I came into bed before midnight after listening to the nine O’clock and 10 O’clock news on television on Friday night. I thought it would be a good idea to sleep well since I was not sure how many hours I would be standing on the queue the following morning to do what Nigerians are called upon to do every four years.
As I woke up slowly my wife said sharply: “The election has been postponed.”
I reacted equally sharply but laughingly: “what sort of joke is that?”
She said it was not a joke, the news was on television. Why wouldn’t I think it was a joke? I had gone to bed the night before and there was no inkling of the election being postponed and just when I was getting ready to go and soil my fingers for someone, there is this shocking announcement.
Elections have been shifted in this country before, the last one being the 2015 election, but no shift has been done barely six hours to voting time. Besides, the INEC chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, had assured us umpteen times that the election would not be shifted and we had no reason not to believe him. He had also been briefing different stakeholders on the commission’s state of preparedness. I was at one of the briefings in Abuja and the commission inflicted us with tons of documents, which indicated that on paper they were ready. Everything seemed to be going hunky-dory and the chairman even promised that the commission would do better than its 2015 outing, which many stakeholders thought was above average. But in life there is something called The Chisholm Effect, which says that “when things are going well, something will go wrong.”
Something went wrong and Prof. Yakubu decided at 2.30am, when most honest people were still snoring in bed, to tell the world that the election was shifted. It was a big jolt not only for the parties and candidates but for most other people who had planned their lives around February 16 as an election date. They now have to replan and rework their schedules since the rescheduling has affected both sets of elections.
The presidential and National Assembly elections will now take place on February 23 while the governorship and state House of Assembly elections earlier fixed for March 2 will now be held on March 9.
INEC has been blasted and lambasted by politicians of various hues and other stakeholders, including President Muhammadu Buhari, presidential candidate of the APC, and Mr. Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of the PDP. Even though I am disappointed by the decision, I have no intention of adding my own punches to what Prof. Yakubu and his team have received. I am inclined to believe that their action, surprising as it is, must have been taken in the interest of free and fair elections.
He said: “Our decision is taken entirely by the commission. It has nothing to do with security; it has nothing to do with political influence. It has nothing to do with availability of sensitive materials.”
His explanation about the issue of alleged sabotage is buttressed with the report of the three fire incidents in INEC offices within two weeks. He said these cannot be coincidental. These fire incidents took place in Isiala Ngwa South LGA of Abia State, Qu’an Pan LGA of Plateau State and the Anambra State office of the commission in Awka. At the Plateau State office, all the election materials were destroyed including printed register of voters, ballot boxes, voting cubicles and several electricity generating sets. He said all the materials have been replaced. In the Anambra office, over 4,695 smart card readers were destroyed. These have also been replaced and a new office acquired for business.
There are three issues that can be raised here: (a) where were the security operatives when these offices were set on fire? (b) are there no firefighting equipment in these offices or firefighters in those towns that could have saved the situation? (c) what arrangements did INEC make to forestall these incidents? An INEC official told me on Sunday that there are three layers of security arranged for the elections. The innermost ring is manned by police, Civil Defence and DSS and they work with five INEC officials at each polling unit. The second layer of security is the Rapid Response Team that is made up of armed policemen who patrol strategic areas and can be summoned speedily when there is trouble. The third and outer layer is formed by soldiers who are positioned at strategic points and can be summoned when the armed policemen cannot cope with the problem they are confronted with. But this concentric circle does not seem to cover INEC offices or INEC goods in transit, which is why their offices or election materials can be burnt with effortless ease; or were the burnt offices manned by security men at all? If they were not manned, the question is, why?
It is a big surprise that INEC’s scenario planning did not cover such incidents as fire or gun attacks considering the experience we have had with fire in public buildings, the state of violence in the country and the desperation of Nigerian politicians. Such desperation has been exhibited in the primaries and during the campaigns. Only a week or so ago, thugs in Ogun State went wild in the presence of the President, who is also a candidate of their party. Buhari had to be saved by his security aides from being stoned in a state where his party man is the governor.
INEC may have been handicapped too by poor weather. Everybody knows that this is harmattan season and weather forecasts are given regularly, so, it is no excuse that the weather caused problems for the commission.
In my area, there is a proverb that the war that has a fixed date does not often kill the lame because he will crawl out of the war zone before the outbreak of war. In managing a mammoth operation such as this, one expected the commission to have worked out various scenarios such as using alternative nearby airports or alternative layers of security or alternative transportation methods.
I admit that this undertaking is a gargantuan operation. In 2015, there were 68,833,476 voters while in 2019 the number has climbed to 84,004,084. In the 2011 and 2015 elections, there were 20 presidential candidates each. In the 2019 election, they are 73 presidential candidates and now the parties have risen to an incredible figure of 91 political parties. This multiplies the headache that the commission has to nurse. But luckily its job was made less difficult by the fact that the National Assembly approved all of the money it wanted for the exercise. And, luckily, too, the President released the money in time without holding back even a kobo, even though some INEC personnel believe that the late approval and release of funds affected their operations.
There is Avery’s Observation, which states that “it does not matter if you fall down as long as you pick up something from the floor while you get up.” INEC has fallen down but we hope that it picks up something from the fall. If it does, then the falling down was worth it. What has happened that led to the postponement of the election could have come from a combination of three sources: (a) INEC staff (b) politicians and (c) security operatives.
For the commission to conduct free, fair and credible elections, it has to watch carefully these three sources. I have no idea how it can do it but it must keep a close watch on all three if it hopes to achieve its objective of making the elections free, fair and credible.
However, the alleged ban of campaigns after the postponement by INEC is not backed by the Electoral Act or by logic. Section 99 (i) of the Electoral Act prescribes that electioneering campaigns should end 24 hours before polls begin. Since the presidential and National Assembly elections have been shifted to February 23, the campaigns can legally stop 24 hours before that date. In the same vein, it means that the governorship and State House of Assembly elections campaigns can legitimately end 24 hours before polling begins at 8am on March 9.
Logically, if the election date is moved, the campaign expiry date will also automatically move in consonance with the 24 hours campaign stoppage period. As I am writing this INEC has promised to make a final announcement on the campaign stoppage date. It is hoped that it will be made in favour of extending it because that is what is legal and logical.