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Tricks while we wait
VIEW FROM THE GALLERY BY MAHMUD JEGA
In 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain during World War Two, BBC started a daytime radio programme of continuous live popular music called Music While You Work. It was meant to ameliorate the stress of factory workers monotonously engaged in war production. The stress from waiting for results from last Saturday’s presidential election is as unbearable as the Brits’. Everyone is asking everyone else for any piece of election results, which makes it a boom market for fake news, concocted results and selective posting of results. Maybe there are music programs on some radio channels designed to ease the wait, but too many people are too engrossed with the search for results on social media to have much time for music.
In my cumulative 13 years as editor of four different newspapers, I knew that an editor dreads the period between voting and release of election results. Since Nigerian elections usually hold on Saturdays, the editor of a Saturday paper has his job cut out for him. His or her banner headline could be, “All set for today’s polls,” “Nigerians elect a new President today” or, if the editor wants to be cheeky, the headline could be, “Fear of violence could mar today’s polls.”
The editor of a Sunday paper has a much trickier task. Reporters spend most of their election day reporting on hitches such as late arrival of election materials, violence at some polling booths, low or high turnout of voters, glitch in card reader or BVAS etc. Radio, television and online newspapers are best placed to report these as they happen but by Sunday morning, these are stale news for a newspaper. All that readers want to hear are the election results, and most of these are usually not available by the time an editor has to sign off his newspaper at, latest, midnight. That is because you have to give time for the printers to print the paper, for the circulation people to roll and pack them for distribution to various locations, for drivers to deliver them to those cities and towns, for the distribution agents to unroll and hand them over to vendors, and for the vendors to hit the streets.
If the news is big enough however, an editor could wait. During my days as editor of New Nigerian, I often waited until 3am when negotiations were going on between government and NLC leaders to call off a strike over fuel price increase. During the American presidential elections of 2008, when I was editor of Daily Trust, I held on to the paper until 5am when California’s result would come in and finally confirm Barack Obama’s historic victory. On a day like that I didn’t bother about hitting the streets early because, from my office window, I saw nearly 100 vendors massed at the gate, waiting for the newspaper. Same thing happened the night President Umaru Yar’adua died in 2010.
An editor is lucky if something unusual happens on election day. Probably the most dramatic event of last Saturday’s poll was President Muhammadu Buhari openly displaying his ballot paper, in violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Electoral Act which mandates secrecy in voting. INEC even banned voters from carrying their phones into the polling booth, lest they photograph their ballot paper. This was apparently done as part of measures to prevent vote buying, because a voter who collected money or other gratification from a party agent must show proof that he voted for the agent’s candidate. Now, if INEC does not want a voter to display his ballot paper even outside the polling booth, imagine what it thinks of a voter displaying his ballot paper right inside the booth.
Trouble is, President Buhari could not be arrested for electoral offences because he has constitutional immunity from arrest and prosecution. He also did it for a very important political reason. Most APC members were suspicious of him, especially the circle closest to APC presidential candidate Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. If he had not displayed that ballot paper, millions of APC members will never believe that Buhari voted for Tinubu. The biggest reason for the suspicion is the currency change [or currency confiscation, as Chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum Aminu Tambuwal called it, because CBN took N2 trillion from Nigerians and printed only N400 billion]. Whether Buhari’s act of displaying his ballot paper will earn him forgiveness from his party members is doubtful because, by some calculations, currency swap cost APC millions of votes all over the country.
Following Buhari’s example, Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami also displayed his ballot paper after voting in Birnin Kebbi. For the same reason; as the chief legal defender of the cashless policy at the Supreme Court, many APC members believe he was part of the anti-Tinubu plot because he did not get to fulfill his governorship ambition and Tinubu did not nominate him as running mate. So he had a compelling political reason, but it was very odd indeed that the Attorney General should violate the electoral law. Unlike the president, he has no immunity from prosecution, so will he be tried for election malpractice?
Before Buhari, I had experienced this ballot-revealing trick on two previous occasions in my life. In 1980 when I was an electoral officer in a students’ union election, a friend of mine picked his ballot paper, pretended to be confused, walked up to me, asked an irrelevant question, then rapidly marked the ballot for a common friend of ours. He did that because he was under suspicion that he will not vote for our friend. Seven years later I had a similar experience in a local ASUU election. I was sitting at the back of the hall when a colleague picked his ballot paper, walked all the way to me, asked an irrelevant question, and then quickly thumb printed for our ASUU faction’s candidate. It was because, though a member of our faction, he was suspected of not supporting our faction’s candidate.
Despite the government’s persistent harangue over the years that we should “exercise our civic responsibilities” and vote in elections, casting a vote in Nigeria could be stressful. One needs a lot of motivation to withstand it. Having transferred my voter’s card to FCT last year, I had trouble finding my polling booth. INEC did send me the address. I drove to the place, parked my car and walked nearly two kilometres because the booth was overflowing with people. I could not find my name in the displayed list of voters. A man helpfully told me that there were two other polling booths in the same estate, so I walked another kilometre to the next one. Luckily, I found my name there. I went there at 1pm, hoping that the crowd had reduced, but I was given number 490 on the queue. My heart sank when the next voter was called: number 151! It was a hot day. There was a canopy but all the men had surrendered it to the women.
Then, luck smiled at me. As I stood in the blazing sun, an INEC officer took one look at me and said I qualified to be listed among “elderly and disabled people” who were fast tracked. I was then given number 5 in that list and within ten minutes, I was called to come and vote. For the first time in my life, I was happy to discover that I am not a youth.
How long must we wait for official results from last Saturday’s election? INEC was to start collation at noon on Sunday but knowing how cumbersome the process is, we will be lucky to have a final declaration by Tuesday evening. Each polling unit must count its votes, which are collated at ward level, which are then collated at Local Government or Abuja Area Council level, and then collated at state level, before the State Collation Officer travels to Abuja to join a queue and personally submit it, on live television, to the Returning Officer Presidential Election, who is also the INEC Chairman. In 2019, the official declaration of winner was done on Wednesday morning. In 1979, 40 years earlier, Alhaji Shehu Shagari was declared winner of the election at noon on the Thursday following the election on Saturday. I therefore wrote an article in 2019 saying we gained only 30 hours in 40 years despite the coming of more roads and airports, computers, mobile phones and the internet.
In Nigeria, before the announcement of official results, how do we know who is winning and who is losing? In other climes it is when the losing candidate picks up his phone, calls the winner and concedes. In Nigeria, the historic 2015 example of President Jonathan was probably a one-off. Here, when you hear a political party alleging rigging, complaining that INEC is not uploading the results on its portal fast enough, calling for cancellation of the election or, as one spokesman said on Sunday, “INEC should not create war in Nigeria because we are ready to die,” then it tells you something. Nobody is going to die, by God’s grace. Let’s start preparing for 2027 instead. How do we know who is winning an election here? It is the candidate who keeps quiet.