Is it too late to get it right?
When I scripted a somewhat op-ed few days to Nigeria’s 2019 general elections, I conveyed my unshakable faith in successful polls and my belief that the election would constitute the topic of discourse at every Nigerian gathering in the coming months. However, little did I know that the last- minute postponement of the national exercise would form the preamble. Like the rest of Nigerians, I woke up to the news of the deferment of the elections conveyed by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) ombudsman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu in a press release at the early hours of Saturday, February 16, 2019, the day of the election. Like most Nigerians, I did not see it coming at all. In my adulthood, I had never felt confident about Nigeria’s ability to conduct a credible election. My confidence flowed partly from INEC’s surefooted assurance of free and fair election in the media up to my bedtime on the eve of the presidential and federal house of assembly elections and the president’s oft-repeated pledge of delivering credible elections to Nigeria. Such announcement felt as though one had been robbed in a sleep.
Diverse reactions have trailed the infamous election postponement, which the INEC chairman has attributed to logistics, bad weather, and attempted sabotage. None of the reasons he adduced has been found plausible by the public. As a result, not a few Nigerians have chastised him. Some civil societies even encourage Nigerians who suffered economic losses, due to the postponement to sue INEC, to be compensated. Legal experts quote section 26 of Nigerian Electoral Act which stipulates, “an election may be postponed if a serious breach of peace or violence is likely to occur or on account of a natural disaster or other emergencies.” For them, logistical and operational issues fell outside these very conditions and went on to rebuke the INEC for shattering the hope of Nigerians to cast their votes on February 16, 2019. The smaller parties felt that it was a ploy by the two major parties, All Progressives Congress and People’s Democratic Party to edge them out of the exercise as they would find it difficult to mobilise additional resources necessary to participate effectively in the elections. The Coalition for the United Political Parties, the umbrella body of all the political parties alleges that it is the ploy of the anti-democratic forces to ruin democracy in the country. Nobody knows who or what the forces really are. The anger of most Nigerians, including Professor Kingsley Muoghalu, the presidential candidate of the Young Progressives Party (YPP), derives from the huge amount of taxpayers’ money expended on this election, about two hundred and forty two billion naira, making it the most expensive election in the history of Nigeria all in an attempt to forestall this kind of situation.
The two main contending parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had taken this postponement more personal and severe than any Nigerian. Their reaction ranges from condemnation to tirade of accusation and counter-accusation. APC points accusing finger at PDP, while PDP alleges that it is APC’s plan to rig the elections. In an attempt to absolve his party from the infamous postponement, the chairman of APC even vowed to swear by the Holy Writ of a religion of which he is no adherent to prove that the PDP had prior knowledge of the postponement. In his reaction, the president of the country and candidate of APC directed the military and other armed forces to deal ruthlessly with “ballot box snatchers,” and warned troublemakers to engage in malpractice at the risk of their own lives.
PDP accuses the ruling party of orchestrating series of events that necessitated the postponement and demands that all sensitive materials be verified by an international audit firm, KPMG or PWC before they are deployed on Saturday the 23rd. In his reaction, the presidential candidate of PDP threatens to go to court over the president and APC candidate’s directive to the security agents. He further claimed that APC had manipulated the card readers to make them problematic for voters in PDP strongholds. The list of accusations and counter-accusations is endless. The Guardian Newspaper’s feature editor, Tope Templar Olaiya, captured the various postulations in what he titled, “Conspiracy Theories Trailing INEC’s Postponement of Presidential Election,” in the Guardian of February 19, 2019. He chose the expression, “conspiracy theories” to denote various reactions due to the contradicting nature of allegations by different parties. These are indeed desperate times for political actors, and no party wants to be caught unawares. Hence, there is heightened vigilance, a war of words, and sophistry. It is hard to pinpoint the actual reason for the postponement of the election dates from the point of view of political parties. However, beyond various postulations lies certain findings by Olaiya that the poll shift on Saturday was a culmination of accumulated minor errors neglected by INEC, including communication breakdown and tardiness on the part of the staff. We are yet to determine how true these findings are and they raise a critical question of whether or not INEC could get it right.
