Thursday, 8th June 2023

Nigeria’s electoral processes, improvements over years on the slab

By Gbenga Salau and Gbenga Akinfenwa
26 February 2023   |   4:15 am
Since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, there have been six cycles of general elections - 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2019. The ongoing 2023 general election is the seventh.

EU Election Observers with President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja<br />

Since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, there have been six cycles of general elections – 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2019. The ongoing 2023 general election is the seventh. And each election has been a test of the capacity of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), with the support of the security agencies, to conduct credible, free, and fair elections, especially considering Nigeria’s chequered democratic history.

The 1999 general elections were seen as an important turning point in Nigeria’s history as it constituted a key stage in the peaceful transition from military rule to civilian government through the polls. After the elections, the Commonwealth Observer Group noticed that a low turnout of voters was generally recorded, especially for the February 20, 1999 elections. The report did not, however, see the low turnout as any obstacle to the credibility of the election process.
A number of irregularities and shortcomings reportedly marred the National Assembly and Presidential elections, from the shortage of electoral materials to poor physical arrangements at polling stations, which contributed to lack of secrecy of the ballot:
 failure to fold or improper folding of ballot papers;
failure to use indelible ink as prescribed; and failure to lock ballot boxes. 

There was serious concern over the failure to ensure the secrecy of the ballot. The situation during the presidential poll was considered an improvement over that of the National Assembly elections, but problems reportedly remained in that area. There were also concerns that while a majority of Presiding Officers were efficient and correctly applied the INEC regulations, there were some who did not or appeared to lack the necessary training.
The report raised instances of sharp practices, which emanated from some areas. “Our group is also concerned over the low level of participation of women as candidates, party functionaries, and electors. Accepting the cultural and traditional factors, which lie behind this state of affairs, we recommend that all concerned should endeavour to raise the level of women’s participation in the affairs of the nation through representation in the legislative and executive offices. We commend INEC for having set an example in its selection of women officials at various levels.

“Having listed the above problems, we wish also to acknowledge that given the sheer size of the electorate, plus infrastructural and logistic deficiencies, INEC is to be commended on its successful organisation of the elections. Voters appeared to broadly understand, approve and have confidence in the polling arrangements and we heard few complaints regarding the electoral process.
“We conclude that despite the foregoing deficiencies we have observed in the conduct of the elections, overall conditions did exist for the free expression of will by the electors at the National Assembly and Presidential elections. The results may be said to reflect the wishes of the people, and the elections, therefore, constitute a legitimate basis for the completion of the transition from military to democratic government.

