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Pressure mounts for reforms after electoral farce in Kogi

By Armsfree Ajanaku
08 December 2019   |   3:59 am
After the historic 2015 general elections, a wave of optimism swept through the camp of pro-democracy campaigners. There was a good deal of backslapping and chest-thumping for the rare moral victory

After the historic 2015 general elections, a wave of optimism swept through the camp of pro-democracy campaigners. There was a good deal of backslapping and chest-thumping for the rare moral victory, which the somewhat improved electoral process and its corresponding historic outcome had precipitated.

The feeling of optimism was spurred by the notion that Nigeria eventually got it right after all. Many citizens broadly revelled in newfound respect, which credible elections had momentarily conferred on their country. Against the background of the country’s notoriety for barefaced electoral malfeasance, the motley crowd of enthusiasts declared that there would be no looking back. The projection of the optimists was that the country would go on to build on the foundation, which had been put in place 2015. In that season of good feeling, there were assumptions that the relevant actors, especially the political beneficiaries of such a credible process would do their best to ensure a final clean up of the electoral process.

Like many things Nigerian however, the optimism did not last for long. Several state elections and the next general elections of 2019 proved the saying that, old habits die-hard. The monumental example of sportsmanship and statesmanship exhibited by former President Goodluck Jonathan when he lost in 2015 did not inspire much change of attitude among the political actors. Desperation on the part of the political actors quickly returned to haunt the electoral process. Where Jonathan declared that his political ambition was not worth the blood of any citizen, the gladiators in the post-2015 political contests gave the impression that their political objectives had to be achieved by all means necessary, including spilling the blood of voters and poll officials.

The first tragedy, which followed the watershed of 2015, was in the fact that the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) had no road map for electoral reform. Having won the ultimate prize of the Presidency, the APC, which cried to the high heavens about electoral reform when it was in the opposition, suddenly embraced the convenience of silence. As the party consolidated its grip on power, it suddenly forgot the historic burden imposed on it to make the electoral process better.

In the absence of a defining ruling party agenda, which transcends partisan posturing, the APC and its raucous mob of social media enforcers could not be held to anything. Due to infighting within the ruling party, further amendment of the Electoral Act, which could have addressed some grey areas in the electoral system was aborted at the stage of Presidential assent. In essence, the ruling APC snuffed life out any debate whatsoever on electoral reform by refusing to demonstrate leadership on the issue. As such, the new lords of the manor contented themselves with copying from the very playbook of their defeated rivals in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The strategy, therefore, was to win elections using fair and foul tactics and then fight out the rest of the battles in the courts. On its part, the main opposition PDP had become so morally directionless, and totally drained of substance, that it could offer neither constructive nor countervailing alternatives to the impasse imposed by the ruling party.

Election after election therefore, the chickens bred by the lack of leadership by the APC to build on what was achieved in 2015 keep returning to roost. The most recent manifestation of the return to the dark days of crude electoral politics defined by vote-rigging, violence and vote-buying, is the combined farce, which took place in Kogi and Bayelsa States on November 16, 2019. Leading local and international observers, who followed the processes could not have imagined the rude shock, which awaited them. For instance, pro-democracy think tank, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) did not mince words in calling out the ruling party for failing to provide the necessary leadership to clean up the electoral process. One of its major recommendation immediately after the polls in Kogi and Bayelsa State was to call on President Muhammadu Buhari to urgently provide leadership to save Nigeria’s electoral process from, what it described as imminent collapse.

CDD Director, Idayat Hassan warned that the very foundation of Nigeria’s two-decade-old democracy was facing serious challenges. Condemning the violence and disruptions, which characterised the polls, Hassan lamented that many voters were disenfranchised as a result of constant threats to life. “Elections which would have to enable everyday citizens to express their democratic preferences were violently and crudely undermined by an unrelenting band of partisan outlaws. At the CDD Election Analysis Centre (EAC) in Kogi and Bayelsa from where we received field data and updates on the conduct of the polls, the sheer magnitude of the violent assault on the sanctity of the ballot was shocking beyond description. The outcome of a process that was so criminally subverted should not be allowed to stand.”

CDD went on to bemoan the violence, and loss of lives, which chracterised the election; according to the Centre the election in Kogi claimed the lives of no less than 10 citizens as a result of various shooting incidents and attacks across the State. To further to in perspective the violence and disruptions, which combined to undermine the credibility of the process, and its outcome, the CDD Election Analysis Centre reported over 79 critical incidents in the Kogi State off-cycle governorship and the rerun Senatorial elections. “In clear terms, these incidents combined to damage the credibility of the polls. The incidents ranged from hijack of electoral materials by thugs, kidnap of INEC ad hoc staff, vote-buying, attacks on observers, intimidation of voters and under-aged voting. Other reported incidents, which call to question the credibility of these polls include widespread stuffing of ballot boxes, ballot snatching and multiple voting.”

