The last few months have been comical in an almost nostalgic way. Really we’ve seen this all before; empty promises in overflowing stadiums, presidential roadside corn roasters, pot-bellied athletes attempting marathons — nothing new to the trained political eye. In the last month, every Wike, Emefiele, and Garba have declared their political intentions for the 2023 elections. We’re well into the election year folks, and with the polls being barely ten months away, the next few months are guaranteed to be highly eventful. But before we take to the polls once more, it would be beneficial to take stock of our recent electoral journey. Since the advent of the fourth republic, how have our elections fared? If anything, what has INEC gotten right? And, more importantly, how can they do better? Well, INEC’s story begins in the dwindling Harmattan of early ’99…
1999 was a vintage year. Asides the hype and hopes associated with the turn of the millennium, February that year would see INEC — the spiritual successor to the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) and the National Electoral Commission (NEC) before it — conduct Nigeria’s first democratic election since Abiola’s annulled victory in ’93. INEC had just been established mere months before that by the 1999 constitution. And well, what can be said other than that the ensuing elections would be far from perfect. From questionably high voter registration numbers to chronic logistical problems, and furthermore, to electoral violence, the 1999 elections were riddled with institutional problems. But apparently, all was forgivable. Nigeria was on a democracy high, INEC was still an infant, and the 1999 elections were merely its first playtoy.
Fast forward to 2003. The millennial magic is thoroughly faded, democracy is not all it was advertised to be, and Nigerians have become jaded with their experience of it. However, the 2003 elections would simply be a twin of the 1999 elections before them; unacknowledged violence, voting irregularities, and an incumbent winning a second term. Nothing to see here. Nothing prior to then could prepare us for what was to come though.
2007: the Dark Night of the Soul
A popular concept in screenwriting is one termed “the dark night of the soul”. Simply put, it’s when the bad guys win and all hope is lost; think Thanos snapping half the world away. Think Eniola Salami descending into madness after losing her kids. Or more crudely, think the 2007 elections. Aptly described as “the worst in Nigeria’s post-independence history“, the 2007 elections were simply the stuff of nightmares. From widespread reports of late or no voting at all in some polling units, to voter intimidation, to even open rigging in favour of the ruling party, you name it — every ‘villain’ present in previous elections made their feature here, only this time the ‘good guys’ seemed to be on their side. As yet, the results were upheld by the Supreme Court citing inadequate evidence to overturn them despite the presence of a chorus of detailed negative critiques from observers, and INEC’s inability to produce a coherent breakdown of the results. Thankfully, dead cats still stink under the carpet. Pressure from the international community would force late President Yar’adua to admit the electoral process that had seen him come to power was not without its “lapses and shortcomings“. And furthermore, he would promise electoral reforms moving forward. INEC’s 2007 electoral showing was definitely the darkest night of Nigeria’s electoral history, but as the good book says, joy always comes in the morning.
Beyond 2007, Electoral Reforms and a New Hope
The failure of the 2007 general elections would spur discourse around a chain of critical reforms that would begin to reverse the generally negative trend of electoral proceedings from 1999.
First, INEC would move on to solve the paper problem. Prior to 2007, paper documentation reigned supreme; from voters registration, to documentation of registries, to even balloting, making the system easily susceptible to even the crudest rigging techniques like ballot stuffing, thumbprint forgery, and voters’ register manipulation. Transitioning existing voters, and registering new voters to a novel biometric digital system proved challenging, but would be the first step towards better credible elections. And the results would soon be evident, as in 2011, the elections for the first time since 1999 would receive the approval of observers despite its bloody aftermath.
INEC would still prove to bear more fruits befitting its newly found repentance. Next on the reforms list would be the institution of the Permanent Voters’ Card (PVC), and smart card readers. These would prove to be crucial steps towards further minimizing the risk of irregularities like multiple and underaged voting. INEC seemed to be turning a new leaf, and Nigerian democracy would be the better for it.
2015; a milestone for peace
Barely 8 years after its shambolic showing in 2007, INEC had come well out of the long shadow cast by those grim elections, and 2015 would prove the prime opportunity to test its mettle. Amidst terrorist tensions from the fundamentalist group, Boko Haram, and unrest rife against the corruption of the Jonathan administration, Nigerians were crying out for “change”, and a new contender in the newly coalesced political mass termed the All Progressive Congress (APC) would become its flagbearer. However, at the time in Nigerian history, an incumbent had never lost in a presidential contest, and it was unthinkable for such to happen. But yet it did. In a shock victory of over 2.5 million votes, President Muhammadu Buhari would make history beating Goodluck Jonathan at the polls. And, more shock value was on its way with Jonathan peacefully conceding defeat by making the famed, but until then, foreign congratulatory “phone call”. This was virgin territory. INEC had successfully crossed their sturdiest hurdle yet, albeit not without its flaws.
Beyond the failure of 2007, INEC had done a fairly good job of conducting elections afterwards. The 2019 elections were almost a semblance of those of 2015. Discussing these similarities would now lead us to the proverbial thorns in their flesh.
Problems that persist
For all its reformers’ wit, to say Nigerian elections have been perfect since 2007 would be more than an overstatement and a superfluously flowered flattery of INEC’s efforts. One recurrent nag especially since the 2007 elections has been postponements caused by logistical problems. In 2011, the postponement was announced as late as when voting had started in some polling units! In 2015 and 2019, INEC would have the mercy of announcing it before the polls opened. However, the negative impact of these postponements would be the same on the credibility of these elections.
