Elections in Nigeria: End of military era and the big business of polls

Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is a Nigerian human rights activist, lawyer, professor and writer. He was the former chairman of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and was recently the senior team manager for the Africa Program of Open Society Justice Initiative.

In this interview with BusinessDay, he talks about why the 2023 presidential election coming up on 25 February is pivotal, the over 3m respondents polled by POLAF and the growing polling industry.

Why in your opinion do Nigerians say the coming presidential election is pivotal? Do you agree and if so, why?

There are three reasons among many that I’d like to highlight. First, President Buhari is retiring from politics. So, this is the first election in 20 years in which he will not be on the ballot and the first in 24 years in which a soldier will not be on the ballot.

So, there is huge symbolism in this election in that it marks the symbolic retirement of the military from the frontlines of politics. It is possible, indeed likely, that they will still exert significant influence but from the background.

Second, this marks the retirement of the famed class of 1966 from Nigeria’s political life. That is the class of soldiers mostly who fought the Nigerian civil war. Much of the life of the country since then has not just been dominated by them but has mostly also been about re-litigating the feuds and fights of their youth.

Part of the energy in this election is from young people asking why they have to be imprisoned in the fights that these ancestors endured.

The third is the return of the tripodal politics of Nigeria with the three main candidates representing the three major regions at Independence one from the East, another from the West and another from the Northern region. This on its own could be challenging for the country and part of the challenge in this election is whether the country has the imagination and resilience to find pathways beyond these traditional fault lines and fissures.

These are the issues that shape the electoral tectonics for me. Other issues such as violence and insecurity, INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) and its independence or lack of it, and the judiciary and the mess they are making of the applicable rules, all are more consequential or symptoms of these.

If the election is so pivotal, do you think Nigerians are in the mood for a major change in the way they go about electing their leaders?

That is a question to which we may find answers after the votes are in. It is not merely a question for Nigerians but also for Nigeria’s institutions. You see, judges will complain about the fact that they don’t get their pensions and gratuities when they retire.

But if they are issuing judgments that turn the 4th runner-up in an election into the first, why would judges be surprised that a crook who gets into office in that manner will think very little of them other than as people who can be bought and sold? Or maybe INEC officials who write up results? Or police and security officials who go to rig elections? So, this is important beyond just determining for ordinary Nigerians whether we are happy in our suffering.

Do you get a sense that the candidates for the presidential election appreciate this reality, that it will not be business as usual any longer?

I can’t and don’t speak for any of the presidential candidates. The quality of the debate has not been very satisfactory sometimes. I think it is an insult, for instance, for a candidate to go to a place as important in Nigeria as Kano and tell the people of Kano that they have come to dance in the midst of all the mayhem and killing that is going on in the country.

The reluctance of some of the candidates to participate in debates does not reflect an appreciation of the seriousness of the issues. The needless tension and contrived political hyperventilation over the currency reform by the Central Bank, for instance, has verged on treasonous with some state governors declaring their own autonomous republics and their own currency independence.

But in this desperation, in my view, we see the majesty of democracy. The fear of losing elections because they have nothing to show for years in power has disciplined some dissolute governors. Denied the ready assurance that they can buy voters and the INEC and corrupt the security services in order to manufacture results for themselves, these governors have all of a sudden become advocates of things that are strange to their own constitutions. Democracy has its rewards.

Polling has become so popular ahead of the February 25 presidential election. Why do you think this is so?

Democracy is about numbers and polling is one way of forecasting the numbers. Elections are also big business and polling is one opportunity to tap into that business.

So, there are both elevated and practical reasons why polling is venturing into the Nigerian political market. But precisely because of these diverse reasons, it is important to look carefully at the methods of the various polls.

Please identify what impact if any, the plethora of polling will have on politics in Nigeria going forward

It is difficult to say at this time. My view is that numbers should make us honest if the numbers are themselves honest. But we need to be careful not to overreach in terms of what we read into the numbers. I saw one of the latest polls reporting like over 50% undisclosed and undecided respondents.

How anyone can reach any conclusions on the basis of such a poll I cannot understand. Another had a 49% response rate from its sample size. And that sample size was skewed to the extent of about 50% from only three states: Kano, Lagos, and Rivers.

Such a poll is unlikely to give you a basis for making any nationally tenable extrapolations either. Sample sizes have been quite small and margins of error have not always been disclosed. So there is a lot that needs correcting in polling here at the moment.

