The decision, correct decision in my view, by the National Assembly that the presidential election should always be held last is generating a lot of heat. It has not ended there. The President, Muhammadu Buhari, has vetoed the decision of the National Assembly. Now the sparks are flying.
First the facts: In the election sequence earlier released by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the election manager wanted the presidential and National Assembly elections held first and the governorship and state assembly elections held last. I fail to see the logic in holding the most important election first and the less important ones last. By our experience from past elections there are always hiccups and hitches in the first set of elections, which INEC officials always manage to correct in subsequent elections. That commonsensical approach would recommend that it is better to take an uninsured risk early with the lower grade elections than with the most important election, the presidential. In the light of the possible error reduction at the presidential election level when held last, I think the National Assembly’s approved election sequence is the best option. It approved a three stanza arrangement: National Assembly first governorship and state houses of assembly next and presidential last.
The National Assembly’s arrangement is meritorious on two counts when compared with INEC’s format. As earlier stated, it puts the big league election, presidential, last, thus ensuring the resolution of administrative, security and equipment malfunctioning problems before the big masquerade comes out. By INEC’s arrangement, the presidential and National Assembly elections are held on the same day. In the National Assembly’s schedule the presidential election stands alone. This allows INEC to pay its full and undivided attention to this often hazardous election. The presidential election is the only election that often poses a danger to the unity and survival of the country. It was the reason for the December 1983 coup. It brought about riots and killings in 2011. That is how important our presidential elections are.
Let us examine the sequence of past elections. The 1979 elections conducted by the Obasanjo military government, over a five week period, came in this order: Senate, House of Representatives; state houses of assembly; governorship and the Presidency last. In 1983, when Shehu Shagari’s NPN government was in power, the order was changed to presidential, governorship, Senate, House of Representatives and state houses of assembly. In 1992, the Babangida government, in a mystifying staggered arrangement, held the governorship and House of Assembly elections on December 14, 1991, Senate and House of Representatives elections on July 4, 1992, and the presidential election on June 12, 1993. We had a chance to profit from the hiccups of the earlier elections before we conducted what was reputed to be the fairest and freest election in Nigeria’s history, the June 12, 1993, presidential election.
In 1999, the elections conducted by the General Abdulsalami Abubakar government came in this order: governorship and state houses of assembly, National Assembly and presidential elections last. In 2003, INEC retained the 1999 sequence and held the presidential election last. In 2011, INEC tried a new experiment and made the presidential election the meat in the sandwich between the National Assembly and the governorship and state houses of assembly elections in a three-stanza election. In 2015, there were two tranches with the presidential and National Assembly elections being the opener while the governorship and state houses of assembly brought up the rear. Those who think that putting the presidential election first would have given President Muhammadu Buhari, an incumbent, an advantage, have not proven it. The presidential election came first in 2015 under the leadership of President Goodluck Jonathan, an incumbent. He lost it.
All those who claim that holding the presidential election first can produce a bandwagon effect in favour of the incumbent are just engaging in idle talk not backed by any empirical evidence. Why did Jonathan lose in 2015? It is the issues of economy, corruption, insecurity, especially the kidnap of the Chibok girls and his tepid response to it. My views here are also guesswork, no empirical evidence.
In 2014, the governorship election in Osun was won by the APC, when the PDP was in power at the centre. Last year, the Anambra State governorship election was won by APGA and the Anambra voters knew that there was an APC government at the centre. The truth is that the so-called bandwagon effect is a myth. Elections in the states are often lost or won based on local issues. It will continue to remain that way because the voters identify more with the issues in their localities, largely issues of appointments, siting of amenities, infrastructural development and issues of fairness and justice. I will be surprised if the teachers’ issue and the Southern Kaduna problem does not become a major talking point in the Kaduna governorship election next year. I can also bet my last kobo that the Fulani herdsmen and farmers’ crisis will be the staple conversation during the campaign in Benue State next year. My view is that what will determine the outcome of next year’s elections, whether in the states or at the centre, will be largely issues, not bandwagon effect.
Most Nigerian politicians often hanker after temporary benefits for themselves rather than permanent benefits for the nation. Those who are running around pretending to be protecting Buhari’s election interest belong to this category. Buhari will win or lose next year’s election, if he contests, purely on the public’s assessment of his performance and how his age and health hold up. No order of elections will help or hinder him. Those who manage him must bear that in mind and ignore the characters running around pretending to be guardian angels of Buhari’s interest. I challenge them to provide evidence that election sequence has ever heped or hobbled any contestant in Nigeria.
The truth is that the bandwagon effect has not been verified in Nigeria and to split hairs over it is baloney. The other truth is that those who wish the country well can easily admit that the presidential election, if held last, will benefit from pitfalls discovered in earlier elections. Also, the evidence is that all our past leaders who were not contestants in the elections preferred the presidential elections held last. In 1979, 1992 and 1999, Obasanjo, Babangida and Abubakar, respectively, were not contestants and they all preferred the presidential elections bringing up the rear. And even in 2003, when Obasanjo was in power, he still chose, wisely, to hold the presidential election last. Only twice, 1983 and 2015, were presidential elections held first. On both occasions the country was close to the brink. In 1983, President Shagari won dubiously in a so-called landslide and then there was a gunslide later. In 2015, the President lost honourably and conceded victory.
We must all work hard to strengthen our institutions for us to even remotely expect our democracy to be sustainable. INEC is at present under the thumb of the executive arm. Its commissioners are appointed by the executive and confirmed by the Senate but there is no evidence of its touted independence. The National Assembly must do its best to make INEC independent so that it does not become the errand boy of the executive or of any other institution. INEC’s job is too important to be left open for manipulation by the whims and caprices of any partisan institution.
A permanent order of elections that ensures that the presidential contest comes last is best for the country. It is rational, it is commonsensical, it will ensure stability and INEC and everybody else involved in the elections can plan sensibly.
The lawyers can argue on both sides of the issue but what is best for Nigeria should prevail. On this occasion, I think that the decision of the National Assembly is very patriotic. If this sequence adopted by it can be made permanent, it will save us from the trauma of each politician tinkering with an election sequence in the vain hope that it will help him to win elections. Let elections be won on issues considered important by the people, not on some mythical claim to bandwagonism. That is pure indulgence in triviality.