Nigeria: Urgent action needed to rescue election
Nigeria: Urgent action needed to rescue election
The Promise and Potential Pitfalls of Nigeria’s 2023 Elections (Online event, 23 February 2023)
The Promise and Potential Pitfalls of Nigeria’s 2023 Elections (Online event, 23 February 2023)
Op-Ed / Africa 6 minutes

Nigeria: Urgent action needed to rescue election

The month of April 2007 once seemed to hold great historic promise for Nigeria. The general elections offered a possibility for the country to experience its first ever transition of power from one civilian leadership to another. So far, however, it only seems to be an unfolding disaster.

The process was marred from the start: preparations for the elections produced dubious and shoddy voter registration lists; the parties' primaries selected candidates using stolen state funds and violence; and the campaign itself was the most violent in the country's 47-year history, devoid of any new ideas for improving governance.

Things went from bad to worse during the first phase of actual voting, the elections for governorships and state assemblies, held on 14 April. Three areas of vital weakness were revealed.

First, the elections demonstrated that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) - always uncomfortably close to President Olusegun Obasanjo - cannot meet the organisational and logistical challenges it faces. In most parts of the country, election officers and materials did not arrive in time, leading to delayed voting or no voting at all. In some areas, Commission officials simply failed to turn up or materials ran out before all voters had cast their ballots. One community within the Federal Capital territory, Kuchingoro, had no list of voters at all.

On account of these lapses, even some senior government officials, such as Senate President Ken Nnamani and Anambra state governor Peter Obi, were unable to vote in their states. Both have judged the elections unfair and have called for the polls to be cancelled and held afresh in Enugu and Anambra states respectively. Similar protests and calls for the cancellation of the elections have been made by candidates in other states, because their photographs or names were omitted on the ballot papers.

Second, credibly independent monitoring of the elections was so hampered on 14 April that few in the country will see the results as legitimate. The Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), widely acknowledged as the leading election watchdog in the country, was largely denied accreditation and virtually barred from monitoring the exercise. While the TMG mobilised over 10,000 members to observe the voting in all 36 states, the INEC provided less than 1,000 identification badges for them.

In Lagos, for instance, with a population variously estimated at 9 to 17 million, the INEC provided only 20 identification badges for the group's monitors. This suggests a worrying level of either incompetence or malice: either the INEC or the UN Development Programme which was contracted to produce the materials under a joint donor arrangement were simply unable to do so, or this was part of a wider INEC design to keep local monitors from witnessing expected irregularities.

The third, and most serious, problem of the first round of voting was the widespread violence and insecurity. Reports from virtually every state speak of electoral materials being stolen in transit, polling stations invaded and ballots seized. And despite the government's arrangements for the massive deployment of the police, army and state security services, the elections left a number of people dead even before the vote-counting began, sometimes even before any votes were cast.

In Port Harcourt two major police stations were attacked a few hours before the elections and burnt down by youths screaming that there would be no poll. Seven policemen were killed. It was hardly an isolated incident: collecting reports from several states, it appears at least 60 people were killed and as many wounded in election-related violence on 14 April. About half of the deaths occurred in three states in particular: Rivers, Delta and Edo, all in the Niger Delta region. And these figures are in addition to those, estimated at nearly 100 people, killed across Nigeria during the campaign.

While it is too early to make any generalisations about the perpetrators of the violence, it can at the very least be said that the elections were conducted in an atmosphere of voter insecurity and fear in many areas, and were therefore not free and fair in those parts of the country. The electoral commission concedes that its arrangements for security of materials did not anticipate that ballot boxes could be attacked and stolen even before the votes were cast - yet further evidence of the INEC's poor preparation.

