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The long road to credible polls


President Muhammadu Buhari

President Muhammadu Buhari

Anniversary of 2015 Presidential Election
One year after, a number of national challenges may have dulled the euphoria, but many Nigerians would recall that it was on March 28, 2015, they effectively began the journey towards redefining democracy. It was the day the Nigerian people went to the polls with the resolve to defy doomsday predictions of those from within and outside Nigeria, who spoke in absolute terms about the possibility of Nigeria as an entity going into extinction. In clear terms, the predictors of the demise of the most populous black nation on earth were so cocksure of its coming anarchy that they pinpointed the very factors that will bring about the collapse.

Apart from the deranged-elements in the North East, who are still mounting a brutal campaign to establish a so called Caliphate, the predictors insisted that the 2015 general elections would combine with other realities to destroy Nigeria as a corporate entity.

Instead of the collapse that had been so repeatedly predicted, Nigerians rose to the occasion by using the electoral process to reset their nation’s destiny. By the time all was said and done, voters from across the country had combined to re-write their nation’s history.

The unflattering national record, which had it that no opposition political party had ever won power at the federal level since independence in 1960 was erased. It was a record, which brought to the fore a lopsided portrait of Nigerian democracy and its electoral process. Before the historic polls of 2015, close observers of Nigeria had always expressed their discomfiture about its system of democracy, which tended to suggest that a ruling party could not be dislodged by the electorate.

This weakness metamorphosed into some kind hubris, with the frequent declaration by chieftains of a former ruling party that their reign would last as long as 60 years. Entrenching impossibility of effecting democratic change within the polity has therefore been identified as one reason for the self-help that has also become a hallmark of political competition in Nigeria. That it took over half a century for an opposition party to clinch power at the centre, raises fundamental question about the character of the democracy that has taken so much of national resources and emotions.

It is, therefore, critical that one year after, a close look be taken of the issues that underlie the change that has been recorded in the nation’s electoral system. The discussion naturally has to go beyond the fact that a new governing party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), whose flag bearer, Muhammadu Buhari, defeated Goodluck Jonathan of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), won the contest. One year after, the scrutiny of how the electoral process managed to send a ruling party packing, must be about how to further empower the Nigerian people and guarantee the supremacy of their votes in the future.

The importance of such a venture is made more significant by the recent backsliding to the dark days of electoral impunity, as would be seen in the recent governorship elections in Bayelsa and Rivers State. There are therefore profound lessons to distil from the 2015 process, not minding the fact that the process had its own share of challenges, as well as threats.

A careful observation of the firmament of ideas that shaped the 2015 general elections would suggest that the elections benefited from the intellectual and political struggles that had been earlier waged to uphold the sanctity of the votes of Nigerians. It would be recalled that since the return of democracy in 1999, the clarion call had always been for the Nigerian voter to have say in who governs him/her.

This had to be so because the biggest challenge that has confronted the democratic process, beyond the institutional challenges, is the mind-set of the average Nigerian politician, which tends to suggest that will of the electorate can be bent to suit his personal and partisan proclivities. In essence, Nigeria has been on the road of democracy, without the complement of democrats to take the nation on the journey.

It was, therefore, not surprising that after the 1999 general elections, which had a semblance of fairness, the polity quickly degenerated into series of shameful national elections that lacked any iota of credibility. Specifically, the 2003 general elections and the polls that followed in 2007, earned the country its place in the hall of electoral infamy. The outright rigging of election results, the hijacking of electoral materials and mind-boggling violence, became elevated as standard practice in Nigerian elections.

The implication was that after elections, governance was no longer the next natural thing to preoccupy attention of both the government and the governed. The lengthy and time- consuming process of election litigation became the preoccupation of the entire polity.

The urgency of reform led to the setting up of the Justice Mohammed Uwais Panel by President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who in a streak of patriotic fervour admitted that the very election, which brought him to power were irretrievably flawed. While a number of the recommendations of the Uwais panel found tractions, stakeholders have been struggling to get other fundamental ones into the nation’s electoral framework.

Similarly, the appointment of academic and activist, Professor Attahiru Jega by Jonathan in 2010, signposted another forward step in the journey to rescue the electoral process from the doldrums of barefaced rigging and other forms of electoral malfeasance.

Jega’s personal integrity, as well as his conviction on the need to introduce significant innovations to the electoral process began to shore up confidence and optimism in the system. Armed with an electronic register of voters, and Temporary Voters Cards, the 2011 general elections were conducted. Although the outcome sparked of some spate of killings in the North, there is no doubt that the process and its outcome in 2011 were a significant improvement when compared to the violent sham polls of 2003 and 2007.

The 2015 elections were therefore a further test of the various innovations that had been taking their roots since 2011. But there were difficulties in the political environment that had to be overcome. The Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs) and the Smart Card Readers became subjects of serious contestations in the polity.

There were several court cases and vociferous protests to frustrate the use of the card readers. INEC as an institution became the target of well-orchestrated attacks over the push to guarantee the sanctity of the votes.

Every move made by the Commission to improve the electoral process, no matter how well intentioned, was vilified and swift boated by partisan interests. INEC was at the receiving end of the brinkmanship that accompanied the constant fouling up of the political space. Its decision to increase the number of polling units to address realities such as population growth in certain areas, and the reduction of voting time was seen from a different perspective by the political gladiators.

INEC, seeing the misgivings and the distractions generated by what it had envisaged as a simple and straight process, was forced to abandon its plan. Although INEC had its own issues, especially with the distribution of the PVCs and the overall handling of logistics for the polls, the biggest problem remained the mischief of the political class.

The desperation on the part of the politicians, the absence of decorum in the political conversation, as well as the threat of violence, combined to poison the space. In spite of tons of efforts at moral suasion to get the political elites to put the country first, the mutual suspicion and the trust deficit that have since become a part of the political environment overwhelmed all good intentions.

It is instructive to note that in terms of delivering credible elections, INEC under Jega’s leadership stayed the course. The rescheduling of the election from February 14, 2015 to March 28, 2015 afforded to commission a little more time to distribute PVCs and put finishing touches to its preparation. Also, Jega’s deft handling of that tricky moment at the National Collation Centre, when Elder Godsday Orubebe allowed his emotions to get the better of him, saved the nation from avoidable chaos.

More importantly, no account of the success of the 2015 polls would be complete without a recognition of the roles played by observer groups, which kept a close eye and provided timely information on the process. The Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) for instance, deployed its Quick Count method to observe the election. Its Verification Statement confirmed that President Muhammadu Buhari won, just like the same observation method confirmed the victory of Goodluck Jonathan in 2011.

It is at the point that many within and outside Nigeria would continually commend Jonathan for his display of astute statesmanship when it became apparent what the clear choice of Nigerians would be. One shudders to imagine the carnage that would have followed had the former President allowed power mongers to push him to do otherwise.

With all the twists and turns in the build up to the 2015 elections, it is clear that the Jonathan moment of historic concession is part of the reason why the story of a successful 2015 poll is being told one year on.

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