Embarrassed and aggrieved, Nigerians are struggling to cope with the last-minute postponement of last Saturday’s presidential and National Assembly elections. Coming less than six hours before polling was scheduled to commence, the shift, announced by Mahmood Yakubu, Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, at 2.30am, was shocking, if not scandalous. This development is a huge setback. It has left Nigeria’s image and integrity in tatters in the global community. The cancelled polls will now hold on February 23, while those of governorship/state assembly will take place on March 9. To safeguard the credibility of the polls, INEC must not fail again.
Citing national interest, inclement weather that prevented Nigerian Air Force aircraft ferrying voting materials from landing, fire at local INEC offices and logistics hold-ups, Yakubu announced the unexpected shift. His call was met with visceral anger, anxiety and confusion.
After four years of preparations, it is implausible that these excuses would cause a seismic shift in polling. All along, the umpire had repeatedly assured Nigerians – and the throng of international observers – that it was adequately prepared to conduct credible polls on schedule. Nigerians, who had witnessed this charade in the previous three federal elections before, took the electoral umpire for its words. Indeed, INEC and the security agencies said preparations were in top gear as non-sensitive and sensitive materials had been distributed through the Central Bank of Nigeria and the NAF in the days leading to the actual voting. The security arrangements were also activated until INEC dramatically called off the exercise.
There is no doubt that a rancid stew of an awful electoral law and our conflict-ridden politics is responsible for this serial national disaster. With elections suffering similar postponements in 2007, 2011 and 2015, it is apparent that the electoral system is bound in a dangerous time warp. A systemic rigmarole that renders INEC a toothless bulldog, it exposes Nigeria as a weak and failing state. In 2015, Nigerians were already set for what was building up into hotly-contested elections when, at the insistence of the National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, the Attahiru Jega-led electoral body had to call for a six-week postponement. For 2011, Jega attributed the shift to an unanticipated emergency of late arrival of result sheets in many parts of the country. “The result sheets are central to the elections and their integrity… the Commission has taken the difficult but necessary decision to postpone the National Assembly elections to Monday, April 4, 2011,” he had said.
The cost to the economy and the implications to our political development and global reputation are enormous. One estimate puts the loss to Gross Domestic Product at N7.73 trillion for Saturday alone, which will be repeated every Election Day when the country is locked down. An economist, Bismark Rewane, calculates a further “opportunity cost” loss of $4 billion to $5 billion for businesses. Companies, individuals and groups have been put in disarray, just as social activities like weddings, funerals, sporting events, travels and educational programmes have been disrupted. Voter apathy is likely to take a front row seat with this debacle and many who spent much to travel to where they had registered to vote, either by deliberate choice or because they changed residence, will be effectively disenfranchised. Nigeria’s global notoriety as a dysfunctional state has plunged lower: yet, war-wracked Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia conduct successful elections.
The United Nations Development Programme says even though democracy has steadily gained roots—and elections have increasingly become the norm—across the world, in recent decades it has been stalling or facing serious reversals in Africa. Election-related disputes and tensions are the main causes of instability and violent conflicts in contemporary Africa. It was observed that while democratic institutions are often too weak to support a culture of democracy, poor management of diversity has become a major source of unhealthy competition, conflict and instability. A research for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found that “over one-third of elections since the end of the Cold War have been held either during or within 10 years of the end of civil conflict.” Yet, “peaceful” Nigeria struggles to conduct hitch-free polls.
The electorate should not be discouraged by the turn of events. Nigeria’s democracy has become what researchers at the Johns Hopkins University, the United States of America, describe as mere “Electoral Democracy,”– a system “in which elites and their hangers-on hold elections but citizens have little real influence on the process.” We are paying a heavy price for this abdication of responsibility to an extremely selfish, self-centred and avaricious political class. It is said that a country cannot be truly democratic until its citizens have the opportunity to choose their representatives through elections that are free and fair. Fair elections provide an important means of improving responsiveness by making elected officials accountable to voters. But election fraud undermines this critical function, arrests good governance and derails national integration.
The culture of impunity must end. Electoral fraud should be prevented by all means. Though President Muhammadu Buhari warned that “anybody who decides to snatch boxes or lead thugs to disturb the election …does it at the expense of his/her own life,” in reality, it is the government that sinisterly abuses security agencies to swindle the elections.
Yakubu and the security agencies should not fail on Saturday. INEC should demonstrate greater transparency in the days to come. It should get the logistics right: Nigerians now expect nothing short of flawless balloting. INEC should ensure that voting materials are moved on time and safeguarded through close monitoring and collaboration with the security agencies. Communication is crucial: the public should be informed of all developments.
After INEC, success depends to a large extent on the security agencies, especially the police. Our politics has become too militarised and requires robust, impartial law enforcement. Only zero tolerance for electoral malfeasance and violence can stop the militancy associated with elections and obviate the need to lock down the country on Election Day.
Last Saturday polls’ postponement badly tarnished his reputation; Yakubu has another opportunity to redeem it and the image of the country.