The Commission's reported electoral results are also causing concern. Of the sixteen states for which results had been announced by Sunday night, Obasanjo's PDP claimed thirteen, with one victory for the main opposition All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP), one for Action Congress (AC) and one also for the Progressive People's Alliance. If this trend leads to a landslide victory for the PDP, it would run very much contrary to public sentiments, thus confirming in the public's mind that there must have been large-scale rigging. Violent responses to these results have already been reported in such states as Delta, Bauchi and Benue.

How the INEC treats protests and disputes will also be critical to public reaction. Initial signs are not encouraging. On Sunday, citing electoral irregularities and violence, it cancelled the governorship elections held in Imo state, where a candidate recently expelled from the PDP could have won. At the same time, it upheld the votes for the assembly elections in the same state, and has allowed results in some other states where the exercise was even more controversial. This seemingly pro-PDP pattern of response to disputed polls will seriously undermine whatever is left of the credibility of the elections.

Political leaders are trying to spin the weekend's events their way. President Obasanjo has applauded the 14 April exercise, a judgment predictably echoed by the chair of the electoral commission, Professor Maurice Iwu. But few Nigerians share that view, and they are joined even by some senior members of the ruling PDP.

Muhammadu Buhari, the opposition ANPP presidential candidate, has expressed serious misgivings about the credibility of the election and the acceptability of its final results. The Action Congress (AC) of Vice President, Atiku Abubakar - whom Obasanjo has tried to keep off the presidential ballot by every conceivable means, including selective corruption charges - has alleged that many of the results being announced are merely "concocted" by the INEC under heavy influence from Obasanjo and his PDP. In Rivers State, the Joint Revolutionary Council (JRC), the umbrella militant group which includes the insurgent Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), has denounced the elections as "a sham... the worst in the history of Black Africa." It has threatened to "unleash terror in infinite terms" in response.

Explosive tensions are now mounting, especially between supporters of Obasanjo, Abubakar and Buhari, as this Saturday's presidential election approaches. Clearly, a repeat of last weekend's lapses would spark further violence and deepen the crisis of legitimacy for whoever is elected. What can be done to improve the situation in the few short days remaining is clearly limited, but there are some urgent steps that can and should be undertaken.

First, the INEC needs to address its serious organisational lapses. One simple - even if partial - solution to some logistical problems would be for the INEC to use vehicles of other government departments that have large pools available, such as the National Population Commission, to facilitate the movement of election staff and materials.

The INEC, working with the UNDP, should also allow the accreditation of much larger numbers of independent election monitors from the TMG in order to ensure effective monitoring of the polls, and thus the credibility of results. The Commission also needs to show full transparency and impartiality in addressing the many controversies that are arising from the voting.

Second, the police and other security agencies must act more pro-actively to pre-empt or contain violence, especially in the Niger Delta region, but also in all states that are on the INEC's security watchlist. Those responsible for violence over the weekend should be arrested and prosecuted speedily, impartially and transparently. Police and army authorities should also direct their personnel to respond to post-election protests with restraint so as not to exacerbate the situation.

Third, the feud between Obasanjo and Abubakar needs to be dealt with right away. The Supreme Court ruled on Monday to allow Abubakar to run for the presidential elections, and while this may defuse some tensions, it could easily spark others. The Court's decision essentially undermined the role of the INEC in determining who can stand, calling into question some of the Commission's earlier moves and thus handing the opposition a strong argument to challenge many election results. In any case, the logistical hurdle of getting new presidential ballots printed and delivered to polling stations in just a few days may be insurmountable.

Nigeria's international partners - particularly the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States - have to engage immediately to mediate the Obasanjo-Abubakar conflict. The governments of the United States, the European Union and the Commonwealth could also help by making it absolutely clear that presidential elections as deeply flawed as those of last Saturday will have severe repercussions on their future relations, including Nigeria's quest for a stronger voice at the United Nations.

Nigeria's elections and Obasanjo's coveted reputation as a champion of democracy are greatly endangered. But the country's stability and democracy, as well as Obasanjo's reputation and legacy, can still be rescued if quick action is taken.

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