Never before in the chequered history of democracy in Nigeria has a national election been as shambolic as the recently concluded one. Nigerians and the international community had expected much better from President Muhammadu Buhari government and the electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Such expectations were not misplaced given the relative success of the previous exercise in 2015 which saw the emergence of the present government.
Many had naturally assumed that the trajectory of progress would continue. Although INEC’s performance in 2015 was not flawless, many observers applauded its modest successes because it was on the average, free, and even fair.
When President Buhari assumed office on the platform of the All Progressive Congress (APC), which had made ‘Change’ its global agenda, expectations had arisen across board that progress would be made in different spheres of the country’s endeavour.
Since the return of democracy in 1999, the performance of INEC has ranged from fair to barely OK. There had always been credible allegations of sundry malpractices against it, some of which border on collision with desperate politicians to distort the will of the people.
Perhaps it was always foolhardy to expect an excellent performance by INEC considering the ugly realities of Nigeria. But not even the recognition of this fact, or indeed anything else, could have prepared Nigerians for the large scale dysfunction which characterised the last election. INEC’s performance was, to say the least, pathetic. In fact, the conduct of some of its officials border on outright criminality and sabotage, to the extent that they constituted a threat to the peace and harmony of Nigeria.
It can even be argued that their conduct, in some instances, smacked of treason. How does one explain that an electoral body whose duties were well cut out for it, and which received adequate funding for its operations, waited until about 3am, few hours to the commencement of voting, to announce the postponement of the presidential and national assembly elections, which were to take place on the 16th of February, on the grounds that it was unable to distribute electoral materials?
This newspaper is not aware of any other place in the world where such a situation has ever occurred in peace time. We are also not aware that there is any serious minded organisation that could do a thing like that. The natural consequence of that action should have been the immediate resignation of the INEC Chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu. Failing to do so, the government should have asked him to tender his resignation. But he did not resign and he was not removed from office. Instead, he was allowed to continue wobbling and fumbling. It was therefore not surprising that the elections he subsequently organised failed to make the mark. In instance after instance, and in states after states, the elections were overshadowed by sheer incompetence, official collusion and policy inconsistencies.
Before the elections, INEC had emphasised clearly that card readers would be used and in any instance where it was not used, the votes would be voided. But it turned out that in many instances, especially in many of the polling booths in the Northern part of the country, card readers were not used and under aged voting was prevalent. INEC failed to abide by its own rules.
Even in the declaration of winners and cancellation of results, you would expect seriousness and policy clarity to govern such important issues. But in many instances, Returning Officers flaunted the extant regulations and announced results according to their individual whims and caprices.
It is tempting to argue, as some might, that INEC was a helpless victim of the increasingly violent character of Nigerian politics. Such a position is not totally untenable. The militarisation of the election, especially the use of security forces created severe stress and hampered INEC’s ability to remain impartial and professional in the discharge of its duties.
In various centres, INEC staff, as confirmed by their own statements, were held captive by desperate politicians and their agents. These politicians coerced the officials into declaring results that were favourable to them. In fact, the lion share of the blames for INEC’s shortcomings must be laid at the doorsteps of the Federal Government. The fact that a country gets the kind of electoral body it deserves cannot be gain said. Clearly, INEC and its performance is a reflection of the Buhari administration.
It is apparent that the Buhari administration did not wish for an independent and efficient electoral umpire. To begin with, the President’s refusal to sign the 2018 Electoral Act Amendment Bill into law signposted his intentions. From what has unfolded, it is clear that the Buhari administration was unprepared for a clean electoral contest. So, it had to employ all sorts of tactics, including hampering the efficiency of INEC perhaps to facilitate the victory of the APC at the polls.
Nonetheless, by its inability to keep fidelity to its rules and regulations INEC created the environment for purveyors of violence to seize control and manipulate outcomes of the various elections.
For the first time since the return of democracy, Nigeria had a record number of cancelled and inconclusive elections. In each of these instances, the circumstances leading up to the decisions were highly questionable and smacked of partisanship. It is trite to say that by virtue of the law setting it up, and in recognition of the sanctity of its functions, INEC has no room whatsoever, for partisanship. It is also supposed to be like Caesar’s wife, above board in its functions. Sadly, that has not been the case. The perception by well-meaning members of the public is that INEC was highly compromised and inefficient. These limitations created huge problems, some of which were fatal.
In some states of the country, INEC staff lost their lives in the violence that trailed the elections.
This newspaper is deeply saddened by this state of affairs. We believe in the sanctity of democracy as the best form of government for Nigeria. We recognise the centrality of INEC in the success of democracy. Without a credible umpire, electoral contests cannot succeed in determining people’s choices for leadership. If a people cannot choose their own leaders freely, then the claim of democracy as the best form of government would be untenable, and it’s aim of enthroning a people’s government would be vitiated.
It is therefore crucial that the body entrusted with such onerous responsibility must function independently and credibly. Sadly, we cannot vouch that these are qualities which INEC today can boast of. We therefore join our voices with those of other well-meaning patriots to call for a comprehensive overhaul of INEC, beginning with the resignation of Professor Mahmood and of course, the signing into law of the 2018 Electoral Act Amendment Bill by President Buhari.
If the Buhari administration fails to establish a credible electoral body, it would be goodbye to democracy and welcome to anarchy. The violence and other shortcomings of the last elections, if left unchecked, can only escalate and that will spell doom, not just for INEC, but for democracy and good governance in Nigeria.