“We have noted that Nigeria already has in place many of the elements necessary for a healthy democracy, such as a vigorous free press, an independent judiciary, and, importantly, a culture of openness and freedom. It remains to fully restore the rule of law and respect for human rights and to install a government representative of the people.”
The 2007 general election was perceived as a crucial test for the country’s young democracy. It served as an opportunity to build on the experiences of the 1999 and 2003 elections.
According to the commonwealth report, the polls were more competitive than previous elections, featuring 25 presidential candidates.
The turnout was reportedly lower for the presidential and National Assembly than for the state elections, possibly as a reaction to the problems encountered during the latter and a consequent sense of disenchantment.
They observed that in the wake of the poorly organised and seriously deficient state polls, after which INEC announced that elections in a number of constituencies in at least six states would be re-run, the assurance was provided that concerted efforts should be made for improvement by re-training election officials, increasing transparency of the tabulation of results, and ensuring a more cohesive implementation of the process with increased security.
Notwithstanding promises, it was observed that the organisation of the federal elections left much to be desired.
The report revealed that the presidential election, which was the subject of some uncertainty because of the need to re-print the ballot outside the country just days before the election and fly them in on the eve of the poll led to serious delays in polling in many areas of the country. One of the indictments on the part of the electoral umpire was their unpreparedness in the area of logistics, coupled with the fact that the ballot did not include a serial number, which made it less secure.
“We have commented elsewhere in this report on the late, and in some cases the extremely late, opening of polls in most parts of the country on 21 April. This was mainly due to the late distribution of polling materials. The lack of ballot papers for the National Assembly elections in several places around the country also caused confusion and tension and required re-scheduling of these polls. The reason for this, viz. wrongly printed ballots, was not made known to Presiding Officers, who had agitated voters and party agents to handle with no explanation to provide them.
“The widespread lack of secrecy in the voting was, yet again, a prevalent feature of the process. With regard to many of the other problems identified on 14 and 21 April, given the time and resources at the disposal of the responsible electoral management body, INEC should have been able to ensure that a uniform and more cohesive voters register was developed, that polling officials were recruited and better trained in good time, that people all across the country were able to fully and freely exercise their franchise without such obstacles and that the ballots for the National Assembly election were correctly printed and distributed.”
The report revealed that the organisational deficiencies generated discontent, confusion, tension, and even violence, which undermined public confidence in the electoral process. “The lack of transparency in the results process further eroded trust and fuelled speculation and rumour as corroboration of results proved difficult, particularly as results were invariably not posted at polling stations for the Presidential elections contrary to promise made by the INEC.
“For the state elections, a breakdown of the results was still not available for scrutiny at the time we departed Nigeria, two whole weeks after those polls. Likewise, for the Presidential elections, no public figures were available on the number of those who voted. We have noted earlier the allegation that the declaration of results was rushed to avoid an impending legal injunction. It is no surprise that such a lack of transparency should give rise to unhealthy speculation and rumour, erode trust and deepen suspicion.”
According to the report, violence characterised the poll as no fewer than 200 persons lost their lives in election-related violence. “Political parties are also culpable for the increase of tension, as their supporters were often involved. The number of reported violent incidents in the run-up to the polls and on the election days did not do Nigeria proud. At the same time, the improvement in security arrangements for the Federal elections deserves to be acknowledged.
“The snatching of ballot boxes from under the noses of security personnel is another example of how gangs operate with impunity and an environment where money and muscle seem to be part of the political landscape.
“The registration of voters in Nigeria remains a problem to be resolved. A concerted effort was made to produce a more coherent and reliable voters register. However, due to delays in the process, changes to plans, an inadequate public verification exercise, and the continuing presence of underage persons on lists in some areas it is clear that work remains to be done in this regard to ensure a fully credible resource. But there is provision for continuous updating and this voters list can be viewed as a starting point for a more reliable list for future elections.

“For the reasons we have spelt out in this report, our overall impression of these elections is that, in organisational terms, they fell short of the standards Nigeria had achieved in 2003, and certainly well below the standards for democratic elections to which Nigeria has committed itself. We believe that there were impediments in the ability of voters to express their will fully, freely, and fairly.”

For the 2011 poll, according to the report of the Commonwealth Observer Group, it marked a genuine celebration of democracy in Africa’s most populous country and a key member of the continent.
“Notwithstanding the organisational deficiencies that resulted on April 2, 2011, National Assembly elections being aborted after they had started, and in spite of persistent procedural inconsistencies and technical shortcomings, the elections for the National Assembly and the Presidency were credible and reflected the will of the Nigerian people.
“The success of the electoral process must be attributed in large measure to the respect and confidence enjoyed by INEC, and in particular by its Chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega. In him, the nation was able to look up to a person of deep integrity, transparency, and commitment, who was determined to make every Nigerian’s vote count.
“His willingness to accept full responsibility for the postponed elections, and his readiness to defer the National Assembly elections a second time in response to requests by the stakeholders, helped Nigerians keep faith in INEC and the electoral umpire eventually did not let them down.”
The Group took note of the positive contribution made by the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), whose members worked as ad hoc INEC staff for the elections, for their dedication and courage in helping to deliver a transparent electoral process, often in difficult conditions.
They also recognised the role played by the security forces, drawn from various services, whose strenuous and coordinated efforts ensured that the elections were largely held in an atmosphere of peace and order.

President Muhammadu Buhari (right); Chairperson of Commonwealth Election Observers, Thabo Mbeki; former Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta and Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland, during the signing of Peace Accord for 2023 presidential election in Abuja…recently.

The group observed the deep-seated public frustration at the history of deficient elections and the desire to make a new beginning.
They pointed out the need to define timelines for the conduct of a poll, to provide enough time for all stages of the process to be adequately completed so as not to impact negatively on other aspects of the process, notably in confirming candidate nominations in good time for the poll, ballot printing and distribution of materials.
“Further, all printing of ballots and other sensitive materials should be conducted with safeguards, so as to avoid the damaging delays that affected the April 2, 2011 postponed polls.” 

