INEC And The Verdict Of History

As controversies trail the just-concluded presidential and National Assembly elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission is in the eye of the storm. By Adekunbi Ero

Even the most hardened heart would have melted at the subdued mien of Mahmood Yakubu, head of Nigeria’s electoral body, the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, as he carried out the burdensome task he would have wished he never had to do – announcing, less than six hours to the opening of polls – the postponement of an election he had had the luxury of four years to prepare for. Yakubu’s discomfiture was palpable as he struggled to let out the words from his trembling lips to deliver a most undesirable news that was to hit Nigerians like a thunderbolt. The INEC boss blamed the postponement on “logistics and operational problems” leaving a bewildered nation and friends of the country wondering if there had been no indications of these 48 or 72 hours before then to have called off the elections. At a news conference on a day the elections were to commence, beginning with the presidential and National Assembly polls, Yakubu, a professor of political history and international studies at the Nigerian Defence Academy, Zaria, served the country a cocktail of challenges that had put spanner in the works. These included delay in delivering materials like ballot papers and result sheets due to flight challenges caused by bad weather; and attempts to sabotage the Commission’s preparations, listing fire outbreaks at INEC facilities which destroyed smart card readers and voters’ cards. The fire that gutted its Anambra State office in which over 4,600 card readers were destroyed, was the most devastating. Yakubu explained that if he had proceeded with the polls, it would have meant some states having to start well ahead of others with the implication of the elections being staggered.

the postponement was not without precedents and seemed to have followed a set pattern especially since 2011. Under the watch of Attahiru Jega, former vice-chancellor, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and professor of political science, general elections were postponed twice. The first was in 2011 when it was postponed for two days when the exercise had already gotten underway, and the second was in 2015 when the elections had to be postponed for six weeks over security concerns in the North-east. These were during the administration of immediate past president, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. Even though the 2015 postponement fuelled suspicion in the polity that it was done to allow the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, perfect its rigging plans, that election remains today a reference point, and a benchmark that Nigerians expected Jega’s successors to uphold or even surpass. The 2015 election, which has remained a watershed in Nigeria’s political history, saw the defeat of the sitting president, whom even the electoral umpire admitted never meddled in the Commission’s activities.

But the question that arises today especially with the conclusion of the 2019 presidential and National Assembly elections is, has Yakubu’s INEC sustained the tempo and built on the successes and landmark achievements of his predecessor, or has he fallen below that standard? On assumption of duty November 2015, Yakubu, had promised Nigerians that he would consolidate on the gains of the last two election cycles – 2011 and 2015, and to “always be open, transparent, and responsive”.

political watchers believe Yakubu’s INEC had taken Nigeria several steps backward from the gains of the Jega era. In his less than three years in office, Yakubu had given Nigerians reasons to doubt his competence, firmness, and neutrality as an election umpire. The off-season elections he superintended in Kogi, Bayelsa, Edo, Ekiti, Anambra, Ondo and Osun States had also been most controversial and adjudged flawed. Some other legislative re-run elections were also declared inconclusive. Incidents of violence, over-voting, snatching of ballot boxes, among other infractions, prompted INEC to cancel results in 91 polling units in Kogi State, while in the case of Bayelsa, the election was declared inconclusive because it was plagued with severe logistic challenges and violence in the notoriously volatile Southern Ijaw Local Government Area.

Other opportunities however presented themselves for Yakubu to redeem his image, but as far as many Nigerians are concerned, he bungled most of them. His first major test was the 2016 Edo State governorship election, which had to be postponed under controversial and shady circumstances. Curiously, in recalling precedents to the postponement of the February 16, 2019 presidential and National Assembly elections under Jega’s watch, everyone appeared to suffer collective memory loss as nobody remembered the most recent – the 2016 Edo State governorship election, which was postponed 72 hours to the September 10 scheduled date. Oshiomhole, the current national chairman of the APC, was then the out-going governor. Amazingly, he too, perhaps out of honest forgetfulness or selective amnesia, also failed to acknowledge this as he poured vituperations on the INEC chairman during the latter’s meeting with stakeholders over the botched election arrangement. There were however insinuations in the camp of the opposition that the reason the APC national chairman was beside himself with rage and very hard on Yakubu was because the INEC chairman had resisted pressures piled on him by the ruling party for a staggered election. Christopher Agbonwanegbe, a lawyer and chieftain of the PDP, told the magazine that if Oshiomhole had had his way, the elections would not have been postponed despite the challenges INEC said it was facing. According to Agbonwanegbe, the game plan of the ruling party was to force INEC to conduct elections in 26 states, and hold the remaining 10 which would be the stronghold of the opposition, at a later date in order to allow the party manipulate the process, using the security operatives and compromised INEC officials, as it was allegedly done in previous elections in Edo, Bayelsa, Ekiti, Osun, Ondo and Kogi. 

