As We Sprint towards the 2023 Polls (2)
Postscript by Waziri Adio
We are exactly 40 days away from the 2023 presidential election in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy and most populous country. The conduct and the reaction to the outcome of the presidential poll have implications for physical and economic stability within Nigeria and beyond, especially the West African subregion which has not been particularly stable lately.
Nigeria’s erstwhile status as the guarantor of security and stability in the subregion has been greatly eroded by our lingering and expanding internal security challenges. As we race towards the landmark polls, it is important for all parties to ensure that the elections do not compound Nigeria’s security challenges and further complicate the instability in our immediate neighbourhood and beyond.
Clearly, a lot is at stake in many significant ways—for us, for our immediate neighbours and for the rest of the world. It is thus in everyone’s enlightened self-interest to ensure that Nigeria does not finally tip over after the 2023 polls.
As stated in the first part of this series, the best way to guarantee peace is to ensure that the elections are free and fair, clean and credible. That is the irreducible minimum. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the security forces have the central role in midwifing decent elections and in providing adequate security during and after the elections.
But while conducting free and fair elections is a necessary condition for post-election peace, it is not a sufficient one.
The conduct of the candidates, their parties and supporters as well as that of the international community, the judiciary, civil society organisations, and the media before, during and after the elections will be equally critical. Some of these groups have the power to shape not just behaviour but also perception. How this power is used has implications for peace and security. Such consequential power must be exercised responsibly.
Already, there are reasons for worry. And this is not just from the conduct of the politicians and their supporters, but also from other critical stakeholders as well. It is important to track some of the potentially dangerous trends and ensure that in addition to guaranteeing free and fair elections we are able to commit and re-commit the politicians and other key stakeholders to stick to the highest level of democratic culture.
Today, I will highlight a few of the potentially dangerous trends I see and which I think we need to watch closely and address as we move closer to the elections.
The first is the kind of language some of the candidates and their supporters use. Some of the words used by some of the candidates are not only uncouth but incendiary. Politicians cannot be stopped from taking jibes at their competitors. Painting opponents and their ideas as undesirable and unworthy is as old as electoral politics. It is one of the things that add spice to the campaign period. But it is important to keep the language elevated and to be mindful of the environment we live in.
The ferocity and consistency of verbal attacks can be taken as a cue by some supporters to physically attack those who support or have sympathies for other parties. And in some cases, the utterances of the politicians are clearly inciting. The ongoing election cycle has seen an uptick in political violence. Even when there is no empirical evidence that links the verbal attacks directly to the surge in political violence, it is important we avoid anything that can remotely trigger violence of any kind, given how frayed nerves are and the not-so-hidden religious, regional and ethnic subtexts of the elections.
The candidates need to check themselves and their aides and followers. It is easy to get carried away in front of the crowd or to submit to the itch to pander to base instincts and sentiments or to strain to prove to be loyal and combative aides. In every campaign, it is critical to have boundaries, to know where the lines are and to rigorously patrol such. Lines become blurry and difficult to police when the principals are the ones zig-zagging across them. Yet, knowing and observing the water’s edge is in our collective interest. And we need the leaders to lead.
The second worrisome trend is how some narratives could produce Nigeria’s version of election deniers and how that could be more dangerous than what we saw in the United States of America and Brazil after the 2020 and 2022 polls respectively. Most of the 18 presidential candidates, especially those deemed the top four, speak very confidently about being clearly ahead of the others. Well, it takes a certain level of optimism to be a politician. During the primaries, some of those who boasted of being sure of winning by a landslide didn’t even secure a single vote.
Bristling with supreme, even if baseless, self-confidence is not the problem. It is part of electoral politics. You can’t energise others if you are not convinced about your chances and the rightness of your course. Where it becomes a problem is when you keep insisting that you have won when it is clear you have come short or you keep saying the only way you can fail to clinch the post is if the election is rigged or manipulated. There are so many reasons candidates can lose elections outside of rigging, including low turnout and overestimation of support base, faulty assumption about what drives voters’ preference, limited resources, and inability to win and win big in a majority of the geo-political zones.
Ahead of the polls, the narrative around potential rigging is gaining ground, and is much stronger than in previous election cycles. This narrative is being pushed directly and indirectly in a number of ways. Those pushing this narrative could be doing it to checkmate those intent on rigging. They could also be using it to try to force the issue or to discredit an outcome that doesn’t favour them. It is difficult to know which is which. We don’t have to wait to find out the motives before we appreciate the danger of allowing such a narrative grow deep roots.
The risk of having election deniers in the mould of the ‘January 6’ and ‘January 8’ insurrectionists in the US and Brazil respectively is that it could easily degenerate into widespread post-election violence here as we saw in some parts of the country in 1964/1965, 1983 and 2011. This possibility should be a serious source for concern to all of us, given the level of emotions invested in the coming elections and how the pairings accentuate our national fault-lines. Allowing post-election violence to the generalised insecurity in the country may be the final push.
As stated earlier, having free and fair elections will help in reducing the room for risky mischief. The use of BVAS machines for the accreditation of voters, the electronic transmission of results and the deployment of the INEC Result Viewing (IReV) portal should help in making the tallying and transmission of the results of the polls more transparent. The political parties, election monitors, the civil society and the media will have enough raw and real time data that they can use to verify the final results announced by INEC. Investing in capturing and analysing election results will go a long way in addressing this risk.
But it is also important to get the political actors to accept the results or seek redress in courts rather than calling their supporters to the streets or looking the other way if some of their supporters decide to resort to self-help. The General Abdulsalami Abubakar-led National Peace Committee will need another set of meetings with the parties and the candidates on this potential threat, including on the need for the combatants to tone down the rhetoric. We also need to reaffirm confidence in the judiciary as the arbiter of disputes. The Chief Justice of Nigeria has to take the lead in ensuring that the judges deal with cases with utmost professionalism and despatch. The security forces need to be proactive too in identifying flashpoints and responding promptly to emerging threats.
The last trend I want to highlight here is the prevalence of fake news and the threat this poses to the election and the polity. Beneath-the-radar social media platforms are the channels of choice of the fake news merchants. All sorts—from outright fabrication to distorted accounts—are peddled and consumed with little or no scrutiny. But fake news and even deep fakes are not restricted to platforms where authorship can easily be masked. They seep into other social media platforms and even the traditional media too.
Misinformation, disinformation and their other dangerous siblings have always been with us. But with the advent of the information age, they circulate more quickly and cause greater harm. To their credit, some social media companies have adopted measures, including issuing advisories, to limit the spread of fake news. Many professional online and traditional media organisations have also bolstered their verification policies and now routinely fact-check stories, videos and pictures and even the claims made by the candidates. Many donor organisations and development partners are supporting these efforts. These are all steps in the right direction.
As fake news can set the country on fire, we need more of such measures. The rest of us must also become more sophisticated and show more discretion in consuming and sharing information that we come across during the electioneering period. One of the big talking points of this election cycle is the state of security. But the elections can also be security risks themselves. We have a collective responsibility, and stakes, in ensuring that we minimise the security-related risks of the fast-approaching elections.