As We Sprint towards the 2023 Polls (1)
Postscript by Waziri Adio
After today, we have six more Sundays before the much-awaited February 25th presidential election in Nigeria. One of the innovations of the Electoral Act 2022 is a nine-month gap between when political parties choose their flagbearers and when the electorate cast their ballots. By a country mile, this is the longest electioneering period in our history.
The closest to this was at the outset of the Second Republic when the five registered political parties of the time chose their presidential candidates in December 1978 and the presidential election was held on 11th August 1979. Since then, electioneering period had shrunk to about three months. Until now.
The jury is still out on if this novelty of the current electoral law is, on the balance, a good thing for governance, democracy and the country. There will be ample time after the polls for a post mortem. For now, it is time to count down to what had previously looked like eternity.
In the remaining weeks and days, campaign activities will multiply. Candidates and their parties will increase their presence and crank up the volume. This is the last mile that the politicians have been conserving their energies and resources for. Now is the time to dash towards the finishing line.
As part of this heightened state, there will be more polls and projections, there will be new alliances and endorsements, there will be additional spins and promises, and there will be fresh accusations and counter-accusations—all designed to woo the voters and amass the needed numbers. The space will be saturated with, and be nearly suffocated by, politics. It is that time.
As the politicians do their things and work up a frenzy, it is also important to use this countdown period to emphasise a few things. I will highlight one of such today, which is the need to continue to demand free, fair and credible elections.
Both the electoral management body and President Muhammadu Buhari have consistently promised to deliver just that. Promises and public declarations are a good starting point. I started following elections in Nigeria before I turned a teenager. I am yet to come across a president/head of state and an electoral body that pledged the contrary. The real test is when the rubber meets the road.
To be sure, it is no mean task organising elections simultaneously in 176, 974 polling units in disparate terrains across 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory. The arduous and thankless job of the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) is further complicated by the fact that the commission uses ad-hoc staff to conduct the polls, relies on third-parties to move electoral materials, and depends on the armed forces for security.
But conducting credible elections is INEC’s responsibility. And as President Buhari said recently, INEC has no excuse not to deliver on this important mandate in the coming landmark polls. INEC advocated for a longer time between the primaries and the elections to give it more space to plan, and both the legislature and the executive obliged. The current electoral law also stipulates that money for the election must be released to INEC a year in advance, and there is no indication this has not been done or that funding for the election will be a problem, even as the country is struggling with its finances.
The point here is that INEC has all it needs to deliver its part of the bargain. If INEC had excuses about time and money in the past, such excuses will not stand now.
On many occasions, I have stated that INEC needs our support and should not be distracted or be allowed to be undermined by politicians or their agents. I still stand by this position. I believe that INEC, in the last few years, is one public institution that has earned its stripes and an agency that has shown huge appetite for constant improvement. However, it is also a duty to constantly hold INEC’s feet to the fire. It should always be held to account on things within its control.
It is therefore important for INEC to use the remaining weeks and days to perfect and test its plans for the elections. INEC needs to finetune its strategies on the following: ensuring that polls open as scheduled, getting electoral materials and personnel to the polling units on time, providing prompt backup for electoral devices that malfunction, applying the rules consistently, guaranteeing the secrecy of the ballot, and counting, tallying and transmitting the votes correctly.
It is reassuring to hear that INEC has received the last consignment of the BVAS machines and that the electoral body is making contingency plan for the possibility of a runoff in the presidential election. INEC needs to ease the collection of the permanent voter’s cards and step up enlightenment campaign on the electoral processes and the changes introduced by the new electoral law.
We need INEC to give a good account of itself, now more than ever. But while an excellent performance by INEC is a necessary condition, it is not all that is needed for a credible election. Precisely because there are many moving parts, other key actors in the election space must do their bits, and well too.
As stated earlier, election security is beyond INEC. In providing this critical support to the election process, the security forces must be impartial, must be firm and must provide the enabling environment for voters to feel free and safe to exercise their franchise. The president has urged and committed our security forces to the expected level of professionalism. The heads of the various security agencies need to flesh this out and take full responsibility.
Security forces serving as armed wings of ruling parties or enablers of intimidation and rigging must stay in the past. We need adequate security all over the country during the polls, especially in known political flashpoints. We also need our security officials to be proactive and nimble so that they can anticipate and quickly quell security breaches before they snowball.
Also, the politicians and the voters must play, or should be forced to play, by the rules of the game. Granted that a lot is at stake in the 2023 polls, but trying to win at all costs or turning elections to do-or-die affairs is not part of the sportsmanship spirit expected of true democrats. After giving a good fight, good sportsmen and women embrace even when they don’t like the outcome. They prepare for another time, or seek redress through established mechanisms, not set the sporting arena on fire.
The media, civil society groups and the development partners also need to play their parts well and stay above the fray.
The 2023 polls are significant for many reasons. One of such reasons is that this will be the second time that an incumbent president will be term-barred in Nigeria (the first being 2007 after President Olusegun Obasanjo had served out his two terms). Also, this set of elections will mark the seventh consecutive elections held in one democratic dispensation. This is a major record for Nigeria, as the first and second republics died shortly after the second set of elections while the third republic was a stillborn.
One wrinkle that many easily miss is that 2023 marks a century of ‘general election’ in Nigeria. The Clifford Constitution of 1922 introduced the elective principle and created four elected positions to the Nigerian Legislative Council (three seats for Lagos and one seat for Calabar). The elections for the four positions were held on 20 September 1923. The Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) snapped the three seats in Lagos while an independent, Kwamina Ata-Amonu, won with one-vote margin in Calabar. The 46-member Legislative Council was inaugurated on 31 October 1923.
The point of this short historical excursion is to re-emphasise that Nigeria has had a long experience with democracy and elections: 24 years of uninterrupted democracy and a centenary of elections. But longevity is not the same as maturity. On trial in this historic set of polls will be the maturity and the resilience of Nigeria’s democracy.
Has our democracy reached that level that scholars of democratisation call consolidation, the stage where democracy remains the only game in town? Has democratic culture become fully domesticated and mainstreamed? Have our elections progressed to a level that they can be truly certified as free and fair, clean and credible? These are weighty questions that will be tested during and after the polls in February and March.