Notes on Nigeria’s 2023 Presidential Poll

Notes on Nigeria’s 2023 Presidential Poll

\Postscript by Waziri Adio

The conduct and the outcome of Nigeria’s 2023 presidential poll have thrown up many issues, positive and negative, that should be interrogated. Some of these issues will be matters for determination by the judiciary in the cases already promised by some of the candidates. The fine matters of the law cannot, and should not, be adjudicated on the pages of newspapers, on the airwaves and on social media platforms. Mindful of the boundaries of prejudicial comments and the rawness of the emotions invested in and generated by this electoral cycle, I will make three points today about the 2023 presidential election.

The first point is that, by and large, the introduction of technology has been a force for good in our elections. We started on this path in the 2015 electoral cycle, with the introduction of biometric, data-encoded Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) and the card reader machines by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The card reader machines were used for accreditation of voters. Starting from some off-cycle elections in 2021, INEC introduced the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BIVAS) machines. BIVAS accredits voters and provides extra authentication by checking facial recognition and fingerprints of voters in addition to PVC data. By ensuring that only those with voter cards and those duly accredited can vote, these devices massively narrowed the scope for manipulation in our elections.

They made redundant some dirty tricks that used to be pervasive in our elections. Some of these retired tricks include multiple voting, community voting, stuffing of ballot boxes, maxing out the number on the voter register, or simply writing fantastic figures.  Of course, politicians have found other ways to secure undue advantage through vote-buying and vote-suppression. These are possibly unforeseen and unintended consequences of the introduction of technology, and timely reminders that successful reforms throw up other areas of work. But by and large, the use of technology for accreditation limits the room that politicians have for manoeuvre and mischief. The BIVAS builds on earlier technology with the capacity to store and to transmit the results from each polling unit, including the total number of accredited voters.

As a quick aside, a lot has been written about the continuous decline in voter turnout in Nigeria’s presidential elections. Turnout has progressively declined from the highest point of 69.1% in 2003 to the lowest of 26.7% in 2023. This should be a cause for concern and should be further interrogated. But it is also important to note that turnout has been under 45% and has been falling since 2015, which incidentally was the electoral year technology was introduced for the accreditation of voters. Is this just mere coincidence? Is this another instance of correlation not equalling causation? After controlling for the effects of insecurity, vote suppression, cash/petrol scarcity and the fact that the PVC is the easiest and the only cost-free official means of identification and that voting is not compulsory, could the turnout be reflective of the actual size of voters? Does INEC need to clean up the voter register?

In the 2023 electoral cycle, INEC employed technology to provide two important forms of control: one, use BIVAS machines to accredit who should vote and store record of the results; and two, transmit pictures of the results from each polling unit through the BVAS machines to the INEC Result Viewing (IReV) portal, which would be available to the public in real time and would provide extra layer of transparency and assurance. From different accounts by observers such as the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), there were a few hitches with BIVAS machines but those issues were mostly resolved. So, technology held up well on that front. However, INEC failed to upload the results in real time. As at the time of writing this, a clear three weeks after the presidential election, only 94.18% of the results have been uploaded.

This is contrary to the well-documented promise by the INEC chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu. A few days after the presidential election, INEC issued a statement that it experienced technical glitches in uploading the results to IReV. But this statement has not succeeded in clearing doubts or in answering all the questions. Some of the doubters believe that not transmitting the results real-time was a deliberate attempt to change the figures. Some fothe interrogators say that INEC over-engineered the process and set itself up by hanging the credibility of the election on real-time transmission of results.

Different sections of the Electoral Act 2022 and INEC’s guidelines will be pressed to service in the courts by the opposing sides. Some of those arguments are already being canvassed in the media. I do not intend to go into them for reasons stated above. However, the point can be made that the data on BVAS and on IReV will be invaluable and additional resources for the parties to argue their cases in court, including in proving discrepancies and forgeries (with the aid of forensic experts). To be sure, technology can fail and can be gamed, and there is always a big room for improvement. But the use of technology has largely held up and its use can be cited as one of the reasons for some results in this cycle that would have been unthinkable in previous electoral cycles.

My second point is that the claim that the 2023 presidential election is the worst election in three decades or in our history cannot stand scrutiny. The candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, and the candidate of the Labour Party (LP), Mr. Peter Obi, have both made this claim. Some of their supporters have also echoed same. Some international observers or missions have also whispered this line. And some media houses are pushing this narrative. The candidates and their supporters have a right to their opinions and perceptions but they do not have a right to rewrite history.

