Before Nigeria Decides 2023…
BY REUBEN ABATI
It is yet another moment of transition for Nigeria as the country goes to the polls in 4 days’ time to elect a new President and members of the National Assembly in what amounts to a seventh cycle of general elections since the country’s return to democratic, civilian rule in 1999. One President will be elected, President Muhammadu Buhari who became President on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015, having completed his maximum two-term limit of eight years is not on the ballot. All the 109 seats in the Senate are up for election as is the case with all the 360 seats in the House of Representatives. The date of this first election is Saturday, February 25.
The second general election is on March 11 for the election of Governors in 28 states and 993 members of State Houses of Assembly, both to be held in 8, 809 wards/registration areas across the country, 176, 606 polling units , overseen by about 1.4 million staff of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), with a total of 93.4 million voters participating. INEC says there will be no election in 240 polling units due to security reasons, voters having tactically avoided the same polling units and having refused to register in the same units– in the North East – 67, South East – 64, North Central – 49, North West – 47, South South – 8 South West- 5. The cancellation of these 240 units without voters is a confirmation of how the challenge of insecurity is one major threat to Nigeria’s 2023 electoral process. The other threats include voter suppression, voter apathy, violence, vote buying, the turbulence arising from the scarcity of new naira notes and fuel, and the general apathy in the land further deepened by high rate of inflation at 21.82%, unemployment – 33%, poverty, and the general high cost of living.
Nigeria goes to the polls this week, tottering on the edge of the cliff. Days to the election, there have been reports of violence in parts of the country as a result of a naira re-design policy introduced by the Central Bank of Nigeria in October 2022, to address money supply issues, encourage a cashless economy, deepen financial intermediation, check illicit financial transactions and ransom payment for kidnapping and overall, to boost economic growth but that policy has now resulted in utter chaos. The new re-designed notes are not in circulation in the desired quantities, the return of old denominations of N200, N500, and N1, 000 notes has been problematic, and on top of it all, depositors cannot have access to their money. On the eve of a general election, both the poor and the rich are lamenting that they can’t have access to money. The effect is that there have been direct attacks on banks across the country, Automated Teller Machines, and Point of Sales Centres (POS) have been set ablaze, including offices of the Central Bank. Many have died.
While the CBN claims that it has released new notes into circulation and that an otherwise necessary policy is being sabotaged by the political class looking for cash to buy votes and voters; opponents of the CBN’s policy question the timing of the policy and the difficulties imposed on the people. For many Nigerians, the big issue is not the election, but the politicization of the CBN’s policy on naira redesign. State Governors of the ruling party- All Progressives Congress have gone to court to sue the Federal Government, the CBN, and the President in two different suits. APC Governors and stakeholders are fighting their own government and openly disagreeing with their President. The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has asked to be joined as co-defendants through AG Edo State and AG Bayelsa. Can you imagine members of the ruling party fighting their own government days to a general election, and the opposition supporting the President who belongs to the ruling party? The matter comes up tomorrow, Wednesday, February 22 at the Supreme Court, three days to the election as the apex court takes critical decisions if it would. It would prove to be a momentous moment in Nigeria’s 2023 electoral process, given the weightiness of the issues before their Lordships.
Tomorrow, assuming that all the suits have been properly consolidated with all joinders accommodated, and expecting that no one brings another red-herring to further delay the court and the process, their Lordships are expected to make pronouncements on a number of issues viz: (1) whether or not the apex court has jurisdiction to hear the matter in AG Kaduna and ors. vs AG Federation, as originally presented, (2) whether or not there is a dispute between the states and the Federal Government to warrant the apex court’s original jurisdiction; (3) whether or not the original matter should have been instituted at the Federal High Court and not the Supreme Court; (4) whether or not the President of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari can, acting in the interest of public policy, tactically undermine the authority of the Supreme Court as he did in his national broadcast of Thursday, February 16, when he ordered the CBN to continue to release old N200 notes till April 10, in flagrant violation of the extant Order of the Apex court of February 8, reaffirmed on February 15, to the effect that the status quo should be maintained until “the hearing of the motion on notice”. The Supreme Court is yet to hear the motion on notice. Will the Supreme Court “bark and bite” as it has been advised to do, in line with the rules established in State vs Solomon, Abacha vs Fawehinmi, Governor of Lagos State vs Ojukwu, and in line with Section 287 of the 1999 Constitution all of which affirm the supremacy of the order of Court, even if it is a nullity. And what would the Supreme Court have to say about those state Governors who have also similarly overruled the Supreme Court with the Governors in Kogi, Kano, Kaduna, Jigawa, Ogun telling the people in their states to keep spending the old notes whatever anyone says. In many of these states though, the re-designed old notes have lost both street credibility and legitimacy as the people opt to err on the side of caution.
The situation in Nigeria is further compounded, days to the election, by the scarcity of fuel, even if that is easing off. Nigerians are going to the polls this year, angry, hungry and confused. The only rabbit that has not yet been pulled out of the hat is some dubious persons going to court to secure a midnight, black market court injunction as was done in the past, to try to stop the election. Whatever happens at the Supreme Court of Nigeria tomorrow would say a lot about the courage, wisdom and integrity of the present apex court. What Nigerians can hold on to is the continued assurance by the President, Muhammadu Buhari that his administration is committed to seeing the elections through. Having given the same assurance repeatedly, he appears resolute and convincing. Ahead of the elections, he has told Nigerians that the government has the required security measures in place to protect the electoral process and defend the average Nigerian’s right to exercise his or her franchise. The President continues to send across the right signals on both the political process and the naira redesign policy, the ownership of which he has not shied away from, even if when he uses recent opportunities to campaign for the Presidential candidate of his party, the APC, many try to read meanings into the President’s campaign. Nigerians no doubt want to be given the opportunity to make a free choice in the 2023 elections and that they would be given a fair playing ground to do so. What President Buhari is expected to do, is to keep his promise in that regard, and ensure a smooth transition, and his job would have been done.
