The Electoral Process in Nigeria: Safeguarding the People’s Will for Democracy to Thrive

By Attahiru M. Jega, OFR

Professor Department of Political science Bayero University, Kano, Nigeria.
Keynote Address, presented at the International Conference on 20 Years of Democracy in Nigeria, with the Theme: Democracy and the Rule of Law [1999-2019], Organized by TELL Communications Limited, Wednesday, October 23, 2019, The Yar Adua Centre, Abuja.


The challenge of democratic development, for a country such as Nigeria, is how to avoid a regression and reversal, and continuously bring about incremental positive changes towards consolidation. Given Nigeria’s complex political dynamics and past history of prolonged military rule, reversal is a strong possibility. How to avoid it, indeed how to prevent it, and keep on moving decidedly on the democratic trajectory, is a near herculean task. Nigerians, like many Africans (Jega 2019), have strenuously struggled for democracy under authoritarian military rule, and have equally strenuously aspired for democratic development and consolidation since return to civil rule in 1999. However, the Nigerian elite and the so-called ‘political class’, perhaps due to lack of an enlightened self-interest, have tended to treat, and engage with, the process of democratization with kid gloves. For example, in such significant areas as the electoral process, the integrity of which is crucial to democratic consolidation and good governance, the prevailing mode of participation and engagement of the elite is akin to kids playing with fire: at the least, they get burns; and at worst, they set off a conflagration that consumes the entire edifice. As commonsense dictates that we must stop kids playing with fire, so is it that we must stop the elite, especially the reckless segment of the ‘political class’, from setting off an electoral conflagration that could consume our entire democratic edifice. The only way to successfully do this is to strive for, and imbue the Nigerian electoral process with requisite integrity that would guarantee the actualization of the aspirations of Nigerians for both stable democratic development and consolidation.

Crass lack of electoral integrity has been the bane of civil rule, transitions to democratic rule, governance and development in Nigeria. Electoral malfeasance and malpractices have historically undermined the conduct of free, fair and credible elections, have rendered the electorate powerless and have thereby significantly eroded public trust and confidence in the electoral process. It is only by restoring integrity into the electoral process that we can appropriately safeguard the will of the Nigerian people for democracy to thrive.

In elaborating upon this, I first provide the situational and contextual analysis of the Nigerian electoral process, highlighting the challenges, which have bedeviled it and which have constrained and undermined electoral integrity. This is followed by an exposition on how restoration of integrity to the management and conduct of Nigerians is a task that must be done, because it is the panacea for safeguarding the people’s will for democracy to thrive, be stabilized and consolidated, and catalyze good governance by elected representatives and executives for sustainable national progress and development.

The Nigerian Electoral Process: Situational and Contextual Analysis

Scholars and practitioners have long agreed that elections are a process and not an event. This is in the sense that “every election comprises numerous elements and involves multiple institutions and actors throughout the pre-election, election day and post-election periods, all of which affect the transparency, inclusiveness, accountability, and competitiveness of the election” (Open Election Data Initiative 10/22/2019).

The Nigerian electoral process has historically been flawed, and replete with profound challenges in all the three key phases (See Jega, 2018).  These can be summarized as follows:

Pre-election phase:

  1. Inadequacy and/or inconsistency of the legal framework for the conduct of elections
  2. Epileptic, insufficient and delayed funding for the elections
  3. Inadequate and/or unfocused sensitization, public enlightenment, political and voter education
  4. Inadequate EMB engagement and sharing of information with the key stakeholders (i.e.: political parties, candidates, Civil society organizations, security agencies, the media)
  5. Over-bloated and/or ‘incredible’ voters’ roll (Registration of voters
  6. Lack of a level playing field for parties and contestants in the pre-election campaigns, which obstruct competitiveness 
  7. Costly and corruption-laden pre-election litigation, associated with undemocratic and fraudulent conduct of party primaries

Election-Day Activities

  1. Poor arrangement for, and deployment of, personnel and logistics 
  2. Lack of transparency and accountability, and corruption in the management of polling units and collation centres, as well as with regards to compilation, transmission and announcement of results
  3. Chaotic and ineffective arrangement for reverse logistics after elections
  4. Ineffective and inefficient management of the polling units and results collation centres, due to lack or inadequacy of training of poll workers
  5. Insecurity, conflicts, violence and disruption polling day activities, due to inadequate and ineffective role by the police and other security agencies
  6. Crass harassment, intimidation and/or inducement of electoral officials
  7. Commission of Electoral irregularities and offences by key stakeholders.

Post-Election Phase:

  1. Lack of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms
  2. Costly and corruption-laden post-election litigation
  3. Poor storage and archival of sensitive election materials, which denies litigants access to original official records of elections.
  4. Inadequate and/or poor review, assessment and evaluation of the conduct of an election, which constrains the factoring of ‘lessons learned’ into the preparations for future elections

The manifestations of all these challenges in varying forms were evident in all elections, since the First Republic (1960-66). The 2007 elections, considered by most observers and analysts as the worst elections in Nigeria’s history, provided even more graphic and obnoxious illustrations of these challenges, which have bedeviled the Nigerian electoral process (See, for example, Kurfi 1983 and 2013).

