2019: Will Buhari Uphold His Commitment to Free, Fair Election?

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Muhammadu Buhari

Following rising concerns on the conduct of the 2019 elections, President Buhari’s avowed integrity may be up for a major test, writes Olaseni Durojaiye

As the general election slated for next the first quarter of next year gradually approaches, the need for the country to conduct free, fair and credible elections has assumed more importance and occupies the front burner of national and international discourse. And in reiterating the need for the elections to conform to internationally acceptable democratic standards, many have argued that it is the only way the country could build off on the gains recorded during the last elections.

Many factors make the call all-important. Nigeria’s leadership role on the Africa continent is one of such factors given that what happens in Nigeria has a way of setting the tone for smaller African countries that look up to the most populous black nation for direction.

The call is also premised on the perceived crackdown by the current administration on opposition figures in the country. Allegation of crackdown on opposition is neither new nor restricted to elements in the nation’s political space.

While opposition politicians, especially those in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) dubbed the administration’s anti-corruption fight as being one-sided, it has assumed a new tone as the nation prepares for another election even as a few international figures and organisations have also joined to condemn the alleged crackdown on the opposition.

The calls for credible and universally acceptable elections next year is understandable given that Nigeria remains Africa’s largest democracy and economy.

However, given the nature of the country’s democracy, many have argued, and justifiably so, that the onus rests with President Muhammadu Buhari. Indeed, a whole lot rests with the president if the country conducts acceptable election or not.

In fairness to the president seen as Mr. Integrity, he has severally sworn to a commitment to uphold a free and fair election. In a manner reminiscent of former President Goodluck Jonathan, when he openly stated in the run up to the 2015 election that no Nigerian deserved to die on account of his bid for re-election, to which he matched with actions, President Buhari has also given his words to ensure credible elections next year.

In the same vein, the electoral umpire, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has assured Nigerians of its readiness to conduct credible elections and enjoined the participants to play by the rule in order to forestall any untoward consequences.

In fact, the commission’s resolve to foreclose the use of incident forms following the president’s refusal to sign the Electoral Act Amendment Bill into law is being seen in certain political quarters as evidence that INEC might be sincere, that is, if committed to its promise too.

However, the whole world is watching to see if President Buhari would, like Jonathan, match his words with action and uphold the avowed commitment to free and fair elections. The growing concern is not misplaced given some ominous signs as evidenced in the conduct of members of his ruling party, the APC, during some of the elections especially, the governorship elections in Ekiti and Osun States.

Expectedly, opposition party cried blue murder on account of the conduct and result of the two elections. They lamented that it was massively rigged, with the connivance of some state security personnel, who were expected to be neutral, in favour of the ruling All Progressive Party (APC). Indeed, the international community frowned heavily on the election.

However, given that Nigerian politicians are notorious for shouting themselves hoarse on alleged electoral malpractices each time they lose elections, many were tempted to ignore the cries that trailed the Ekiti Election; but not so with the Osun State election and in fact the re-run. The attempt to arrest the governorship candidate of the PDP on account of his involvement in an alleged criminal act, many observers insisted showed the hands of the police as being biased.

Interestingly, it was president Buhari that called off the police from doing same, which further buttressed the conclusion that much of whether the country’s next election turns out credible or not rests on his shoulders.
Thus, while the President’s directive was hailed as a timely intervention, which saved the electoral process in the state, others interpreted it differently.

Those who hold contrary opinion berated the police force as having betrayed a poor reading of the political barometer at the time, adding that the president’s directive signposted interference in the affairs of the police force, which he could repeat in favour of his party during the next election.

It is worthy of note that the whole world is watching the President. What’s more is that the election will be a test of his acclaimed integrity, which unfortunately had been on the decline. Nothing further underscores this position than a letter authored by four United States senators in which they insisted that Nigeria must build off on the peaceful transfer of power which it pulled off in 2015 as the nation gears up for the 2019 elections.

Senators Jeff Flake, Cory Booker, Johnny Isakson and Christopher Coons in a letter to Tibor Nagy, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs expressed the importance that the 2019 election must meet expectations and international standards even as they hinted that the United State government was determined to help the country consolidate her democratic gains.

The senators in the letter which THISDAY exclusively obtained stated in part: “With the elections approaching, the United States reaffirm its support for democracy in Nigeria by calling on all parties to refrain from violence, harassment or intimidation of political opponents, and from impeding the political process in any way.

“We urge you to speak out against any efforts to interfere in the political process in a timely manner to reinforce the US government’s support for elections that are credible, transparent and peaceful,” they stated.

Whether a coincidence or not, their letter came at the same time US congressman, Christopher Smith took a swipe on President Buhari government’s alleged crackdown on opposition. Smith who chaired a hearing on Nigeria on December 13, 2018, titled “Nigeria at a Crossroads: The Upcoming Elections,” had repeatedly called attention to extremist violence and appealed to President Buhari to use his authority to put a stop to it.

It goes without saying that the perception in the opposition camp is that the president’s body language is opposite his vow to uphold a credible election. This take gained more traction, when the he declined to assent to the electoral bill passed by the nation’s legislature. Valid as some of his reasons may be, the opposition had insisted the decline was in line with the ruling party’s plan to rig the election.

Critics of the administration and the opposition had earlier alleged that the refusal of the president to sack the leadership of some of the nation’s security architecture in the face of glaring security challenges in the country was so that they could assist the ruling party to rig the elections. Even if a cursory look at the charge revealed the opposition as playing politics, the glaring disobedience of presidential directive especially regarding the incessant killings in Benue State appeared to lend credence to the allegation.

It is against this foreground that President Buhari is expected to match his commitment to uphold free, fair and credible elections next year with action, and transparently too. The president needs to be reminded that his supposed hard earned integrity is at state and he must do all within the ambit of the law to safeguard same as the buck naturally stops on his table.

In doing so, Nigerians and the international community will want to see the president rein in the hawks within his party, who may be planning to orchestrate a political heist using the nation’s security apparatus.

Indeed, the world will expect the president to direct the nation’s security apparatus to maintain the highest standard of professionalism by being neutral as they provide different levels of adequate security for the process during the elections even as it expects him to allow the electoral umpire an unfettered freedom to perform its constitutional duties uninhibited.