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General elections 2015: A costly false start

2015: Matters arising

Several years ago, at an international business event in London, a top British business leader made the following statement: “Nothing is certain in Nigeria until it happens.” It was in the context of a discussion about political and policy instability in Nigeria. This statement came to mind last week as I reflected on the postponement of the February 14 presidential and National Assembly elections by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Since the National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, flew a kite on this at a Chatham House event in late January, there had been speculations about possible postponement. However, I had hoped that the Nigerian authorities would recognise that postponing the elections just a week to the scheduled voting dates would cause the country enormous reputational damage and reinforce the international perception of Nigeria as a country prone to rash decisions. But, of course, Nigeria is not known for considering the international impact of its actions. Yet, the spontaneous and negative national and international reactions to the postponement have now cast a shadow over the general elections. Every move by the government, the security services and INEC on the elections will now be suspect!

But, let’s be clear. No respectable electoral body in a serious democracy would announce a timetable for general elections, allow intense political campaigns to go on for four months, raise hopes and expectations locally and across the world, and then, bang!, postpone the elections just a week before the voting date, based on some nebulous security reason. Indeed, no mature democracy would use security concerns as a reason to postpone a general election. After all, it’s a primary duty of every government to guarantee the security of the citizens and ensure they can exercise their democratic rights without intimidation. As some have pointed out, the security challenges in Nigeria affect only 14 out of 774 local governments. Many around the world would find it incredulous that Nigeria would postpone scheduled general elections throughout the country because of this. For instance, the US did not postpone the date of its 2012 general election when the whole of eastern America was devastated by Hurricane Sandy just a week to the election. Federal agencies tackled the problem head on and ensured election went ahead as scheduled, even in the affected areas. The fact is that the security reason given for the postponement portrays Nigeria as a weak or failed state, and not a regional power!

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But the security argument is terrifying for a more sinister reason: security can be used to justify anything! This is probably why western leaders felt very uneasy about the security justification for the postponement. The EU Observer Mission said, for instance: “We are seriously concerned about this delay and the reason given,” adding that “security must not be political”. Even former President Obasanjo was quoted as saying, “I don’t know whether a script is being played.” And, of course, the main opposition party, APC, believes a script is being played! The notion that there might be some political motivation behind the postponement is worrying. Of course, there is no evidence of underhandedness, but the postponement has raised legitimate concerns.
For me, the most plausible reason for the postponement is the failure of state institutions. The critical state institutions in this case – INEC and the security services – have failed to meet the expectations of Nigerians. They appear to lack critical technical and crisis management capabilities. All over the world, electoral bodies and security agencies work closely together to conduct free and fair elections, sometimes in challenging security situations. Even in developing countries, such as Sri Lanka, where there were rebel fighters or terrorist groups, elections had been held nationwide and in the affected areas. In such countries, the state had simply mobilised crucial resources to protect the civilian population and to ensure they could vote with minimum disruptions. Unfortunately, due to institutional failure, both INEC and the security services have, so far, been unable to do that! As I argued previously on this page, until Nigeria develops first-class civil and military institutions, it would continue to suffer the embarrassment of institutional failure, such as in this case!

Nigeria’s institutions are, of course, self-referential. Instead of benchmarking themselves against international best practices, they are often too arrogant to learn from others, and not even from their own mistakes. For instance, I was struck by how hard the INEC chairman, Attahiru Jega, tried to absolve INEC of any blame for the postponement, and put all the blame on the security services. According to Jega: “INEC is substantially ready for the general elections as scheduled,” adding, “Our level of preparedness is sufficient to conduct free, fair and credible elections as scheduled on February 14th and February 28th.” This is remarkable. Of course, Jega recognised the potential reputational loss to him and to his organisation, hence he needed to blame others for the postponement rather than accept any responsibility himself. Thus, according to him, but for the military’s warning about the security situation and their unwillingness to guarantee a safe environment for the elections, INEC could have gone ahead with them! This is both dangerous and disingenuous!

It’s dangerous, because it suggests that the military still remains a lingering background influence even in a democratic Nigeria. Clearly, if the military is dictating the timing of elections in Nigeria, or if it’s being used by politicians to influence the outcomes of elections, then that would be terrible for Nigeria’s democracy. To be sure, the military have not done themselves any favours. They have been rightly criticised locally and internationally for their handling of the Boko Haram insurgency and the kidnap of the Chibok girls. And now this! To ask for six weeks to launch a major offensive again the insurgency during scheduled general elections, when they had all these years to do that, certainly looks a little suspicious. But I would take their words at face value. For me, it suffices that the National Security Adviser has now assured the nation that the military “will crush Boko Haram in six weeks”. Of course, if they fail to deliver on that promise, their disruption of the electoral process would have been a needless national embarrassment!

But Jega’s claim about INEC’s readiness for the elections should not go unchallenged. The claim is clearly disingenuous because, a week to the scheduled February 14 elections, it was not certain that INEC could conduct the presidential and National Assembly elections, at least, not with the festering Permanent Voters Card (PVC) debacle. The fact that several millions of Nigerians had not collected their PVCs as of February 8, a week to the election date, seriously undermines Jega’s claim about INEC’s state of readiness. And INEC should have enough humility to accept its lapses.

So, without a doubt, the postponement marks a false start for this year’s general elections, and is a critical error from a reputational point of view. But every cloud has a silver lining. The new and extended election dates should give INEC and the security agencies the opportunity to salvage their battered reputations. And if the elections are free, fair and peaceful, they could also help redeem Nigeria’s international image tainted by the delay. The politicians should also use the opportunity of the extension to sell their policies to Nigerians, and debate the issues, which they have not done to date!

Olu Fasan