The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) recently released a schedule for the 2019 presidential, gubernatorial, national and state assembly elections. It is a long notice to the candidates seeking political office, and to the polity at large. It is also sufficient notice to INEC to put its house in order and perfect its arrangements for a successful exercise. INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, said the regular notice of election would still be communicated on August 17 in accordance with the Electoral Act, which prescribes that such notice must be given to officials not earlier than 150 days and not later than 120 days before the expiry of their tenure.
It is encouraging that INEC has drawn up the 2019 election schedule and kick-started the process of inculcating in Nigerians the culture of regular democratic elections. Soon, Nigerians will internalise the fact that the third Saturday in February of any election year will be the presidential election day, while the first Saturday in March is for the governorship elections.
Between August 18 and October 7, 2018, INEC’s timetable provides that the 67 registered political parties should have conducted their party primaries and resolved all disputes arising therefrom, if any. We doubt that disputes arising from the primaries could be resolved within this timeframe, considering our experience in the past. Party primaries are often perceived to have been bought and sold by party bosses in the major parties, and litigations over those primaries have sometimes gone on for years. Disputes over primaries are veritable red flags of intra-party corruption. A political party which cannot conduct a transparent primary is unlikely to run a transparent campaign or ensure a fair election.
The INEC schedule states that presidential and National Assembly campaigns would take place between November 18 and February 14, a period of three months. The benefit of a short campaign season is that it costs less money. It would, however, seem that three months is too short for an unknown presidential candidate to even gain name recognition, much less successfully persuade the electorate. This compressed campaign schedule may maneuver the election to the advantage of incumbents and nationally known figures, to the utter disadvantage of new names and faces. Nigerians are yearning for new people and ideas. The campaign period, therefore, should be extended to, at least, six months.
The schedule assumes that INEC is monitoring the campaign activities of the candidates in terms of their expenses, messages, personnel deployment and conduct. What is not clear to Nigerians is what INEC will do when candidates overshoot the allowed campaign expenses and make a mockery of our laws. The strongest argument against the presidential system for Nigeria is that it is expensive and susceptible to endemic corruption. When candidates fund their election campaigns from their own private resources, they naturally view campaign expenses as investments that must be recouped one way or the other, which inescapably leads to corruption.
INEC must take a stern look at the depressing voters numbers of 2015 which, when compared to those of 2011, showed that more than 10 million voters kept away from the polls in 2015. That is exactly what INEC must combat in this election cycle. It must do everything to encourage all eligible voters to participate. It must also ease voting. It should be one of its aims to double the number of voters in 2019 and encourage young people to come out to vote. The electronic card reader was largely a failure in 2015. INEC has had four years to remove all the bugs in that electronic device. The voters register must be open and displayed weeks before the election so that people can know where to go to cast their votes on election day. In the digital era, voters who move to new homes should be able to transfer their registration to the nearest polling station to their new abode.
The biggest disappointment of the INEC timetable is its perpetuation of the time and resource-wasting method of spreading the election through many weeks. General elections are done in a single day in most countries. Why is ours different? For how long will our elections continue to cost much higher than those of other countries? If elections are conducted in a single day, INEC would avoid the accusation of encouraging the so-called ‘bandwagon effect,’ and the patently undemocratic system of electing leaders top-down instead of the natural order of bottom-up.