Free and fair elections (I)

People being accredited with a card reader at Sekonanear Ife, during the 2018 Osun State Governorship Election (File Photo)

Were ‘free and fair’  elections held in 1999 and 1979 in the accepted definition of the phrase? It all depends on the meaning ascribed to the phrase. It means different things to different people. To Nigerian politicians and most Third World political practitioners, an election is free and fair only when one’s party or candidate wins. It is rigged or ‘unfree and unfair’ if the election is lost. This was particularly true of the 1979 general elections when allegations of rigging or manipulation were made by all the political parties. Each claimed that the elections were rigged in areas where it failed woefully to win seats. For example, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) were unanimous in their allegations that the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) rigged the elections in Lagos, Oyo, Ondo and Ogun states, where it  swept the polls. The NPN and UPN accused the NPP of rigging the elections in Imo and Anambra states, its strongholds. The UPN, NPP and Great Nigeria Peoples Party (GNPP) accused the NPN of rigging the election in Benue, Sokoto, Niger, Kwara and other states where it won. The Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) and  the GNPP were in turn accused of rigging the election in Kano and Borno states respectively, where their parties were victorious.

Thus, in Nigeria, an election is ‘free and fair’ or ‘massively rigged’ depending on the fortunes of the candidate or party making the allegation. In the best of circumstances, it is extremely difficult, even for political scientists, to define what constitutes a free and fair election.


In a book titled Elections without Choice, edited by Hermer Rose and others, a free and fair election is supposed to contain, inter alia, the following essential elements: competition among political parties or candidates contesting an election, freedom of voters, franchise recognised through registration, voting without being aggregated into categories, ballots free from external hindrance, deciding how to vote without external pressure and counting accurately, even if it goes against the wishes of those in power.

On the other hands, ‘restricted, controlled,’ uncompetitive or undemocratic elections are those which do not fulfil one or more of the conditions enumerated above. In this context, freedom of election is judged by the voters’ degree of freedom.


This definition of free and democratic election is, however, contested by several political scientists who hold the view that elections are inevitably undemocratic. From this perspective, the distinction between a classical election, thought of as free and competitive, and their unfree and non-competitive variants,  is blurred, as both are said to rely on manipulation of the people’s will. Such manipulation can be avoided only through the direct democracy (of the ancient Greek type) or by a lottery selecting power holders’.

The concept of totally democratic procedures are distant ideals, unattainable in view of the weight of economic, ideological, social and human factors that are brought into play at election time. At best, elections are relatively free and fair and competitive, as regards competition among parties that accept the rules of liberal democracy, along with their economic and cultural assumptions.

The absence of competition among candidates of parties does not, in the view of some practitioners of politics, necessarily render an election undemocratic and unfair.

The chief exponent of this school of thought in Africa was President Nyerere of Tanzania, who canvassed the idea of a two-party system in Africa and adored the one-party system practised in his country and many other African countries.

According to Nyerere, the two-party system represent a class society. For example, European and American parties came into being as a result of existing social and economic division while African parties were not formed to challenge any indigenous ruling group. They were formed to challenge foreigners who ruled over us. They were, therefore, nationalist movements which represented the interests and aspirations of  nations.

Now that the colonialists have gone, the only reason for the formulation of such parties is the  desire to hold the political structure of a totally dissimilar society, and a situation where such condition is not suitable leads us into trouble.

President Nyerere asserted that in a two-party system, some limitations of freedom is essential – both at election time and debate – in order to enforce party discipline and unity. These restrictions are not necessary where you have only one party. It is, therefore, questionable to refer to a system which forces political parties to limit the freedom of their members as a democratic system while the one that can permit a party to give its members their freedom is undemocratic.

Where there is one party, the foundations of democracy are firmer than they can ever be where you have two or more parties, each representing only a section of the community. A two-party system can be justified only when the parties are divided over some fundamental issues; otherwise it can only encourage the growth of factionalism. Where you have a two-party system where the differences between the parties are not fundamental, politics is reduced to the level of a football match, each party constantly aiming at bringing about the defeat of the other.

The prize of a successful gamesmanship on the part of a political party is the right to govern a country and influence the lives and welfare of millions of people. This is not a suitable object to play party games like football teams.

