• Wednesday, April 24, 2024
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BusinessDay

Nigerians’ dream of free, fair election aborted five years after promise of electoral reforms

INEC and burden of neutrality

One of the promises that might have lured Nigerians into voting for President Muhammadu Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015 was that of electoral reforms to entrench free, fair and credible elections which the people have always yearned for.

Buhari and APC had in the campaign to take over leadership of the country made a solemn vow to:”strengthen the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to reduce, if possible, eliminate electoral malpractices in Nigerian’s political life”.

But five years after Nigerians harkened to Buhari’s voice of reason, their dreams have remained unfulfilled as it is ‘not yet Uhuru’ as far as the conduct of elections is concerned.

This is as the perennial issues of rigging, ballot box snatching, vote buying, violence amongst others became so pronounced under the five years that the retired Daura Army General presided over the affairs of the nation.

As a litmus test, Buhari showed no disdain for the political sheniganism orchestrated by his party when the November 2015 Kogi State Governorship election was declared inconclusive, after after the death of the APC candidate in the election, Abubakar Audu even when INEC announced the results of the election from all the 21 local government areas in the State.

The President remained aloof in the rigmarole that sent the party’s Deputy Governorship candidate, James Faleke packing and selection of Yahaya Bello who later became Governor and has now made himself ‘Buhari’s political son’.

He also look away while Nigerians condemned the outcome of the 2018 Ekiti and Osun Governorhip elections which many believed was marred in collaboration with security forces he commands but congratulated candidates of his party, Kayode Fayemi and Adegboyega Oyetola who were declared Governors of Ekiti and Osun.

The apostle of electoral reform had in the build up to the 2019 general election declined assent to Electoral Act Amendment Bill, 2018 which sought to engender the reforms he had promised as its purpose was to amongst others address issues such as the cost of politics, internal democracy, the use of technological innovations and gaps in extant provisions.

The decline of assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, 2018 quashed the adoption of electronic voting which Nigerians have always believed is a sure way to free, fair and credible elections.

With no new electoral law and reforms in place, the 2019 general election that brought Buhari back for a second term in office according to local/international observers, was the worst polls since Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999.

The elections were reported to have been characterized by high incidences of violence, manipulations, rigging, ballot box snatching, disruption at collation centres, vote buying and inconclusive polls, and the umpire body, INEC as well as security agencies were indicted by observers, commentators and analysts as prime culprits in the electoral offences.

Several reports from local and international observer groups including the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM), International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI), Civil Society Situation Room and Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) in their reports of the 2019 general elections expressed serious reservations over the conduct of the last polls with regards to non-credibility and violence blamed mostly on INEC and security agencies.

The EU EOM in its final report for instance, observed that lack of transparency and inconsistent numbers during the collation of results by the Independent National Electoral Commission cast a long shadow over the integrity of the 2019 elections.

As if lessons were not learnt, there was little or no improvement in the Kogi and Bayelsa State Governorship as well as Kogi West Senatorial rerun elections that took place that same year.

The Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) Election Analysis Centre (EAC) in Kogi and Bayelsa reported that the violent assault on the sanctity of the ballot was shocking beyond description and the outcome of a process that was so criminally subverted should not be allowed to stand.

However, from 2020, the Mahmood Yakubu led INEC has made remarkable improvements in the electoral process as evident in outcome of the September 19 Edo and October 10 Ondo Governorhip elections which was made possible with the introduction of INEC RESULT VIEWING (IReV) that enabled Nigerians to view Polling Unit results real time as the voting ended in the recent polls which reduced the incidences of results manipulations.

Apart from that, INEC under Yakubu has been automating the critical pillars of the electoral process such as continuous updating of biometric register of voters and use of the Smart Card Reader (SCR) which have revolutionised the accreditation of voters during elections as well as simultaneous accreditation and voting.

Stakeholders opined that in the last five years, Nigeria’s electoral process has been a mixed bag of some transient forward steps, and many demoralising setbacks.

Idayat Hassan, Director of CDD argued that while there are a few forward steps that have raised hopes that things can get better, the setbacks have undermined citizens trust in the democratic process.

She said: “Without doubt, the outcome in 2015 elections generated a large dose of optimism in the possibility of the ensuring free, fair and credible polls. It is however pertinent to note that the post 2015 optimism did not last for long. Nigeria soon saw itself sliding back to a familiar past of irretrievably flawed elections. Several governorship elections were marred by the same threats, which made Nigerian elections in the past to have reputational crisis.

“The desperation of political actors to get power at all costs continued to remain the most damaging feature of electoral competition. In many instances, the lack of civility among the political actors, fouled up the electoral space and led to a spate of inconclusive elections in Kogi, and Bayelsa in 2015 and the deterioration recorded in the 2019 November elections in the states/

“The political camps in the last five years have also been responsible for the rise of vote buying. Vote buying and selling has become one of the biggest threat to credible elections in the last five years. The political actors began resorting to vote buying because they sought to counter the role of technologies like the card reader, and other innovations put in place to curb irregularities.

“The reality is that in the last five years, the use of cash to compromise the electorate has become a dominant part of the strategy of contestants. Importantly too, the role of security forces has equally come under scrutiny within the time under review. They security forces largely got knocks for their partisan disposition and for aiding the ruling party to win at all costs. This are resulted in elections that are blighted by irregularities and the deliberate subversion of the will of the electorate by desperate politicians.

“I think the most fundamental point about the electoral process in the last five years is the loss of faith in the system. We have seen a consistent decline in electoral participation in the last five years, especially at the sub-national level. What this means is that the people do not trust the process, and this is resulting in a democratic system driven by a minority of registered voters. The level of voter apathy in Nigeria is very worrisome.

“Although INEC was commended for its efforts to ensure the last two governorship polls in Edo and Ondo State meet up with the minimum standard for credible polls, there remain a lot to be done. INEC’s innovative results viewing platform has further raised the bar of the quest for credible polls. This however is a feature that is undergoing experimentation, and would take some time to perfect.

“While this takes care of the credibility problems on one front, there are many more issues to confront. These include vote buying and selling, which has been attributed to poverty. Voter apathy is also a problem of monstrous dimensions, which can only be addressed if democracy delivers on development, and the voters trust that the electoral process will bring about credible outcomes”.

For Ezenwa Nwagu, Executive Director of Partners for Electoral Reforms, politicians have taken their notorious bad behavior to the voting arena through ballot purchase, violence, compromising security agents and the courts in the last five years.

He said: Mahmood Commission consolidated on the achievements of the Jega era by retaining and elevating some of Jega’s senior aides and bringing on board prominent reform minded folks from civil society. This translated into the undeniable incremental progress we are witnessing in our electoral process. He has successfully slammed the door of INEC on politicians who hitherto secured victory by compromising INEC officials”.