One other major positive factor as Nigeria goes to the polls is the confidence with which the electoral umpire, INEC, continues to reassure Nigerians that it is indeed ready for the polls, regardless of whatever challenges may have been thrown up in the course of preparations. Despite the scarcity of the national currency, the CBN says it stands firm by the INEC to ensure that any cash that is required for logistics and other payments is made available to guarantee successful polls. Between the last general elections in 2019 and now, more than 50 INEC facilities have been destroyed, attacked, compromised, set ablaze literally by unknown gunmen. INEC materials have been destroyed, generators carted away, permanent voters cards stolen, majorly in the Southern part of the country. There is no evidence of arrests or convictions. Yet, INEC says it is ready. Just like the CBN, INEC has also received the expression of support from the National Security Adviser (NSA), that the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES) has what it takes to protect the polls and the electorate. Hmm. Those who have expressed doubts about the capacity of the security agencies cannot be blamed. The security agencies are the weakest link in Nigeria’s preparations for the elections. Where were these same inter-agency stakeholders when unknown assailants attacked INEC facilities and locations? Why have they proven completely negligent in addressing the threats and reality of violence before the election? The default response in the circumstance is for the Nigerian state to call out soldiers, and in fact the military has also been overheard saying that they are ready for Nigeria’s elections. Hmm. We all need to be reminded ahead of Saturday that this is an election not war! Everyone is behaving as if Nigeria is going to war. Relatives are calling on each other to stockpile food. Many families, especially the privileged ones, have fled to safe havens across the border, in anticipation that Nigeria could descend into chaos. This must not end up as a militarized election.
The good thing about this country, however, is that there are many who are driven by sheer resilience and optimism. Those are the ones who will troop out on Saturday to vote no matter the odds. Since the last general election, a large population of Nigerians have come of age. Between the ages of 18 and 34, they constitute the bulk – more than 40% actually – of the voting population. They belong to the “Speak Out” (“Soro Soke”) generation that came into full reckoning in 2021 during the anti-police brutality #EndSars protests. They want to take their country back, and they constitute the backbone of what has become the Peter Obi movement under the platform of the Labour Party, which Peter Obi and his supporters have built from nothing into a strong force. Many of the persons within this demographic category may have been structurally disenfranchised, but their enthusiasm would be a major point of analysis when a post-mortem of the current season is done. To vote in this election, the Nigerian voter needs a PVC, the only means of voting identification and verification that is recognized by law and the much-acclaimed deus ex machina to Nigeria’s electoral problems called the BVAS – Bio-modal Voter Accreditation System. Sadly, many Nigerians on the voters’ register could not get their PVCs. This all-important item was found in drainage channels, in wrong hands, and in parts of the country, INEC officials made quick trade selling PVCs. Voters complained of frustration and ethnic discrimination. INEC continues to boast that the BVAS is error-proof and that having used it in off-cycle elections, Nigerians can be sure that answers have been provided for electoral fraud and over-voting. The question is – really? The same BVAS, the same technology, that is a matter of dispute in the July 16, 2022 Gubernatorial election in Osun State? The least that INEC can do is to ensure that those Nigerians who have PVCs are able to vote without frustration, and that INEC technology back-end works and that the margin of human error is carefully managed. It goes without saying that a general election is far more complex and demanding than smaller scale, off-cycle elections.
All eyes are watching Nigeria. Oftentimes, Nigerians forget how important their country is, and so they act in an absent-minded manner, leaders and citizens alike. Nigeria is the most populous country in the Black world. It is the largest market in Africa. The country sits atop enormous natural resources, in the sub-soil, the sea-bed and the continental shelf. The country’s only problem is that it is populated by human beings who have failed to move with the times, beyond primordial, centrifugal tendencies. The world is watching and many are interested in Nigeria’s election because any form of disruption in Nigeria could have far-reaching implications and consequences for geo-politics. President Buhari was quoted recently saying that the international community must not intervene in Nigeria’s elections. That statement must have been poorly phrased because in 2015, the same President Buhari then seeking power and office had openly welcomed foreign interest in Nigeria’s politics. He has since corrected himself by playing host to the EU Observation Mission for the 2023 elections. The CBN Governor has even, most recently met with foreign ambassadors in the country. No country is an island unto itself. What we deplore is the grovelling, sycophantic, neo-colonial, ineffectual rush by Nigerian political candidates to places like Chatham House to seek endorsement. Nigeria will be in the news in a more intensive manner until the elections are won and lost. Certain foreign governments, including the US and UK have declared that any Nigerian politician that behaves in an unscrupulous manner will be put on their countries’ black list. We live under a rules-based international community. Politicians, beware, and indeed the politicians are the problem – their greed, selfishness, lack of patriotism and wickedness.
When all this is over and done with, the same professional political class that has been paying scant attention to the Electoral Act 2022, which was expected to be a game-changer and has so far not proven to be so, must learn that the rule of law should be obeyed. There has been no proven regard for the Peace Accords that the politicians signed. Peace must be allowed to prevail. Perhaps, Nigeria must begin to reconsider its system of government. The current Presidential system of government is too wasteful and indulgent. The way forward may well be a return to a parliamentary system of government or a hybrid of the presidential-parliamentary system. In the meantime, let every Nigerian of voting age, with a PVC go out to vote wisely. The future of this country lies in your vote.