VIEW FROM THE GALLERY BY MAHMUD JEGA
Seven out of 36 states in Nigeria hold what we now call off-season governorship elections. Three of those states, namely Imo, Kogi and Bayelsa held the elections last Saturday. By ordinary logic, off-season elections are expected to be more orderly [or at least less rancorous] than the general elections because INEC and security agents have few states to concentrate on and they also have the benefit of experience from the main elections held earlier this year.
But, did you see newspapers of Sunday, the day after the polls? This Day’s lead story was, “Violence, vote buying, apathy mar governorship elections in Bayelsa, Imo, Kogi” while Daily Trust’s major election story was titled “Violence, vote buying mar Kogi, Bayelsa, Imo gov’ship polls.” Sometimes you get the impression that News Editors think alike. Someone even alleged that news editors have one, pre-prepared template for the day after elections.
They expect these things to happen as soon as elections hold in Nigeria. The reporters you deploy to the field are only after the sensational and the unusual, such as violence, disruption of polls, late arrival of voting materials, vote buying, technological hitches with the accreditation process, problems at the counting and collation stage, failure to upload results on iRev real time, or sensational statements made by candidates and their aides. That is in accordance with their training. The great Washington Post editor Ben Bradley set the tone when he said, “If 5000 airplanes land safely, that is not news. Until one of them crashes!”
There is a reason why these things happen in Nigerian elections. In 1992, during a press conference in Abuja to formally launch his campaign for NRC’s presidential ticket, a reporter asked Malam Adamu Ciroma if he did not have fears that he will be rigged out. The deeply philosophical Ciroma said, “Election rigging is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You expect your election opponent to try to rig you out, so you take steps to prevent him from rigging you out, and you end up rigging him out.”
In a Nigerian election, a serious candidate does not trust anybody. If you believe that election officials, security agents, election observers, news reporters or even the voters will discharge their duties according to law and regulations, your aides will convince you that you are being naïve. For example, most election officials are ad-hoc INEC staff, youth corpers being the biggest part of them, so political agents take steps to infiltrate them at the recruitment level.
How come that some places get it right? In the 1990s when I accompanied Sultan Muhammadu Maccido to visit the Indian Central Election Commission in New Delhi, its Chairman, Dr. McGill, told us that in-between elections the commission has a total of 200 staffers, but these expand to 5 million during general elections! How do they do it? By drafting national and state civil servants, who report only to the Commission and are insulated from witch-hunting when they return to their stations. That is why, McGill said, “India has achieved a reasonable level of election success even though our politicians are as bad as your own.”
I asked him why India was succeeding with elections when Nigeria has so many problems, and he said, “It has to do with the quality of the civil service. We both inherited our civil service from the British. But while India’s civil service has been slightly damaged since independence, yours has been badly damaged.” How did he know? Because he lived in Nigeria for five years as project manager of the World Bank-assisted Sokoto Agricultural Development Program.
An important step towards election integrity was taken in Nigeria when vice chancellors of universities were drafted as state returning officers. This system was introduced by Justice Ephraim Akpata in 1999, abandoned in 2003 and 2007 elections, and was reintroduced from 2011 onwards. Universities are thought to be the last bastions of idealism in Nigerian society. At least if I hear that the Vice Chancellor of Unibadan is the returning officer, I will have more respect for the process even though I don’t know him personally. VCs should be much more idealistic than Resident Electoral Commissioners, under whose watch as returning officers in 2003 and 2007, some of the worst election malpractices took place.
An idealistic returning officer alone does not a clean election make. The biggest k-leg of Nigerian elections are the politicians themselves. Throughout the world the contest for political power is not a gentlemanly affair, but in our clime, it is doubly so given our social and economic conditions. An election candidate here might look to you to be desperate and power hungry but in reality, the persons around him might be even more desperate and even more power hungry than he or she is. What as candidate you are not ready to do in the form of violence or election malpractice, some of your aides are ready to do.
I discovered during my three decades as a political reporter that a man who is campaigning for you to become a governor so that you will appoint him as a commissioner, his desire to become a commissioner could easily surpass your own desire to become the governor. Thus, he is ready to do what you are not personally ready to do. It is often thought that a prominent governorship or presidential candidate sits down and plans to unleash violence during elections. This assumption is often erroneous. It is usually a candidate’s supporters that hire thugs and unleash violence, with or without his knowledge. They do so for their purposes, not his own. A local politician’s biggest fear is that when his principal wins the election and it comes time to share the spoils, he will be sidelined because he did not “deliver” his polling unit, ward or local government.
Nor is election violence as random as it looks. In the olden days, its main purpose was to snatch ballot papers, thumbprint them and stuff ballot boxes. The coming of card reader and lately, of BVAS made ballot box stuffing no longer tenable, because figures in a box must tally with the number of accredited voters in a polling unit. The modern purpose of election violence is to disrupt voting in areas where your opponent is strongest and thus deny him votes from his base. All election candidates in Nigeria have a very good idea of where they are strong and the areas where their opponents are strong. The election guideline that compels the cancelling of voting in any place where violence occurs unknowingly walks into politicians’ trap. It takes only a few shots fired from a distance for voters to scatter, for election officials to take to their heels and for election in that polling unit or ward to be cancelled.
What can be done about this problem? If only we can have a guideline that says if anybody orchestrates violence in a particular location, all the votes there will be automatically added to his opponents’ tally. That is the only kind of thing that will disincentivize thugs. But it is impractical, because if you do have such a guideline, a candidate can ignite violence in his own stronghold and blame it on his opponent!
During this weekend’s elections in three states, EFCC and ICPC agents swooped on several locations and were said to have arrested some people with bags of money meant for buying votes. During last year’s presidential primaries of the major parties, we also saw EFCC agents intercepting candidates’ agents and checking if they had money in their bags. I think this method is futile. Certainly, no one takes money to the convention ground to bribe delegates. It is done in their hotel rooms or even before they left their states, most usefully through local godfathers. Money is not just thrown at every delegate or voter; it is best channeled through a local agent who has social and other means of ensuring that the voter or delegate delivers his or her vote.
In 1990 when I was living at Kaduna’s Badarawa area, I heard commotion in the night in a face-me-I-face-you compound near my abode. The Babangida-era open ballot election took place that morning. It turned out that a party agent distributed money to all the persons in that compound but at the polling station, she saw one of the beneficiaries join the queue of the rival party. So, she came in the night to retrieve her candidate’s money. Given the way Nigerians complain these days about cost of food, fuel and everything else, it is nearly impossible to conduct any election without vote buying. EFCC agents swooping at polling units is but a small dent in the operation.
Having myself edited five newspaper titles in three decades and having been an assistant, deputy or managing editor of several newspaper titles, I tend to sympathise with editors because one of the most difficult days on the job is the night after elections hold. What headline should you cast for the next day’s newspaper? The most important thing readers want on Sunday morning is to hear who won the election. All that an editor has for them are stories of violence and vote buying, which readers heard on electronic and social media throughout the previous day.
As an editor you get a good idea of who is winning when you hear some candidates calling for the cancellation of an election. PDP candidate in Kogi State Dino Melaye was quick to call on INEC to cancel the election, saying rigging took place. In fact, Oga Dino went so far as to boycott the polls. Reporters waiting at his polling unit said he did not even turn up to cast a vote for himself. If you will not even vote for yourself, whatever you think your reason is, why should anyone else bother to go to the station and vote for you?