian counterparts will not. Those stations owned by the state or by partisan proprietors will, more or less, become the mouthpiece of their owners. State-owned media should never be used in that way.
The newspapers in the UK are not regulated for election coverage. However, their reporting will be accurate and, to some extent, balanced. Nevertheless, they will show their biases and endorse their favoured party for the election. For instance, The Telegraph for the Conservatives, and The Guardian for Labour. So, most of the British newspapers will not pretend to be impartial. By contrast, Nigeria’s newspapers will claim to be impartial, as they have all signed a code of impartiality, yet most of them will be blatantly biased, depending on whether their owner is the state or a partisan proprietor. I would be surprised, for instance, if The Nation is not biased in favour of the APC; the same goes for PDP-leaning papers. As for social media, they will be uncontrollable, and even dangerous!
What about the electoral bodies? Well, the UK Electoral Commission will barely be in the limelight during the election. For it, the election will be business as usual. But Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will be in the news throughout as it is buffeted by politicians with accusations and counter-accusations. The British police will also operate almost unnoticed during the election and with maximum impartiality, whereas the Nigerian security agents will be everywhere, flaunting their weapons. Invariably, they will be accused by the opposition parties of being used by the ruling parties.
Then there are the electoral rules, which are aimed at preventing electoral fraud. Here, both countries have broadly similar electoral offences, such as impersonation, multiple-voting, vote-tampering, and bribery. However, Britain goes a significant step further by introducing the offence of “treating”, which is defined as “directly or indirectly providing any food, drink, entertainment or provision to corruptly influence any voter to vote or refrain from voting”. But isn’t this exactly what “stomach infrastructure” does in Nigeria’s elections? While Nigeria defines bribery only in terms of giving voters ‘money’, the UK includes “procuring any office for any voter” and giving other non-monetary stuff to voters. This is a crucial difference, but I can’t imagine any law banning “treating” during Nigeria’s elections. Yet this is how most Nigerian politicians influence voters, which corrupts the electoral system.
However, the most significant differences between the two elections are the more troubling. While the British election in May will go without so much as a whimper, Nigeria’s elections next month will almost certainly raise a lot of dust, with allegations and counter-allegations of rigging. And, more worryingly, while the change of government in Britain will be smooth and peaceful, the transition in Nigeria may be marred, God forbid, by violence, as is widely feared.
Yet, any divergence in the British and Nigerian elections will not be because of fundamental differences in the formal institutions and processes in both countries, but lack of commitment by Nigeria’s political class to make the institutions and processes work; to adhere to the spirit and letter of the rules. Still, despite the sense of foreboding, the politicians can make next month’s elections free, fair and peaceful. But would they? I hold out hope!
Olu Fasan