INEC’s project 2023: Reform now!
Many Nigerians have received the news of the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC’s) promise of legal electoral reforms ahead of 2023 with, at worst, downright cynicism, and at best a mix of rather blunted hope and trust in the intentions and capability of those at the helm of the commission to deliver an electoral process that will reflect the will of the people.
While this is not a comment on the specific outcome(s) of the last conducted polls, there can be no denying the fact that, no matter who has won or not won the elections, the wide eruption of violence and other anti-democratic, anti-human occurrences during the last elections cannot be part of the will of the Nigerian people.
There is, therefore, no blaming the majority of Nigerians for their less than optimistic view of the promises of INEC, since from all indications the commission happens to have given a less than promising account of itself in its last exercise.
It is a testament to the controversial performance of the Independent National Electoral Commission that even now, almost a half-year after the polls, the designated runner-up is still in the courts challenging the results and speaking of recovering his “stolen mandate.” This is a far cry from what should obtain in any society that wishes to parade under the banner of civilisation. It is an unconscionable distance even from the reality of Nigeria about two and a half decades ago when, under a supposedly less civilised rule, nationwide presidential polls were conducted in which the winning party remains recognised as such up until this very day.
In fact, the February 2019 elections were such a terrible showing for INEC and the nation in general, that the preponderance of political stakeholders, who normally are wont to dismiss foreign interventionist evaluations with little more than a wave of the hand, are now being forced to reckon with the scathing report of the European Union Election Observation Mission.
The EUEOM reported, among other things, inadequate transparency in the handling of election results, dysfunctional regulation of campaign financing, some basic security and logistical challenges, and the abuse of the power of incumbency particularly with regard to the use of the media. The Chief Observer of the EUEOM, Maria Arena, notes that Nigeria needs to carry out some “fundamental reforms” in its electoral process ahead of the 2023 elections.
Against the backdrop of all of this, the obvious self-searching question to ask is: what exactly is wrong with this country? What is it about Nigeria that makes each successive election process worse than the previous one? The fact that the country has also largely failed to conduct a credible census for a good number of years suggests that the problem is rooted in a lack of statistical and logistical capacity to fulfill such tasks. It is really shameful to all of us, not just the institutions. People run the institutions and people sabotage the institutions too.
As obvious a challenge as capacity may be, however, it does not quite adequately explain the seeming doggedness of a country to continue to fail at the important things. Nations with less endowments in terms of human resources, have conducted more credible elections. This leaves one questioning whether the entrenched interests in Nigeria really have the will or intention to make the votes of citizens count after they have been counted, or whether the very purpose of these interests is to stifle the voice of the people.
Specifically, INEC is hereby advised to put these fears to rest by working assiduously over the next four years to have a much better showing in the 2023 elections. President Buhari, too, is hereby called upon to think deeply about what legacy he is going to leave with Nigerians when, in May 2023, he has to finally vacate the office of the number one citizen of the country. Will it be business as usual, in which the elections that will take him out of Aso Rock into what should be an honourable retirement will be marred by violence and unwholesome contestations after the polls? Or will there have been enough dignity and sense of purpose in the Nigerian polity that will guarantee that the next president of Nigeria will be elected as a free, fair and peaceful expression of the people’s will?
The president was very encouraged by many stakeholders, this newspaper inclusive, to sign the electoral reform bill into law a few months back, which he declined to do on the grounds that it was too close to the elections. It is noteworthy that a good number of the post-election issues and complaints, both from local and international stakeholders, could have been better dealt with if that reform bill had been assented to. Despite this, however, we refuse to be pessimistic about the president’s will to make Nigerian elections better going forward. He is only encouraged to get right to his duty in this regard and begin to do the needful for Nigerians and for his legacy.
A few key points to note as INEC and the country begin to prepare for 2023. India, a country of more than one billion people, has recently conducted a free, fair and credible election. Nigeria’s population is only about a quarter of India’s but one strategy deployed by the latter country is that the elections lasted for about six weeks. Of course, this must come with a number of other organisational and technological competencies but Nigeria’s insistence on a one-day election may be a major logistical flaw and it needs to be interrogated. If not for anything else, the obvious tendency of this arrangement to disenfranchise many citizens, especially because voter accreditation is also crammed into that single day, makes it very questionable.
It is a good thing that both the election management agency and the presidency have not dismissed the observations of international agencies. It is now time for both of these authorities to walk the talk and make sure they put all the necessary reforms in place. Many may have become somewhat cynical towards the promises of INEC. But Nigerians are a sensible people whose dispositions are shaped from the seeming evidence; their minds will begin to change again once they start to see the proper required work being done. It has to be noted in the main that there has not been any political elite consensus on electoral purity in Africa’s most populous nation. It is not INEC that organises electoral violence: the thugs who disrupt electoral processes and even kill electoral officers, the candidates who get returning officers to declare false results in their favour under duress are not INEC officers.
They are political parties’ and candidates’ weapons that demonise INEC in some instances. It is time too to enhance the majesty of democracy by complying with the rules of the game. In the same vein, it is time for law enforcement agencies to be allowed to prosecute electoral offenders, in this regard.