TUESDAY WITH REUBEN ABATI

Ordinarily, the postponement by a week of Nigeria’s 2019 general election should not have generated as much outrage as it has done, but the protest that the postponement has attracted is positive proof of the fact that the Nigerian electorate do not trust the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). In 2011, the country’s elections were postponed even after voting had started. In 2015, the elections were postponed for six weeks on security grounds.

The explanation that has now been given in 2019 about “logistical problems” should have been sufficient, but Nigerians are unimpressed because they have learnt not to trust the present INEC or the ruling government, hence the default response has been a series of speculative, yet unverifiable theories about what may be the actual story behind the postponement. Speaking for myself, I am willing to give INEC the benefit of the doubt, but what I find curious is the timing of the postponement, the management of the fall-outs, and the too many unanswered questions still hanging in the air. INEC needs to make more disclosures.

The election was postponed Nicodemously in the middle of the night, while most Nigerians were asleep. The people had gone to bed hoping to troop out in the morning to use their voters’ cards to determine the future of Nigeria in the next four years, only to wake up in the morning to be told that their dream had been stolen while they slept. That certainly is suspicious. Legitimate questions have been raised and INEC has not yet offered satisfactory answers: At what point did it occur to INEC and its leadership that there were challenges of logistics? At 8p.m. on February 15? At 1a.m. on February 16? Was there a meeting to determine the best course of action and at what time did that meeting take place after Nigerians had gone to bed? Was there at any point a meeting of all relevant stakeholders before the decision to postpone the election was taken? Who took the decision on behalf of Nigerians and all stakeholders?

Or was it a unilateral decision? If so, should only one person take such a weighty decision which has economic, social, and political implications not to talk of implications for the country’s image? INEC has since the postponement met with party leaders and election monitors and observers. We can label this without prejudice as an insulting afterthought! Who will defray the additional cost that is now being incurred by international monitors and observers? Who will compensate political parties and candidates for the cost of preparation for election day? How about the people who travelled from one part of the country to the other to vote? How about the intending brides and bridegrooms who had fixed their weddings for February 23 and March 9, but who would now have to shift the dates and print new invitation cards?

In the explanation offered by INEC, there was some reference to the “weather”. When I got to that line, I was afraid that the author of the press release would soon end up blaming God for the postponement, but well, INEC didn’t – at least not yet! But the explanations are obviously unsatisfactory, given how INEC had consistently assured the Nigerian people and the international community that it was ready and prepared. If the postponement was inevitable, it would have certainly been foreseeable, and it could have been announced a few days earlier. Indeed, a few days to February 16, Professor Yakubu was still on television swearing that the dates for the election were sacrosanct. Was he deliberately lying to Nigerians when he said that? The Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) has for record purposes, pointedly accused the INEC Chairman of lying about the weather. NAMA insists that there was no disruption in air traffic services as claimed by Professor Yakubu.

What I see is that the postponement has achieved only four things and you can interpret each item positively or negatively depending on your inclination. One: it has deepened the Nigerian electorate’s suspicion, mistrust, angst and disappointment regarding what they consider to be the lack of independence of both INEC and other institutions involved in the management of the current electoral process. The people are convinced that there is something fishy about the postponement.

INEC under Professor Mahmud Yakubu’s watch may have conducted over 1,000 elections, but the verdict out there is that the present INEC has not advertised enough capacity, hence the people have been talking about the “Osun Template” and a certain unproven intervention by the United States and other countries of the world, or a local plan to derail the elections and a scheme to put in place an Interim National Government. What we hear is that the ruling APC actually wanted a staggered election or a series of inconclusive elections to enable it control the outcome of the 2019 polls, or at best remain in power by all means.

Two: Before February 16, there was so much tension in the air, passion as well, and what looked like very serious determination on the part of the voting population to participate in the 2019 general election. This reading may be contradicted by the number of voters cards that remain uncollected, but what I have seen is that those who had their cards and who were ready to vote were ready to troop out on election day. The last time I witnessed such passion was during Nigeria’s 1993 general election.

The people wanted to vote out the military and its agents, and they meant business. The postponement of the scheduled February 16 election has brought down the level of tension in the country. It has poured cold water on the people’s passion. It is too early to confirm whether or not this will affect the turn-out nationwide on Saturday, February 23, but what we hear on the streets is that the people are insisting that no kind of manouevre will prevent them from having a say with their votes.

