The presidential election is scheduled for this Saturday, February 16, 2019, but the atmosphere is very much like a country preparing for war. There is widespread anxiety and fear across the country. State police commissioners are being redeployed in a move that is widely seen as a calculated attempt by the government to influence the outcome of the election. Some other questionable last-minute redeployments are being made in various agencies of government. All these leave voters with the impression that the general election is a sham.
In the days leading up to the first of the elections starting this Saturday, there are clear indications that this year’s elections might turn out to be the most manipulated, the most violent, and the least credible.
The election has been characterised as a titanic battle between the presidential candidates of the two leading political parties – the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). I am not persuaded that it is the correct way to comprehend the election. The election is a clear contest between Nigerian voters and crooked officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Whether the elections will be free, fair, peaceful, and a historic event will depend on how far INEC officials choose to be independent or partisan. Previous elections in Nigeria were marred by fraudulent election officials who acted in concert with crooked party officials to engineer election results.
Poor performance by INEC in some governorship elections prior to this time has left many people with little faith in the so-called independent election umpire. One message we must take from the first of the elections this Saturday is that, if we get things right during the presidential election, we would have strengthened the foundation of Nigeria’s unity. However, if we abuse the opportunity, the consequences could be cataclysmic not only in terms of threats to national unity but also in terms of risks posed to national economic development, our relationship with the international community, as well as the likelihood that we could be entangled in regional, religious, or ethnic-based warfare for a very long time. The signs are ominous.
After months of vigorous and sometimes hilarious election campaign propaganda featuring a mix of lies and truth-telling, the nation is counting down to the D-Day. We have four days to the much anticipated presidential election. Everyone is anxious but also hopeful the election would be free, fair, peaceful, and yield the results they expect. That is only on the platform of hope. In practice, things are different on the ground.
The election this year is bitterly contested, much more than the 2015 presidential election. There are so many things at stake in this election. There is an incumbent President who is determined to be re-elected, regardless of all odds, including a less than impressive record, failing health, age, and declining agility. There is a leading opposition candidate who, some people say, was literally resurrected from political graveyard and presented as Nigeria’s much sought after redeemer.
Both leading presidential candidates come from the same northern region of the country. They have tasted power previously. The incumbent has ruled before as a military dictator and has just completed one term as an elected President. The challenger is a former Vice President to former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Both men (Atiku Abubakar and Obasanjo) fell out so badly and at a point looked as though they were on a mission to mutually destroy themselves. But, you know, in politics, nothing lasts forever. Bitter enemies are made and bitter enemies are reconciled. Political sins are forgiven and perhaps forgotten.
On Saturday, every eligible voter will get a chance to cast their vote for their preferred presidential candidate. This will happen against the background of election campaigns that were less than genial, less than inspiring for citizens, and less than helpful for voters. Speeches that were made during the campaigns were hardly coherent and hardly articulated clearly.
The poor quality of election campaigns is emblematic of the poverty of ideas the candidates showcased throughout their crusade to win voters’ hearts. The addresses presented by the presidential candidates exposed their different temperament and tones, as well as their different character flaws. Only a few voters could tell you unambiguously why they prefer one presidential candidate over the other, or why a specific policy distinguishes one candidate from the other.
The campaigns also experienced weird and wild allegations. In this age of social media, it is not surprising that presidential candidates and their campaign managers manufactured and circulated the most vicious allegations against their opponents. I have never seen such mischievous charges designed and marketed by spokespersons hired by political parties to advance their ideologies and policies. When adults behave badly during election campaigns, you know they have nothing to convey to the public to win their votes. There is a sense that the more lies one political party spreads about their opponents, the more likely it is that the lies would stick on voters’ minds for a long time.
After weeks of acrimonious campaigns, many voters still feel bewildered and unable to identify the key policy statements that differentiate the leading presidential candidates. Of course, one is aware that election campaigns do not determine who will win elections in Nigeria.
Whichever presidential candidate receives the highest number of votes on Saturday, voters will go away not with that feeling of self-satisfaction that they have elected a caring President who understands the needs of ordinary citizens and is committed to empower them. Saturday’s election will challenge the integrity and independence of INEC officials, the uprightness of political parties and their candidates, the reputation and trustworthiness of security agencies, as well as the independence of local and foreign election observers.
There are huge problems that await the winner of the presidential election. There is the weak economy to fix, the Boko Haram insurgency to overcome, breakdown of law and order to repair, and the task of creating job opportunities for a growing list of unemployed graduates, including an army of retrenched workers who have no source of livelihood in a society with no social welfare system.
These are not all. There is the persistent and intractable electricity problem that has defied and defeated all the Presidents who have ruled since the return of democracy in 1999. There is the pig-headed decrepit infrastructure problem. There is the knotty challenge of resuscitating a healthcare system that has been in a coma for decades. And then of course is the difficulty of finding innovative ways of funding university education, not forgetting secondary and primary school education. In essence, winning the election is only a tiny part of a complex set of problems that will confront the victorious candidate.
What happens on Saturday during and after the presidential election will signal how the rest of the elections will be conducted. If everything goes well, it could signal that the rest of the elections might be without rancour and unprecedented violence. However, if the election is marred by violence and malpractices, we might as well prepare for anarchy in the coming weeks. Saturday is a day voters have to make history.