Interestingly, the Edo governorship election in September 2016, was the first major assignment by Yakubu’s INEC, which presented a golden opportunity for it to assert its independence by resisting the pressure from a cabal in Abuja citing “credible intelligence” of “terrorists’ threats” to postpone the election which was only three days away. Though the statement issued at a joint conference by the police and the DSS in Abuja at a time Yakubu who was on ground in Benin, was seemingly oblivious of the unfolding drama, was advisory and an appeal, the various stakeholders, namely Clement Nwankwo’s Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, Edo Civil Society Organizations, Conference of Non-governmental Organizations, CONGOS, and the Coalition of Civil Society Organizations, CSOs, as well as representatives of the various political parties, urged INEC to ignore the appeal. A miffed Nwankwo, Chairman of the Situation Room, expressed worry about what was happening. According to him, one of the partners of the organization, CLEEN Foundation, launched a report a few days back about the security situation in the state ‘’and it was not as bad as painted by the security agencies’’.

Jude Obasanmi, President of conference of non-governmental organizations, CONGOS, Edo State, spoke in a similar vein, telling Yakubu pointedly that shifting the election would only mean that “INEC, as presently constituted, is not capable to conduct election in Nigeria”. Leading opposition party, the PDP, fingered Oshiomhole as “the masquerade behind the action of wanting to postpone the election”.

These not withstanding, Yakubu caved in and the rest is history. Though an atmosphere of peace prevailed with insignificant cases of violence, the outcome was anything but credible, free and fair as attested to by civil society groups, local and international observers, that participated in the election. Vote buying that has today become a scourge afflicting the country’s electoral system, was taken to a higher dimension in Edo State, while also the practice of see-and-buy, a situation whereby a voter displays his/her ballot paper to show to agents of political parties which party that was voted for, and then go behind to get paid, was also patented by Edo politicians during that election as candidates got more desperate to win elections at all cost. The patent right was however sold to Ekiti and subsequent stand-alone elections as politicians brazenly traded votes for money at polling centres. Apart from allegation of manipulation of figures at the collation centres where even election observers were reportedly prevented from accessing, victory at the election went to the highest bidder.

It is ostensibly against the backdrop of the Edo governorship election postponement saga and other recently held elections, that the opposition party was wary of the decision by INEC to postpone the 2019 presidential and National Assembly election, perceiving it as another hatchet job by Yakubu’s INEC to achieve a predetermined outcome. And with the inevitability of that postponement, INEC had created a crisis of confidence with consequential humongous trust deficit. The onus was therefore on the Commission to build that confidence through free, fair and credible elections. The conclusion of the elections won overwhelmingly by the ruling party, had been eliciting reactions with the major opposition party rejecting the outcome and disputing the figures. Incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari, defeated his major opponent, Atiku Abubakar, former vice-president, with over three million votes. From the reports and reactions of various election observers, foreign and local, it was clear Yakubu appeared not to have acquitted himself creditably as many political analysts rated him as having performed below the standard he met. Not a few analysts have described the election as perhaps the worst ever, recording about 39 deaths, as men of the Nigerian Army allegedly turned their guns on Nigerians.

 The preliminary reports of some foreign and local observer groups appear to be a testimonial of Yakubu’s scorecard in the now controversial elections with many indicting the Commission for not living up to expectation, despite the postponement. The European Union (EU) Chief Observer, Maria Arena, said while presenting a preliminary report on the election last Monday that though INEC worked in a very difficult environment and made various improvements, “however, its serious operational shortcomings reduced confidence in the process and put undue burden on voters”. While noting that 14 per cent of some essential materials were missing from polling units, Arena, a member of the EU Parliament observed, that “majority of polling units opened extremely late, leaving voters waiting for hours, uncertain of when voting would begin. This was compounded by a general lack of public information from INEC”. She said as a result, “there was confusion and tension, and voters were likely deterred from participating”. She also noted that in nearly 90 per cent of 190 EU observations, agents of the two main political parties were present; “however, important polling procedures were insufficiently followed”.

