Anxiety has always been part of the tradition of elections in Nigeria. But the tension arising from the postponement of the presidential and national assembly elections which ought to have held last Saturday is troubling. All of a sudden, those who ordinarily should urge restraint are not only scare-mongering but also sowing seeds of discord and violence. In a development that has divided the polity, President Muhammadu Buhari on Monday threatened that anyone planning to snatch ballot boxes during the rescheduled polls will be doing so “at the expense of his own life.”
To be sure, ballot-snatching is a serious crime because of its implications for democracy and the rule of law and it should not be treated with levity. As conservative journalist John Fund and former American Justice Department official Hans von Spakovsky wrote in their book, ‘Who’s Counting?’, when voters are disenfranchised as a result of electoral malpractices, “their civil rights are violated just as surely as if they were prevented from voting”. Besides, “the integrity of the ballot box”, according to the authors “is just as important to the credibility of elections as access to it.”
However, in moments of national crisis, such as that engendered by the postponed elections, President Buhari ought to understand that whatever he says has a significant impact on how the issue is resolved and so should stay above the fray. To suggest that citizens would pay with their lives for a crime that does not carry capital punishment is most unacceptable. In any case, no matter the severity of punishment an offence carries, criminal suspects are still entitled to court trial. All the president needed to say was that culprits would face the full wrath of the law.
Since the words of a leader, according to Linia Anirudhan, “have power to uplift or to destroy”, President Buhari must have realized his mistake given the message in a Tuesday video post where he is shown commiserating with and assuring a disappointed nation that the postponement of the election is a temporary setback that should not deter people from exercising their right to vote.
Whatever our misgivings about the performance of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the reality is that managing elections in Nigeria is a difficult task. Former INEC Chairman, Prof Attahiru Jega once lamented that elections are almost always fought like wars in our country. “The 2011 election required the assemblage of close to a million poll workers, party workers, security personnel and election observers” said Jega who added that aside the over 400 million ballot papers that were printed, a voter’s roll of over 73 million entries were also deployed. “The over 400,000 staff used in the exercise outnumbered the collective strength of the entire armed forces of the West African sub-region”, said Jega.
It is particularly disturbing that both the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) are trying hard to discredit INEC ahead of the rescheduled elections. No matter how credible the exercise turns out to be, the groundwork for rejecting the outcome has been laid by both parties that are already trading damaging allegations. The strategy is simple: If they win, they will embrace the results but if they lose, a second wave of campaign would begin on how the elections were rigged against them. Given how high the stakes have been raised on both sides, the odds that there will be violence in the event of such disputations are quite high.
I hope these politicians understand the implications of what they are doing. As things stand, INEC no longer has any margin for error. Therefore, anything that will disrupt the holding of Saturday poll, under any circumstance, could trigger a dangerous constitutional crisis the end of which no one can foretell. As respected scholars Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas argued in their book ‘How to Rig an Election’, if democracy continues to generate instability and tension, especially in an environment where it also does not deliver for the people accountability and inclusion, “authoritarian alternatives will start to look increasingly attractive.”
The failure of INEC last Saturday is a systemic challenge that must be addressed after the general election but that does not excuse the reckless allegations being bandied. Without any proof, INEC chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu and many key officials are now being accused of working for one party or another. At this most delicate period, spreading fake news, alternative facts and fabricated documents can only compound a task that is already extraordinarily difficult. More dangerous is the not-so-subtle attempt to profile and criminalise INEC officials who come from a section of the country based on some unfounded assumptions.
On Tuesday, Professor Adele Jinadu, Mr Femi Falana, SAN, Professor Ebere Onwudiwe, Professor Jibrin Ibrahim, Mr Y. Z. Ya’u, Ms. Idayat Hassan, Ms. Ayo Obe, Dr. Hussaini Abdu and Mr Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, released a timely public statement to arrest a worrisome dimension to the postponed election. According to the concerns raised by the group, “there are too many conspiracy theories in circulation and a great deal of mudslinging in the campaigns” that are now “characterized by strong ethno-religious mobilization on all sides, which can be harmful to nation building”. The orchestrated campaign of calumny against certain officials of INEC, they further argued, “is divisive and geared to smear an ethnic group and present them as enemies of democracy”. Nothing can be more dangerous.