Three: by that token, INEC may have inadvertently set the people against the government of the day. What was meant to be a normal process has been turned, more or less into a referendum on the Buhari government. The people are not blaming Professor Mahmoud Yakubu. They don’t even know him: he has not yet attained that level of importance. The man they blame is President Muhammadu Buhari and the APC. Which is why I think the APC has played very clever politics by immediately distancing itself from INEC and the postponement. The witches in APC have mastered the game of not allowing their mouths to be publicly smeared with blood. They have chosen the best strategy in the circumstance, and I applaud them for that.

Four: the postponement has further deepened the suspicion of the international community. It has put Nigeria on the spot. No one should be surprised that the international media is already analysing and over-analyzing what is going on in Nigeria. And who is going to help the present government manage the perception problem that has arisen, especially when President Buhari tells CNN: “Nobody will unseat me!” Is he or the APC, in a position to pre-determine the outcome of this election?

The sum of it is that INEC is at the crossroads. Nowhere is the job of an electoral umpire easy. It is more challenging in Nigeria because you have to serve man and God, especially as the enabling factors do not stop with the right of the people to vote and choose but a panoply of other factors including religion, ethnicity, money, violence, incumbency, traditional institutions, the occult, and political mischief. Nonetheless, not much rigorous thinking went into the postponement of the scheduled February 16 election. INEC could have told us for example that it wanted to use the opportunity to bring more people into the voting bracket by declaring 3 more days for the collection of voters cards, or some other kind of sop. Instead, INEC placed its credibility on the line. It confirmed earlier suspicions that there was an original plan to postpone the election. It played into the hands of the skeptics.

The challenge before Nigeria’s INEC as I see it, is how to now project itself as a credible and reliable electoral umpire. It can do that by disappointing all doubting Thomases and run a free, fair and credible election on February 23 and March 9. It is expected that INEC would use the one-week postponement to address all issues of logistics, and ensure that nothing goes wrong. I mentioned Professor Mahmud Yakubu earlier. He certainly should not allow himself to end up as a fall guy. He must do what is right. He and his team must make sure that no election anywhere in Nigeria is declared inconclusive! Yakubu’s INEC has unfortunately acquired a reputation for declaring elections “inconclusive.” Nigerians are tired of such declarations. It is one word nobody wants to hear. The general public opinion is that when any election is declared inconclusive, it is a ploy to rig and manipulate the result. The time available is short, emotions are strong, the Nigerian public is politically divided, INEC has an urgent task to reassure Nigerians that it is sincere and that there is no hidden agenda. Any attempt to stagger the elections or postpone the elections further, will amount to a violation of the will of the people.

Politics matters. Yes. It is probably the most important factor that defines our lives. But the country matters more. As Nigeria goes to the polls, the country must come first – every one seeking a job in government must realise that it is only when there is a country that they can get the job they seek. Letters of application are already before the people of Nigeria: the people in whom resides the sovereignty of Nigeria must be allowed to decide. INEC must be ready to address all issues arising from the postponement of the 2019 general election.

It needs be reminded, as I close this piece that all of this began with its mismanagement of previous elections, particularly in Osun and Ekiti States, and its predilection to declare elections “inconclusive.” The controversy over the presence of an alleged relative of President Buhari in one of the most strategic positions in INEC has also not helped matters. The burning of INEC offices along geo-political lines in areas of strength of the opposition only further worsened things. And is it true that a major supplier of election materials is also a candidate in this election? Could it also be true that elections were actually held in some parts of the country on February 16 because INEC could not reach all its officials and units before the scheduled commencement of elections?

And finally, is the postponement in conformity with Section 26 of the Electoral Act and Section 105 of the 1999 Constitution? If truly it is not, then we are yet to get to the end of this postponement cinema in the light of both Section 105(2) of the Constitution and Section 26(5) of the Electoral Act. And did I hear right as I penned the last paragraphs of this commentary that President Buhari at an APC caucus meeting in Abuja announced that the security agencies have been instructed to ensure that anyone who snatches a ballot box on election day does so “at the expense of his life.” Where is the law in Nigeria that allows the president of the country to so publicly endorse extra-judicial killing and official violence? One last thing: The international community is watching. Other world leaders expect President Buhari to provide the leadership that is urgently required at this critical moment in Nigeria.