By Paul Ejime
As Nigeria braces for another critical general election this year, it is pertinent to recall the country’s history of unsavoury post-election violence, which dates back to the post-Republic 1964 elections in the Western region.
This was on the heels of the 1962 census dispute, all of which culminated in the bloody civil war of 1967-1970 during the unsuccessful secessionist bid by Eastern region.
The change from the Westminster parliamentary system of government to the American model of executive presidentialism in 1979 was followed by another post-election violence era from 1993.
With the return to civilian rule in 1999 after prolonged bouts of military dictatorships, many had expected some transformative changes in the polity and governance systems of Africa’s most populous country. However, ethnic politics, religious divisions, nepotism, corruption, mismanagement of resources, social inequalities and allegations of marginalization have persisted.
The 2011 presidential contest was particularly characterized by killings and widespread violence, casting serious doubts on national cohesion amid worries that the country might not have survived the 2015 elections. Some foreign think-tanks had even predicted that Nigeria would break up that year.
Fortunately, that doom’s day forecast never materialized; instead, there was the first peaceful political transition from a defeated government in power to the opposition.
Still, the political environment has remained fragile.
The make or mar February/March general election this year will be followed by a national census fixed for 29th March to 1 April.
These are foreshadowed by tension in the land, characterized by insecurity, increased poverty and unemployment, especially among the youth, socio-economic hardship, spiralling inflation and high cost of living, with millions of citizens pushed to the edge of existence.
Long queues have returned to petrol filling stations, with government and oil marketers in endless disputes over the right pump prices of imported petroleum products in the oil-producing nation of more than 200 million people. Travel by road, train or air has become unpredictable and risky.
Killings and abductions of innocent citizens by terror-armed bandits, Islamic extremist group – Boko Haram, or the so-called herdsmen and “unknown gunmen” in parts of the country are no longer headline news.
There is hunger and anger in the land; farmers cannot go to their farms for fear of being kidnapped for ransom, taxed or forced to work for the armed groups, which have been operating audaciously.
A prison in Abuja, the nation’s capital and the elite presidential guards have been attacked by the dare-devil bandits.
The situation is such that a state governor raised the alarm recently that terrorists have formed a parallel administration in the state. Authorities are not taking the situation lightly, but their assurances have failed to assuage the fears, anxiety, frustration and scepticism of traumatized and terrified citizens.
Even so, the general expectation is that Nigeria’s 2023 elections must go right. Not that the country is too big to fail, but for the mutual benefit of competing interests within and outside Nigeria, given the country’s geopolitical status as a regional power in Africa.
On 25th February 2023, an estimated 93.5 million registered Nigerian voters are expected to elect a new President from among candidates of the 18 registered political parties, as well as 109 Senators and 360 House of Representative members of the two-chamber National Assembly.
Two weeks later, on 11th March, Governors of 28 of the 36 states and 993 members of the State Houses of Assembly will emerge from polls taking place in 1,491 constituencies in 176,846 polling units across the country.
To qualify to vote on election day, registered voters must present their Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) for verification at a designated polling unit. Consequently, thousands of potential voters, primarily young people, who signed up during the last Continuous Voter Registration by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), are now running against time to beat the twice-extended 5th February deadline for the collection of their PVCs.
Meanwhile, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), as part of its monetary policy regulatory function, has redesigned three denominations of the national currency, the Naira, and all those with the old bills must swap them for the new ones by 10th February 2023.
This policy has been criticized, especially by politicians, but the apex bank insists it is to mop up excess cash in the system. There is also widespread perception that the move is designed to curb the negative impact of money used by politicians to corrupt the electoral process in a country where transactional politics, particularly vote-buying, is not uncommon.
However, the unintended consequences of the above-mentioned developments are captured in a cartoon showing Nigerians on different queues – some queuing for fuel at the filling stations, others at designated centres to collect their PVCs, and yet other crowds in and outside banking halls struggling to trade their old Naira bills for the new ones.
The scenes would have passed for comic relief but for the sufferings written on the faces of citizens on those queues. It must also be emphasized that the so-called “Nigerian factor” of always leaving essential tasks until the last minute has not helped matters.
Nonetheless, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, the INEC Chairman, and his team have continued to reassure Nigerians and the international community that the Commission will deliver one of the freest and most credible elections this year.
In engagements with different stakeholders, he has acknowledged the security challenges, including the 50 attacks on INEC facilities in 15 states from 2019, some resulting in the loss of lives and destruction of properties.
“The repeated assurance by the security agencies for the adequate protection of our personnel, materials and processes also reinforces our determination to proceed. The 2023 General Election will hold as scheduled,” declared Yakubu, in Abuja recently, while presenting the final register of voters for the 2023 elections.
The final figure of 93,469,008 voters, made up of 49,054,162 (52.5%) males and 44,414,846 (47.5%) females, is up from the 84,004,084 in 2019.