The freedom of opinion in a democratic one-party system cannot be sustained if decisions of the party are elevated to the category of dogma, a fate that has befallen communists who made their policies a creed and found that dogmatism and freedom of discussion do not go easily together. They are, therefore, afraid of a phantom “other” party. Hence, in a democratic one-party system, membership must be open to everybody and freedom of expression allowed to every individual. No party that limits its membership to a clique can ever free itself from the fear of overthrow by those it has excluded. A national movement must be identified with the whole nation, and those forming the government will, of course, be replaced from time to time. This is what elections are for.

Dr. Nyerere’s advocacy of a one-party system in a post-colonial African setting is no doubt sincere and backed by powerful arguments, but hedged by a number of provisos. The main thrust of the argument is that the withdrawal of the colonialists left, or should leave African countries with no more than one national movement, and that political parties need not proliferate. This is considered unrealistic.

The colonial powers found African societies with built-in factions, with their rulers and the ruled, like in any other society. The colonial umbrella over these factions papered the cracks amongst them; and when the parasol is withdrawn, the gaping cracks reappear in ·the form of sectional or tribal-based political parties. This ought not to be suppressed, but should be allowed freedom of expression.

What was required of national leaders was to forge a movement or movements that would accommodate the diverse interests of various groups, that is, to’ allow the emergence of political parties, which may or may not coalesce into one, two, or more mass movements. In this way, opportunity to compete at election is guaranteed.

Another criticism of Dr. Nyerere’s thesis is that it contains a number of caveats, some of which the African leaders are unwilling, or cannot afford to abide by. For example, a host of African leaders have clung to power for more than two decades. Others would have been in the same position had it not been for the military coup d’etat that swept the continent in the 1960s and 1970s and are still a constant threat to many rulers.

Nonetheless, there is merit in some of the points made by Nyerere. For example, allowing freedom of expression to every individual, or not reducing the serious game of governing people into the level of football match with each party constantly aiming at bringing about the defeat of the other, etc. These admirable aspects of the thesis do not, however, make a one-party system ideal for the practice of free and fair elections in the Western democratic sense.

One of the exponents of free and fair elections is Professor W.J.M. MacKenzie, who, in his book, Free Elections, defines free elections as a device of the highest value because no one has invented a better political contrivance of securing in large societies, two conditions necessary for the maintenance of government in any society.

Elections can create a sentiment for popular consent and participation in public affairs, even when government is so complex as to be beyond the direct understanding of the ordinary citizen. Elections can provide for orderly succession in government by the peaceful transfer of authority to new rulers when the time comes for the old rulers to go, because of mortality or failure.

Professor MacKenzie lists the conditions under which it is prudent to introduce free elections. These are: independent judiciary to interpret electoral law; an honest; non-partisan administration to run the elections; a developed system of political parties, well organised to put their policies, traditions and teams of candidates before the electors as alternatives to choose from; a general acceptance throughout the political community of certain vague rules of the game, which limit the struggle for power because of some unspoken sentiment that if the rules are not observed faithfully, the game itself will disappear amid the wreckage of the whole system.

As if he is addressing Africans generally and Nigerians in particular, Professor MacKenzie adds that “these are of course ideal conditions never completely realised anywhere and never likely to be realised. If it is intended to introduce free elections in a country not accustomed to them, it is essential at the same time to build the conditions for free elections.’’

Each country has its own political life, and  old institution will work differently in a new setting. How appropriate! Those who talk glibly about free elections should indeed ponder over those remarks made by a renowned political scientist.

According to Professor MacKenzie, three factors are involved in determining freedom and fairness of elections. A fairly administered system might be most unfair in its specification. Even if it is admitted that the election system  and its administration are fair, it may still be alleged that elections held under it are not free because conditions exist, which limit the freedom of some of the parties.

This brings us to the question of the freedom of the voter to cast his vote as he wishes. First, it is obvious that ‘free’ elections cannot take place in an ‘unfree’ society. ‘Free’ and ‘unfree’ are relative terms as no country can, in practice, conform exactly to a definition to be either wholly ‘free’ or wholly ‘unfree.’ However, elections cannot be (even relatively) free unless civil liberties are (at least, relatively) secure.


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