The title of this article is a little bit misleading because it suggests, rather wrongly, that Nigerians ever had confidence in the electoral system. Truth be told, they never did – which is why most elections in the country since independence have been contentious and marred with allegations and counter allegations of rigging. I am therefore using the word ‘re-building’ cautiously to refer to whatever shaky confidence people had on the electoral systems and processes before the unfortunate postponement of the election by one week on February 16 2019.
Despite the anger and disappointment that followed the postponement of the elections, a key challenge now is how to get beyond our anger and disappointment to build some level of confidence in both INEC and the electoral processes? There are a number of observations:
One, there is a general consensus that for confidence in elections and electoral outcomes in Africa, it is necessary to go beyond the known features of the democratic processes – rule of law, relevant institutional reforms, transparency, inclusiveness, making the votes count etc. – as important as these are – to also focus on the ‘integrity’ of the election managers. Kofi Annan, the late Ghanaian diplomat and seventh Secretary-general of the United Nations put it succinctly when he declared that elections “are at the heart of democracy. When conducted with integrity, they allow citizens to have a voice in how and by whom they are governed”. In fact in 2013, and following a recommendation by the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, the Kofi Annan Foundation launched the Electoral Integrity Initiative (EII) – an informal network of organisations and individuals who share a common concern for the challenges that undermine elections in transitional societies.
The problem with Kofi Annan Foundation’s EII is that ‘integrity’ is relative – especially in our type of society. For instance many people seem to believe that election processes and outcomes are ‘free, fair, and transparent’ only if their favoured candidate wins. I think it will be expecting too much for most people to agree that the electoral umpire or the electoral processes are unbiased when virtually every aspect of our national discourses is contentious. Our elections will, in the foreseeable future, remain works in progress.
Two, there is often a tendency for people to use Professor Attahiru Jega and the 2015 elections he conducted as benchmarks for an electoral umpire with integrity and for free and fair elections respectively. I think this is simplistic because in 2011 Buhari’s CPC accused Prof Jega of rigging the election in favour of the then ruling PDP. Similarly in the run-up to the 2015 elections, the ruling PDP widely accused Jega of holding secret meetings with the then opposition APC on how to rig the elections and consequently sought for ways of removing him. In my opinion, Jega’s ‘integrity’ and ‘effectiveness’ as INEC Chairman were largely a function of Jonathan conceding defeat.
Three, following from the above, the job of an INEC chairman and even INEC commissioners, is like a poisoned chalice. It is quite often a no-win situation for them. Opposition groups will naturally suspect the INEC Chairman and the Commissioners of being in secret cahoots with the government that appointed them. There are also suspicions of possible illicit deal between the chairman and the commissioners and leading candidates who share the same religion, region or ethnicity with them. This sort of suspicion is also a reflection of the prevalent tendency in the wider society where even your name makes you a suspect in whatever you say or write. If the attitude of an average Nigerian is such that you are deemed objective (or to have ‘integrity’) only when you validate their beliefs and prejudices, it becomes extremely difficult to expect a consensus that INEC is objective or has no hidden agenda. This is of course not to excuse INEC from its shortcomings – just to give context to the current challenges facing the electoral umpire.
Four, what can INEC make of the unusual situation of being accused by the two leading political parties (APC and PDP) of secretly conniving with its main opponent in the election? It is of course possible that either one of the parties is (or even both are) grandstanding to deflect attention from any illicit attempt at compromising the system gone wrong. While the barrage of criticisms of INEC by the two leading parties can undermine confidence on its ability to conduct the elections, it also offers the electoral umpire a unique opportunity of using it as ‘evidence’ of its neutrality. To be able to do this effectively however, INEC will need to beef up its public communication strategy.
Five, the postponed election and the crisis of confidence it engendered has led to the lowering of the bar of expectation from the public – making it easier for INEC to exceed this bar if does not bungle the exercise on Saturday. This was what happened in 2011 when the elections were postponed mid-way through voting. The low bar of public expectation following the postponement of the election that year was further buoyed by the almost zero-bar of expectation following Maurice Iwu’s conduct of the 2007 elections that were described by some as daylight heist. These made it easier for Jega’s INEC to clearly scale the hurdle, leading to effusive praises by some of the earlier critics of the body. Unfortunately for the current INEC, the low bar of public expectation following the postponement of the election last Saturday will still be judged against the 2015 benchmark, whose freeness and fairness were exaggerated by the decision of Jonathan to concede defeat. Is the loser in the election likely to concede?
Six, a major reason why INEC’s neutrality will always be contested is because of the anarchic character of electoral competitions in the country. This is in turn linked to the fact that political power is not only the most veritable form of wealth accumulation and distribution of privileges but also the fear that the winners will use state power to privilege their in-group and disadvantage the others. There are also pervasive fears that state machinery could be used to victimize the losers. This is why some of us were very critical of the Buhari government for demonizing the government of Jonathan shortly after it took office. We felt strongly that such demonization under various guises of probe rhetoric was not going to be helpful in enthroning a culture of losers conceding defeat. This is of course not to suggest that leaders who abused offices should not be questioned. Our argument is that such should not be done in a manner that suggests media trial, vindictiveness or pandering to those baying for the blood of their assumed ethnic, regional and class enemies.
In this respect, it may be worthwhile for the National Peace Committee to enter into an accord with both Atiku and Buhari on how to treat losers and how to behave in victory. I will also like the NPC to prevail on Atiku to publicly renounce his threat to probe the Buhari government if he wins the election. Besides the fact that managing the politics of such probe is often distractive, what is needed after bitterly fought elections are reconciliations and healing. Probe and its rhetoric represent forward to the past, an unproductive dissipation of energy, and playing to the gallery.
Seven, how do we improve the confidence of the citizens on the electoral umpire? In addition to some of its current strategies, INEC may consider including our religious leaders in some of its key organs and committees (such as its logistic unit and election monitoring). The truth is that Nigerians are very religious – probably deriving from the African cosmology which is decidedly spiritual. For Africans, up above lives the Creator, the omniscient God, down below are the spirit of the ancestors while on earth are both malevolent and benevolent spirits struggling for ascendency. In this worldview, people who dedicate themselves to religious life (priests, pastors and Imams) are believed to have the powers to mediate between humans and the Almighty as well the benevolent spirits. They therefore have a special moral authority in the society which I believe INEC should tap into to help it build trust on the institution. Similarly I also feel that INEC should involve representatives of the leading socio-political groups in the country – Northern Elders Forum, Arewa Consultative Forum, Afenifere, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) and the Middle Belt Forum – in some of its critical organs. In Nigeria – as in most African societies – people’s primordial identities are very strong so the visibility of the leaders of this group will be re-assuring to some Nigerians. While the strategies used by these sociocultural groups can be divisive, they often help to stabilize the polity by countervailing one another.