There are push-polls which are designed to push a narrative or favour one side in a contest. There are flawed polls too whose methodology is open to dispute. My hope is that over time, the polling market will self-correct and regulate but at the moment, a lot of what I see is far from satisfactory.

Hopefully, the self-correction will come before the current free-for-all discredits polling. Mind you, polling is experiencing a global re-examination in the light of some recent failures.

Nigeria is only at the beginning of our learning curve with it. Hopefully, we will not have to repeat the mistakes made in other parts of the world. Instead, we can learn from them.

How do you think Nigerians are engaging with the polls and those conducting them?

My sense is that the response to the polling outcomes is anchored on a confirmation bias. For the supporters of the candidates who are said to be doing well in the polls, they push the outcomes to help their narrative of momentum. The supporters of candidates who are not said or seen to be doing well in the polls don’t react favourably.

The more information there is about polling methodology, the more material the electorate have to work with. All this said, fact remains we are not a very numerate community and many of our people around the country are still either deeply suspicious of polls and polling or have difficulty reading them beyond the headlines.

The poll by POLAF appears to have covered a lot more respondents than has been the case in the past. How good is the POLAFpoll and why?

The POLAFpoll is by a significant margin the most ambitious so far in the country. It provides raw data on the voting intentions of a sizeable chunk of the electorate in 20 out of 36 states. Unlike some of the polls I have seen previously, the selection also reflects the major voting conurbations in the country, as well as the presumed strongholds of the four leading candidates’ parties.

So, this arguably is the closest thing to a reflection of the voting lay of the land as it is going into the elections. The one major thing that strikes me with this is that the percentage of undisclosed or undecided is down compared with many of the earlier polls.

As those begin to come down and get reallocated among the candidates, you will see consequences in terms of the real standing of the various candidates.

Do you see the prospects of a very contentious election this time around as some people say?

The desperation of some of the governors suggests to me that the elections could be contentious. We are already seeing it in the levels of violence, disinformation, dissension, and contention over the currency reform measures for instance.

There are lots of guns and firearms out in many places. Judges are also not helping matters with some fantastical judgments being issued from many of the courts, even going up to the Supreme Court. So, yes, I will not be surprised if we were to end up in some contentiousness.

That said, I still do not expect that we will go into a run-off. I am reasonably confident that the election will be settled on a first ballot even if the possibility of a run-off is not entirely implausible.

Do you think Nigerians have reasons to worry about the judiciary and its handling of election petitions this time around?

The simple answer is yes, a heck of a lot. I have said as much in too many places and in my answer to your last question too. The judiciary is bringing itself and the electoral and democratic process into disrepute. I don’t think it is the business of judges, no matter how highly they think of themselves, to decide who wins or loses an election. That is for citizens to do. To have this arrested by judicial majorities of two (out three); three (out of five) or four (out of seven) judges or justices is really a coup against democracy.

Read also: Nigeria’s presidential election is galvanizing young voters like never before

What should be done to raise confidence in the judiciary?

There are no magic bullets here. As I speak to you, judges are involved in lobbying and paying money to be named onto election petition tribunals. Politicians and judicial insiders now decide who can be made a judge or not based on affinities of all sorts. Suitability for the vocation is no longer a factor.

The disciplinary process in the judiciary is also proving to be ineffective. The Chief Justice wields untoward influence over the process and if he or she is venal as has happened in the past, the judiciary is compromised from the very top. The issues are all very glaring.

The biggest problem for me is that the level of judicial immersion in political and electoral contests has become unhealthy, creating an incentive for political capture of the judiciary.

If we don’t take detailed steps to wean the judiciary of this addiction to political and electoral cases, the corruption will get worse. But weaning them will take a mix of short, medium, and long-term measures. It will not be very pretty either.

Any views on how prepared INEC is for this election?

I would like to hope that INEC is prepared. They have said a lot to claim that they are. Sadly, I don’t think INEC actually is prepared. I know for a fact that many people in INEC at all levels from the highest to the lowest are placemen and women of party political interests.

Many of them have been bought and sold by people who have a direct interest in what INEC does. Some of the contracting related to elections is also not as transparent as could be. So, I expect that there will be serious challenges with the elections.

However, my hope is that in the full glare of reality, the desire to stay alive will discipline INEC staff and the will of the people, even if reluctantly, will be allowed to prevail.

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