Nigerians are once more confronted with growing uncertainty, this time over the 2023 general elections billed for February and March. There is a resurgence of deadly attacks on the electoral umpire’s offices across the country, and vote-buying. Ruthless politicians are threatening the country’s fragile democracy. Alarmed, the Independent National Electoral Commission has warned that these threats might destabilise the polls. The alarm should be taken with utmost seriousness. The President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), must deploy all the coercive resources of the state to neutralise the threats.
Recent atrocities have rattled even the usually unflappable INEC Chairman, Mahmoud Yakubu. In his latest warning, he said that if the attacks on its offices continued, the elections might not hold. He added, “Since the 2019 general elections up till 2022, we have recorded 50 attacks in 15 states of the federation. The ones we recorded in 2022 are the ones we considered systematic and coordinated. They are targeted at derailing our commission from conducting free and credible elections.”
His optimism that the polls would go ahead successfully if the attacks did not continue in the New Year is not comforting. From experience, when elections are close, Nigeria’s reprobate politicians arm hoodlums to unleash violence. A day after Yakubu spoke, hoodlums raided the INEC office in Osu Local Government Area, Imo State. It was the fourth attack on INEC offices in Imo within three weeks.
In nearby Anambra, INEC warned that elections are under threat in seven of its 21 LGAs because of gun violence and arson. Attacks on INEC offices have also been rampant in Ebonyi, Enugu and Abia states, and in Ogun, Osun, and other South-West states in the past three months. As usual with Nigeria, the attackers often go scot-free. Consequently, the crime wave persists.
Indeed, most parts of the country are currently unsafe. Boko Haram/ISWAP and other terror offshoots operate in the North-East; bandits rampage throughout the North-West; Fulani herdsmen spread terror and ethnic cleansing in the North-Central; kidnappers, cultists and violent transport union enforcers torment the South-West, and gunmen and separatist agitators wreak havoc in the South-East and South-South.
Violence is not the only threat. INEC is also agonising over the rampant buying of Permanent Voter Cards. Unfortunately, vote-buying has been part of elections in Nigeria. It featured in the recent off-season governorship elections in Edo, Ekiti, Anambra, Osun, and Ondo states. Frequently, INEC introduces new measures to deter vote-buying, including banning smartphones at voting cubicles and remodelling the cubicles, but just as ingeniously, politicians devise cunning means to defeat the system.
“The commission is aware that legal provisions and the actions of the agencies are critical but will not be enough to completely root out the deep-seated cancer of corrupt money in our elections,” Yakubu said. He must not give up because vote-buying is antithetic to democratic tenets; the right leaders do not emerge, and over time, democracy is imperilled.
Indeed, the consequences of not holding the elections, scheduled for February 25 (presidential and National Assembly) and March 11 (governorship and state assembly) are unimaginable. But with the spiralling violence, the elections might be inconclusive, creating uncertainty and imposing extra financial burden on a reeling economy.
Yet, regime officials insist there is no significant threat to the polls in which 18 parties are contesting the presidential, governorship and parliamentary seats at the federal and state levels. Saying that he wants to leave a legacy of credible polls, Buhari told the world at a recent event in New York, United States that he had provided all the necessary resources for INEC to succeed.
The Police Affairs Minister, Muhammad Dingyadi, was also upbeat. He said, “This election is going to be conducted in all parts of the country. And we want to assure Nigerians that the election is going to be hitch-free. It is going to be fair and credible. What you see out there by these criminals will not stop us from conducting the election.” They should back their optimism with concrete action and results. Some state governors have admitted that several communities are currently under the control of terrorists and bandits. They should be flushed out and residents assured of their safety.
Historically, Nigeria’s election seasons are bloody. An NGO, the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, estimated that 626 persons were killed across Nigeria in the six months between electioneering and the commencement of the general and supplementary elections in 2019. Benue, Borno, Kaduna, Rivers, and Zamfara states recorded the highest casualties.
Elections were slightly delayed in 2011 and 2015 because of heightened Boko Haram attacks. In the post-election violence in 2011, Human Rights Watch said 800 persons died in Northern Nigeria in three days of rioting in 12 Northern states to protest the victory of Goodluck Jonathan over Buhari.
Unlike 2015 when the Boko Haram insurgency was limited to the three North-East states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, deadly violence is currently widespread across the country.
In all, about 1,149 persons, including INEC employees, National Youth Service Corps members and security personnel were killed in the three general elections held in 2011, 2015 and 2019, the umpire stated. INEC said it suffered nine attacks in 2019, 21 in 2020 and over 12 as of May 2021, and lost 9,836 smart card readers, 345 ballot boxes, and 135 voting cubicles, estimated at N847 million.
The fresh violence and PVC merchandising may worsen the country’s low voter turnout record, producing results that are not representative of the people’s will. Voter turnout in the Anambra governorship election in November 2021 was just 10 per cent. This does not enhance democracy.
The rest of Africa is looking up to Nigeria, its most populous country, to get it right. Buhari should walk his talk on free, fair, and credible elections come 2023, beginning with marshalling comprehensive strategies against the purveyors of violence and vote-buying. So far, the security agencies are working independently of each other and at cross purposes. They should synergise, and Buhari should appoint a coordinator.
Security at INEC offices should be a top priority. The Inspector-General of Police, Usman Baba, should withdraw the army of policemen attached to individuals and deploy them to the field. Using intelligence, police should investigate, arrest and prosecute the gunmen and their backers behind the violence on INEC offices.
Elections are central to democracy. They are held periodically to gauge the health of a democracy, and to give a voice to the electorate. Frequent seamless elections define the Western democracies, while many other countries ensure that they hold elections in due season. Shortly after the United States-led forces pulled out of Iraq in 2003, the country held two elections in 2005, followed by another one in 2009 with major assistance from the UN. After the defeat of the Islamic State in 2017, other polls followed in 2018.
Nigeria, therefore, has no excuse not to hold the polls in February. The security agencies should re-strategise, collaborate closely and intensify the war on terror, banditry, and Fulani herdsmen rapine. The South-East is a hotbed of insurrection. There, the deployment of troops with numerous checkpoints has not curbed the violence. That demands a new strategy anchored on intelligence and community engagement. The governors there should reinvent Ebubeagu, the regional security force that is tainted with partisan politics.
Buhari should secure Nigeria even after the elections in March to give Nigerians a deserved respite from criminality.