Nigeria was on the threshold of making history last Saturday, February 16, 2019. After nearly 59 years of political independence and a history of military dictatorship and democratic system of government, Nigerians of voting age waited anxiously last Saturday for an opportunity to make a statement on their choice of presidential candidate. Everyone was just hours away from the start of voting when the sad news broke. It was a rude, abrupt, and provocative interruption. The much-anticipated presidential and National Assembly elections had been rescheduled. Just like that.
The chairperson of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Mahmood Yakubu, with sleep-deprived eyes, rose to tell the nation in the early hours of the morning that the elections would not hold as planned. What a shocker, an embarrassment, and a disappointment. The world watched with disbelief. Citizens cursed and yelled abuses.
Last Saturday would have been significant for many reasons. Voters wanted to exercise their right to choose who would govern them. In Africa and elsewhere, there is the widely held view that it is difficult to unseat a ruling government because of the undue advantages conferred on the government by the idea of incumbency. In 2015, Nigeria made history in Africa when the ruling government of President Goodluck Jonathan was defeated in the presidential election. This time around, the national mood was leaning toward a repeat experience, that is, the defeat of the ruling government that achieved little or nothing over the last four years but remained adamant that it would continue to govern.
How much longer would Nigeria stumble, fall, and rise before it found the right mix of democratic procedures that would enthrone free, fair, credible, and peaceful elections?
I have always argued that the extent to which the 2019 federal elections would be free, fair, and trustworthy would depend on the extent to which the chairperson of INEC, Mahmood Yakubu, and his officials are determined to be independent or partisan, fair-minded or prejudiced. Unfortunately, hours to the opening of the polling booths, the INEC boss shredded public confidence on his ability and that of his officials to conduct credible elections.
I have always wondered why Nigeria appoints second-rate and incompetent citizens to oversee important national assignments such as the conduct of the general election. For all the noise he made and the assurances he rolled out in the media in the days and months leading to the start of the elections, Yakubu has now left no one in doubt that the elections will not be free, will not be fair, and, above all, will not be convincing.
Let us consider the following facts. Yakubu said in his broadcast that the elections had to be deferred because of “logistical reasons.” When the chair of INEC uses a spurious and generic term to explain why he decided to postpone nationally scheduled elections, you know the man is being economical with the truth. Yakubu had no valid and generally acceptable reason to justify the decision to reschedule the elections.
Let us keep this in mind. INEC officials had four years to prepare for the 2019 elections. They pretended for four years that everything was going according to plan. Unfortunately, their sloppy performance was exposed at the last minute. The decision by Yakubu and INEC officials to postpone the elections showed they were insensitive and unsympathetic toward voters’ circumstances; they did not care about the economic impact the postponement would have on voters who had travelled to distant locations to fulfil their obligations to their fatherland.
Many voters across the country travelled to their constituencies and villages so they could participate in the elections. Now they are stuck. Some of them travelled by air and had booked and confirmed their return tickets. Any changes to their flight schedule would incur additional costs. INEC’s decision has compelled them to either forget about voting this Saturday or to remain in their current locations until after the elections.
Consider international election observers who finalised their travel arrangements before arriving in Nigeria. Yakubu has thrown their travel plans into chaos. They can no longer travel as scheduled because of the hopelessness of INEC officials who failed to complete all plans for the elections.
Yakubu postponed the presidential and National Assembly elections by one week and the other elections also by one week. I do not see how one week would make a difference. INEC could not manage to overcome within one week the so-called logistical challenges that caused it to reschedule the elections.
The pitiable excuses tendered by Yakubu for rescheduling the elections are weak, pathetic, preposterous, unbelievable, infantile, absurd, appalling, ghastly, and thoughtless. Nigerian voters are not naïve or gullible as he might assume. Why didn’t Yakubu and his bumbling officials fix the logistical challenges over the past four years? Yakubu must take responsibility for the failure to kick-start the elections as scheduled. It is shameful that INEC messed up the elections even before voters had cast their ballot.
This major blunder by INEC has cast Yakubu as the greatest threat to democracy in Nigeria and an obstacle on the path of free, fair, and credible elections. He must be checked or eased out of office before he wrecks the integrity of national elections and the hopes of many voters.
In one moment of sheer inanity, a decision was taken that has set the country back by many decades. The economic costs are incalculable. While other countries are moving forward, Nigeria is going backwards. Bungling officials should not be given important national assignments.
They undermine rather than enhance the country’s development.
By postponing the elections without genuine reasons, Yakubu has sullied the image of the country in the international community. Nigeria is now seen as that giant of a country that could not even organise free, fair, peaceful, and credible elections. What a shame. That last-minute decision by INEC to reschedule the elections was bizarre, careless, mindboggling, provocative, insulting, juvenile, and silly. Yakubu and all INEC officials are paid attractive salaries to do their job and to do it very well. But they have just failed woefully to justify the fat salaries they earn.
The integrity of national elections has been tainted. The blunder committed by Yakubu will have serious consequences for the credibility of all the elections whenever they are conducted.
We must all feel ashamed of the decision taken by Yakubu. Nigerians can no longer stand tall among African countries and provide that much-needed leadership for which the country was well known. Nigeria can no longer preach to other African countries about the values of democracy, or about the importance of conducting free, fair, and credible elections in the continent. We have lost that integrity, that authority, that respect, and that commanding voice for which Nigeria was respected across Africa and beyond.
The future of democratic governance in Nigeria is on trial. The way voters and political candidates conduct themselves this Saturday, in terms of personal behaviour and their willingness to adhere to the rules, will determine whether we shall all live in peace or in crutches henceforth.