There is palpable anxiety in the air as Nigerians return to the polls today, to elect 28 state governors and 993 House of Assembly members in 36 states in the final round of the 2023 general elections.
Basically, the concerns and tensions revolve not only around the logistics problems that greeted the February 25 Presidential and National Assembly polls but more importantly, on the sincerity or otherwise of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, officials to let the people’s votes to count.
Despite some improvements over previous elections, INEC’s latest outing on February 25, may have proven that after 24 years of trying, officials of the Commission still cannot organise seamless national elections devoid of hitches and allegations of manipulation by politicians some of which are even aided by INEC officials.
The hopes of some Nigerians and lovers of democracy around the world for credible, hitch-free 2023 presidential election in Nigeria were dashed when the infractions that have persistently marred the country’s election circle resurfaced, even more pronounced in many areas than before.
With some political actors adopting the win by hook or crook attitude, many Nigerians, who spoke with Saturday Vanguard said the onus is on INEC and other critical state institutions like the security agencies to ensure the governorship and State Houses of Assembly polls are truly free, fair and credible.
The Labour Party, last week said its confidence in INEC to conduct credible polls had been eroded and the commission could no longer be trusted because it allegedly failed to transmit election results from polling units to its viewing portal realtime as it promised among others.
The use of technology was meant to check rigging. But following the failures of INEC in the Presidential election where snatching of ballot boxes, mutilation of results and other manipulations were facilitated by INEC failure to transmit results realtime to their result viewing portal, election riggers now have hope that they can continue with their acts.
Top politicians including governors, reports say, have mapped plans to rig today’s election. Allegations and counter allegation of those planning to use security officials, fake policemen and INEC officials to falsify results are rife.
“If INEC were decisive, if they didn’t give room for the nonsense that happened during the February 25 polls people would not have been this encouraged to rely on rigging,’ one political activist said in Rivers.
No governorship contest in eight states, FCT
Apart from the FCT, the governorship election will not hold in eight states- Osun, Edo, Ekiti, Ondo, Kogi, Anambra, Imo and Bayelsa because their gubernatorial polls had been staggered since 2007, but assembly seats will be contested in all the states.
Being the polls that will determine elected leaders who are going to be closer to the grassroots than the President, Senators and House of Representatives members till 2027, there is really so much at stake.
Fear of tragic farce
The rigging claims that rang out across the country in the aftermath of the February 25 elections have affected the public’s perception of the electoral process in an unprecedented manner, generating excruciating anxiety that today’s polls might be a fresh tragic farce.
Some stakeholders cautioned that aside the dangerous trend of distrust among the different faiths and ethnic nationalities in recent times, if there is anything that fertilises voter apathy and poses threat to the continuous existence of democratic governance in Nigeria, the perceived shortcomings of INEC are of major concern.
Compensation Nigerians want from INEC
As a matter of fact, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and its Presidential Candidate, Atiku Abubakar; the Labour Party; the Middle Belt Forum; the former Deputy Spokesman of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, Timi Frank, and several others, have raised the alarm that with the way the Professor Mahmood Yakubu-led INEC had conducted itself since it took over from the erstwhile chairman of the commission, Prof. Attahiru Jega in 2015 has fallen short of desired standard and so he should resign.
They are worried that INEC is gradually abdicating its responsibilities and allowing the Nigerian courts to gradually take over as election umpire, especially when it comes to determining winners in many contests.
However, Mr. Rotimi Oyekanmi, the chief press secretary to INEC Chairman, has faulted the calls for the resignation of his principal, Mahmood Yakubu.
In the same vein, some citizens who spoke with Saturday Vanguard are of the view that the INEC boss should neither resign nor be removed, but he must deliver a free, fair and credible state elections to Nigerians as his way of compensating Nigerians for the disappointment and pain caused by the Commission on February 25.
Recap of infractions/challenges
Recall that in several places, officials and materials arrived late. In others, documents were mixed up, with forms meant for one station ending up elsewhere or missing. Consequently, late voting ensued that millions of eager voters were disenfranchised during the February 25 polls
Also, spates of violence, intimidation of voters, ballot box-snatching, and impunity conflated with INEC’s failure to transmit results from the polling units to the virtual results viewing portal (iReV also known as the electoral integrity proof) dented last month’s federal elections.
Moreover, the number of voters in some places appeared to have overwhelmed the umpire.
The security agencies also did not live up to expectations in some places. The threats from thugs, ballot box snatchers, vote-buyers and VIPs deploying their offices and security details to subvert the process were caught on tapes.
The above irregularities did not miss the attention of local and international observers such as the Joint Election Observation Mission of the International Republican Institute, IRI, and the National Democratic Institute, NDI.
The foreign observer missions of the two United States Institutes led by former President of Malawi, Joyce Banda, submitted: “Despite the much-needed reforms to the Electoral Act 2022, the election fell well short of Nigerian citizens’ reasonable expectations.
“Logistical challenges and multiple incidents of political violence overshadowed the electoral process and impeded a substantial number of voters from participating.
