GUEST COLUMNIST BY ATTAHIRU JEGA
I am greatly honoured with the invitation to deliver the Keynote address at this important gathering organized by the Abuja Central Mosque, to sensitize Nigerians on the importance of such a national issue as the 2023 General Elections, which will, In Shaa Allah (God willing), hold on February 25th and March 11, 2023. I wish to thank the organisers for inviting me, and especially for the commendable initiative of organizing this event. As is generally recognized by knowledgeable people both here at home and abroad, this year, Nigeria’s general elections are the most consequential elections to be held globally, for at least three reasons. First, due to military coups and authoritarian reversals on account of bad governance, inept leaders, and poorly conducted elections, in some countries in the West African sub-region, there is concern about what would happen in Nigeria. Second, given the fractious nature of the Nigerian political class and their engagement in/with the electoral process as a “do-or-die” affair, and the mobilisation (some say the weaponization) of ethnicity and religion, there is concern about electoral violence, which could escalate and lead to profound instability in the country. Third, there is the concern that if things do not go well in Nigeria’s 2023 elections, the opportunity to project Nigeria as a model of democratic development amidst global resurgence of authoritarianism, will be lost.
For us, Nigerians, therefore, all hands need to be on deck, to ensure that we have the best conducted elections, in terms of their being free, fair and credible, as well as peaceful, with good quality people elected into public offices in the legislative and executive arms of government at all levels / tiers of the Nigerian federation., as this would place our country more assertively on the trajectory of stable democratic development and good governance.
There is no doubt that, the better the conduct and management of elections, the more the likelihood of improving the sphere of governance for addressing the fundamental needs and aspirations of the citizens. And, key among what tends to make elections better, is the enlightened active participation of eligible citizens in the electoral process. All stakeholders therefore have a responsibility to sensitize and enlighten citizens about their responsibility, indeed obligation, to actively engage with / in, the electoral process.
The 2023 general elections would be the 7th since 1999, when Nigeria returned to civil democratic rule, after a long period of military authoritarian rule (previous six being in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2019). No doubt, in the past 23 years, Nigeria has come a long way with regards to striving to improve the integrity of the preparations and conduct of elections. Incremental positive changes are clearly discernible. Many of the traditional, crooked methods used by politicians to undermine the integrity of elections have been systematically addressed. A few examples of these would suffice:
- Use of ballot papers without serial numbers has been eliminated.
- Movement of ballot papers from, say, Sokoto to Enugu, to be fraudulently used, has been eliminated, using colour coding
- Ballot boxes are now numbered and customized to polling units, so they can no longer be snatched from one place and taken to another place for collation
- Result Sheets on which returns are made, are also now customized for each polling unit, so they can no longer be snatched, used for writing false results and fraudulently brought back into the electoral process for counting
- Ballot papers now carry multiple security features, making them virtually impossible to forge
- Upscaled use of technology, such as creation of electronic register of voters, use of Smart Voters Card, and authentication of voters with technological devices (e.g. in 2015 Card Reader, now BVAS) has also made fraudulent voting very difficult indeed.
In addition, compared to between 1999 and 2007 elections, INEC has become more professional, impartial and competent in preparation and conduct of elections with relative integrity.
In spite of all these, however, we are still not yet out of the woods. A lot more effort needs to go into continuous improvement and enhancement of the integrity of our elections. Clearly, improvement within INEC alone, without commensurate improvements within all stakeholders in the elector processes, while necessary, is not sufficient for ensuring free, fair, credible, transparent and peaceful elections.
Toward Free, Fair and Credible Elections in 2023
The improved role of INEC alone, as remarkable as it has noticeably been, does not guarantee successful and unblemished elections. All hands need to be, indeed must be, on deck. In this regard, a number of outstanding challenges need to also be squarely addressed. These include:
- Improvement in the role and participation of security agencies in the electoral process. It has improved compared to the past, but it needs to be remarkably much, much better in the 2023 elections. The possibility or probability of armed and paid thugs, or bandits, or insurgents, attempting to disrupt the elections has to be anticipated and checkmated appropriately, if it happens
- Improvement in the role of the judiciary in electoral adjudication, both in handling pre-election and post-election litigation. Again, while in relative terms some improvements are noticeable, a lot more needs to be desired, to cure entrenched public perception that electoral justice still goes to the highest bidder!
- Upscaling of the positive role of civil society organizations (CSOs), community-based organizations (CBOs), traditional, religious and community leaders, is necessary and desirable, in sensitization, voter education, peace-building and conflict resolution in communities and electoral constituencies.
