There is a vote to cast even before Saturday regardless of the logistical preparedness of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). It is a vote for peaceful elections.
On this note, all voters should vote for the same purpose. The successful conduct of the vote in which political parties compete depend largely on this crucial vote for peace.
It is, therefore, worrisome that the` polity is evidently polarised on the prospects of this vote being cast by all those who influence the state of things.
How to cast this crucial vote for peace seems to be at the heart of the controversy triggered on Monday by President Muhammadu Buhari. The President’s party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), held an emergency caucus meeting on the postponement of the presidential and National Assembly elections. In his address to the meeting, Buhari said inter alia: “We have directed the military and other security agents to be ruthless… I want to warn anybody who thinks he has enough influence in his locality to lead a body of thugs to snatch ballot boxes or disturb the voting system, he will do it at the expense of his own life…”
Furthermore, the President met security chiefs yesterday and official assurances were made that there would be public safety during the elections. Strong warnings were also issued against electoral offences.
Now, you can fault the president for seemingly giving a marching order for extra-judicial killing when he said that he who embarks on ballot snatching would be doing so “at the peril of his own life.” Extra-judicial killings are not justified under Nigerian laws. Besides, the Electoral Act provides the penalty for electoral offences. The Act does not prescribe death penalty for ballot snatchers. The law rather makes provisions for the arrest and prosecution of a ballot box snatcher and a 24-month jail term is the punishment.
More fundamentally, the point cannot be over-emphasised that electoral offences like other crimes should be fought within the ambit of the law. There is hardly any dispute about the centrality of the rule of law to the democratic process. In fact, on this score there should be a national consensus regardless of the partisan divisions.
However, you cannot fault the President as the Commander-in-Chief for talking tough given the tragic history of electoral violence especially in the last 20 years in this land. The enormity of electoral crimes including violence demands even more than tough talking! Hundreds of lives have been lost in the course of electoral violence. For too long, violence has diminished the legitimacy of electoral outcomes.
Rather than being a festival of democracy in which choice is made based on conviction, elections have been conducted like wars. More often than not, the “political structure on ground” that the Nigerian politician talks about gleefully is actually a euphemism for the army of thugs being organised to fight on the day of election.
To be sure, those who snatch ballot boxes are not peaceful actors in the electoral process. They often carry out their heinous crimes as armed electoral robbers. Hence, blood and tears have defined the electoral seasons.
On the day of election, Nigeria looks like a nation resisting an invasion. Borders are closed. Movement is insensitively restricted. Socio-economic activities are paralysed. Without a formal declaration, a state of emergency exists in the morning of election. All this official disruption of the rhythm of the public space is assumed to prevent or minimise violence. Doubtless, electoral violence is a grave obstacle to the liberal democratic development of Nigeria.
Critics have legitimately expressed outrage at Buhari’s statement. But a greater outrage ought to be expressed at the manifestations of violence heralding the elections. Undeniably, the rule of law cannot subsist in a state of anarchy. Yet, elections sometimes become anarchy in some parts of the country. It would be hypocritical to deny the portents of violence about the coming elections. Reports of arms flow, activities of thugs, suspected arson and assassinations as well as incitements are among the outrageous developments heralding the elections. Killings were recorded even during the party primaries.
So, the criticism of Buhari’s political gaffe should be done in the proper context.
All told, the government should muster the capacity to stop electoral violence within the precincts of the rule of law. Perhaps, if Buhari had implemented the reports of past panels on electoral offences, he would not have had any cause to be so angry at the situation today, much less making a political gaffe. Maybe, electoral violence might have been curbed significantly. One recommendation that successive administrations have failed to implement for over 10 years is the establishment of a tribunal to try electoral offenders. For instance, over 5, 000 suspected electoral offenders were reportedly arrested during the 2011 elections. How many of them have been successfully prosecuted?
The President should, therefore, cast the first vote for peaceful elections by making a clarification that his Monday statement is not an order for extra-judicial killings. To do so would be squarely in the public interest.
It would be enough for the law enforcement and security agents to do their job competently as defined by law: electoral violence should be prevented and when electoral laws are violated the culprits should be duly prosecuted.