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The politics of election order in Nigeria


Chairman, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Mahmood Yakubu

Since Nigeria adopted the presidential system of government in 1979, the order in which elections are held into the various elective bodies has been of curious interest. 

With political parties that are very weak in ideology, and a voting public that would rather identify with the winning team, the order of elections has hardly been accepted as a non-controversial aspect of our democracy.
The first set of elections under the Nigerian presidential system took place in July and August 1979. 

The elections were contested in five consecutive stages: the Senate, the House of Representatives, the State House of Assembly, the gubernatorial election, and the presidential election.


The pattern of the elections and electoral outcomes, created feverish anticipation on the presidential candidates. The major candidates engaged in a series of permutations and alliances that would enable them to grab the top spot in the presidential election. 

For instance, Alhaji Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and Chief Obafemi Awolowo of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), were revealed as the leading contestants in a contest involving five political parties, prompting Awolowo to summon an alliance of so-called progressive parties in order to halt Shagari of the rather conservative party from winning the presidency. That alliance did not work for the presidential election, and Shagari won in controversial circumstances.

However, the alliance of the progressives intensified between 1979 and 1983. Their key leaders – Awolowo and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, could not agree among themselves who would be presidential candidate in what would be a rematch with Shagari’s NPN in the 1983 presidential election. 

In their assumption that the electoral arrangement for the 1983 elections would follow the pattern of 1979, Chief Awolowo indicated that the trend of the elections would dictate whom all parties would support in the presidential election.

The leadership of the then ruling National Party of Nigeria would seem to have smelt danger, and might have influenced the re-arrangement of the order of elections. 

Unlike in 1979, the presidential election was the first to take place, with Shehu Shagari polling 47.5% of the votes while his main rival, Chief Awolowo polled 31.2 per cent. 

The NPN’s unlikely victory in some states of the federation was explained by what was considered to be the bandwagon effect of its victory in the presidential election.

However, Shagari’s electoral joy was short-lived as the military struck to overthrow the Second Republic on 31 December 1983.  Corruption and rigged elections were among the reasons why they claimed to have struck.

The overthrow of the Second Republic (1979-1983) was followed by 16 years of military rule, featuring the regimes of Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha, and Abdusalami Abubakar. 

The return of democracy in a new Republic in 1999 has accounted for five major elections in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, and 2015.  These elections were conducted under various electoral arrangements or orders.

Exercising what many had assumed to be its prerogatives, the current Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) “has scheduled the 2019 Presidential and National Assembly elections for Saturday 16th February, while the Governorship and State Assembly/Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Council elections have been scheduled for Saturday 2nd March 2019”. 

For reasons that have, at best, been controversial, the National Assembly has indicated a re-ordered sequence of elections. They have indicated that the presidential election will be the last to hold. Their motives are very unclear, and it is a matter of wait and see how this intervention of theirs plays out. 

Ordinarily, the order of elections should not be as contentious as it currently is in Nigeria.. The recent French presidential election held on 23 April and 7 May 2017, while Legislative elections held on 11 and 18 June 2017. It is not unusual for the presidential election to hold first in most democracies.

The insinuation that an attempt to reorder the arrangement made by INEC  was targeted at President Muhammadu Buhari is both unfortunate and avoidable.

However,any suggestion that the members of the National Assembly would now prefer their own election to hold first could be construed or misconstrued as motivated by selfish considerations, when not an outright abuse of privileged legislative power.

Of course, it could also be construed or misconstrued as a violent questioning of the rationale behind having an independent umpire-supposedly not subject to the authority of another- in the management and conduct of our elections.

Be that as it may, Nigeria’s constitutional gurus must engage themselves on how what is an important aspect of our democracy is not subjected to the opportunism of politicians.  It does not seem right for politicians to manipulate electoral timetables inorder to suit selfish agendas and calculations.  In this regard, some suggestions advocated in the past would need to be revisited.

The suggestion has been made that the various elections can be held in a single day. This approach is both cost-saving and time-saving. However, the problem with a single day election has to do with the capacity of the Electoral Commission to cope with its cumbersomeness , as well as the capability of a largely illiterate society to comprehend its entails.  Nevertheless, it is an important suggestion whose future viability would need to be debated.

Another suggestion calls for the staggering of our elections.  Staggering elections may demand a reconsideration of the terms of office currently enjoyed by elected politicians. 

In America, for instance, the president serves a renewable term of 4 years, while senators and members of the House of Representatives enjoy 6 and 2 years of renewable tenure respectively. Because of the varied terms of office, most elective offices are filled at different times.

There is something for the future in this suggestion..Our democracy is young and in dire need of ideas for its improvement and advancement. 
Akinola is the author of Party Coalitions in Nigeria

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