INEC is, arguably, one of the most reformed Nigerian government institutions. Almost after every electoral circle, national Committees, notably the Mohammed Uwais Committee (2009), the Ahmed Lemu Committee (2011) and the Ken Nnamani Committee (2017), were set up, resulting in various recommendations on lessons learnt and for improvements in the future.
One area of significant improvement at the Commission under Yakubu’s leadership is the use of technology.
“There are three critical components namely, the INEC Voter Enrolment Device (IVED) for improved registration of voters, the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BIVAS) for both voter accreditation and electric transmission of results for collation and the INEC Result Viewing (IReV) portal to offer the public access to view Polling Unit results,” he told the international audience during his recent appearance at the London-based British Think-tank, the Chatham House.
BIVAS is an improvement on the former Card Reader Machine. But aware that no system is error-proof, INEC plans a mock accreditation with the BIVAS machines on 4th February 2023 in 436 polling units nationwide.
“Doing so will help to reassure the public of the robustness of our system and to strengthen our processes ahead of the General Election,” Yakubu told Resident Electoral Commissioners at a meeting in Abuja on 27th January.
Many consider the introduction of BIVAS and electronic transmission of results from polling units as well as other provisions of the new Electoral Act signed into law in February 2022, as revolutionary measures designed to reduce, if not eliminate, malpractices in the electoral process to make the electoral process more accessible, inclusive, transparent and credible.
On logistics, Yakubu has assured that sensitive and non-sensitive electoral materials were being deployed as scheduled with the collaboration of the National Transport Unions.
For the 2023 elections, the Commission requires some 707,384 Presiding and Assistant Presiding Officers, 17,685 Supervisory Presiding Officers, 9,620 Collation/Returning Officers, and 530,538 Polling Unit security officials, making a total of 1,265,227.
“These would be painstakingly recruited and trained to ensure that they are both fit-for-purpose and nonpartisan,” the INEC Chief assured.
Apart from the elaborate preparations, the Commission equally counts on the support and collaboration of critical stakeholders and will be leveraging on mechanisms provided by the Interagency Consultative Committee on Election Security, the Election Violence Mitigation and Advocacy Tool and the Election Risk Management Tool, to deliver election processes with integrity and inclusivity.
The Commission said it has made adequate arrangements for Persons with Disabilities (PWDs), explaining that as much as the security environment permits, the more than two million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the country would also be allowed to vote. Efforts are also being made to ensure that Nigerians in Diaspora can vote in future elections.
However, while INEC continues to work to inspire public trust and confidence in its integrity, the disposition of many politicians, their political parties and supporters, and the controversial role of the judiciary are threatening the electoral process.
The presidential candidates have all signed up to the ritual Peace Accord committing to non-violence and to respect the poll results, but ongoing electoral campaigns have been characterized by verbal attacks, hate speech, trading of corruption allegations, destruction of campaign materials by opponents, and overt violence, sometimes leading to fatalities. There are also the negative impacts of the social media, fake news and disinformation.
Recent developments in the United States and Brazil point to the potentially dangerous consequences where candidates refuse to concede poll defeats, incite supporters or use conspiracy theories to undermine the legitimacy and integrity of the electoral process.
While these two countries might be able to withstand these political assaults due to their solid democratic institutions, the situation will undoubtedly be different and, perhaps, tragic in a country with weak democratic foundations.
An election is not war or a do-or-die affair. Politicians owe their countries the constitutional duty and obligation to conduct themselves responsibly before, during and after elections.
In Nigeria’s case, all stakeholders must work collectively to avoid election violence or rigging, vote-buying or vote-selling, “personalization of democracy” or the “capture” of institutions or the state.
For unexplained reasons, parliament has yet to pass Nigeria’s much-awaited Electoral Offences Bill. The earlier the bill is signed into law, the better, to end the reign of impunity in the electoral process.
As presently constituted, INEC is not in a position to arrest or effectively prosecute all electoral offenders. At the same time, commensurate punishments must be meted out to culprits and their sponsors to serve as a deterrent and for the entrenchment of peaceful, credible elections and consolidation of democracy.
Similarly, undue judicial involvement or interference, such as the encouragement of “Forum-shopping” or situations whereby courts of equal jurisdiction are issuing contradictory decisions on the same matter, must stop. Election outcomes should be determined through the ballot box at the polling stations and not in courtrooms. The perception that politicians can “buy” court judgements is dangerous to the image and integrity of judges and flies in the face of judicial independence.
The bottom line is for all stakeholders to manage hope and expectations in the realization that electoral umpires alone cannot deliver peaceful, credible, transparent, free and fair elections. It is a collective, multi-stakeholder enterprise that requires all actors – politicians, political parties, government, security agencies, judiciary, civil society, the media and the electorate – to do their part.
World attention is focused on Nigeria and its 2023 elections!
*Paul Ejime, a Global Affairs Analyst, is a Consultant on Strategic Communication, Media Development, Governance Issues, Peace & Security and Elections (Flowerbudnews)