By OBINNA EZUGWU
Few days to the 2019 general elections, confidence in the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) is at an all time low. A vast majority of Nigerians spoken to across the country say the Prof. Mahmoud Yakubu led electoral umpire has compromised, and that there are scarcely any grounds to expect free and fair election next month.
“Looking at previous elections since PMB came to power, especially the Osun and Ekiti elections, I have no confidence in INEC,” said Godwin Ekekhomen in Benin. “They will repeat the same.”
Pessimism about INEC is not a new phenomenon, however. The blatant manipulations of elections in 2003 and 2007 – easily the dark days of electioneering in the country under President Olusegun Obasanjo – had served to give the impression that as far as elections were concerned, it is about federal might, not people’s will.
However, that impression vastly changed after 2011 election – an election that saw Acting President Goodluck Jonathan win a four-year mandate. It was one election both local and international observers certified credible, although not without incidents. Supporters of President Muhammadu Buhari, then Congress of Progressive Change (CPC) candidate who was beaten to second place by Jonathan, unleashed mayhem on Nigerians of Southern origin, including NYSC members, in Yobe, Bauchi and elsewhere in the North, hundreds were murdered in its wake.
Buhari, had, contrary to popular belief, insisted that he did not lose the election. Indeed, he never accepted defeat in any election.
The success of 2011 was yet improved upon in 2015, with the introduction of card readers and other innovations by the Prof. Attahiru Jega led INEC. For the first time in the country’s history, a sitting President, Jonathan, was defeated by an opposition candidate, Buhari – an unprecedented electoral feat, not just in the country, but on the African continent.
However, with just days to the first general election under Buhari – another ex soldier like Obasanjo – many say everything points to a return to the dark old days. INEC, they say, has displayed unrestrained bias towards the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC). And President Buhari has, by declining assent to the 2018 Electoral Amendment Bill, shown he is not prepared to ensure fair play.
“The election has already been rigged. They have already written the results, it’s just for them to announce it. That’s what we are waiting for in February,” said Akogun Tola Adeniyi, veteran columnist, author and administrator.
“From day one, Buhari left no one in doubt that he was going to spend eight years, and probably a lifetime there. He has captured all the apparatus of power; he has captured all and put in his pocket. While he was doing that, everyone was looking on and grumbling in their houses without raising any visible finger or doing anything tangible about the anomaly.”
In Nigeria, as in most of Africa where otherwise independent institutions, such as electoral bodies, are largely controlled by government, and the extent to which they credibly perform their duties depend on the person of the president, some argue that from Buhari’s body language, it’s unrealistic to expect the February election to be fair.
“I don’t expect the election to be free and fair, not with a relative of Buhari in their midst, said Lagos based journalist Chinwe Eze. “INEC is all APC and I have no doubt they are going to rig the election in favour of the ruling party. They cannot conduct free and fair election. They just can’t and it’s obvious to Nigerians.
“Nigerians must be ready to fight if power must change hands; fight to ensure that votes count. We must be ready to say enough is enough.”
Of all the President’s moves, none has been, perhaps, more profound as his refusal to assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, a Bill which among other things, sought to give legal backing to the use of card readers, such that they become legal instruments in the conduct of election and can therefore, be tendered as evidence of rigging.
Beyond that, the Bill provides for the electronic transmission of counted votes from ward level to the state level, thus minimising the chances of manipulation. Buhari’s failure to sign it, some say, defies logic and can never be justified.
“I don’t understand why he (Buhari) did not sign it,” said veteran columnist, Ray Ekpu. “I am disappointed, every Nigerian should be disappointed. How do we move on from here? Does he want to create a crisis? I don’t know what the point of contention is, I think the issue of order of election has been resolved, so, I wouldn’t know why he did not sign it.”
A number of court judgments which emanated from the 2015 polls had made legalising card readers exigent. The most prominent of which, perhaps, is the 2015 Abia State governorship election adjudged to have been won by Dr. Alex Otti of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). But Otti was ‘denied’ his ‘mandate’ by what many saw as manipulation of results by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and it’s candidate, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu in two local governments, notably in Isialangwa where, it was alleged that the cheating was so blatant that the number of votes cast exceeded the number of verified voters.
