The Role of Foreign Election Observers in Nigeria

By Oshodi, Ademola | Contemporary Review, January 2005 | Go to article overview

The Role of Foreign Election Observers in Nigeria


Oshodi, Ademola, Contemporary Review


THE discussion of foreign electoral observers is relatively new in political studies but the practice of observation, although new in politics itself, is now widespread. Indeed there were even some observers in the US Presidential election last November and foreign observers have frequently been cited in the recent elections in Ukraine. The concept of the 'foreign observer' might seem problematic in relation to the delicate domestic issues of another country. Nevertheless, the convergence of conflicting attitudes and modes of evaluation from both domestic and foreign agents in relation to the assessment of electoral processes highlights fundamental questions on the pursuit of democracy, and also the theories of electoral democracy and the context within which these theories may or may not be seen to be actualized. These questions emerge vividly in relation to the work of foreign electoral observer groups in the Nigerian electoral processes of 1999 and 2003. Current literature, as we shall see, has shed light on the character of a democracy and the indices by which electoral processes may be assessed as to whether or not they facilitate or hinder the development of a democracy. These issues could be seen as foreground to the role of the Commonwealth in its evaluation of electoral processes in emerging democracies like Nigeria.

In accepting demilitarisation as a necessary process, political transition has been on the agenda of every military government in Nigeria since the emergence of the first military regime in the 1960s. In consolidating their power through dictatorial rule, the issue of an actual transition to civilian rule was, however, not usually pursued with seriousness by most military regimes. A transition programme was pursued over several years but never consummated by General Ibrahim Babangida, and the characteristic of this trend was the paying of lip service to democratic transition.

It is clear that the prevailing paradigm on democracy concentrates on formal processes within established constitutional cultures and on elections and their outcomes. With regard to the rough road to a stable and consensual government, the paths of emerging democracies, like Nigeria, have been difficult and election outcomes have been vigorously disputed. The journey towards democratic rule, with the conditions prior to and during elections, and in view of the existence of foreign observers on election day, are crucial factors that have to be considered in the judgment of elections and democracy in Nigeria. In addition, political institutions on their own cannot establish a good election programme and ultimately a viable democracy. There have been a few noted assumptions on elections in Nigeria that I would like to explore and challenge and they are assumptions of which the observers were themselves victims. These assumptions can be represented as follows:

1. Democracy equals multiparty elections;

2. It is possible to conduct such elections in a free and fair manner;

3. Nigerian civil society supports this type of democratic election;

4. African public opinion in and outside Nigeria supports this type of democratic election.

In relation to the first point, the whole history of Nigerian politics indicates the difficulty of holding multi-party elections in the country. Since achieving independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has made several attempts at democratic rule. The initial experiment was supervised by the colonial authorities and structured after their Westminster parliamentary system. It could be argued that the transition from British to Nigerian rule took seven years, commencing with the motion raised by the Nigerian politician Anthony Enahoro on the parliamentary floor for immediate independence in 1953, concluding with the raising of the Nigerian flag in October 1960.

Gradually the Nigerian political situation began to deteriorate. Crises broke out between political groups leading to the first military intervention and the subsequent civil war of 1967.

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