One conventional piece of wisdom says that the more things change, the more they remain the same. For Nigeria, things don’t remain the same after many iteration of change. They get progressively worse. Our elections or special selections are a good illustration of this oddity. On February 25, Nigeria effortlessly reached another level of infamy. We reminded the world that our democracy is superficial with the sham elections the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, conducted with characteristic incompetence and contempt for the public. Describing the elections as the worst for a very long time doesn’t really capture the full dimension of the grand larceny that took place. The people were deceived to believe INEC’s sanctimonious promises of delivering “the best elections ever”. They came out enthusiastically to cast their votes. And then they got duped on a grand scale. Free and fair elections based on a robust, credible electoral process are a major pillar for sustaining and deepening democracy. When those who superintend over such a crucial process engage in a deliberate sabotage of its critical aspects and desecrate the people’s freely expressed will, the outcome will be, at best, dubious and the legitimacy of the winner badly tainted. In one of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s biting satirical songs on Nigeria’s condition of terminal anomie, he wails about our “crazy democracy”, with elections that are nothing more than “demonstration of craze” and pervasive criminality. Politicians breaking the laws with impunity and throwing all ethical and moral standards to the wind in their desperation to win elections at all costs. And willfully aided and abetted by the institutions that are supposed be the guardians of the laws and enforcers of the rules and regulations. The general elections that engaged Fela’s creative genius in writing that pithy lyric that calls out the criminal bent of the political class were those of 1983. Those elections were a mockery of democracy for the brazenness with which the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, then ruling political party, rigged the polls. And they presaged the end of the Second Republic and the beginning of another long interregnum of military dictatorship.
Forty years later, the political class’ criminal enterprise of stealing elections is thriving. And we’re still engaging in “demonstration of craze” and promoting “crazy demonstration” of bastardized democracy. Months before February 25, INEC repeatedly assured the public that these would be the best elections ever. The Bi-modal Voters’ Accreditation System, BVAS, and real-time uploading of the polling unit results to the IRev (that is, INEC’s results viewing portal) were innovations that would foolproof the elections against all forms of manipulation. There would be no room for the shenanigans that always mar our elections.
And then the commission got generous funding, counting in hundreds of billions of naira, to enable it bring the electoral process to the technological age. Chairman Mahmood Yakubu, Festus Okoye, national commissioner for information and voters’ enlightenment, and Mike Igini, recently retired Akwa Ibom State’s resident electoral commissioner, REC, were the vocal voices touting the “born-again” INEC. They took pains to explain how the new innovations would work and help the commission deliver a “free, fair, and credible elections”. Igini, who, as REC, had a stellar reputation for being immune to tempting inducements and a stickler for the rules and the law, was wheeled out of retirement to front the campaign of building public confidence in the commission’s plan to make the elections really different. In numerous interviews on several media platforms, Igini kept saying, with absolute confidence, that BVAS would be “the game-changer”. It would not only biometrically confirm the voter’s identity and accredit same, it would also seamlessly upload results of the polling units once they’re counted and endorsed by all the party agents. He always ended his submissions with a flourish: “Election rigging will be a thing of the past.” Igini was always more believable than Professor Yakubu, whose inscrutable visage invites scepticism, if not cynicism, about what he says. And Okoye constantly conveyed the impression of someone who didn’t believe what he was saying. One cannot but feel some empathy for Igini for putting his hard-earned reputation for incorruptibility on the line for a supposedly new INEC. But old habits are hard to shake off. On February 25, the real INEC was still in charge of the elections, and it failed spectacularly. Its failure was a self-inflicted wound. It contrived a mass distrust of the electoral process by deliberately going back on the promises its barons solemnly made to Nigerians.
The usual poor logistics management, late arrival of polling officers and materials, voting starting late or not happening at all, and so many other avoidable setbacks played out throughout the day. Politicians and their thugs were having a field day, harassing voters, snatching and destroying ballot boxes and papers and result sheets. Voters’ suppression and intimidation, subtle in some places and blatant in others, went on unchecked for long periods. The security agents intervened here and there. In most of the troubled spots, they were either overwhelmed or simply looked the other way. And under-aged voters showed up again, despite the commission’s claim that the voters’ register had been purged of them. But the most startling aspect of INEC’s brazen betrayal of the people was the failure to upload the presidential election results “in real time” as was repeatedly promised. Very curiously, the National Assembly results were easily uploaded without any “technical glitches.” All the empirical evidences, now abundantly curated, point to a deliberate sabotage. Like working to achieve a pre-set objective. It’s an act of monumental damage not only to the already tattered reputation of the commission, but our fragile democracy. And it created room for large-scale doctoring of the results and sowed legitimate doubts about the outcome.
Yakubu’s insufferable arrogance and obstinacy in ignoring the widespread complaints about the conduct of the elections worsened the situation, and fuelled conspiracy theories about plan to flip the election to a certain direction. Local and reputable international observers have unanimously condemned the conduct of the elections as far below minimum global standards. A lot had been riding on the elections as Nigerians had wished that they would lead to real change and a new beginning for their beleaguered country. On the other hand, the international community had hoped the elections, if properly conducted as INEC had promised, would serve as a beacon for the rest of Africa that, to a worrying degree, is becoming more democratically challenged. The more amorphous the commission has grown over the years, the more ineffective and inefficient it has become as the superintendent of our elections. And its dissembling has gotten worse.
Before the 2019 elections, the commission announced that it had set up a server to which the election results would be electronically transmitted and stored. It said that the transmitted results would be used to authenticate the manually collated ones. This never happened despite credible allegations of results manipulation. To its embarrassment, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, PDP, the main opposition in the 2019 elections, found a way to assess the server and retrieved the results there. The transmitted results showed the party won the presidential election. INEC’s lame reaction? It outrightly denied the existence of the server it had announced to the whole world that it had installed. That singular act of lying so blatantly further burnished the notoriety of INEC as a den of misfits who have no business managing elections. Yakubu survived the reputational damage from the server-gate scandal and was rewarded with a second tenure as chairman. The beneficiaries of the badly flawed February 25 elections are exhorting their opponents to congratulate the declared winner, APC’s Bola Ahmed Tinubu, former Lagos State governor. And they’re also appealing to genuinely aggrieved Nigerians “to move on”. But moving on means, yet again, a normalisation of the criminality behind our badly flawed elections and the very dubious outcome they have produced. We keep moving on from problems that need urgent and permanent solutions, forever kicking the can further down the road. And we end up getting bitten again and again by more invidious versions of the same problems. While the country remains trapped in a catalepsy of arrested development. Nigerians have simply been presented with a fait accompli. But the legitimacy of the declared winner is further diminished by the fact that, less than nine million of the 24 million who voted endorsed him. In a population of over 200 million with 93 million registered voters, less than nine million votes to elect a president speaks eloquently to the dubiety of the electoral process and fragility of our democracy. We stubbornly refuse to learn from our recent history. And we keep pushing the envelope of executive, legislative and judicial rascality to a dangerously bursting point. The country gets battered on all fronts and the people suffer needlessly. If Nigeria were like Kenya and Malawi with courageous and upright judges who annulled dubious presidential elections and ordered a re-run, INEC’s flagrant violation of the electoral law in so many ways, including especially the uploading of polling unit results in real time, would have made the February 25 polls a nullity. Unfortunately, there’s a dearth of patriots in high public offices including the judiciary, which produced a governor with total votes more than the number of those who actually voted. What Nigeria has in abundance are, again according to Fela, “vagabonds in power.”
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