I commend the group for their intervention. More than at any period in recent history, this is the time all men and women of goodwill should restrain themselves. In that respect, my appeal particularly goes to Christian leaders. In an election in which the two leading contenders are Muslims, I fail to understand all the ‘prophecies’ that are tailored against one in promotion of another. While people reserve the right to vote for whomsoever they like, the name of God should not be used to sow hatred and division.
For peace to reign, the security and the anti-corruption agencies should be even-handed in the manner they deal with both parties. Those on election duties should also be professional in their conduct before, during and after the polls. Regime protection is not the same thing as fighting corruption or promoting national security.
At the end of the day, the frustration for many of us is that regardless of the number of presidential contenders on the ballot, this election is a straight contest between the incumbent President Buhari of the APC and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the PDP. And it is clear that the motivating factor for supporters and opponents of either side is the extent to which they loath the other. That explains why they are predominantly engaged in selling the foibles of their opponent rather than the virtues of their candidate. Even at that, they should conduct themselves in an orderly manner and refuse to be used by politicians whose children will be far away from the fray in case things escalate.
What I find most depressing is that an ‘us versus them’ mentality has been created by political foot soldiers who are 100 percent certain that their candidate will win. I can tell them for free that one side is going to win and the other side is going to end up disappointed. I just hope there are enough voices of reason within each camp to ensure our country is not pushed into the abyss after the votes are counted. Meanwhile, I call on the leadership of the two main political parties and other stakeholders to help bring down the current tension in the interest of all.
I wish INEC and Nigerians like me who have resolved to vote on Saturday a credible election.
The Kogi State Deputy Governor, Mr Simon Achuba, on Sunday cried out about the withdrawal of his security details allegedly on the order of the state governor, Alhaji Yahaya Bello. Achuba said he returned from his village where he had gone for the postponed elections to find the gate to his official residence empty without any of his security personnel. Unfortunately, this is a familiar story across the country where governors dispense with their deputies as casually as most people dismiss their drivers and the charge always is that of “disloyalty”, not to the system but to their persons.
At the last count, no fewer than 23 deputy governors have lost their jobs under the current dispensation that started in 1999 because of differences with their governors. Against the background that the right to disagree follows directly from the right to hold independent opinions, tolerance for dissent is an important sign of political maturity. It therefore follows that subservience to one key figure is not only disgraceful, it is antithetical to the promotion of rule of law. That unfortunately is the situation you find in most of the states where many governors behave like administrators while treating their deputies and other senior officials as glorified errand boys who have no rights.
In March last year, the Ebonyi Information Commissioner, Mr Emmanuel Onwe announced the resignation of Prof. Bernard Odoh as secretary to the state government and the appointment of Mr Hyginus Nwokwu as his replacement. But in a curious twist, Governor David Umahi told a gathering of supporters that the resignation of Odoh had been voided by him. Now, let’s hear his reason: “When the resignation happened, senior members of my cabinet came together and said ‘let’s accept the resignation and wish him well’. But I knelt down and said ‘Lord, my heart is clean before this young man and if I be called of God let us leave the matter before God’. I had called him on Saturday and said ‘my son, I want you to come and see me so I can speak with you and advise you as a father’ and he agreed.”
Umahi continued his story: “On Monday, he sent me a text that his health was failing him and that he was going to resign and he will let me know. Before you know, I started hearing and seeing that he has resigned on social media. So I am nullifying the acceptance that was done by government officials including the appointment of his replacement because they were all done on public holiday (Easter Monday). By the powers conferred on me as the governor of the state, I hereby announce the sack of Prof. Odoh as SSG.”
While there is so much fixation about the presidency in our country, it is doubtful if we can have any meaningful development if we continue to ignore what happens in many of the 36 states where there is zero accountability. To compound the problem, many of the governors exercise their powers without any form of restraint—either by law or social conscience.
• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com