Arena further reported that in some cases where card readers malfunctioned, voting continued. Also, of concern to the EU observers were “evident problems in completing results forms”, which she said, “were not publicly displayed in half the counts observed, weakening transparency”. Positively, in almost all cases, she said party agents received copies. The Commonwealth Observer Group expressed similar concerns with cases of election-related violence and loss of lives in many places, which marred the exercise in Rivers, Lagos and a few other places. Chairperson of the group, Jakaya Kikwete, a former President of Tanzania, noted that “notwithstanding further assurances provided by INEC”, there were delays in the distribution of materials, resulting in late opening of polling units, adding that although INEC subsequently authorized extended voting hours for those polling units that had opened late, “this information was not communicated effectively and not followed by all staff.” Kikwete, however, lamented the arrangements of some polling units, which made the voting process too open thereby compromising the secrecy of the ballot. It was however not all knocks for INEC as the former president commended it for the way persons with disabilities were able to vote.

Perhaps most damning was the report by the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, which said it received field reports from more than 8,000 of its deployed observers and networks across the country.  It noted that “INEC has not managed the election efficiently and significant shortcomings have been recorded. The election has been a step back from the 2015 General Election and actions should be taken to identify what has gone wrong and what can be corrected”. Nwankwo, its chairman, also expressed disappointment in “the serious lapses” during the election. He said, “despite the elections being conducted against a background of an earlier postponement on February 16, 2019, on grounds of logistics challenges, it still suffered from major logistic lapses”. Nwankwo, who is also the Executive Director, Policy & Legal Advocacy Centre, noted that the delay in commencement of polls was especially pronounced in some states across the South-east and South-south geopolitical zones of Nigeria, adding that there were even reports of polling commencing at 4 pm in some areas such as PU 001, Ward 5, Methodist Boys High School, Oron, Akwa Ibom State. “Additionally, the election was marred by violence, security lapses and instances of overreach. Other challenges include compromised INEC officials as well as partisan security operatives. Conduct of major political parties was disappointing”, he stated.

The Situation Room gave a breakdown of the no fewer than 39 deaths reportedly recorded during the election as follows: Borno State– four; Bayelsa State – four; Rivers State – 16, Yobe State- two; Kogi State-Two; Ebonyi – two, Lagos – one; Oyo- one; Delta- Two; Zamfara – one, and Taraba State- four. The group also said that it had documented cases of 260 politically-motivated deaths from the beginning of political campaigns in October 2018 to February 23, 2019. The Situation Room was however generous in its commendation for members of the National Youth Service Corps, which it identified as “among the shinning lights” during the elections, saying that they were exemplary in their work under very difficult conditions.

Coalition of United Political Parties, CUPP, also condemned the elections stating that “evidence abound nationwide, and Nigerians are no longer in doubt that the 2019 general elections was a complete departure from the electoral gains made in 2015, and that the INEC chairman is the worst Chairman since 1999”. Spokesman of the group, Imo Ugochinyere, accused Yakubu of having “fully collaborated with the regime to rob the people of their will while looking the international community straight in the eyes and lying to them.” According to Ugochinyere, “In the glare of the whole world, the government killed its own citizens,  cancelled results particularly in areas of strength of the opposition,  inflated scores recorded particularly in areas of strength of the  President, burnt INEC offices in areas where it was not sure of victory,  raided opposition leaders’ homes and offices, compromised INEC and  security officials, yet the INEC chairman crowned them with victory  dripping with the blood of innocent citizens who were mauled down by bullets  of enemies of democracy because of the desperation of a non-performing President to hold on to power”.

