For the umpteenth time, Nigeria’s democratic institution on Saturday faced a critical test of integrity, but it ended in a crushing debacle. The elections in Bayelsa and Kogi states were an opportunity to showcase the extent to which the democratic culture has taken root in the country. Regrettably, after 20 years of false starts, the verdict was another depressing letdown.
From Kogi to Bayelsa, it was the same old story of ballot box-snatching, voter intimidation, harassment of electoral officials, disappearance or abduction of National Youth Service Corps members serving as ad hoc staff, late arrival of materials, vote-buying, all acted out in an atmosphere of intense violence and bloodshed. At the end of voting in Kogi, four deaths were reported, which were later reviewed to six. None was reported in Bayelsa, though the environment was likewise toxic and brutish.
It is lamentable that elections in the country have been reduced into an act of war. All parties come out armed to the teeth. To many Nigerians, what happened in the name of the two elections were not really strange, what actually caused concern was the fact that they were anticipated, and they still happened. Why should elections, a basic civic duty, be reasons for people to die? Usually, people tend to believe that these things happen because it is a big country, difficult to police. But Bayelsa and Kogi are just two states out of 36. What if it were to be a general election in which the entire country goes to the polls? The United States of America, a bigger country by size and population, holds elections and social life is not distorted, let alone people dying.
From all indications, this has become an accepted culture here, but it is a primitive habit that should be jettisoned. There is no way the sadistic incidents of 2011 can be so easily forgotten. After the presidential election of that year, which featured the current President, Muhammadu Buhari, and the incumbent then, Goodluck Jonathan, no fewer than 800 people were reported dead across the northern states of the country, according to estimates by the Human Rights Watch. The dastardly incidents of that year did not discourage a follow-up in the next elections where SBM Intelligence, an independent research firm, put the number of people killed in the run-up to the 2019 elections at 233. Another group estimated the number of deaths on Election Day at 40.
Not surprisingly, observers have been unsparing in their condemnation of the latest round of elections, especially that of Kogi State, which the Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room, a coalition of civil rights organisations, described as “a major dent to Nigeria’s democratic process”. Calling for its cancellation, the NCSSR convener, Clement Nwankwo, said, “The elections fall below the standard expected of a free, fair and credible election.” In the same vein, the Nigerian Bar Association has called into question the credibility of the process, asking for steps to be taken in the future to ensure that the sanctity of the electoral process and human lives in Nigeria remained inviolable.
Behind these recurring electoral heists are politicians who feel they can always get away with their acts of brazen impunity. Whether it is during elections or not, when people shoot and kill others, snatch ballot boxes, abduct people, disrupt public peace, they are perpetrating crime and should be prosecuted and jailed. Why are these crimes committed in Nigeria on a regular basis without any consequences?
It is only when the authorities begin to crack down on electoral offenders — not based on political affiliations — that sanity will return to the electoral process. For example, over 800,000 electoral offenders were identified during the infamous 2007 electoral fiasco, including a deputy governor who was shown carting away a ballot box on national television; yet, nothing was done to make them pay for their crime. According to the European Union Election Observation Mission final report On 2015 Elections, achieving convictions against electoral offenders is difficult due to “intervention of political sponsors.” The report accused the police of “systematically depoliticising the cases and downplaying their severity.”
Beyond this political impunity is also the very weighty issue of the lucrative spoils of electoral victory. Politics in Nigeria has become so lucrative that people are ready to risk all to win elections. The main motivation for a Nigerian public office holder is no longer to render service, but to amass wealth and wield influence. How can it be explained that in a country where the minimum wage is just N30,000, a senator collects a monstrous sum of N13.5 million monthly as operational costs. A governor is also entitled to security vote running into billions of naira for which he is not required to render account. Unless the warped system that makes a Nigerian legislator earn more than the President of the US is overhauled, returning sanity to elections in this country will remain an illusion.
Although Buhari has asked those aggrieved by the outcome of Saturday’s elections to seek redress in court, what is urgently needed now is a total electoral reform. The Nigerian system has to be restructured in such a manner that the integrity of both the process and the outcome of elections would no longer be so fiercely questioned. The President should not only sign the amended Electoral Bill into law, but should also take a second look at the recommendations of Muhammadu Uwais’ committee, which offered far-reaching recommendations about how to make the Nigerian electoral process more credible. This includes setting up special courts to try electoral offenders.
No electoral system is perfect. For instance, after the 2016 election in which Russians were accused of influencing the result, the Americans are taking steps to ensure that it does not repeat itself. This is what is being demanded of Nigeria.