Was the election perfect? No. Yes, there were reported cases of violence and intimidation in some parts of Lagos and a few other states across the country. Yes, there were also documented late arrivals of INEC officials and electoral materials across the country, which led to the extension of voting in some areas and could have negatively impacted turnout of voters. Yes, Yiaga Africa flagged the results from two states but still stated that the overall result announced by INEC fell within the range of its parallel vote count. And yes, many eyebrows are still askance on the real-time promise of IReV that ended up being delivered in the breach.

As said earlier, I do not intend to discuss issues that will be litigated in the courts. But I doubt all the instances mentioned are enough empirical basis to declare the 2023 election as the worst either in three decades or in our history. Maybe those making these claims can help with the metrics they used to say this election is worse than the presidential elections of 1983, 2003 and 2007. As stated earlier, the 2023 presidential election was not perfect. But it should be possible to adopt a nuanced approach that identifies areas in need of improvement as well bright spots to be sustained instead of tarring the entire process and outcome.

It is worth restating that the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections produced a number of stunning and historic upsets. This is the same election in which seven sitting governors failed to secure senatorial seats (which are roughly one-third of the states they currently govern and their home constituencies); the same election in which a third-party candidate blew the two leading parties out of the water in the Federal Capital Territory; the same election in which the leading opposition party,PDP, lost in most of its southern strongholds including the state where its vice-presidential candidate is the sitting governor; the same election in which the same PDP won in 10 of the 13 states of the North West and North East (though it is only in power in just four out of these 13 states); and the same election in which the ruling party lost in 10 or about 48% of the 21 states where it is in power, including in Lagos, the home-state and the stronghold of its presidential candidate, and in Katsina, the home state of the current president. Pray, what other poll in Nigeria’s 100-year history with elections has produced such a mind-boggling disruption?

I think it is possible and even acceptable for the aggrieved parties to say they won and to seek redress, as they have promised. But it is not acceptable for them to be making claims that amount to delegitimising the elections and democracy itself ahead of providing iron-clad and not just isolated, statistically insignificant and counter-factual claims. Were the elections in the places the opposition won also the worst in Nigeria’s history or that negative framing applies only to the places where they lost? Does an election pass the muster for them if and only when it produces the outcome they desire or a predetermined outcome? There have been speculations about well-oiled plans by some local and international actors to influence the 2023 election and, failing to successfully do so, to discredit the outcome. Is this sweeping worst-election narrative part of that plot or merely borne out of disappointment?

The third point I want to make is that the new electoral map shows both promise and danger for a growing and plural democracy like ours. For the first time since 1999, we went beyond a two-way race, with three parties winning roughly a third of the country and doing so in a way that cut across the pronounced ethnic lines of our first and second republics. It is such a beautiful thing to behold and a tribute to the growing maturity of our democracy.

This is the most competitive election we have had in more than four decades. The least a winning party had scored in the previous six electoral cycles in this republic was 53% of the votes. This time around the election was so competitive that the winner didn’t even score up to 40% of the votes, which ordinarily used to be the average range for the first runner up. In the 2023 presidential poll, the top four parties scored as follows:  37% (All Progressives Party, APC), 28% (PDP), 25% (LP), and 6% (New Nigerian Peoples Party, NNPP). The last time we had such a close race was in 1979 when the party with the highest number of votes polled 33.77% and the party that came last scored 10.02% of the votes. Real competition is the heart of electoral democracy. So, this is a cause of celebration.  

However, beneath this rosy picture is also a reason to worry. That competitive electoral map issued from crude and dangerous mobilisation of old and new identity markers. Ethnic, regional, and religious identities were deployed, openly and secretly, by the top three parties. Sometimes, these primordial identities aligned and reinforced one another. In some instances, one identity marker trumped the others. Also, there are examples where generational and partisan identities served as mediating factors. For now, it is difficult to know exactly the role that APC’s Muslim-Muslim ticket and the rebellion by the G-5 faction of PDP played in the concerning way divisive identity became elevated in this electoral cycle.

In a section of the country, voters were told by a party to vote for their own (naka sai naka or yours is yours) and by another party to vote for the ticket with two Muslims. Another candidate was aggressively marketed by prominent clerics as the candidate of the Church. As said earlier, there were a few mediating factors (like partisan and generational identities and dissenting nature of urban politics) and instances where one identity marker vetoed the others, but the ethnic and religious underpinning of the votes for the top three candidates cannot be missed by anyone that chooses to peer beneath the glittering surface. So, while the increased competition of our politics should be celebrated, the regression to the combustible fault-lines of ethnicity and religion should get us all worried. It is a dangerous slide.

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