Otti, supposedly armed with evidence, had gotten judgment in the Court of Appeal, but eventually lost out in the Supreme Court. The apex Court ruled that since card readers are not recognised by law, evidence emanating there-from could not be admissible in court.
Buhari’s refusal to assent to the Bill may invariably provide room for the use of incident forms, which largely defeats the essence of the huge investments in card readers. As seen in the evidence of Kano State where, despite having low illiteracy rate, delivered nearly 2 million votes for Buhari with no single voided vote, incident forms can perform some magic.
“There is no longer grounds to be hopeful of free and fair election,” said Afiz Wale, Ogun resident. “Buhari and his people have shown that they cannot play fair.”
Anxiety has continued to mount. Although Buhari had, on a number of occasions, assured of his intention to let votes count, his assurances have thus far, gone in parallel with his actions; actions that easily give him away, some say, as a president desperate to retain power at all costs and to that extent, reverse the electoral gains of 2015 and invariably return the country to the dark days.
“INEC is biased in favour of the ruling party. The electoral body hasn’t done enough to display their independence,” said Nnaji Kenneth, Enugu resident. “The last elections conducted in Osun and Ekiti States were glaringly manipulated in favour of the ruling party.”
INEC under Prof. Mahmoud had acquired fame for inconclusive elections. There had been few elections under him that didn’t end up being inconclusive in the first ballot, starting from the Kogi governorship election in late 2015, to Bayelsa State governorship election in 2016, all of which were “inconclusive,” up to the more recent Osun State.
Save for the November 2017 Anambra State governorship election, adjudged to be relatively free and fair – and to extent, the 2016 Ondo governorship election in which there was no report of a major infraction – all other governorship elections conducted under the current INEC leadership in Edo, Ekiti and Osun has been blighted by allegations of vote manipulation, often done, as alleged in active connivance of personnel of the electoral umpire and law enforcement agencies.
But of all, Osun where the PDP candidate, Senator Ademola Adeleke’s maintained initial lead over his APC counterpart, Gboyega Oyetola, but the election was declared inconclusive by INEC, only for the ruling party to use thugs and security agencies to intimate the opposition party, with alleged connivance of INEC officials, during the rerun to pave way for Oyetola to emerge winner, for many, is easily the most blatant.
The above is a point well emphasised by President Obasanjo in his much publicised letter to Buhari few days ago. The former had maintained that given what happened in Osun, he had doubts about INEC’s ability to deliver credible polls next month.
“I personally have serious doubt about the present INEC’s integrity, impartiality and competence to conduct a fair, free and credible election. And if the INEC is willing, will the ruling party and government allow it?” he had queried. “From what we saw and knew about Osun State gubernatorial election, what was conclusive was declared inconclusive despite all advice to the contrary.
“The unnecessary rerun, if viewed as a test-run for a larger general election, would lead people to expect incidences of deliberately contrived, broken or non-working voting machines or card readers, confusion of voters as to their voting stations, inadequate supply of voting materials to designated places, long line to discourage voters and turning blind eyes to favour the blue-eye political party of INEC because the Commission’s hands will be tied to enable hatchet men and women to perform their unwholesome assignment.”
The controversial appointment of President Buhari’s niece, Mrs. Amina Zakari to take charge of collation of results in the presidential election has also helped to dampen optimism. Many argue that Zakari’s appointment is yet another indication of the INEC’s unwillingness to ensure level playing field.
“The appointment of Amina Zakari to take charge of collation is suspect and rightly, INEC has been under fire lately,” said Adeola Ogunrinde, in Lagos. “I don’t know what to expect.”
The Mrs. Zakari controversy is another issue played up by Obasanjo in his letter. The former president said she had become too controversial a figure to be able to give assurance of free and fair election and called on her to step aside.
