NIGERIA’S ELECTORAL SHOW OF SHAME

Punch Editorial
The conduct of the 2023 presidential/National Assembly polls on February 25 has once more stirred deep questions on the credibility and integrity of the Independent National Electoral Commission. A host of domestic and international observers agreed that the polls grossly fell short of minimum global standards. It is a shame that after seven election cycles, balloting in Nigeria remains riddled with inefficiency and tainted by accusations of result falsification, vote buying, voter suppression, calculated disenfranchisement, and violence.

Just like the previous general elections that were defiled by malpractices, Nigerians are traumatised by the first rounds of balloting in the 2023 election cycle. This is despite the introduction of enhanced technology tools—the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System, and the INEC Result Viewing Portal—and repeated promises by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), to bequeath clean elections to Nigeria. Clearly, they were empty promises.

Significantly, all the main contenders in the presidential polls, Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (declared the winner by INEC), Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party, Peter Obi of Labour Party, and Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples Party, have filed complaints. Similar irregularities marred the National Assembly elections held simultaneously on February 25.

Frankly, INEC failed significantly in its assignment though it was backed by a strengthened Electoral Act 2022. Notable voices that have faulted the polling include a former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, the European Union Election Observer Mission, the United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Leonard, a non-governmental organisation, Yiaga Africa, and Chatham House, the UK non-profit.

Obasanjo was blunt, saying the results “brought outside BVAS and server are not a true reflection of the will of Nigerians.” He called for cancellation and fresh balloting in places where irregularities were identified. Leonard declared that the polls did not meet the expectations of Nigerians.

Evidence on polling day and after bore this out. Online media is replete with videos of security agents, public officials and thugs tearing ballot papers, massive thumbprinting, ballot box snatching and other irregularities. There are viral videos showing how results from polling units were altered and later uploaded to the IReV portal, different from the original results.

INEC messed up by failing in the electronic transmission of results from the polling units to the IReV, as mandated by the Electoral Act. The law was initially hailed as the solution to the pervasive rigging that has rendered past polls in Nigeria questionable.

INEC has no tenable excuse for its resort to manual transmission of results in many places, or uploading days after the polls had been held. This is crucial. In Nigeria, it is during manual collation that politicians mutilate, change, and manipulate votes with the connivance of some compromised INEC officials and security agents. The umpire should never have allowed this to happen; BVAS and IReV were promoted as the game-changers with their capacity for instant and accurate accreditation of genuine voters, and real-time, transparent transmission of results to the IReV portal.

Yiaga Africa, which deployed 3,014 observers across the country, said, “The state-level presidential results for Imo and Rivers are inconsistent with the Yiaga Africa Watching The Vote projections for both states. For Rivers, INEC announced 231,591 votes for APC or 44.2 per cent; 175,071 for LP or 33.4 per cent; and 88, 468 for PDP or 16.9 per cent. This is in sharp contrast to the Yiaga Africa WTV estimates for Rivers which are: APC 21.7 per cent ±5.0 per cent; for LP 50.8 per cent ± 10.6 per cent; and for PDP 22.2 per cent ±6.5 per cent.” It delivered a similar and even more damning verdict for Imo State, where results were declared in some places where voting did not hold.

Barry Andrews, EU Election Observer Mission’s Chief Observer, declared, “INEC lacked efficient planning and transparency during critical stages of the electoral process, while on election day, trust in INEC was seen to further reduce due to delayed polling processes and information gaps related to much-anticipated access to results on its Results Viewing Portal.”

INEC’s ICT failure is baffling. It badly tainted the 2023 presidential election as it created room for manipulation, which the loathsome politicians promptly seized. The battle has shifted to the courts, with all its negative connotations.

Elections in Nigeria have usually failed the integrity test, with the results often contested at the courts. The 2015 presidential election was unique because the incumbent President, Goodluck Jonathan, graciously conceded defeat, overruling the hawks in his own party. Buhari’s three earlier presidential runs went right up to the Supreme Court, until his decisive victory at the fourth attempt.

A sad consequence of flawed elections is that the courts have supplanted voters as the ultimate deciders of elections. This is a negation of democracy which is anchored on the will of the people and their inalienable right to freely choose their leaders.

Nigeria must change this narrative. One way out to make the people’s will count is for the courts to order fresh polls where there are credible doubts on the polling, rather than judges deciding the victor.

The 2007 polls were particularly bad, and the courts overturned many results at the state and federal levels. Although the Supreme Court refused to overturn or order a rerun of the presidential polls, the winner, the late Umaru Yar’Adua, admitted that the elections that brought him to power were manipulated. The significant recommendations of the Muhammed Uwais-led panel he set up have not been implemented after his incapacitation and death in office in May 2010.

Ahead of the 2019 polls, there was a fierce battle to legalise transmission of election results. Buhari refused to sign that portion then; but he raised hopes when it was enshrined in the Electoral Act 2022. INEC has dashed those hopes.

It failed on several other counts. In the July 2022 off-season governorship election in Osun State, the APC candidate, Gboyega Oyetola, premised part of his litigation on faulty BVAS operations. Digital technology should make elections better. And there was enough time between then and February 25 for INEC to perfect its ICT shortcomings. Conversely, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Guinea, Benin, Comoros, Burkina Faso, and Gabon have successfully deployed digital technology in their elections, the Washington DC-based NGO, Wilson Centre, says.

Since 1999, logistics challenges have overwhelmed the umpire. There were inexplicable delays in delivering non-sensitive and sensitive materials close to PUs, leaving voters frustrated; many returned home unable to cast their ballots. Consequently, the voter turnout crashed to 27 per cent from the 34.7 per cent recorded in 2019.

INEC has no genuine excuse for these errors with the funding it received. In 2011, logistics and insecurity provoked a six-week postponement; in 2015 and 2019, polling was shifted by one week each. Nigeria is just going round in circles, unable to improve on basic things. Much bigger democracies like India (pop 1.4 billion), the US (pop 334.23 million), Indonesia (pop 275.5 million), and Brazil (pop 215 million), hold credible elections.

INEC, as presently constituted, is an inefficient organisation that has failed to deliver when it mattered most. Candidates who insist that they won pin their hopes on the court, though Nigeria’s apex court has never overturned a presidential poll.

Conversely, Kenya’s constitutional court cancelled a rigged ballot in 2017 and ordered a rerun. Malawi’s Supreme Court also cited widespread irregularities in overturning the country’s 2019 presidential election and ordered a rerun. Leaders occupying office on tainted mandates lack legitimacy and cannot unite the country.

Nigeria should reform its electoral system. INEC should upgrade and perfect its ICT tools and logistics. Its personnel that compromised the polls should be dismissed and handed over to the police for prosecution.

Certainly, Buhari and INEC have embarrassed Nigeria; they should do better in the governorship and state houses of assembly polls.

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