They observed the shortcomings with the voter registration, based on the number of people with voter cards but missing from the voter register.         

“It is important for INEC to regularly clean and verify the Voter Register, implementing the continuous process envisaged in the Act. The new register is an improvement but needs to be properly maintained, with continued checks to address anomalies, thereby making sure that Nigeria maintains a credible voter register and it does not become a fractious issue as it has been for past elections. This will also avoid the enormous expense involved in conducting registration again. 
  They raised a note of caution on the need to end the culture of impunity for those committing electoral offences, calling for effective and timely prosecution of such offences and ensuring that serious breaches of the Electoral Act are appropriately dealt with. “The creation of a dedicated body capable of handling such matters in an independent and professional manner would be helpful. 

“Petitions resulting from disputed elections should be determined within six months, if necessary through an appropriate fast-tracking mechanism. 

“Participation rights would also be more fully provided for if the minimum age requirements for National and State Assembly candidates were appropriately reduced. This would offer Nigerians between the ages of 18 and 35 the opportunity to seek elected office.” 

The group, however, in his recommendation, re-echoed the need for the appointment mechanism for the Chairman, Commissioners, and RECs to be inclusive and ensure broad political and public confidence, adding that the timelines for the conduct of a poll need to be defined to provide enough time for all stages of the process to be adequately completed so as not to impact negatively on other aspects of the process.
The body also recommended comprehensive voter education and voter awareness programmes with a special focus given to women, youth, and marginalised groups.
“INEC also needs to remain engaged with other stakeholders, especially civil society groups and professional organizations to help conduct voter education and awareness programmes.
“Late changes to the Electoral Act need to be avoided. It is undesirable to amend an Act so close to the conduct of the elections, as it creates uncertainty and a lack of clarity and awareness among stakeholders as to the procedures and institutional responsibilities.
“INEC’s capacity to monitor and enforce the legal provisions on campaign financing and political party expenditure should be enhanced, so as to ensure full compliance with the regulations. The provision forbidding the display of campaign material at polling stations should be fully implemented.
“We urge the prompt implementation of the National Gender Policy to enhance gender participation in Nigeria’s political system.

“The private media must also transcend narrow partisan considerations and report objectively and in the larger interest of the nation. Public debates on television and radio among presidential and other candidates are a welcome development and should be encouraged for future elections.
“Overall, INEC needs to improve its organisational capacity. INEC must ensure that materials for the election are printed and delivered in good time to enable timely delivery across the country. Further, INEC must ensure that the delivery of sensitive materials to and within States, and the deployment of staff on polling day, is done to provide for the timely opening of polling stations.
“It would be worth reviewing the advantages and disadvantages of the Modified Open Ballot system. A drawback of a two-stage accreditation and voting process is its complexity and its impact on turnout. Aspects of the current system are time-consuming and create confusion among the voters.
“INEC needs a more effective communication system, so that central and state-level officials can communicate with lower-level staff, and polling staff can seek clarification or advice as required. There is a need for stricter safeguards against underage voting. There is a need for stricter measures during voter registration to prevent their registration in the first place. But in polling places, there could also be more effective measures to address the problem.
“INEC needs to clarify who has ultimate authority in the polling unit, with regard to the Presiding Officer and security officers. INEC needs to assess the current locations utilised for voting in order to make sure that the space identified is suitable and adequate. There also needs to be better planning to ensure that adequate and suitable furniture is provided and that some form of lighting is available.
“The secrecy of the vote needs to be better protected. This could be achieved by making sure polling units are laid out in an appropriate manner.

The Commonwealth Observer Group led by the former President of Malawi, Dr. Bakili Muluzi, concluded that: ‘The 28 March 2015 elections mark an important step forward for democracy in Africa’s most populous country and a key member of the Commonwealth. Notwithstanding the organisational and technical deficiencies, the conduct of the Presidential and National Assembly elections was generally peaceful and transparent.
It however noted that there must be an end to the culture of impunity for those committing electoral offences, saying that the prosecution of such offences needs to be effective and timely, ensuring that serious breaches of the Electoral Act and any noncompliance with relevant Codes of Conduct are dealt with appropriately.