Providing data on the incidents that marred the conduct of the poll, the CDD helmswoman informed that violence and disruption of voting constituted 66.21 percent of the total reported incidents. “Vote trading which was also widespread across the state constituted 28.38% of total reported malfeasance while under-aged/multiple voting constituted 5.41% of total incidents reported. The intensity of the observed incidents was high in LGAs like Lokoja, Kabba-Bunu, Ijumu, Okene, Ajaokuta; Dekina and Olamaboro. In terms of senatorial districts, Kogi West topped the chart of incidents with 55%. Kogi East and Kogi Central accounted for 27.0% and 18% of the total reported incidents respectively. This suggests that the incidents particularly violence was widespread but more pronounced in certain locations particularly areas with the high number of registered voters.”

The Centre noted that in the face of these violations of the electoral process, there was an urgent need for the President to show leadership in order to restore the sanctity of the ballot. It said: “CDD calls on President Muhammadu Buhari to urgently provide the leadership needed to rescue the electoral process and by extension the entire democratic system from imminent collapse. This call becomes imperative because Buhari was only able to ascend the Presidency through the historic 2015 elections because the electoral process allowed the votes to count. That watershed was a culmination of the electoral reforms initiated by President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. At the moment, Nigeria’s electoral process requires similarly bold and courageous leadership to chart a way forward and resolve the lingering challenges threatening to derail it. President Buhari owes this duty to all Nigerians; he cannot stand by and allow the continuous degeneration of our electoral system,” the Centre warned.

The CDD was not alone in sounding the alarm bells over the increasingly crude character elections were taking in Nigeria. Another group, the Resource Centre for Human Rights&Civic Education (CHRICED) described the elections in Kogi and Bayelsa States as an assault on the sanctity of the vote. The group declared that it was unacceptable that 20 years after the advent of the current democratic order, political actors, who are busy talking about regulating alleged hate speech and social media could not find ways to regulate their unruly conduct, which has undermined the electoral process. The group said: “In the Kogi election for instance, Nigerians witnessed how thugs sponsored by politicians overran the electoral terrain, causing the death of innocent citizens and the disruption of the process. These dastardly acts on Election Day were followed by the very wicked act wherein thugs celebrating their blood-soaked victory in the election set ablaze the home of the PDP women leader in Ofu Local Government Area of Kogi State.

“These very terrible acts were orchestrated by the political elite to take away the voice of citizens so that they (the politicians) continue to wield power without accountability. CHRICED condemns these brazen acts of impunity. In the face of the lackadaisical attitude of the ruling party to ensure such electoral criminals are held to account, citizens and citizen groups must now consider exploring offshore alternatives. It is high time the International Criminal Court (ICC), to which Nigeria is signatory plays a role in ensuring democratic accountability in the face of impunity in Nigeria. CHRICED calls on stakeholders to consider steps to invoke the ICC’s principle of the right to protect to save innocent voters in Nigeria from the hands of politicians weaponizing thugs to win elections.”

The efforts of credible pro-democracy activists in speaking truth to power and calling for the sanctity of the vote notwithstanding, fears are rife that not much may be achieved in the current political climate. Close watchers of the political process in Nigeria are increasingly apprehensive about the emergence of an authoritarian climate, which is very much intolerant of any process involving democratic accountability. The current spate of selective obedience of court orders, the detention of voices of dissent, and the moves to regulate platforms, which support free speech have caught the attention of stakeholders who fear these measures as a prelude to full blown abridgement of citizens rights. In fact, leading voices in the civic space are increasingly expressing concern about the threats to democracy itself, not just the activities, which undermine the electoral process.

CHRICED Executive Director, Comrade Ibrahim Zikirullahi has, for instance, admonished that despite the imperfections and the dashed expectations, Nigerians still believe in democracy. He said: “Notwithstanding its imperfections however, we believe democracy remains the most effective vehicle to enable citizens to participate in governance, and for us as a people to realise our national aspirations. It is pertinent to recall that many Nigerians stood in the frontlines to wage the struggle for democracy. They sacrificed their time, blood and sweat for the democratic system to take roots. Those were not mean sacrifices because many paid the ultimate price because of the belief that our national greatness lies in the nurturing and consolidation of a democratic order.

“In the face of the many travails faced by democracy and the rule of law, it is critical that all well-meaning citizen groups ensure they speak the truth to power. CHRICED as a platform of active citizens working for the promotion of democracy and accountable governance deems it critical to provide perspectives on urgent issues, which have serious implications for the stability, order and good governance in the Nigerian polity.”

For individuals and organisations keeping a close eye on the democratic process therefore, the very naive post-2015 assumption that those who directly benefited from the democratic process would work to improve it, has been proved wrong. Realisation is dawning that to rescue the electoral process, and by extension Nigeria’s democracy from the brink, maximum pressure has to be exerted on the current power holders. After repeated cases of unapologetic subversion of the popular will by the political actors, it is becoming very clear that a new phase of struggle for democracy is imminent. It is equally very clear that not every leader would be a Yar’Adua who admitted he came to office on the back of flawed elections, and then went on to work for the reform of the process. It seems apparent that with the current reality of a degenerating electoral process, citizens would have to make a loud and clear demand that their votes must count.