The pronouncement is irreversible, and unfortunately has added to the list of unsavoury global perceptions of the country, and severely weakened Nigeria’s claim to African superpower status. Attaining the status of a continental superpower also includes conducting a free and fair election as planned. One would imagine the country’s rivals merely dismissing it as a continental superpower that could not hold simple elections according to schedule. My spontaneous reaction the morning of the announcement was, “not again! We have been down that road before. We could do better in 2019.” While I scrabbled for answers to multiple questions juggling in my head, it struck me to know that not only elections were at stake here, but also the academia, and perhaps a lot more were also. By his action, Professor Mahmood might just have exposed academia to public opprobrium. Whatever could be the reason for the rescheduling, a tenured professor should not be caught in such tardiness. His action hit the heart of the line separating inhabitants of ivory towers from ordinary folks. The former are looked up to for national guidance on such critical issues as an election on account of public perception of their practicality and pragmatism. The society views them as people who have solutions to many problems, including successfully conducting elections in difficult terrain on schedule. Even if Professor Mahmood was under pressure to postpone the election for partisan interest, which is most unlikely, he should not have easily capitulated for the sake of his name and the academia he represents. Otherwise, those who are supposed to be his students have simply outsmarted him and undermined his intellectual and moral integrity.
Following from this assumption, there is a school of thought which maintained that Professor Mahmood could have learnt from history since the same postponement in 2015 attracted public outcry and almost plunged the country into crisis. Noble as their theory appears, the problem with their proposal lies in its presupposition that history occurs in linear motion and that a society is capable of controlling its historical trajectory. The truth is that the older and more experienced one acquires, the more one sheds one’s notion of history as a linear reality. It indeed travels in a circular form and more rapidly in a society that does not have a sense of urgency. It is therefore not surprising that Nigeria repeats the same mistake in the space of four years. The difference between emerging and advanced democracies concerning history is not that the latter defy this circular-motion pattern; instead, they accumulate data that help them to anticipate the movement. When they move away from error, they increase the circumference of the circle such that it takes a longer time to repeat the mistake. Even if they do, it will not be in the same form and intensity. By repeating the same mistake in a span of four years, Nigeria has shown that it is not yet as advanced as one had thought it was. Rather than move away from its past mistakes, the country is caught up in a cycle of repeated errors.
No doubt, the election postponement spotlights Nigeria again. Even in ordinary season, the country is always in the news, due to global interest in her affairs, including her oil. Hence, the country needs to put her best foot forward in anything and carefully manage her issues. Gone are the days when national issues, such as elections could be classified as an internal matter. No, what happens at election determines the trajectory of a nation which can positively or negatively impact the global community, including energy security. If ordinary Nigerians feel disempowered to demand accountability, the world, which has a lot at stake, would do so on their behalf. It is the only way to explain the vast noise the rescheduling of the elections has generated across the globe and the hundreds of members of international election observer mission presently in the country. Some of them arrived in the country even weeks before the initial election date and have requested for extension of their visas to witness the elections and monitor the process. Professor Mahmood should have known better than that and spared the country the embarrassment.
The INEC chief has been under pressure to come clean about the reasons for the postponement. He cited logistical problems due to bad weather and protection against sabotage as the main reasons for rescheduling the elections. Even if Nigerians were to accept his explanation, as a teacher, Professor Mahmood knows that good teachers do not extend a paper deadline for a student to enable him or her fix some bad parts of his or her paper. In the same vein, it is disreputable to postpone examination on the morning of the test because the teacher could not get the questions ready before the examination date. Sticking to the deadline for a student or a teacher is an invaluable lesson in discipline that serves both the student and the teacher well. He could have borrowed a leaf from this scenario to put pressure on his staff to work assiduously to deliver on schedule. To Nigerians, he has failed. Where he is taking the country to on 23rd February is akin to a make-up. He should not squander it, for there may be a second chance, but not too many opportunities. His name has gone to the infamous book of those Nigerians who have failed to utilize an opportunity given to them to get things right.