Pre-electoral reforms, these delays might have been classified as mild annoyances, but in the advent of the PVC, they have become critical factors that impact electoral results. For example, the 2019 presidential elections recorded the lowest voters’ turnout in our history beating the former record set by the highly controversial 1979 elections. Except this time, foul play was not essentially to be blamed. Of the over 82 million registered voters, only about 27 million votes were cast. These low turnout numbers could be solely blamed on the 1-week postponement announced barely hours before polls were originally due to be opened. Most Nigerians had registered to vote in their native states and travelled home to cast their votes. Coupled with the ‘no-movement’ laws in place during elections, the guaranteed stress of readjusting those plans proved too much of a hassle, making them sit out the polls. This phenomenon was best observed in the results from Lagos, the state with the most diversity in ethnic representation. Though having the highest volume of registered voters, it witnessed the lowest turnout with only about 18% of registered voters taking to the polls, and a similar trend could be observed across states in the South.
Other logistical problems like the difficulty of the registration process and scarcity of card readers in some polling units have plagued our elections for the longest time. However, none of these are as far-reaching, or as impactful as the one we would proceed to discuss next.
Ballots, Bullets, and Blades
No matter how far back you look, Nigerian elections have always been marred by episodes of electoral violence. Pre-1999, only four democratic elections had been conducted; the 1963/64, 1979, 1983, and 1993 elections – all of which had been tainted by electoral violence including the nostalgic ‘93. This same trend has carried on into this democratic era. According to reports from the United States Institute for Peace, over 400 people lost their lives to election-related violence between the 2003 and 2007 elections. Even worse, another report by the Crisis Group recorded almost 4000 election-related deaths between 2006 and 2015. Moreover, pre and post the 2019 elections, over 600 deaths were recorded.
INEC has not been left out of the chaos though. Between the 2011, 2015 and 2019 elections, INEC recorded about 1149 election day mortalities inclusive of electoral officials. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, a video was making the rounds in which an INEC official was shot dead while conducting the continuous voters’ registration exercise in Imo state. Simply put, elections in Nigeria are a deadly affair, and electoral violence can rightly be majorly blamed for Nigerians’ voter apathy.
So how has INEC responded to this? Summarily, INEC’s position has been to implore security forces on taking non-partisan stakes in elections, and to the government to ably equip and train security details for electoral exercises.
Sadly, electoral violence in Nigeria has proved a tough nut to crack. The straightforward solution would be to ramp up security using police/military forces, however, this has proved to be ineffective for a number of reasons. To understand these, however, we would have to look into why, how, and where these violent incidents occur which is topically beyond the scope of INEC, or even this article.
On to the most interesting aspect of Nigerian elections; electoral fraud.
The Evolution of Rigging
As with electoral violence, electoral fraud a.k.a rigging is also one of those things Nigerians cite in defence of their political apathy. The logic usually goes like this; “why vote when your votes won’t count”. And their concerns are not entirely unfounded. Electoral fraud is as old as Nigeria itself. With the old paper-based methods, the system was highly susceptible to fraud and was being gamed constantly. INEC’s reforms, towards a more modern and digitized database, the PVC, and the use of Smart Card Readers have changed the face of rigging.
Prior to 2015, rigging was as simple as stealing/stuffing a ballot box, or manipulating a register. In this new age though, a bit of strategy and creativity is required. In a pithy op-ed on the Premium Times demonstrates, Queen-Esther Iroanusi brilliantly outlines some of these strategies highlighting the militarisation of opposition regions, effecting logistical challenges that would force delayed or no voting, contesting results in court, vote-buying, etc. All of which have been utilized to win or to annul elections under questionable circumstances since 2015. However, of all the strategies listed, “vote-buying” has gained the most popularity.
This should be unsurprising. In a country where over 70% of the population live below $3.20 per day, votes can be bought for as little as ₦3000. In the last elections, this was notoriously rampant in the South-South, North West and North Central regions, all of which were crucial zones to the incumbent’s victory. Definitely, INEC’s efforts should be towards addressing these new strategies, however, they are also a testimony to the efficacy of INEC’s digitized process. Brutish rigging is no longer the order of the day, hence, maleficent political actors have to resort to more sophisticated tactics to employ their intents. INEC’s efforts have clearly not been in vain.
Envisioning 2023, and other reforms
Summarily, INEC has definitely come a long way. Though a late starter, the 2007 elections served as effectively as a wakeup call. The 2023 elections now approach backed by the highly debated 2022 Electoral Act. The Act deals with some of the unattended issues listed above. From releasing funds at least a year before elections to minimize logistical issues, to approving electronic transmission of results, to properly defining overvoting, and a ton of other good stuff. Worthy of note is the fact that INEC can now rule out results from centres where intense voter’s intimidation or officials have come under duress during the voting exercise. In all this one thing is clear; the 2023 elections would be better than any other before it.
And this has been INEC’s definitive trend at least since 2007. With each election, our votes are becoming more and more likely the sole determining factor to electoral victory. The odds are swinging in our favour. Yes, our elections are not yet perfect. But then again, in a game of numbers, odds are all that count.
I totally enjoyed this article. A brief but detailed history of Nigeria’s elections. I just pray like the writer wrote that the 2023 elections will be Nigeria’s best yet. A part of me chooses to doubt this, but let’s watch and see.
Glad you loved it Chukwudi. I’d say it is almost guaranteed that the 2023 elections would be better than every other one before it. INEC has been on a roll for a while now, and the 2022 Electoral Act gives them so much room to do more regarding credibility. Let’s wait and see though.
This is an adept, insightful and well organized piece. I hope this message gets the greater public and steers us towards our most peaceful and rigging free elections yet.
Good one Donald.
Thanks for the compliment, Joshua. I tap into your hopes.
Thanks for taking the time to read it Mustafa!