“Amina Zakari has become too controversial a figure to be able to give assurance of free, fair and credible election for INEC. President Buhari and her family have declared that there is no blood relationship but there is relationship through marriage and that is more than enough for the good lady to step aside,” Obasanjo wrote.”
“A judge does not sit in judgment over a case once he or she becomes a cause for controversy or one side in the case has strongly objected to the judge. Madam Amina Zakari should, in honour, stay out and not be seen as a source of contamination of the election. Otherwise, it will be difficult to deny the rumour that she is being assigned to Collation Centre for one duty only – to write out figures that are not results of the voting in the field on fake results sheets without water mark or on genuine results sheets which she will have access to as a Commissioner.”
The ruling party has however, pushed back. National leader of the party and co-chairman of the party’s presidential campaigns, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, attacked the former president, noting that his allegation was satanic and only a reflection of what he would have done if he were in Buhari’s shoes.
“The ways of Obasanjo are not those of the APC. And this difference has meant the better for Nigeria,” Tinubu said. “There is no election which occurred under Obasanjo’s watch or in which he participated that did not involve cheating on his part. Even the late President Umaru Musa Yar ‘Adua admitted he was the beneficiary of a flawed election engineered by none other than today’s vociferous complainant.”
But more allegations of plots to rig the polls keep emerging. The Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) last week, accused INEC of planning to recruit beneficiaries of FG’s social investment programme, N-power, as ad-hoc staff in the election. The electoral body, however, denied the allegation, explaining that the portal for recruitment had been opened for Nigerians to apply and that most importantly, it is recruiting NYSC members.
The umpire also denied similar allegation by PDP presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar that unclaimed voters’ cards were given to governors of the ruling party. But submissions from Nigerians suggest few take INEC’s words seriously.
“I think they are compromised by the Federal Government, said Ese Amadin, Lagos based banker. “I expect free and fair election.”
“No. I don’t trust INEC conducting a free and fair election judging by what we have seen them do so far in States like Ekiti and Osun,” said another respondent, Vera Adeola. “INEC has compromised its integrity with the sitting government whom they are answerable to.”
Still, there is an allegation that prominent members of the APC have been given the responsibility of overseeing the recruitment of INEC ad-hoc staff in various geopolitical zones. It is being alleged, for instance, that Senator Adamu Abdullahi, representing Nasarawa West is overseeing that of the North Central zone.
“The APC has taken charge of everything (the ad-hoc staff recruitment). If you are not part of the system, just forget it,” a source from the North Central who did not want his name in print. “Here in the North Central, Adamu Abdullahi is in charge. It’s a waste of time going to apply,” he alleged.
Some other people spoken to in the zone say they heard same allegations. “I have heard the rumours too,” said Aje Oyiwodu, Abuja resident. “I know someone who is PA to an APC senator who said they were going to his constituency to do the needful.”
But the allegations have not been one sided in a political climate that is becoming increasingly charged. Last week, Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed accused the opposition of arming merchants of death to instigate crisis because they know they cannot beat Buhari in the polls.
“Having realised that their fortunes have dwindled badly ahead of the polls, the desperate opposition is orchestrating widespread violence with a view to truncating the elections, thus, triggering a constitutional crisis that could snowball into the establishment of an interim government,” Mohamed told journalists in Abuja.
The PDP however described the Minister’s claims as “irresponsible” and called on Nigerians to hold the government responsible if there is any escalation of conflict.
‘’We have noted the detailing of awareness of the said plots by Alhaji Lai Mohammed, which exposes manifest complicity at very high level. In the light of this and the already displayed desperation by the APC ahead of the general elections, the PDP calls on Nigerians to hold President Buhari directly responsible for any escalation of violence in our nation,” PDP National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Kola Ologbondoyan said.
“It is imperative to state that the PDP finds the claims of Mohammed, irresponsible and ludicrous. It is just a measure for building the ground to frame up and arrest leading members of the opposition as he has just confirmed our concerns.
Severally, we have alerted the nation that the APC and the Presidency, having come to the reality of their imminent and disgraceful loss at the polls, have embarked on a strategy to foment crisis in our dear nation and blame the opposition.”