Desperate politicians are posing new challenges to the will of the people, writes Olusegun Adeniyi

For a man who came to power without contesting an election in the real sense of the word, one can forgive the fact that Governor Yahaya Bello may not understand how democracy truly works. The Catholic Bishops who criticised President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, according to the governor, did so because they are corrupt and tithe-obsessed. And should Buhari decide to seek re-election next year, Bello would conjure in Kogi State (where there are only 1,350,883 registered voters) ballots that “will dwarf that of Katsina State” with a total registered voters of 2,827,943—more than double that of his state!

Ordinarily, one could dismiss such drivel as nothing but loose political talk from a young man who has been helped by benevolent spirits yet refuses to learn any lesson in decency and humility. However, since to be forewarned is to be forearmed, it is important for Nigerians to begin paying attention now before our democracy is derailed by desperate politicians who have scant regard for the will of the people. And with the Kano State Governor, Dr Abdullahi Ganduje adding his own pledge, it is possible that these governors, who happen to be at the forefront of the Buhari-must-run campaign, know something that ordinary Nigerians do not know. Despite the fact that the total number of registered voters in his state is 4,975,701, Ganduje said on Monday that he would deliver five million votes to Buhari next year!

Speaking at the swearing-in ceremony for the 44 new local government council chairmen and 484 councillors elected last Saturday, Ganduje said the 100 per cent victory recorded by the All Progressives Congress (APC) is an indication that the “party is Kano”. He added: “The overall number of votes scored by the APC candidates is more than what President Buhari scored in the 2015 general election. That is to say that if eventually he agreed to contest the 2019 general election, I assure you; we will give him five million votes.”

Against the background that social media is replete with still and motion pictures of boys mostly under the age of 10, thumb-printing ballot papers in the so-called local government election, there are questions as to whether these are the votes Ganduje is promising Buhari next year. This concern has already prompted the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to issue a public statement. Acknowledging the pictures of the underage voters, the commission stated that “as far as we can ascertain, they (the pictures) relate to a local government election conducted at the weekend (in Kano). While the commission remains resolute in our commitment to sanitise the nation’s electoral process and deliver free, fair and credible elections, we cannot be held directly or vicariously liable for a process outside our legal purview.”

It is noteworthy that INEC has distanced itself from the shenanigans in Kano but to the extent that this is a recurring issue in our democratic journey, the commission would have to do more to weed out the data of children who have been enlisted by unscrupulous politicians to pad the voter register. But given the law, it is only the political parties and the civil societies that can help the commission in realising that objective. Except we want to deceive ourselves, the malaise is not restricted to Kano State, it is a national challenge that goes unnoticed, especially in places where only one political tendency dominates the entire environment thus making it easy to cover-up.

Indeed, the Kano issue needs to be carefully interrogated. First, I have confirmed from INEC that no new voter has been added to the register in the state since the 2011 registration exercise updated in 2014 for the 2015 General Elections. It is also important to highlight the fact that no voter register was used in any of the images on the social media about last Saturday’s local government election in Kano. What went viral were images of small boys and young men thumb printing ballot papers and stuffing ballot boxes in homes and narrow alleyways (not at polling units).

Incidentally, there were similar video clips during the last local government elections in Ekiti and Delta States held in December 2017 and January this year respectively. Although in those cases, adults were used to thumb print and stuff ballot boxes, it is nevertheless a criminal act irrespective of the ages of perpetrators. In Kano last weekend, there were reports of polling officials waiting in vain for sensitive materials to be supplied by officials of the State Electoral Commission which, as is now obvious, was a deliberate arrangement to disenfranchise genuine voters and rig the poll.

Meanwhile, the allegation of under-age voting is an old one and fits into the narrative of population distribution in the country so for that reason, one needs to be circumspect in discussing last weekend farce in Kano. But if all the stakeholders do their job, it should be no problem. INEC, based on the provisions of the Electoral Act, gives Nigerians the opportunity to interrogate the voter register before it is finalised and on the eve of general elections. That register, including pictures of registrants, is displayed at registration centres and polling units nationwide for claims and objections. The purpose is for the register to be interrogated by citizens and purged of ineligibles (under-aged, aliens, etc). But how many Nigerians care to check, let alone help INEC to clean up the register?

Unfortunately, once finalised, it requires a legal process to null or delete the names of voters from the register. It becomes even more difficult where there is community complicity/connivance as it is most often the case. That explains why the collaboration of all the critical stakeholders is important if we must rid our elections of fraud.

At a period when many Nigerians are calling for the restructuring of our skewed federation so as to take powers from the centre and give to the states or other loose and yet-to-be-defined arrangements, it is important to interrogate the misuse of power, especially by those governors who seem unconstrained either by conscience or the rule of law. That many of them have overpowered the system can be seen in what transpires at the so-called local government elections, an issue I intend to deal with next week. The greater danger is that they want to transport this political debauchery into federal elections. We should not allow them.

While a democratic system with parties alternating in power may not necessarily guarantee assurance of development, it is also true that when politicians know that bad behaviour can cost them at an election, as we saw with the presidency in 2015, then they will begin to act in the interest of the people. But if the underpinning philosophy of any political system, as the Bellos and Gandujes of this world are now telling us, is that famous Yoruba refrain “be ti e dibo, a ti wole” (even if you refuse to vote for us, we have won), then it is not only democracy that is in danger, it is our very survival as a nation.

In their new book, ‘How Democracies Die’, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that while there is a general tendency to believe that a democracy is imperilled only by military adventurers, these days it is elected leaders who most often subvert the very process that brought them to power. These are men who have no qualms “rewriting the rules of politics to permanently disadvantage their rivals” they wrote before adding, “The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s enemies use the very institutions of democracy—gradually, subtly, and even legally—to kill it.”

On this matter, Governors Ganduje and Bello, as well as other confederates in electoral manipulation, will not have the last word!

Adeniyi, Chair of THISDAY Editorial Board, wrote from Abuja