BusinessDay

Will INEC fail the stress test of 2023 again?

Copious challenges continue to threaten electoral credibility in Nigeria, including, internal challenges affecting the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)’s operations and management, as well as several external factors that are in many respects beyond the control of EMBs, such as party primary processes, rampant vote-buying, electoral violence, and the investigation of electoral offences.

Nigeria’s history of election management has never been in any way pristine. In recent years, it has consistently been characterised by lingering deficiencies in election administration, “including an uneven distribution of permanent voters’ cards (PVCs), malfunctioning card readers, inefficient counting procedures, and the lack of transparent results collation and announcement processes,” a recent USAID study noted.

A review of the 2019 general election by Nigeria’s civil society groups under the aegis of the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, noted that “postponing voting about six hours to the start of polls did more than expose how ill-prepared INEC was, it also dampened the nationwide enthusiasm that had built up for the elections.”

It added that “it made it impossible for many who had travelled earlier to vote in their constituencies to make a second trip, exacerbating voter apathy.

“The collation of results, another major weakness of Nigerian elections, remained a concern throughout the elections, with observers reporting interference with the process, especially by political parties and security agencies and oftentimes with the active participation of INEC officials.

“Data in the voters’ register, as well as results figures declared by INEC, threw up several glaring discrepancies that have yet to be explained. There were also differences between the number of accredited voters and the total number of votes cast in many polling units. In a similar vein, Situation Room observed that there were significantly more votes cast in the presidential elections than were cast in the National Assembly elections which took place simultaneously with the presidential election.

“Furthermore, a close scrutiny of the registration numbers given by INEC reveal discrepancies between the total number of registered voters announced before the election and the total number of registered voters announced by INEC during the collation in 30 of Nigeria’s 36 states.”

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The report further noted that despite the initial postponement of polls, INEC was still unable to deploy its officials and materials to many polling units on time nationwide.

Democratic elections, noted Deryck Fritz, Chief Technical Adviser for Election for the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, can contribute significantly to the advancement of Nigeria’s development aspirations. Democratic elections can only contribute to Nigeria’s development if they “are organised in such a manner that the voters believe that their votes will matter.”

As the country inches expectantly towards the 2023 general election, Nigeria’s main electoral management body, the INEC says it has learnt from its disreputable past and that is ready and prepared to organise credible elections.

“I want to seize this opportunity to assure Nigeria that this present commission will be bold and courageous in prosecuting the 2023 general elections,” Mahmood Yakubu, chairman of INEC, said in August.

“We are going to harvest and we will continue to harvest lessons from the Edo governorship election, the Ondo governorship election, the Anambra governorship election, the Ekiti and the Osun governorship elections in shaping the way we approach the 2023 general election.

“We are going to harvest all the good practices, we are also going to look at some of those issues we did not do so well and we will improve on them. But our assurance is that this commission will not lower the bar and we are going to improve and we continue to improve with every election.

“All the good practices we deployed in prosecuting the elections under review will also be deployed for the prosecution of the 2023 general election,” he further promised.

The problem is, while INEC believes that its outing in the recent governorship elections telegraphs to Nigerians its capacity and readiness to arrange free and fair elections, its management of the 2019 general elections still leaves a vinegary taste in the mouths of many Nigerians.

INEC might have shown to some extent its capacity to efficiently prosecute small governorship and state-level elections held outside the general election period. However, it must be noted that these random elections require reduced levels of logistically and planning requirements.

On the contrary, the evidence is clear that INEC has consistently failed the stress test of organising nationwide general elections.

INEC’s conduct of the 2019 presidential election was so woeful that civil society groups in the country called for “an independent inquiry into the poor management of the electoral process by INEC and other agencies involved in the conduct of the 2019 Nigeria General Elections.”

The independent inquiry, they urged, “should address amongst others issues; procurement, logistics management, the role of the security agencies and abuse of process by INEC officials.

“This is urgently needed to identify challenges and recommendations towards repairing the damaged credibility of Nigeria’s electoral process.”

What is needed to deliver a credible election in 2023, Eze Onyekpere of the Centre for Social Justice in Abuja believes, “is the political will on the part of INEC to do right by Nigerians.”

He added, “To do so, INEC must give Nigerians a credible voters’ register devoid of ghosts. In addition, there is a need to stick to the rule of law in the management of the elections; INEC needs to run the elections in accordance with laid down procedures in the electoral act and rules and guidelines they have made.

“Furthermore, there must be the enforcement of rules against the abuse of state administrative resources. There is so much INEC can do, but the truth is that they have to work with other agencies and institutions such as the security agencies who need to play by the rules for a credible outcome.

Ultimately, they just have to have a very good mind that they want to organise a credible election. That is the starting point because we are not short of rules or regulations in many parts of life in Nigeria but what has been happening is that people start from day one in Nigeria that they are not going to play by the rules and in the process, everything goes.”

Elections in Nigeria have always had imperfections, “but again we have had a couple of elections where people more or less felt that they were to some extent free and fair. So, it speaks to the fact that a well-intentioned INEC can deliver on free and fair elections. It is not beyond them, Kayode Garrick, a retired Nigerian diplomat noted.

However, he warned, “We have seen a large number of rogue elements within INEC’s set up well incentivised by political players and these rogue elements as in the past could be the spoilers in 2023. At the local level also, there are problems that impact on the overall performance of election management and INEC needs to take these challenging realities into consideration in planning the 2023 elections.”

With the right focus and the required amount of work, INEC can actually deliver a credible election in 2023.

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