Nigeria faces momentous elections on Saturday in which the registered 84 million voters are set to elect a president for another four years. Simultaneously, there will be voting for 109 Senate and 360 House of Representatives seats. As expected, the presidential ballot has generated keener interest because, more than any other elected official, the president calls the shots in a presidential system of government.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French historian and writer, once said that, in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve. Since May 29, 1999 when we escaped from 15 brutal years of military dictatorship, the country has been in a state of economic sclerosis and political uncertainty because most of its elected leaders were not up to the job.
Today, Nigeria is a deeply divided country, falling short in virtually all human development indices, but setting abysmal records in most national vices as a result of inept, clueless and rapacious political leadership. This general election, therefore, ought to be a historic marker for our democracy, national development and economic growth. The alternatives for the country are bleak. This places a huge burden on all stakeholders, especially the Independent National Electoral Commission, to ensure that people’s votes count.
As always, the electioneering has been beset by acrimony and violence, and has fractured the country along the usual fault lines: whoever wins the presidential poll has the unenviable task of uniting the country, jump-starting the comatose economy, building the decrepit infrastructure deficit estimated at $3 trillion and reordering the warped security system. Most of all, Nigeria’s existential challenge of redesigning a socially appropriate, politically workable and economically competitive constitutional framework can no longer be delayed.
Our country is at another crossroads and the electorate should choose wisely. In a democracy, every citizen has certain basic rights that the state cannot take away. One of them is the right to elect political leaders in regular, free and fair elections. In a democracy, people have a choice among the different candidates and parties who want the power to govern. The people can criticise and replace their elected leaders and representatives if they do not perform well. But our rentier state and the struggle for its capture have turned elections into mini-wars: brigandage, ballot box snatching and random violence, necessitating massive deployment of police officers, soldiers, and paramilitary and intelligence personnel. They reached their climax in the 2007 polls. It was not surprising, therefore, that the European Union election observers declared it as the world’s worst electoral heist. It fell “short of basic international standards,” the EU report said. The late President, Umaru Yar’Adua – its biggest beneficiary – corroborated it with his admission that it was flawed and vowed to initiate a series of reforms to correct the anomalies.
From the 2007 debacle, however, INEC, under Attahiru Jega, improved the electoral process with the introduction of some electronic devices in the 2015 polls, namely the Card Reader Machine and Permanent Voter Card. With the machine, only a registered voter whose biometrics could be confirmed with the insertion of his voting card was allowed to vote. Despite machine malfunction in many voting centres, it brought a measure of integrity to the electoral process.
But the magnitude of bloodbath was alarming. While 58 people were killed in 2015 pre-election violence, according to the National Human Rights Commission, in 61 incidents in 22 states, the EU observers report said, “On Election Day, there were increased security incidents, with at least 30 people killed, predominantly in Rivers and Akwa Ibom.” Curiously, the murderers went scot-free, thus deepening carnage as an inextricable element of elections in Nigeria.
In a bid to win at all costs, politicians compromise voters with cash gifts and food items. At its worst in 2015, $2.1 billion meant for arms and ammunition procurement was deployed for election rigging and a former minister distributed $115 million (N23 billion) to compromise the electoral officials.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s oft-repeated promise of ensuring free, credible and peaceful elections will be assessed on how transparently professional the security agencies conduct themselves and how visibly impartial the Yakubu-led INEC discharges its duties. While the acting Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, has charged police officers to exhibit true professionalism, the INEC boss said the commission was determined to improve on the gains recorded in the 2015 general election. INEC, via its website, says it has approved 116 local and 28 foreign observer groups, including the Commonwealth, the United States Embassy, the European Union and African Bar Association.
Yet, our concerns include the enormous logistic challenges posed by the prospect of handling 84 million registered voters in a country four times the geographical size of the United Kingdom, thrice that of Germany and twice the size of France. These mature democracies have 46.9 million, 60 million and 47 million voters respectively and much more advanced infrastructure. Already, possible hiccups in running 119,973 polling units are visible with the torching of about three INEC offices. Our electoral history is replete with logistic failures, including late arrival of voting documents and personnel, misplacement that feature materials meant for one state landing in another state hundreds of kilometres away and lack of vehicles to convey officials to collation centres. INEC has had four full years to prepare and should not fail Nigeria once again. Its monitoring system should be able to effectively track movement of personnel and materials at every stage and to store them safely thereafter.
Voter fraud comes in several different forms. A compromised umpire is the most tragic. This election cycle should not feature complicit officials as we have had in the past. INEC identified 202 of its staff who allegedly collected money from a political party operative to rig the 2015 elections, some of whom are being prosecuted. There should be stricter oversight of field officers to prevent losers being announced as winners. Only those of proven integrity should be on the field. The card reader must work flawlessly this time and there should be strict adherence to the law.
In 1964, the United States Supreme Court stated that “the right of suffrage can be denied by a debasement or dilution of the weight of a citizen’s vote just as effectively as by wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the franchise.” INEC has to demonstrate beyond any iota of doubt that it is the electoral body on whose shoulders rests the responsibility of delivering peaceful, free and fair elections. In the past, the electoral umpire had always complained about not being in charge of security or not having the capacity to prosecute offenders or of being let down by the impunity of politicians or by those hired to handle the logistics. These excuses can no longer be tenable. There should be a strong political will to punish electoral fraud in all its ramifications.
In terms of security, even though the police, Army and State Security Service agents, among others, may constitute the bulk of the team, INEC should be part of the security arrangements. The team should report to INEC, which should give out general instructions even if the micromanagement should be left to the security agencies themselves. By so doing, overzealousness by the security agents would be curtailed and innocent voters would not be scared away from polling venues. Getting sensitive election materials safely to where they shall be needed – and on time too – should also be a priority for INEC. Even if the assignment is sub-contracted to individuals and companies, as is the custom, the election body should ensure that they get to their designated destination and are put to use. Elections should be carried out without making life unduly difficult for the voters. It should be at minimum discomfort to the electorate. That is how it is done in civilised world.
The integrity of the elections must be protected. INEC Chairman, Yakubu, can etch his name in history, as Jega did in 2015, by courageously being on the side of the people. In 2011, the Jega-led INEC encouraged voters to protect their votes in a very direct way by remaining at the voting station after casting their votes and observing the remaining voting and then counting process. Nigeria and the world expect no less.