Containing the Inevitable Heart Breaks of Democracy
GUEST COLUMNIST BY Chile Eboe-Osuji
Since INEC’s announcement of the Nigerian presidential election results, I have sent out a tweet in my Tweeter handle @EboeOsuji. It was motivated by what must be the feelings of grave disappointment for the 14.4 million Nigerian voters who did not vote for the President-elect Asiwaju Tinubu as he and his supporters celebrate victory. In my tweeter, I recalled Robert Kennedy saying, “Democracy is messy and it’s hard. It’s never easy.” Richard Galen, another American political strategist agreed. “Democracy is messy,” Galen said. “It is messy whether you’ve been doing it since 1789 or whether you’re going to do it for the first time in 2005. The trouble with Democracy is, you hold elections. The trouble with dictatorships is … you don’t.”
I added my own observation that the real trouble, of course, is that only one person will be declared the winner of any contested seat, and others who worked just as hard or even harder must put up with depressing feelings of disappointment. I commiserated with those experiencing that feeling in the outcome of the Nigerian presidential election. I urged them to accept the declared result, for the sake of the country they love so dearly. In doing so, they would have been performing the most important public service that they could possibly perform in these delicate moments.
There will be those who will argue that part of the messiness of democracy is that there are always irregularities in elections—be it in the United States or in Nigeria. It is unhelpful to dwell on a comparative analysis of frequency or scale of irregularities in the different countries. And there will be those who will argue that given the inevitability of electoral irregularities, it is impossible to envisage a scenario when the side that did not win will accept the results of an election as free and fair. That circumstance tells us that the only people who celebrate the outcome of an election are only those who are declared winners. It does not matter the margins by which they win.
INEC declared Tinubu as having garnered 8.7 million votes, Atiku Abubakar 6.9 million, Peter Obi 6.1 million and Rabiu Kwankwanso 1.4 million. Naturally, the only interested Nigerians who are happy with those results are Tinubu and his supporters. It goes without saying that if the vote distribution remains the same but only the names of the candidates are switched around in any configuration, Abubakar, Obi or Kwankwanso and his supporters will now be beaming with joy for having received 8.7 million votes—Tinubu and his supports will be complaining of electoral irregularities. It means, in every case, that any presidential election will leave millions of Nigerians unsatisfied with the outcome.
That is the primary reason that democracy is messy and unsatisfactory. We may recall Winston Churchill’s observation that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.” Perhaps, Switzerland, as they often do with things, have the best job of managing the messiness of attaining power through elections. There is no one person that is readily identified at any given time as “the” President of Switzerland. That function is served by the Swiss Federal Council, made up of seven members. The members take turns on a yearly-basis serving as the president of the Federal Council—thus serving in effect as the president of Switzerland—but only for the one year at a time. Perhaps, Nigerians (and Americans, too!) should try the Swiss approach. It diffuses the importance or concentration of political power in any one person, as it emphasises, instead, the value of sharing it.
For now, however, we must make the best of the system we have. It is not the Swiss system. Perhaps, the trick is to remember how we feel when the Super Eagles lose important matches—a heartbreak that every Nigerian knows all too well. The same feeling gnaws at heart of every Nigerian if the election return certificate is presented to the candidate (s)he did not support. It is an inevitable feeling of disappointment that we must learn to live with. Nigerians must not allow those feelings to control our actions and our lives. Life will, otherwise, be much more difficult for us individually and for the country we love. I know, more than most, how that can be so. As a senior functionary at the International Criminal Court, I saw how some of the leading lights of Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire ended up on the docks of the ICC, when the post-election passion had cooled off, simply because they could not manage the negative emotions that is constant in every election. That is not a story that any politician would want for himself or herself. I urge all those who did not win to accept the result and to channel the same pre-election energy into the post-election demands of nation-building that Nigeria needs to become the nation of our hopes of dreams.
•Chile Eboe-Osuji, LLB, LLM, PhD HLF was President of the International Criminal Court from 2018 to 2021. He is now the Distinguished International Jurist at the Toronto Metropolitan University, and the recipient of the Emeka Anyaoku Life-Time Achievement Award for Outstanding Contribution to the International Community.