As I celebrate with the former president on the occasion of his 58th birthday, it is also important that I render a dispassionate analysis of the most defining legacy he left for Nigeria— a legacy of free and fair elections. A feat that is rare in Africa and rarer still in Nigeria. In March 2015, former President Goodluck Jonathan lost in the somewhat controversial elections, congratulating the presumed winner even before the full results had been announced and abdicated his right to contest the outcome of the election in a court of law. By so doing, he became the first incumbent president to lose election in Nigeria’s history and the first major presidential candidate since the fourth republic to decline any legal challenge of his loss in court. Not many in the whole of Africa, wielding so much power as incumbents have ever so willingly surrendered their mandates.
Indeed, contrary to what many think, a walk through history would clearly suggest that incumbents have lost elections in Nigeria before, the only difference being that the incumbents rigged the elections and used that fraudulent premise to remain in power. Factually, Nigerians have never really been democrats. From the 1st republic, almost as soon as democratic elections were introduced by the colonial administration, harassment, intimidation and much later outright rigging became the stuff of Nigerian elections. The call for the scrapping of the then “Native Authorities Police” was engendered by the use of the police to intimidate and harass supporters of opposition parties in the then Northern region, some of which led to sustained periods of violence in Tivland in 1960.
At the end of the 1959 parliamentary elections, it became obvious that a coalition between Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe’s NCNC and Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s AG could form a majority government with their combined seats of 89 for NCNC and 75 for AG totalling 164 seats in a federal parliament with 312 seats of which Tafawa Balewa’s NPC had won 148 seats. For reasons of nation building Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe chose to enter a coalition with the NPC and a government in which Balewa emerged prime minister was formed. But by the time the next elections became due in 1964, relations between Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe and Tafawa Balewa had collapsed irreconcilably. The lingering crisis brought Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe’s NCNC and Chief Awolowo’s AG together who for the first time merged their parties and registered a new party then known as UPGA. A merger between the NCNC and AG was sure to lead to electoral defeat for Tafawa Balewa. To forestall that he entered a coalition with Ladoke Akintola and they both orchestrated a massive electoral heist primarily in the Western region and parts of the North. The heist gave both Tafawa Balewa and Akintola a rigged victory in an election they surely would have lost had it been free and fair. The sham elections subsequently set off a wave of violence (wetie) in the Western region that eventually truncated the 1st republic.
The 2nd republic didn’t fare much better as Shehu Shagari’s NPN rigged elections all the way. By 1983 the art of rigging had been perfected by the Shagari administration with an electoral heist that gave him total victory. The crisis emanating from the rigged elections led to the military coup that ousted him in December 1983. Again like the 1st republic, if free and fair elections had been held Shehu Shagari would probably not have been re-elected. With the annulations of the still born June 12 1993 elections, Nigeria commenced another democratic experiment in 1999. Like all previous republics, the 4th republic under the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo who in his own words determined elections to be a “do-or-die” affair was notorious for election rigging, godfatherism, thuggery and lawlessness. Obasanjo had himself originally emerged the candidate of the party in 1999 through rigging, when after having lost the primaries in his ward—at which stage he should have dropped out—his military backers rigged him into power. Once in power, Obasanjo worked with the electoral umpire to unleash a rigging campaign across the country. It was in the Obasanjo era that a notorious godfather; Lamidi Adedibu so brazenly used thugs to remove an elected governor, Rashid Ladoja in Oyo state. Earlier attempts to remove Chris Ngige in Anambra state with thugs had failed.
Rigging, lawlessness and recklessness in Obasanjo’s era was so widespread that the 2007 elections was described by international observers as the worst they had ever supervised anywhere in the world. The short-lived Shehu Musa Yar’Adua administration continued with the Obasanjo rigging system until his demise. It was only when President Goodluck Jonathan came to power in 2010 with clear promises of electoral reforms that Nigeria’s electoral landscape radically began to change. For the first time incumbent governors and individuals lost in free and fair elections to popular candidates. Professor Atahiru Jega widely reputed to be credible was appointed INEC chairman. In 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan stood for and won elections adjudged by international and local observers to be one of the freest and fairest elections ever conducted in Nigeria. As the 2015 elections approached the apostles of “do or die” democracy and election rigging that dot the landscape, sensing his disadvantage put all kinds of pressure on him to manipulate the elections but he refused.
Even as the clouds of defeat became increasingly ominous, he still refused to interfere or manipulate the electoral process declaring as he always did that his personal ambition was not worth the life of any Nigerian. In the end, in spite of every possibility to change the course and outcome of the elections, he opted for a free and fair election and congratulated the winner even before the final results had been announced. For a country where all preceding leaders since the 1st republic had rigged elections and for a continent where leaders most often rig elections and remain as president for life, Goodluck Jonathan is the first Nigerian and one of Africa’s very few democratic presidents.
He achieved a rare feat, defying monumental pressure from pro-rigging hawks in a country whose people are fundamentally undemocratic. Anyone who still harbours any doubt about the undemocratic nature of the Nigerian society should closely review the 2015 elections and witness the intimidations, bigotry, abuse, violence and even threats of genocide that went along with it. Even with a Buhari victory and in spite of the change slogan, the post-election period has continued to be clouded with recriminations; winner takes all triumphalism, hate speech and exclusion of those who didn’t vote for Buhari/APC. It is in this kind of patently undemocratic Nigerian environment and the added hailstorms of Nigeria’s ethno-religious contradictions that Goodluck Jonathan an incumbent president with immense powers, stood against the buffeting winds and organised free elections leaving an indelible legacy as Nigeria’s first democratic president in the country’s chequered history.
Many do not yet appreciate the full scale of this selfless sacrifice in attempting to end Nigeria’s circle of electoral corruption, but when all the heated emotions have died down, the myths/lies laid bare and the dust have cleared from our eyes, Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan would indeed have his place in history as Nigeria’s first democratic president.