The Road to a Peaceful Election

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Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Ojo Maduekwe write that the 2019 Peace Accord signed by the contesting candidates in the 2019 presidential election does not guarantee a free, fair and credible election

Critics have often accused the All Progressives Congress (APC) of manipulating the process leading to the 2019 general election in its favour, fearing that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and relevant security agencies may have been compromised.

Situating the reason for their concern is President Muhammadu Buhari’s refusal to reshuffle his cabinet and change his security chiefs whom critics of his government have accused of underperforming in securing Nigeria from attacks by the Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen terrorists.

They allege that as presidential candidate of the APC, Buhari by refusing to dismiss them, was using the retention of their appointment to curry their favour ahead of next year’s general election.

But, to ensure the elections – particularly the presidential – are free and fair, and Nigerians do not witness one of the most flawed national election ever organised since the return to democracy in 1999, presidential candidates of the contesting political parties signed a peace pact last week.

The peace signing event was convened by the National Peace Committee and held at the International Conference Centre, Abuja.

All the presidential candidates that signed the accord, pledged among other things to run “issue-based campaigns” at all levels, and to refrain from making statements, pronouncements, declarations or speeches that were capable of inciting violence before, during and after the election.

Absent at the initial signing were the presidential candidates for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar; Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), Oby Ezekwesili; Social Democratic Party (SDP), Donald Duke; African Action Congress (AAC), Omoyele Sowore; and the Young Progressives Party (YPP), Kingsley Moghalu.

Following the backlash that greeted their absence, which was misconstrued as them being uninterested in a peaceful election, the PDP’s Abubakar, ACPN’s Ezekwesili and SDP’s Duke in separate visits to the Bishop Kukah Centre in Abuja, venue of the signing ceremony, appended their signatures to the accord. This was before an FCT High Court last Friday sacked Duke as the SDP flagbearer, replacing him with Prof. Jerry Gana.

Stakeholders like the United State Government and the European Union (EU), whose representatives were present at the main Tuesday signing, have applauded the peace initiative and the presidential candidates for their cooperation in working towards a free and fair election.

In a statement by its Diplomatic Mission in Nigeria “warmly” congratulating the candidates and their political parties, the U.S. said the accord was “a great step towards the goal shared by all Nigerians for national elections that are free, fair, transparent, credible, and peaceful.”

While the U.S. anticipates the candidates and their parties would honour the peace pact, observers consider the signing a mere ceremony since it’s nonbinding and owing to previous unwillingness shown by Buhari to support policies that guarantee a credible election.

Buhari has shown a suspicious eagerness to sign an accord he knows too well cannot hold him, his appointees and supporters to account, but has on four occasions refused to sign into law the Electoral Amendment Bill 2018, because, according to his critics, the president and the APC are aware that the clause in the bill which allows for the use of smart card readers, could be a great impediment to them rigging the 2019 elections.

It is being insinuated that Abubakar and Ezekwesili’s initial absence until the public backlash was because they do not believe Buhari and the APC were interested in conducting free and fair elections next year.

Both candidates alluded to the above when after their separate signings they called for Buhari to assent to the Electoral Amendment Bill 2018 if he was serious on conducting a credible election; though they know the possibility of that happening had been foreclosed by the president.

There are concerns that the challenge to the peace accord is not as much with the candidates not abiding by its wordings as it is with their supporters, especially those of Buhari that have a notorious penchant for unbridled violence spanning three national election cycles.

In 2011, following his defeat in that year’s election to then President Goodluck Jonathan, Buhari’s supporters took to the streets of 12 northern states killing christians and destroying churches, an action that resulted in the death of more than 800 people including 10 National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) members working as INEC’s adhoc staff; an incidence that Buhari described to the BBC Hausa service as “unfortunate”.

Beyond condemnations, critics of Buhari accuse him of never doing much to curtail the actions of those who take to violence to express displeasure on treatment meted against them that they consider to be unfair.

These critics worry that 2019 will be no different, and point to the several comments made by Buhari’s spokespersons disparaging anyone that as much as disagrees with the president’s policies and actions.

For example, when it’s not the special adviser to Buhari on media and publicity, Femi Adesina referring to Nigerians as “wailing wailers” or the president’s aide on social media, Lauretta Onochie calling the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) – an umbrella body for christians – “CAN of worms”, then it is Tolu Ogunlesi calling Nigerians “animals” for criticising Buhari’s photo with supermodel, Naomi Campbell.

In these few instances – there are more involving other of his appointees – Buhari has maintained silence and refused to reprimand nor sack his appointees, fuelling the claim that these disparaging comments have his approval and are an expression of the mind of the presidency.

Last week’s peace accord will not be the first in Nigeria. During the 2015 general election, Buhari and former President Jonathan had signed one a few days to the presidential election and just like this one, international and local stakeholders had praised the idea. Nonetheless the 2015 peace pact did not stop the alleged manipulation of the elections, especially in the north where children were allowed to vote for Buhari. Or in the South-south states where security agents allegedly openly favoured supporters of Jonathan to do whatever they wanted.

