The very first election that I remember covering was a by-election in Ilford North in 1978. It was won, I recall, by a hardline Conservative estate agent called Vivian Bendall. The defeated Labour candidate was a young psychiatric social worker by the name of Tessa Jowell.
Since then, I have reported on elections in Russia, Pakistan, Iran, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Israel, Bosnia, the US, France, Germany and Italy. I love elections. I get a real kick out of watching people marking a ballot paper and choosing a government. For just one moment, each individual voter has real power.
But it wasn’t quite like that last weekend in Nigeria. When I asked the chief EU election monitor, Max van den Berg, if it was the worst conducted election the EU had ever observed, he had to concede that yes, maybe it was. Ballot boxes were stuffed with pre-marked ballot papers, some polling stations never even opened for business, some ballot boxes were stolen by thugs. The official results from some parts of the country were literally incredible.
Yet at the polling station where I spent election day, in the capital, Abuja, everything went perfectly. It opened on time, closed on time, and there were enough ballot papers for everyone. True, the voting wasn’t exactly secret: there were no booths, just a bench out in a schoolyard with an inkpad. You picked up your ballot paper, walked over to the bench, inked your thumb and marked the paper next to the party of your choice. At the close of polling, the papers were counted in public, with everyone able to see for themselves that there was no funny business.
But Abuja isn’t, alas, typical of Nigeria. It’s an artificial, modern capital, populated almost entirely by civil servants and government employees. It resembles, as someone unkindly remarked, Milton Keynes, but without the charm.
So why is the Nigerian political system so corrupt? Other African nations which have embraced democracy seem to manage considerably better, so what’s different about Nigeria? A one-word answer is all you need: oil.
If the government coffers are swollen with oil revenues, who needs taxes from voters? Who needs to pay attention to voters? There is no direct relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. If you can buy the votes you need, why bother listening to what voters want?
On Monday, I asked President Olusegun Obasanjo if he was proud of how the elections had been conducted. He conceded that they had been “imperfect” but insisted that it is not reasonable to expect a country like Nigeria to be able to perform miracles overnight. It is, after all, only eight years since it returned to a democratic system after more than 15 years of military rule. (My conversation with the President is still available via the Listen Again button on the website.)
And the irony of it all? The man who “won” the election, Umaru Yar’Adua, may well have been the best candidate. He is competent, honest and, by all accounts, a modest, self-effacing man. But we’ll never know if he would have been the people’s choice in a fairly conducted poll.
It’s nearly seven weeks now since our friend and colleague Alan Johnston disappeared in Gaza, and there has been not a word from either him or those who are assumed to have kidnapped him. We have not forgotten him; I hope you haven’t either.