There is something unusual and eerie about the atmosphere that greeted the announcement last Wednesday that Muhammadu Buhari won the 2019 presidential election. Everywhere was quiet and the celebrations were restrained. Concern was planted on people’s faces about what Buhari’s re-election implied.
Last Wednesday, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) informed the nation that incumbent President Buhari had won the election by nearly four million votes. One expected the atmosphere to be dominated by expressions of joy and contentment. Perhaps the restrained atmosphere of celebrations was affected by public knowledge that the presidential and National Assembly elections were marred by serious infractions of the electoral rules.
Consider this. In 2015 when Buhari defeated Goodluck Jonathan in the presidential election, there was dancing in the streets and wild celebrations by citizens who felt the election had produced a liberator who would save Nigeria from its copious problems. Buhari, the new kid on Nigeria’s political field, was portrayed as an incorruptible saviour who stepped in at the right moment to liberate the country.
The environment in 2015 was cataclysmic. Corruption was rife. The economy was battling international and local challenges. Universities were struggling to find funds to keep teaching and research going. There was general poverty across the land. Crime statistics had ballooned. Militant organisations popped out from all corners of the country, demanding recognition, recompense, and an opportunity to engage in dialogue with the government. In that atmosphere of instability, it was obvious that things would fall apart. And things truly fell apart at the time.
Against the background of 16 years of the imperious government of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the associated abuses and breakdown of law and order that created the environment for a change of government, it was not surprising that voters opted to go with the untested and inexperienced All Progressives Congress (APC). It was in that context that people rejoiced openly and chanted songs to eulogise Buhari. It was a historic election in which an opposition candidate ousted an incumbent president. Never in the history of military and democratic rule in Nigeria had such a landmark and inconceivable event occurred.
Civil society was primed for change. Before the election, there was despondency everywhere. For many years, people yearned for a political redeemer to pull the nation out of hopelessness but found instead a group of bumbling politicians asking for an opportunity to govern. The 2015 presidential election gave everyone an opportunity to make a statement about their level of satisfaction with the state of affairs in the country.
At the end of the 2015 elections, voters opted for the relatively unknown APC as against the well known PDP. The message was that the citizens preferred to swim or drown with the APC. The turnout of voters was massive. The mandate given to the APC to govern for the first time was unprecedented. Change was the abiding philosophy on which Buhari and the APC leaders wooed voters. In the end, the stunt or message, whichever one it was, proved successful. The PDP was routed both at the federal and state levels.
The victory of the APC triggered a heavy traffic of PDP members who removed their robes to be initiated into a new political situation controlled by the APC. How quickly the political equation had changed. It was a one-way travel. You were either a member of the APC, the emblem of political success, or you remained with the PDP that symbolised decadence and an uncertain future.
Compare the national mood following the 2015 election with the mood last week after Buhari’s re-election was confirmed by INEC. The silence that enveloped the country was menacing and uncomfortable. It suggested that although Buhari had emerged president for the second time, people were saddened by uncertainties about what the future held for them. In the past four years, the nation had drifted, the economy had weakened, quality higher education had depreciated, infrastructure had decayed, the decrepit public hospital system had worsened, and law and order had deteriorated.
Within four years, the APC had disappointed many people who supported the party in 2015. I know some people would challenge this statement with the question: if people were disappointed with the APC, why did they vote for the party during the February 23, 2019, presidential and National Assembly elections? The answer is that triumph by any political party in an election in Nigeria is not always a reflection of how voters cast their ballot. In a situation in which political parties believe strongly that they have to cheat to stand a chance of electoral victory, there are many elements that contribute to the success or failure of a party during elections.
Many people were not excited by news of Buhari’s re-election because of the transgressions that blemished the presidential and National Assembly elections. As I argued in this column last week, the elections were not free, they were not fair, and they were not peaceful. Above all, the elections were far from credible. Ballot boxes were hijacked and stuffed with ballot papers already thumb-printed. Ballot boxes filled with legitimate ballot papers were emptied and incinerated by thugs at polling units. Voters were chased away from polling centres. In some parts of the country, under-age voters were seen in long queues waiting to cast their illegal votes. In some polling units, card readers developed faults and were not used.
The abuses that took place during the presidential and National Assembly elections confirmed the fears many voters held before the election. Their votes did not count. In the presidential and National Assembly elections, people who did not vote determined the outcomes of the elections. People who counted the votes contrived the results announced by the INEC chairperson. There were far too many criminal activities that destroyed the integrity of the elections.
National elections in Nigeria have become avenues through which political parties demonstrate their ability to invent illegal schemes that make nonsense of the rules that guide fair conduct of elections. We do not have credible elections when voters are massively disenfranchised, when voters are deprived of the opportunity to participate in the election of those who will govern them, when popular votes are destroyed in open spaces, when voters are shot at and killed at polling units, when election officials are abducted and held against their will until they announce the results that suit the interests of their kidnappers, and when election officials participate in illegal thumb-printing of ballot papers that ought to be issued to authentic voters.
When people ask why there was no widespread dancing in the streets last week as there was after the 2015 presidential election that Buhari won, the answer is pretty obvious. There was no nationwide dancing in the streets because there were far too many indiscretions that undermined the integrity of the elections. If you are going to win an election and expect public support and jubilation, you have to do it in a transparent, fair, credible, peaceful, and legally acceptable way.