Part of the statement by the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Nigeria that is very instructive, said, for the 2019 elections to be free and fair, “the campaign period already underway must itself go forward on a level playing field and be a fair and transparent process.”

Those who criticise Buhari for taking the ‘silent position’ on issues consider it a strategy he’s adopted since 2015, and which makes it possible for him to always feign ignorance whenever he’s forced to respond. Nigerians are conversant with the many instances he’s admitted to not being “unaware” of incidents perpetuated by appointees under his watch.

Interestingly, when made aware, the president has never reprimanded or sacked any appointee caught disobeying his instructions, suggesting that he’s not only been aware, but approves of their ‘disobedience’.

According to them, unlike the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua who admitted that the election that brought him into office was flawed, Buhari would rather act like he was unaware, same as he did in 2015.

An example they claim is the double invasion of the Akwa Ibom House of Assembly by thugs said to belong to the youth wing of the APC in the state. After the initial invasion on November 19, the APC thugs again invaded the state assembly on November 27. Political observers in the state alleged that they were in both invasions, backed by the Nigerian police.

The thugs were led by five former assembly members, belonging to the opposition APC in the state, namely, Nse Ntuen, Idongesit Ituen, Gabriel Toby, Victor Udofia, and Otobong Ndem. Their actions were endorsed by the national chairman of the APC, Adams Oshiomhole; and the former police commissioner in the state, Bassey Abang, for refusing to aid the thugs had his redeployment allegedly instigated by the APC. But the PDP had since replied that insinuating use of ‘federal might’ve in Akwa Ibom was a worn song. The party argued that the APC created the atmosphere for chaos because the Speaker of the state house of assembly acted unilaterally over a matter that still subject of litigation.  They also drew attention to the fact that in an earlier precedent when the only legislator elected into the assembly on the platform of the APC defected to the APC,  his seat was not declared vacant.

The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) had in July released an electoral violence risk assessment on Nigeria, alleging that the APC may use “intimidating tactics” to shore up the votes, as well as to “deter large turn-out of electorate in the opposition strongholds.”

Nigerians witnessed this during the 2018 Ekiti and Osun governorship elections, and the 2018 bye elections held in Kwara and Bauchi states, where the security agencies were alleged to have connived with the APC in rigging the elections to favour candidates of the ruling party.

In Osun, during the controversial rerun election, the media made a detailed report of how security agencies in cohort with thugs belonging to the ruling APC in the state, providing them cover, had intimidated voters and denied them from voting. This was alleged to have taken place in areas of the state said to be PDP strongholds.

In the Bauchi South senatorial election in August, state chairman of PDP, Hamza Akuyam accused the Bauchi State Government, law enforcement agencies and officials of the INEC of perfecting “a script on the art and science of election rigging” in conducting the bye election.

The Kwara state governor, Abdulfatah Ahmed, in a statement addressing his decision to forego his PDP senatorial ticket for Kwara South Senatorial District, described the by-election as a “farcical exercise marked by voter intimidation, widespread disenfranchisement and the use of security agencies against PDP supporters and members”.

Even the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is accused of conniving with the APC in paving the way for the party’s victory in next year’s elections. The commission’s plan to monitor election financing during the 2019 elections have been greeted with skepticism.

Acting chairman of the EFCC, Ibrahim Magu, had informed journalists in September that the commission was “seriously pursuing this issue”, and was working in partnership with the INEC to address the rising cases of vote-buying. He said his office will monitor banks for suspicious transactions in the build up to the 2019 general election.

As laudable as this idea sounds, critics worry that the EFCC under Magu may be biased in executing this policy, citing the corruption cases so far waged by the anti-corruption agency.

Human rights lawyer, Olisa Agbakoba told journalists  that it was “very possible” the EFCC was trying to muscle opposition political parties because the commission had failed in demonstrating its neutrality. According to him, the anti-graft agency was good at arresting PDP members only. “They have not arrested APC people”, he said.

Citing the case of the Kano state governor, Abdullahi Ganduje, videoed taking bribe, Agbakoba said, “When Mr Ayo Fayose was the governor of Ekiti, the EFCC was harassing him. Why haven’t they gone to harass Ganduje… Since there is an allegation, why haven’t they gone to ask him questions? The EFCC’s move becomes a bit suspicious. Given its lack of neutrality, EFCC has shown itself as an agent of the ruling party.”

These are some of the reasons why observers think there is limit to the peace accord, notwithstanding that it is a good idea.

What the 2015 peace accord did, and which that of 2019 seeks to also do, is to extract from the candidates and their parties a pledge to accept the outcome of the election without inciting their supporters to violence. The accord was what informed Jonathan’s acceptance of the 2015 elections .

Since it cannot compel Buhari and the APC to conduct a credible election, critics fear that in the end, the accord would not only disarm objecting candidates from expressing their disapproval of the election, but serve as cover for Buhari to emerge winner of another flawed election.