The elections are finally here and barring any last-minute changes, will hold on Saturday. Nigerians will get to choose leaders and representatives who will run the country for the next four years or so. The focus so far has been on the candidates running for president but let us not forget that we will be voting for our senators and members of the federal house of representatives as well. And two weeks after, we will also vote for state governors and members of state house of representatives. All those elections are important and should not be taken lightly.
On the presidential front the main contenders are the APC incumbent Buhari and the candidate for the PDP, Atiku, although one cannot rule out the candidates from other parties as well. At the very least the “third force” candidates look set to do better than at any other previous electionand may even throw up some bigger surprises at the other contests. Unfortunately, the winner takes all nature of our democracy means doing better may be nothing more than a symbolic victory.
On the policy front the two major parties appear to be heading towards some kind of ideological difference. We often complain about how both parties tend to say the same things and do the same things, but this may be the first election in a while where the policy proposals are very different. The Buhari proposal looks to continue the state interventionist policies while the Atiku proposal looks more towards the private sector and markets. Of course, both candidates are not too ideological and its one thing to make proposals and another to implement them. The proposals of the other candidates are interesting as well. Moghalu proposes a more radical transformation of the entire economy. Ezekwesili, who technically is still in the race and will be on the ballot, proposes a renewed focus on human capital. The proposals by Sowore, Durutoye, Fasua, and the others are all worth reading as well. I am not sure Nigeria’s democracy has matured to the point where policy issues are most important, but we are surely once step closer.
These elections alsocome at a time when some are questioning the usefulness of democracy. Lured by the rise of China and other Asian tigers who have made tremendous progress over the last few decades under non-democratic regimes, some ask if our democracy can deliver that kind of rapid transformation. Unfortunately, most forget that for every Lee Kuan Yew or Xi Jinping you have a Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong-un, Omar Al-Bashir and Augusto Pinochet. For every benevolent dictator you have two ruthless ones who ran their countries to the ground. If you had to guess which type we would get then I know where my money would lie.
Democracy gives us the opportunity not just pick our leaders but also to remove or at least restrain leaders whose actions we do not accept. This means the leaders we choose can’t do whatever they want, for good or for ill. They may not be able to implement the kind of rapid transformation in Singapore, but they also probably wouldnot be able to turn the country into a Venezuela or Zimbabwe. You don’t need to look far for evidence of this. Faced with a similar crisis in the 1980s it took us sevenyears under various dictators to accept that trying to fix exchange rates was a bad idea. Under democracy this time around it took us eighteen months thanks to a lot of “noisemakers” who may have been rounded up and jailed under a dictator. Eighteen months is bad, but still progress.
Democracy is also not without its merits. Since the transition to democracy we have seen the Nigerian economy transform and grow to the largest economy in Africa and with significant improvement in the quality of life for many, at least until 2015. Still there are challenges, with many others falling into poverty, many without jobs, and large parts of the country increasingly becoming ungovernable. The challenges are many but every four years we get the chance to have our say on how to try to move the country forward. The path to development is unknown and democracy increases the chances that we will somehow figure it out.
On Saturday we have the chance again to make our voices heard and cast our votes towards moving the country forward. Although, as we do,we must remember that everyone has the right to vote for whoever they want for whatever reason.Nigeria is a diverse country with multiple interests and maturity means being able to accept that my choices may be different from yours even if we all want the same thing, a better country and a better quality of life.Good luck to all the candidates and I am looking forward to getting on with life after the elections.
Dr Obikili is chief economist at BusinessDay.