The presidential and National Assembly elections conducted last Saturday, February 23, 2019, were a sham. The headlines tell the sad story of a nation whose citizens lined up to participate in important national elections but found to their dismay the outbreak of warfare, extreme violence, callous killings, open snatching of ballot boxes, free transportation of ballot papers already thumb-printed, and exchange of angry words by voters. Why is it difficult for Nigeria to organise credible and peaceful elections that African countries conduct without too much fighting or spilling of blood? We are we a democratic country in name only.
In a research paper he published 14 years ago, Jesper Strömbäck (2005, p. 333) identified five core elements that are used to determine whether a country should be regarded as democratic. These involve checking to see whether: “(1) political decision-makers are elected by the people in free, fair and frequent elections, (2) there is freedom of expression, of the press and of information, (3) citizenship is inclusive, (4) everyone has the right to form and join organisations of their own choosing, and (5) society is law-governed.”
In each of these considerations or parameters, you can see that Nigeria does not qualify to be identified as a genuine democracy. Here is why. Our political decision-makers are not elected in free, fair, and credible elections. This was demonstrated clearly by what happened during last weekend’s elections. Freedom of expression and of the press is highly constrained in the country, even as we proclaim proudly the enactment of the 2011 Freedom of Information Act. Citizenship is far from inclusive in a highly fractured and polarised country in which citizens feel they are alienated by a president who believes that only his kinsmen and people from his region are qualified to be appointed into the cabinet and as heads of top security agencies. Far from being law-governed, there is widespread breakdown of law and order. Impunity by top government officials is rife in the society, and disrespect for court judgements is common.
During last Saturday’s elections, everything that ought not to go wrong went horribly wrong. All the elements associated with flawed elections in a failed state occurred before, during, and after the presidential and National Assembly elections. Regardless of who emerges victorious in the presidential election, the selection of candidates was done in an environment that was not fair, free, peaceful, and credible. The integrity of the elections has been shredded.
Across the country, voters were confronted with innumerable challenges that ranged from the inability of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct elections as and when scheduled, widespread violence that resulted in unnecessary loss of lives, and thugs who chased voters away from polling booths. There were indiscriminate shootings at some voting centres. There were problems with card readers that failed to work and voters advised illegally to go home rather than hang around till the problem was fixed. In various polling centres, election officials and voting material arrived late. In some other places, accreditation of voters started much later than scheduled. The integrity of the elections was destroyed when some criminals were caught with thumb-printed ballot papers, an illegal act that violated the election rules. There were many other irregularities that marred the credibility of the elections.
The scale of these abuses is beyond doubt. Thanks to digital technology, alternative media, bloggers, citizen journalists, and online forums, there was extensive and undisputed video evidence of violence, disruption of the election process, ballot boxes stuffed with illegal thumb-printed ballot papers, and security officials watching while irate youth bashed supporters of different political parties. The videos were recorded and circulated live as voters were harassed at various polling booths. The videos provide eye-witness accounts of how the elections were disrupted, how the rules were breached and thrashed, and how voting in some places was abandoned.
Pre-polling advice and public information campaigns by INEC and the government encouraged eligible voters to turn out in large numbers to cast their votes for their preferred presidential candidates, as well as their preferred candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives. Voters conformed to the advice and trooped to various voting centres. It was in some of these polling centres that some voters, unfortunately, were attacked, hunted like feral animals, shot at, and killed.
The elections were not designed to portray voters as inherently violent and unlawful. But that was what the elections turned out to achieve. The elections were not peaceful. They turned into a do-or-die affair, an utterly reckless exercise in which politicians and political parties were determined to risk everything in order to achieve their lifelong ambition. What a shame!
We pride ourselves as a democratic nation but during elections we display the animal instincts in all of us. We admire the freedoms enjoyed by citizens in democratic countries but we moan about the widespread abuses in our own system that serves as the hallmark of the authoritarian system of government we practice. We pretend to be a democracy. The manipulations and abuses that marked last week’s elections have done incalculable damage to the image of Nigeria.
Over the years, elections in Nigeria have not offered a level playing field to all political candidates. The successful candidates are often second-rate but they possess the financial strength and the support of thugs who are paid to disrupt voting. In many cases, the candidates who are qualified, popular, and preferred by voters never get to scale the hurdle.
There are certain traditions that follow the announcement of the winner of a presidential election. The losers almost certainly would express their intention to challenge the outcomes of the election at the election petition tribunals and in most cases up to the Supreme Court. Legal challenges can be long, tiring, expensive, and gruelling. In 2015, former President Goodluck Jonathan went against convention when he accepted defeat rather than contest the results of the election. Jonathan demonstrated a unique character trait, in particular courage that is hard to find among African political leaders. For that statesmanship, Jonathan was praised at home and abroad because his action ensured a smooth transition of power from a defeated incumbent president to the opposition candidate.
In 2019, given the massive infractions of the electoral laws, in the face of all the video evidence of widespread violence, electoral malpractices, and misconduct by election officials, you can be sure that at least one of the losers of this year’s presidential election would challenge the results. Between 2015 and 2019, the environments are different. The leading opposition presidential candidate is also different. Thanks to video evidence, there is more ammunition with which the losers can mount a challenge at the tribunals and the courts. Whether the challenger would succeed at the Supreme Court remains uncertain. These are interesting times in Nigerian politics.
For the winner of the presidential election, there is really no honour in victory. Victory may have been achieved but it is not a triumph that attracts respect. Everyone knows how the election was won and lost.
•Please note: This article was written before the official release of the results of the Presidential and National Assembly elections.