8 December 2019
At the bedrock of my social belief systems is the conviction that fixing any society begins with fixing the processes that determine how people gain access to leadership positions in such society.
In a democratic clime like ours, an electoral process that is genuine, credible, free, fair and transparent will result in a responsible, people-orientated and an accountable government. Simply put, in Nigeria, getting it right with the ballot will mean getting it right with governance. Prior to this year's general elections, citizens, friends of Nigeria as well as her sympathisers at home and outside our borders, had hoped that a remarkable consolidation will be made on the gains achieved in the 2015 elections which was largely adjudged locally and internationally as free, fair and transparent, and perhaps, the most credible in Nigera's history. However, by the time the 2019 general elections were concluded, it became a horse of different colour to most people who shared in this hope.
Every election year, observers undertake the ardous task of election monitoring. The last general elections as usual, had international observer mission championed by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI). This group and many other civil society groups, observed the pre-election, election day and post-election environments.
I have taken time to read through most of the full reports of the groups (local and international) that observed our general elections February 23 and March 9 this year. As a concerened citizen, I have send up a trial ballon —placed their observations vis-à-vis my own confronted realities, the views of many others and the actions of stakeholders and keyplayers in that election, compared their recommendations with the vox-populi of Nigerians —all seem to say the samething: that our electoral processes are still faulty and lacking the trust and confidence of well meaning Nigerians. Most vocal was the revelation that most of those who have found themselves in the corridors of power, go there with stolen mandates.
While it is true that we live by these electoral faultines on- and off-election cycles, my interest here is to ask whether or not INEC (the electoral umpire) or the government or political parties and relevant stakeholders have taken the findings of observers to heart. I am seeking to know whether or not the popular sentiments of Nigerians meant anything to them?
In their joint reports, both Ambassador Derek Mitchell and Dr. Daniel Twining, Presidents of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI) respectively, submitted that the 2019 general elections fell below the 2015 standard and left Nigerians shaken in their democratic faith. This was also the view of YIAGA AFRICA which submitted that 2019 was a lost opportunity. They also said: 'The 2019 elections highlighted for many Nigerians, the need for a national conversation about the country’s democratization since the 1999 transition to civilian rule'.
Fast forward. Here are some of the findings of some international observer groups notably the NDI/IRI and YIAGA AFRICA:
1. That Nigerian political parties lack internal democracy and so, the nomination processes were flawed with election malpractices, ridden with fraud and left standard bearers with much litigations most of which could not be determined before general elections. For instance, there were over 800 court cases arising from party primaries;
2. That apart from the significant improvements made in 2011 and 2015 at enabling a viable legal framework for the elections, stakeholders did little to further reform the electoral process in 2019. For instance, in the build-up to the elections, President Buhari repeatedly declined assent to some bills seeking to amend the electoral act. By refusing to sign, citing proximity to elections and INEC's ability to implement, the president stood in-between a measure that could have 'codified important improvements' in the legal framework of the elections;
3. That INEC, preparatory to the elections, could not come out clean as to their readiness and efficiency in the general administration of the elections. Perhaps, most surprising was that INEC, shortly after the polls, became withdrawn and slow in her release of information 'including detailed results'. We should be worried here!
4. That on election day, while some displayed proficiency in handling the polls, some INEC officials displayed gross inexperience of election duty. On this particular election, while we believe, there has been significant improvement in the conduct of elections in the country, especially in INEC’s conduct and processes, there were manifold drawbacks in election logistics management, quality of election personnel; integrity and transparency of the results collation.
5. That though the elections were peaceful and transparent in a few places, it was fraud-ridden and marred with violence in many other places especially South South. More conspicuous was Vote Buying.
6. That only 35% of eligible voters exercised their franchise. The remaining 65% were either afraid to come out for security reasons or have lost confidence in the process —the highest instance of voter aparthy in our democracy. In the recently held governorship election in Kogi for instance, YIAGA in her pre-election observation, repoted stockpiling of arms and ammunitions, deployment of political thugs, inflammatory comments by critical stakeholders and other forms of violence.
Consequently, in her process statement released on November 18, 2019, YIAGA AFRICA confirmed actual acts of electoral violence, especially violence against observers and intimidation of voters by political thugs —actions which the group says impacted badly on the credibility of the process.
7. Particularly, while YIAGA noted that official results announced by INEC as well as the official turnout rate and rejected ballots figure based on reports from 1,491 (98.4%) of sampled polling units were consistent with YIAGA AFRICA’s Parallel Vote Tabulation estimates (PVT), the group said her PVT findings also revealed certain lapses and reports of malfeasance which impacted on the quality of the process in some polling units and states.
Bearing all these in mind, the observer groups recommended the followings among others:
1. A national dialogue on the preffered trajectory of further elections whose resolutions will be the result of a consensus;
2. There is need to further expand the legal framework of elections that will ensure credibility of the process through passage of relevant bills and will, in itself, be comprehensive and inclusive;
3. Establish time limits for the adjudication of pre-election petitions;
4. The need for INEC to adopt more transparent procedures for the tabulation, transmission and announcement of results;
5. The need for the adoption of strategic measures that'll ensure transparent nomination process in political parties, check their financial commitments and ensure internal democracy within participating political parties;
6. The need for implementation of laws that checks electoral law offenders and ensure that they are punished accordingly no matter who is involved;
7. A robust civil engagement that will ensure adequate voter education
8. Non-militarisation of elections but controled security that ensures safety of voters, election officials, observers and men of the media.
Having observed all these and confirmed them to be true, one would expect that any responsible system or institution, committed to improving on the status quo to act immediately without having to leave such sensitive recommendations to fall through the cracks.
Prior to this time, I had hopes that INEC will seize the opportunity of the off-cycle elections in both Kogi and Bayelsa to right its wrongs. Nigerians expected that they'll improve their sense of administration, and labour enough to earn the trust of the electorates. We all hoped to see a much more independent INEC.
Lamentably, the hopes of well meaning Nigerians were dashed. INEC's outing in Kogi and Bayelsa states proved even more threatening to our democracy. Nothing meaningful changed! YIAGA, the NDI/IRI, Occupy Nigeria and many other observer and civil society groups again proclaimed that 2019 was indeed a lost opportunity for us to have consolidated on the democratic gains of 2015 elections.
INEC officials still arrived late at polling stations. There were issues of Logistics —failed smart card readers, misplaced voter registers, etc. There were also the issues of electoral violence -ballot box snatching, outright brigandage, political thugery, shooting and the eventual loss of many pieces of precious Nigerians lives. INEC was accused of compromise. Security operatives were reported to have harassed voters and civil society organisations, trading of votes, to mention but a few.
Frankly, no progressive nation intends to be going back on her democratic values. Only failed or failing societies take for granted electoral integrity.
As a citizen, I feel ashamed each time we misfire on important issues that matters to our existence as a nation. I am petrified each time we seem to undermine certain things that threaten our democratic future.
On this note, I feel empty talks should now pave way for actions -real actions. The preparation for a better 2023 should begin now. The National Assembly should revisit those bills that fell short of Mr President's assent, work on them again and consider passing them into laws. Politicians, civil society groups, security operatives, critical stakeholders should now rise above personal interest and begin to pursue national interest first. Similarly, the government should, without fear or favour, muster the political will to take responsible actions that'll ensure transparency and create an atmosphere of trust in the electoral process.
When we get it right with the ballot, we will get it right with governance!
Nnabiget Oke writes from Jos Nigeria, and can be reached via email@example.com