Similarly, YIAGA Africa, in its preliminary report presented in Abuja, said “Nigeria missed the opportunity to improve on the quality of its elections beyond what we attained in 2015”. Its spokesman, Hussaini Abdu said, as was the case in 2011 and 2015 elections, polling units in the South-east and South-south, opened later than in other geopolitical zones of the country. He said the most frequent incidents recorded by Watching the Votes observers related to card reader malfunctioning. “We received 106 of such reports; intimidation or harassment of voters, poll officials, political party agents, we received 62 of such reports; vote buying, bribery, we received 62 of such reports; ballot box snatching and stuffing, we received 51 of such reports; interferences by party agents, we received 48 of such reports”. On its part, Centre for Transparency Advocacy said it deployed 1,000 domestic observers across the country and that their findings during the election were that activities of security agencies, politicians, as well as some INEC officials left much to be desired. The group noted that in many cases, the security agents were slow to respond when needed.  Faith Nwadishi, who spoke on behalf of the group while presenting its preliminary report, noted that “areas identified as flashpoints recorded light presence of security agents. In many instances, many of the armed forces left their primary responsibilities and became participants in the electoral process. The logistics problems turned out to be logistics nightmares”. The group also accused some INEC officials of conniving with politicians by withholding materials thereby preventing elections from starting on time.

Nwadishi said the group saw a new strategy in vote-buying reported across the states. “We have also seen that because of the issue of vote-buying, citizens were not obeying the rules of INEC in the way to fold their ballots. Yesterday, we also noted that the president of the country did not also fold his ballot paper”. Some other groups however commended the just-concluded elections, adjudging them as free, fair and credible and representing the will of Nigerians.

The position of the United Kingdom (UK) is that Nigerians could have confidence in the outcome of the election. Harriett Baldwin, UK’s minister of state for Africa, in a statement, said the result declared was consistent with the civil society parallel vote tabulation process, and congratulated Buhari on securing a second term as president. With the PDP rejecting the results, Baldwin charged the opposition to challenge the result in a peaceful manner, stating that “we also recognise that independent Nigerian voices have expressed concerns about the conduct of the electoral process, in particular logistics and results collation, and reports of intimidation of election officials. We urge any party or individual who wishes to challenge the process to do so peacefully and through the appropriate legal channel and we encourage Nigerian authorities to examine all allegations of wrongdoing carefully and take the necessary action against individuals found responsible”.

Though YIAGA Africa’s preliminary report had faulted the elections, it however seemed to make a volte-face saying that the flaws noticed did not substantially affect the outcome of the election. According to   Samson Itodo, its executive director, the infractions identified in YIAGA’s data were not just isolated cases, “but do not have the impact that it would have had if they were widespread”. These incidents, Itodo insisted, “were not substantial enough to impact on the outcome of the elections”, stressing that same goes for the result”. Ogunye would however not ascribe too much credibility to the position of those CSOs commending INEC for having been performing better progressively, stating that “who are those commending INEC? Civil Societies who are working in tandem with INEC?” In spite of all the knocks and thumbs down, the electoral body, it must be appreciated, had its own challenges which could have affected its performance. Many of its electoral officers, for example, were abducted and forced to announce results under duress, some lost their lives, while there were cases of harassments and intimidation which made many of them to run for their lives.  

  The presidential candidate of the PDP, who has rejected the declared results, is however not impressed with those endorsing the outcome of the election stating that If he had lost in a free and fair election, he would have called the victor within seconds of his being aware of his victory to offer “not just my congratulations, but my services to help unite Nigeria by being a bridge between the North and the South”. In his personally signed statement, Atiku posited however, that “in my democratic struggles for the past three decades, I have never seen our democracy so debased as it was on Saturday, February 23, 2019”. According to the former vice-president, “2007 was a challenge, but President Yar’Adua was remorseful. In 2019, it is sad to see those who trampled on democracy thumping their noses down on the Nigerian people”. Atiku also noted “manifest and premeditated malpractices” in many states which negated the results of the presidential election announced by INEC, noting that “one obvious red flag is the statistical impossibility of states ravaged by the war on terror generating much higher voter turnouts than peaceful states”. According to him, the suppressed votes in his strongholds were “so apparent and amateurish, that I am ashamed as a Nigerian that such could be allowed to happen”. While highlighting other areas of concern, he was consoled that “already, many international observers have given their verdicts, which corroborate our observations. I am sure more will come in the coming hours and day”. For Yakubu however, the governorship and Houses of Assembly elections coming up Saturday March 9, is yet another opportunity to redeem his image so that the verdict of history will not be harsh on him. But the big question is, would he have the right atmosphere to do the needful?

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