After all, said and done, the question remains, what is the way forward? For INEC the way forward may be simple; namely, the people should wait for February 23rd to cast their votes. It may be simple for the commission, but certainly not for average Nigerians who shut their kiosks or suspended their “okada” (motorcycle) or “danfo” (bus) transport business, their only source of living, to carry out their civic duties. It is indeed not a very simple decision for so many Nigerians, considering the material losses associated with putting the country on lockdown for a whole day. So, first of all, the way forward is for INEC to tender an apology to the nation for its tardiness and assure them of no repeat of this error. The innocent members of the National Youth Service Corps and other ad hoc staff who had been deployed to various locations to conduct the elections and left stranded should be duly compensated.
It is also important to note that INEC under Professor Mahmood started well and gave Nigerians hope about its neutrality and seriousness. It had actually striven to stay out of partisan politics and focus on its core mandate of providing a level playing field for all parties. For example, it stuck to its gun despite all the pressure from powerful politicians to alter its own deadline for the submission of the names of nominees for different offices. As it stands, the ruling party might have just bid goodbye to its chance of producing governors either in Zamfara and River States while Imo and Ogun States are still in quagmire out of their own choice. Due to this singular act of self-discipline, Professor Mahmood was winning everyone’s confidence about his agency’s seriousness about time and efficiency. His infamous rescheduling of the election dates certainly countered it all. He should thus view the reactions and condemnation from all corners as deserving.
Ideally, the expectation of all is for the INEC to organise an election that is perfectly credible, transparent, free, and fair. Given the amount of resources earmarked for this election, the country would not be seen to be asking a lot. However, Nigerians know that the country is still a developing democracy and perfect election is a feat yet to be achieved by even the most advanced Western democracies. Realistically, the goal is for INEC to guarantee credible and acceptable elections across the country. Of course, staggering the election to achieve this has been roundly rejected by most of the election stakeholders for fear of confusion and violence. So, if the last minute postponement of the elections was to obviate this incendiary electoral move, then it was a somewhat good reason, even though it does not entirely absolve INEC. Otherwise, any group on a national assignment could hide under the pretext of an imagined or real problem to justify sloppiness in the future. The more pressing question Nigerians ought to pose INEC and which the commission ought to honestly respond to has to do with the new dates. How practical are the new dates? How might they fix within one week the problem they could not address in the last one month to guarantee credible elections? The experience of Professor Mahmood and his team will serve future appointees to the commission. Whoever occupies that office will have to learn from Professor Mahmood to propose a realistic election timetable for the country. More importantly, the persons will have to allow enough time for addressing pre-election-related matters and the transportation of election materials to the polling units before the commencement of the voting exercise.
Despite all the questions Nigerians have, this is not the time to give up. Nigerians have expressed their anger, and their point came across loud and clear. In this politically-charged moment of the nation, the people need to exercise some restraint and be vigilant in order to assist INEC in conducting a free, fair, and credible election which is the dream of all. The people’s votes will still count at the end. In the spirit of patriotism, Nigerians should not throw away or tear their Permanent Voter’s Card, (PVC) in anger. Whatever pains they go through to ensure that their vote counts are not comparable to the gains of four years coming. With their votes, Nigerian electorates can send a strong message to the politicians that they matter in an election and cannot be taken for granted and that it does not matter how long, they would still make their voice heard.
The postponement and its attendant heartbreak might have formed the introduction, but should not constitute the entire election story for Nigerians. At least, the INEC assures the country that it is ninety-five percent ready for election on Saturday, February the 23rd. By the grace of God, the conclusion of the topic of the election will be one of joy borne out of successful conduct of the election. Moreover, it is not too late to get it right, after all. May God bless Nigeria.
Fr. Chikere A. Agbo S.J.
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