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  • Monitoring Nigeria’s Elections
  • Clement Nwankwo (bio)

As I came to the podium at a reception held in Washington, D.C., to accept the National Endowment for Democracy’s 1999 Democracy Award on behalf of Nigeria’s Transition Monitoring Group, I could not help but marvel at the sudden and miraculous turn of events in Nigeria. A year earlier, Nigeria had been on the brink of catastrophe. General Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s evil and corrupt dictator, had been on the verge of implementing a crooked electoral transition through which he hoped to transform himself into an elected civilian president. Abacha, who had played a key role in annulling Nigeria’s June 1993 presidential election, had seized power in November 1993 and proceeded to arrest and incarcerate the apparent election winner, Chief Moshood Abiola, a Yoruba Muslim from the southwest. Over the next five years, Abacha had embarked on the most devastating campaign of human rights abuse and economic pillage in Nigerian history. He had ordered the execution of several human rights and prodemocracy activists, jailed others, and driven the rest into hiding or exile. He had been in the final stages of [End Page 156] his campaign to have himself elected as president when, on 8 June 1998, he died unceremoniously in bed, sandwiched between two Indian prostitutes.

General Abdulsalami Abubakar succeeded General Abacha on June 9. He had barely begun figuring out how to address the political logjam in the country when, exactly a month after Abacha’s death, Chief Abiola himself died, just as he was about to be released from jail. Prodemocracy activists were outraged. Several groups demanded the creation of a government of national unity with powers to convene a sovereign national conference and conduct fresh elections for Nigeria within the shortest possible time. While the military was prepared to relinquish power within a short timeframe, it was not willing to hand over power to a government of national unity. General Abubakar proceeded to announce an election timetable that would lead to elections conducted by the military government and a handover to an elected civilian government in nine months. Civil-society and prodemocracy groups were divided on how to respond to the new situation. While some called for a boycott and increased protests against the military and its transition program, others stressed the need to participate in and monitor the election process. It was in these circumstances that the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) was born.

The TMG was created through the efforts of two of Nigeria’s leading human rights groups, the Constitutional Rights Project (CRP), of which I am executive director, and the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO). The first meeting of the TMG was held on 1 September 1998 and was attended by 12 human rights and civil-society groups. I was elected chairman of the group’s Coordinating Committee, which was responsible for running the TMG. It was also decided that the secretariat of the coalition should be located within the offices of the CRP, given CRP’s capacity to host it and thereby to facilitate effective supervision by the chairman.

The creation of the TMG was to change the character of the transition program and the elections planned under it. For the first time in Nigeria’s political history, a coalition of civil-society groups would be monitoring elections. It would also be the first time that human rights groups extremely critical of the military and its dubious, unending programs of political transition would seek to hold the military to its commitments.

Some civil-society groups continued to warn that the military, given its history, could not be trusted to conduct a genuine electoral process. These groups, organized under a coalition called the Joint Action Committee on Nigeria (JACON), opposed the new political transition program. They demanded the convocation of a sovereign national conference to be supervised by a government of national unity that would replace the Abubakar regime. [End Page 157]

The TMG’s involvement in monitoring the elections, however, changed popular attitudes toward the political transition program, giving it credibility and helping to defuse the opposition mounted against it. Weary of their country’s continued instability and eager for a quick...

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