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Elections with Integrity in Nigeria

Kofi Annan’s keynote address at the Nigerian Civil Society Conference on the 2015 Elections.


Your Eminence, Ladies and Gentlemen, invited guests, let me start by thanking the organizers of the conference for inviting me to address you today.

I am very pleased to see that civil society in Nigeria is taking a constructive role in helping the country prepare for the forthcoming national elections. A strong democracy needs a vibrant and engaged civil society, capable of expressing popular concerns in a responsible and constructive manner.

Politics is too important to be left only to politicians alone. And elections are the key moments in political life, since they are the foremost mechanisms for peaceful and democratic rotation of leadership.

As some of you may know, I have long been an advocate of civil society. As Secretary-General of the United Nations, I undertook a number of reforms to involve civil society in the organisation’s work because the UN Charter itself begins with the words “We the peoples”.

I stand before you today not as a former Secretary-General of the United Nations, but as the chairman of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security. I am here to share with you the work that my Foundation and a number of partner organisations and individuals are undertaking to implement the recommendations of the Commission.

I will first explain why I took on the Global Commission. Then I will explain what I mean by elections with integrity, and the obstacles that often lie in the way, not just in Nigeria but all over the world. Finally, I will share a few thoughts with you about the significance of your upcoming elections in 2015.

I set up the Global Commission in 2011 because of a paradox that I observed. Even as elections have become a global norm – just about every country now organizes regular elections – democracy itself is increasingly called into question. This is not just a problem on our continent.

Around the world, voter participation and trust in politics and politicians to change people’s lives for the better are at an all-time low[1]. We have had further demonstrations of this trend in 2014 in the USA and Europe.

Each unhappy democracy is unhappy in its own way, of course, but there is clearly a problem. So I brought together a remarkable group of distinguished statesmen and world experts to address the issue. Our findings confirmed that democracy has played and continues to play a central role in human progress.

The reason is clear: democracy obliges leaders to listen to the concerns of those they govern, or else they get ousted, or as professor Armatya Sen puts it, “People who live in democracies do not starve.” Democracy allows transfers of power to happen peacefully through institutional mechanisms rather than through violent conflict. Legitimate elections are therefore the cornerstone of a true democracy, hence their importance.

Unfortunately, many elections that have been organized these past two decades have given democracy a bad name. Flawed elections have eroded the trust of citizens in the democratic process. (the rest of the sentence – “ which doesn’t seem to produce the results they expected” – is erased). What the experience of the last 20 years teaches us is that elections are not enough if they are not conducted with integrity and able to reflect the real will of the people.

So what does this concept of electoral integrity mean in practice? “Elections with integrity” is shorthand for elections that respect a range of global standards and norms enshrined in international treaties and good practice. Above all, they are elections that grant each citizen the equal right to participate in the selection of his or her leaders and hold them accountable.

Elections with integrity also have to guarantee fundamental freedoms, like the freedoms of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association. Finally, elections with integrity have to afford citizens a mechanism to challenge contested results through credible legal channels whose decisions are regarded as fair and impartial.

Only if elections meet all these criteria can they fulfil their key role, which is to confer legitimacy on the winners and security on the losers and peaceful change for all.

The Global Commission identified 5 obstacles to elections with integrity:

  • Weak rule of law and weak protection of voters’ rights
  • Inadequate electoral management bodies, either because they are insufficiently resourced, incompetent or not independent enough to enjoy public confidence
  • Denial of future political opportunity to those who lose, leading to a win-at-all cost mind-set
  • Barriers to universal and equal political participation
  • Uncontrolled, undisclosed, and opaque political financing

These challenges are evident in many countries. Even countries with long established democracies are vulnerable. In the United States, for example, voters question the role of money in politics, which leaves many citizens feeling that elections are captured or at least heavily influenced by well-endowed special interests.

You may have recognized some of these challenges in Nigeria today. Your vocal press and the speakers today have certainly indicated as much. But it is not for me to say. I can only share with you some personal reflections, as a neighbour, as a fellow African and as a friend of Nigeria.

Nigeria has come a long way since 1999. I remember vividly the bad old days of dictatorship. But we know that every election since 1999 has been fraught, and marred by violence.  Many people I have spoken to worry that violence might once again disfigure and undermine the electoral process.

So I entreat all Nigerians, and especially the political actors, not to put the amazing progress Nigeria has made in jeopardy. Politics should be about serving the higher interests of the country and not self-serving. As the late President Kennedy said, “…ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

Nigeria has the largest population of any country on the continent and has the biggest economy. It plays a major role on the international stage, especially at this time, when it holds a seat at the Security Council. Nigeria is one of the largest contributors of UN peacekeepers.

But as the old proverb says, a large chair does not make a king. To lead, you have to be a role model. The 2015 elections are an opportunity to confirm Nigeria’s progress in the eyes of the world, but most importantly, in the eyes of its own people.

As I said earlier, you, as civil society, have an important role to play in making sure that these coming elections and the elections in the future meet the standards that Nigerians, especially young Nigerians, expect and demand.

You can, in particular, resist efforts to use regional, tribal and religious differences for political gain. You must denounce such manoeuvers that threaten the cohesion of Nigeria and incite violence.

It is for this urgent reason that you must stand as one against Boko Haram. We must reject their evil ideology. We are in the same boat. Boko Haram’s vicious and brutal tactics have no place in the civilized world. No cause- I repeat no cause- can justify such brutality, murder, kidnapping of innocent children, women and men.

Nigerians are proud that theirs is a big country. The size of Nigeria is a major source of your wealth and power. But the price of that size is diversity, which should be accepted, valued and even celebrated. I also urge politicians and their supporters to be careful with their language, for words can inflame, incite and provoke. But they can also calm, soothe and reconcile.

Nigerians should remember that their destiny is a common one, whether you are Muslim or Christian, Northerner or Southerner, for the PDP or the APC. I must caution, however, that no election is ever perfect, not even in the most developed and stable democracies.

Even so, you have the right to expect elections that are fair and credible and that the electoral code will be respected by all political actors and their parties. You have a right to demand transparency and accountability, but through the legal system. Most importantly, I hope that you will urge all Nigerians not to resort to violence because their candidate of choice did not win.

A proverb from Kenya says that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.

The people of Kenya know this well because they suffered grievously from election-related violence in 2008. Fortunately, they learnt from that tragic experience and their most recent election was violence-free even though it was keenly contested.

I shall conclude by observing that in many ways, Nigeria has the future of the continent in its hands. What happens in Nigeria has an impact far beyond its borders. Nigeria’s success in the forthcoming election will be Africa’s success.

So I wish you well as you approach this great test of national unity, a test in which civil society is poised to play such a crucial role.

[1] World Value s Survey 2014 ;