If the 2019 general election was a farce, we might as well prepare for a bigger scam coming up in two years when the next election would hold. But that anxiety might be premature, considering there may be no sufficient peaceful space to facilitate the conduct of a free, fair, transparent, and credible election.
Elections in Nigeria have always been something of a theatrical performance, staged by desperate politicians and manipulated by rapacious thugs perpetually offering their services to other people aiming to achieve their reprehensible objectives. In our environment, elections are seen as contests between voters, dishonest officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), security officials, party agents, political candidates, election observers, and criminals recruited to disrupt voting.
Whether national elections are free, fair, and peaceful depends mostly on how far INEC officials decide to be independent or prejudiced. Previous elections were blemished by fraudulent election officials who acted in concert with crooked party agents and security officials to fabricate results.
INEC chairperson Mahmood Yakubu once blamed the country’s flawed elections on politicians’ way of thinking rather than the absence of comprehensive laws to guide elections. He said that cheating during elections has continued not because of inadequate laws but because of politicians’ attitude to elections and their determination to win at all cost.
Yakubu said electoral fraud would persist so long as politicians believe they are above the law, that they could bend the rules, and that they have sufficient resources to hire hoodlums looking to disrupt election processes. In this context, Yakubu said he could not see how it would be possible for INEC or the government to assure citizens that elections would be free, fair and credible in Nigeria. That is self-indictment by a man who was appointed to oversee free and fair elections.
Yakubu expressed his pessimism about the future of elections in Nigeria during a town hall meeting planned by Channels Television on Tuesday, June 30, 2020. The meeting was arranged to examine the challenges of election management in the country.
Yakubu, who looked as though he was keen to free himself of public criticisms for the misconduct that marred the 2019 elections, also pointed to the inability of INEC to prosecute people who infringed on the election laws. That was the other reason he used to explain why election fraud has been difficult to deal with.
Yakubu said: “One of the conditions necessary to ensure that offenders are prosecuted and convicted is proper investigation, but we (do) not have the capacity to embark on that.”
It is either that Yakubu was chasing rats or he was being economical with the truth or perhaps he wanted to be comical. Either way, he should not be taken seriously. Anyone who believes that INEC is incapable of apprehending election law offenders must reflect carefully on that view. INEC cannot supervise a fair, transparent, and credible election simply because some INEC staff are highly complicit in subverting elections in Nigeria. You cannot empower a thief to catch a thief. They are both partners in crime.
In his determination to evade blame for the poor conduct of elections, Yakubu said further: “… once an election cycle ends, politicians would devise means of undermining subsequent elections. So, instead of consolidating on the gains of one election, we are always experimenting new ideas to ensure that those who have perfected the art of undermining INEC’s efforts do not succeed.”
These are unsound excuses. In his position as the chairperson of INEC, Yakubu must learn to take responsibility for any failed election in Nigeria. He cannot be boss and at the same time refuse to accept blame for electoral misdemeanours that tarnished the integrity of previous elections. By law, INEC is the official agency that oversees the conduct of elections in Nigeria. Whether Yakubu and his officials have been able to conduct free and fair elections is open to debate.
If things go wrong during an election, if an election is rigged or marred by transgressions of the rules, the public must hold Yakubu and INEC officials blameworthy before they find an exit door to escape criticisms of their incompetence and clumsiness in conducting credible elections. INEC officials are expected to do a good job, not to manufacture reasons to explain failed elections.
There is indeed no justifiable reason for Yakubu and his officials to fail in the conduct of elections. INEC is equipped financially and technologically, and empowered by laws intended to ensure that elections are held in Nigeria in a peaceful, free, fair, trustworthy, and open environment in which officials, political candidates, election supervisors, and political parties adhere to election laws.
Yakubu and INEC have not only the valuable resources to conduct reliable elections, they also have ample time to plan well ahead of election days, and to prepare pathways to help overcome obstacles that might arise during elections. In essence, INEC must be proactive, not impulsive or unthinking. An election umpire must anticipate difficulties that might arise and develop emergency response plan that will deal with any uncertainties or challenges. Nigerians are a difficult people. That is true. But Nigerians were well behaved in previous elections that were adjudged to be free and fair.
Take, for example, the 1993 presidential election that went smoothly and peacefully until Ibrahim Babangida and members of his Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) decided they didn’t want Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola to win the election, as Abiola was cruising to victory. Ever since then, elections conducted in Nigeria were organised in a militaristic manner and the results were manipulated. Voting was marred by violence. Against this background, the outlook for future elections must be depressing.
Former Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu was right on the money when he said that interference in the election process by an incumbent government was the greatest challenge to election management in Nigeria. He said: “The interference of the incumbent is an issue. That is why I have advocated for a single term of office because the incumbent will always do anything humanly possible to undermine election in order to favour them.”
Ekweremadu’s view is unassailable. It captures that crooked practice in which government officials pretend to encourage free and fair elections but secretly undermine the process by nudging their supporters to threaten election officials with the message that the government must be returned or there would be violence. When government officials encourage citizens to engage in anti-democratic practices or behaviours that disrupt the political process, the ensuing election cannot be anything but a mockery of democracy.
In the 2023 general election, Yakubu’s integrity, moral character, and impartiality as chief election supervisor will again be on trial. An election umpire that takes directives from an incumbent government or works to advance the interests of the government in power is insincere and unfit to serve as an independent election adjudicator. The world will be watching as Nigeria goes to the polls in two years’ time.
When government officials offer financial and material inducements that influence citizens to cast their votes for the government, democracy is the loser and corruption is the winner. A government that is re-elected through criminal behaviour of state officials cannot enjoy the goodwill of civil society or the support of citizens.