“At the close of the polls, challenges with the electronic transfer of results and their upload to a public portal in a timely manner. undermined citizen confidence at a crucial moment of the process.
“Moreover, inadequate communication and lack of transparency by INEC about their cause and extent created confusion and eroded voters’ trust in the process.
“The combined effect of these problems disenfranchised Nigerian voters in many areas, although the scope and scale is currently unknown.”
Logistical challenges not new to INEC
Nigeria’s elections are a logistical challenge, but this can no longer be news. Managing over 93 million registered voters; 176,000 polling units; one million ad hoc staff; over 400 million ballot papers across 36 states and a Federal Capital Territory covering almost one million sqm terrain of land and water with motorable and non-motorable roads is a herculean task.
However, the Commission-led by Yakubu had registered citizens under the same conditions, and conducted the 2019 general elections and over 10 staggered elections; therefore, INEC cannot feign ignorance of the sheer logistics of conducting an election across the country. The challenges should have been embedded in the planning for the 2023 polls.
Before the presidential election, the INEC Chairman had assured and reassured Nigerians that INEC was on top of the situation. His commission received more than N300 billion for the conduct of 2023 elections. He announced the dates for the 2023 polls over a year ago; the commission had all the money it requested and it met regularly with stakeholders. At no point did the chairman tell Nigerians there were challenges that were out of his control.
After the election, Yakubu, in a meeting with Resident Electoral Commissioners, RECs, in Abuja, admitted that a number of issues ranging from technology, delay by election officials, and attitudes of political parties’ agents jeopardised the outcome of the February 25 elections.
He, however, added that officials responsible for the infractions would not be involved in the governorship poll and would face disciplinary actions.
However, Nigerians are of the opinion that threatening to sanction officials is not good enough.
Stop passing buck, Nigerians tell INEC chair
Some public affairs analysts said the buck stops at the INEC Chairman’s table because he is first among 12 other national commissioners and there are 36 State Resident Electoral Commissioners, in addition to the civil service staff of the commission who knew what, when and why the infractions Yakubu admitted to, occurred.
Looming voter apathy
All these nagging issues coupled with the penchant of many candidates who have strong political links with those who use critical state institutions to manipulate election results to their advantage will trouble the minds of Nigerians as they go to polls at the state level today.
The palpable effect of these infractions that came to light once again during the presidential election could be a drastic drop in the people’s enthusiasm to vote except in some states where there appears to be a ‘revolutionary’ consciousness to change the old bloc.
The mass voter apathy that may ensue at the polls could stem from the notion in the minds of millions of Nigerian electorates that election results are often decided long before their votes are cast.
Weighing in on the issue, former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Professor Chidi Odinkalu, said the entire elections this year (both federal and states) could end up being a charade unless a much-needed confidence boost is provided.
He said: “Nigerian politicians like to claim that an election is a game of numbers. That is not actually accurate; elections are about counting and accounting. As a country, Nigeria has historically not distinguished itself in either enterprise.”
According to him, in Nigeria’s electoral system, you can have numbers without counting.
Citing the case of Ahmed Bichi & PDP v. Alhaji Ibrahim Muazzam & Others, in a petition marked No. EPT/KNS/HR/29/07, Odinkalu noted that the election petition tribunal in Kano accused INEC of indulging in institutional ‘abracadabra.’
Also, in Chief (Mrs.) Edith Ejezie v. Hon Ralph Okeke & Others., Petition No. EPT/AN/NAF/HR/13/2007, a separate tribunal in Anambra found INEC guilty of ‘generating results for an election that did not hold.’
“Electoral abracadabra is not an event. It is the result of a multi-system process usually set up over an election cycle. It has many actors and components, nearly all of them within the state sector,” he said.
Learning from failures, implementing electoral reforms
For Dickson Jituboh, the Convener of Citizens’ Alliance for Good Governance, to get the governorship and State Houses of Assembly elections right and avoid a repeat of the missteps that dogged the February 25 polls, it is of utmost urgency that INEC stops playing games with electoral reform.
He told Saturday Vanguard: ”As a time-bound event, credible elections require precision and exactitude. That is why we the civil society collaborating with some state actors pushed for reforms that included the introduction of digital technology into the Electoral Act last year.
“To jettison these reforms for no tenable reasons during last month’s presidential election is not a good omen.
“INEC must get serious about implementing these reforms by learning from its past mistakes, missteps and failures in order to make the governorship election more credible.”
While many citizens insisted that INEC must rectify lapses of the February 25, 2023, Presidential and National Assembly elections for a better outing today, a historian and human rights activist, Dr Sylvester Akhaine, said: “Arguably, it is to be noted that no election in Nigeria since 1959 has been free and fair.
“The irregularities of the February elections are not new and not the worst in the country’s electoral heist.”
Electoral upsets possible today
Nevertheless, Akhaine, a former general secretary of the Campaign for Democracy in Nigeria, expressed the view that going into the governorship elections today, Nigerians should bear in mind that in a free and fair political contest, electoral upsets could still happen.