To my mind, the most worrisome challenges going into the 2023 general elections are: 1. The attitude and disposition of the so-called political class (politicians and political party bureaucracy or aristocracy); and 2). The attitude and disposition of the electorate, the eligible voting citizens, as they engage with the electoral process.
The so-called political class, as active partisans and as candidates/contestants in elections, are the category of stakeholders with perhaps the least noticeable improvements in the ways in which they engage with the electoral process since 1999. Their mindset is to achieve victory at all cost; to win elections deploying ‘all means necessary’; seeing electoral contests as a “do-or-die” affair. As they have done since 1999, they have continued to do, and are likely to do in 2023. They perpetrate and/or aide the commission of electoral offenses with incredible impunity; they deploy enormous financial resources buy off security personnel, election officials, judicial officers, and increasingly, even voters, so as to influence electoral outcomes in their favour. They arm and drug thugs from the large pool of unemployed youth and pay them to intimidate, harass, and violently disrupt the electoral process Many youth become susceptible to this, on account of the fact that 63.5% of youth are either unemployed or under-employed. And they dangerously mobilise religion, ethnicity, sectionalism and all sorts of divisive identities and ‘weaponize’ them in the electioneering process. As their impunity has remained unchecked, so have their criminal and fraudulent predispositions increased. This may constitute the major challenge to the 2023 general elections.
The attitude and disposition of the electorate, those citizens who qualify to register and to vote, is also a major concern. Increasingly, even if they register to vote, they hardly make the effort to vote, as declining voter turnout statistics of general as well as off-season elections indicate. This may be because of what is called a crisis of rising expectations; and/or inadequacy, or lack of sensitization, political and voter education. As the intrinsic value of electoral democracy is hinged on citizens participation in election to, in an enlightened manner, elect their trusted representatives in the legislative and governance institutions, the evidence of declining participation of eligible citizens, or of their unenlightened participation is undesirable and needs to be addressed.
Therefore, sensitization, public enlightenment and voter education are absolutely necessary, not just close to elections, but throughout the 4-year electoral cycle. This is even more significant in a country such as Nigeria, with significant numbers of ‘illiterate’ (i.e. in western education, which in 2021 was put at 38% of the population or 76 million). For, in our own kind of situation, it is not enough for people to register to vote, and go to polling units on election day to vote: they must know how to vote and not waste their votes!
That is why, this kind of sensitization event, by a responsible and respectable religious organization such as this, is necessary and desirable. I would say further, that it would even more desirable, to partner with especially community-based organisations, to take the sensitization and voter education from conference halls, down to communities where the people live and vote. Traditional rulers and community leaders also are important partners in discharging this duty. The key messages to popularise are: if you are eligible, ensure to register to vote, obtain your voters card, know how to vote, go and vote on election day, vote properly/appropriately, and even more significantly, vote your conscience! Do not let monetary or material inducements to sway you to vote for a criminal, selfish, greedy, anti-people, narrow-minded contestant, when there is a decent, selfless, responsible, pro-people, visionary contestant. In a country with 133 million people or 65% of the population is to be affected by multidimensional poverty 2022), it may seem unrealistic or even futile to ask people not to accept money offered by corrupt politicians. It may be more effective to say,’ even if you take the money, then vote your conscience!’. The more enlightened voters we have going on election day to vote their conscience and make informed choices, the better the quality of elected representatives would be, and the more likely the prospects of having good governance that would address people’s needs and aspirations while securing them and protecting their human dignity.
I wish to reiterate that the 2023 elections are the most consequential elections in the world, this year 2023. More importantly, it offers us an opportunity to keep on improving the integrity of our elections as well as the quality of governance in our country, after decades of declining participation and bad governance, accompanied by reckless vandalization of national resources, by a tiny band of selfish political class. All responsible and respectable stakeholders, need to engage actively and contribute to a better and desirable outcome, as that is the only way to ensure quality representation, peaceful co-existence, progress and socioeconomic development in our country Nigeria.
May Allah SWT guide us well, and enable us to continue to contribute towards citizens political and voter education and enlightenment, as well as free, fair, credible and peaceful elections.
Once again, thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this sensitization event.
God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
* Keynote Address, presented at the Public Sensitization on Peaceful Co-existence and the need to have Hitch-free 2023 General Elections, Organized by the Abuja National Mosque Da’awah and Welfare Foundation (ANMDWF), at the National Mosque Conference Hall, Tuesday 7th February, 2023