“The existing timeframe as recommended by INEC for a re-run of the presidential election should be increased; and the age limit for one to stand for election to the National Assembly should be reduced to recognise the contribution of youth to society, to encourage and broaden their participation.
“To create a more level playing field, INEC should enforce its regulations on campaign financing. In future elections, parties should be encouraged to commit themselves to another agreement in the same spirit as the January 2015 Abuja Accord.”
The commonwealth observer stated that publicly owned media should be monitored to ensure they comply with the provisions of the Electoral Act on equal coverage for airtime to all parties.
“Consideration should be given to limiting campaign advertising, to help reduce the advantage enjoyed by the richer parties. In this regard, advertising paid for by political support groups should be taken into consideration, as well as advertising paid for by the candidates themselves and their parties, and a mechanism should be established to enable registered voters who perform election duty and essential services, and other employees on duty, to vote.”
The group suggested that INEC should consider greater flexibility in allowing student and youth voters the ability to vote in areas of residence at the time of elections, just as NYSC members and students should be able to vote while on official duties on election day.
“INEC and security agencies should review the transportation restrictions on election day to allow people with disability the right to travel to and from their polling unit.”
It also recommended improved logistical planning and execution to avoid the late opening of polling units and delivery of election materials.
“INEC should plan to have reserve card readers at polling stations.”
Following the election, Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat and there was a peaceful transfer of power to an opposition party for the first time in Nigeria’s history. This and the conduct of the electoral process raised the bar for the 2019 elections.
While the environment was tense and there were instances of violence, overall, fundamental freedoms of association, expression, assembly, and movement were generally respected during the 2019 general elections, the commonwealth observer stated.
It observed that voting, closing, and counting processes at polling units were transparent, and offered Nigerians, for the most part, the opportunity to express their will and exercise their franchise.

In spite of this, the Commonwealth Observer group recommended that progressive reforms to strengthen the electoral process, including those contained in the Electoral Amendment Bill (2018), which was passed by the outgoing National Assembly but not enacted, should be revisited by the National Assembly and national leaders following the 2019 elections.
“The government should fully implement all existing gender policies to increase the political participation and representation of women, and consideration should be given to implementing the measures proposed in the Women Participation in Elective Office Support Bill 2018.
“The government is encouraged to be more supportive of efforts of women’s organisations to increase women’s participation in politics and leadership.
“Political parties should increase the number of women in leadership and decision-making roles within their party, as well as the number of women candidates nominated for election. Political parties should also support them to access campaign funds.
“All political parties must take greater responsibility for public messaging to ensure that there is zero tolerance for violence and hate speech. Greater effort is needed to moderate the tone of the campaign, including enforcing penalties against those engaging in hate speech and inflammatory language, in compliance with the Electoral Act and INEC’s updated Code of Conduct for Political Parties.
“Political parties should adopt more issue-based, as opposed to personality-dominated, campaigns in future elections. INEC should enforce its regulatory role in campaign financing to ensure greater transparency, accountability, and a level playing field for all political parties and candidates.”
It also suggested consideration be given to further promote equal access to publicly owned electronic media.
The group further said that improved facilities for the storage, organisation, and distribution of materials at all levels should be provided for INEC to deliver on schedule.
“Equally, improved transport arrangements, including on Election Day, need to be ensured. In light of technical difficulties with Smart Card Readers (SCRs), INEC should build adequate maintenance capacity and have sufficient reserve SCRs, along with technical support, to be deployed at short notice.
“The location and layout of polling units need to be improved to ensure adequate space for all participants and to safeguard the secrecy of the ballot, in line with INEC’s guidelines.
“Locating polling units within buildings, where possible, to protect officials and voters from the elements, and to improve access by the elderly and PWDs, should be considered. This would also enable an advanced layout of the polling unit.
“INEC should identify ways to speed up the collation process and provide a prompt announcement of results in order to reduce tension in the post-election environment.”
No doubt, Nigeria is on the march again, waiting for Mr. President as the 2023 presidential and national assembly election results are being officially awaited.
But as the election is being rounded up, it is expected that Nigerians and INEC will conduct themselves better, so that as the Commonwealth Observer Group has noticed an incremental improvement in the electoral process, this election cycle will not be a negative exception.