Relatively more determined efforts were made since 2007 to improve the integrity of Nigerian elections, with relatively appreciable results. From the 2011 elections, INEC has, learning from comparative global experiences of nurturing and engendering electoral integrity, introduced reforms to upscale the integrity of Nigerian elections in the following areas:

  1. Introduction of use of voting technologies, in the context of
    1. Compilation of a Biometric Register of Voters
    2. Issuance of a smart permanent voters card (PVC)
    3. Introduction of verification and authentication of voters, using the smart card reader (SCR)
  2. Utilization of enhanced security features on all sensitive electoral materials, such as ballot boxes, ballot papers, result sheets
  3. Improvement in the logistics of deployment and retrieval, as well as storage and archiving of sensitive election materials
  4. Improvement in coordination and creation of synergy in the role of security agencies in elections, through the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES), and utilization of an Electoral Risk Mapping (ERM) Tool
  5. Improvement in the legal and other regulatory frameworks for the management and conduct of elections;
  6. Restructuring and reorganization of INEC for improved efficiency and effectiveness in the management and conduct of elections
  7. Undertaking rigorous Strategic, Election Management, as well as Election Project planning.

(See Jega 2015).

However, these notwithstanding, serious challenges have still remained unresolved in the Nigerian electoral process. For example, so-called ‘money bags’, ‘godfathers’ and undemocratic party leaders still impose candidates on the electorate or fraudulently manipulate electoral outcomes in their favor, either by using thugs and violence or by crass buying of votes (Jega 2018). 

These have, thus, engendered remarkable trust deficit by the electorate in the electoral process and a deep-seated perception that both the EMB, INEC and the ‘political class’ obstruct the conduct of free, fair and credible elections, and thereby undermine the integrity of elections, with damaging negative consequences on democratic development and consolidation, as well as good democratic governance, which are requirements for meeting and satisfying the fundamental needs and aspirations of the citizens. 

Perhaps the clearest evidence of this loss of trust and confidence in the electoral process is the declining voter turnout in elections since 1999. For example, the reported data of voter turnout as a percentage of registered voters for elections between 1999 and 2019 are as follows:

 1999     52.3%;

 2003;     69.1% 

 2007        57.3% 

 2011        55.4 %

 2015        44% 

2019        37% 

Sources: CDD 2019: 15 and INEC 2019

Enhancement of Electoral Integrity is key to Safeguarding People’s Will for Democratic Development and Sustainability

The best way to safeguard the people’s will for democracy to thrive in Nigeria, is to leave no stone unturned to ensure that elections are conducted with integrity; i.e., elections are free, fair, credible, and are characterized by inclusiveness, transparency, accountability and competitiveness. In other words, elections which have little, marginal if any malpractices and misconduct; which are conducted professionally and impartially by the EMB and which substantially comply with international standards and expectations of being free, fair and credible. Indeed, elections, which attract and retain public confidence, trust and support in each step of the electoral process.

It is not sufficient to merely conduct regular and periodic elections and presume that this would in itself stabilize, deepen and consolidate representative, electoral, democracy. Scholars of democratic transition and democratization in Africa have jettisoned Lindberg’s postulation that regularly held elections in themselves point to democratization in Africa (2006; 2009). Regularly held elections are necessary but not sufficient conditions for deepening democracy and nurturing good governance. It is only regularly conducted elections with integrity that nurture and consolidate truly representative democracy based on good governance for satisfying the will and aspirations of the people (Norris 2014;

Electoral integrity is a concept now increasingly being used to denote the development and entrenchment of capacity and competence within a country’s electoral process to eliminate or at least bring to the barest minimum incidences of ‘electoral malpractice,’ ‘misconduct,’ manipulation rigging, vote buying, ‘electoral fraud,’ stolen mandate, electoral violence and imposition of candidates; while at the same time its preparation and conduct meets “universal standards”, as embodied in and reinforced by “international commitments and global norms, endorsed in a series of authoritative conventions, treaties, protocols, and guidelines” (Norris 2014: 8-9). 

Elections that can be said to have integrity, are also characterized by inclusiveness, transparency, accountability and competitiveness (See Open Election Data Initiative; NDI 2008), predicated on universally recognized and guaranteed rights and freedoms of association, expression, participation and so on (Young 2009). Elections, which are inclusive are characterized by the removal of barriers to participation, and thus provide all eligible citizens with equal opportunities to participate as voters in electing their representatives and holders of offices in the executive branch of government (Open Election Data Initiative, Accessed Online 22/10/2019).  Elections, which are transparent grant citizens and stakeholders the opportunity of scrutiny and independent verification as to whether all phases of the electoral process are managed ‘honestly and accurately’ and are ‘available and accessible’ to citizens.

Accountability of the electoral process denotes the existence of mechanisms, procedures and guidelines, which enable citizens to hold all stakeholders, such as Government, EMBs, political parties, candidates, security personnel and agencies, in the electoral process accountable for their conduct. Competitiveness of the electoral process is ensured when citizens have ‘reasonable and equitable opportunities to participate/compete without hindrance (Open Election Data Initiative, ibid). In this regard, political parties and candidates must be able to campaign and voters must be able to cast their ballots free from any illegal influence, inducement, intimidation and/or violence (ibid.)

Now, while an assessment of the Nigerian electoral process reveals that there are still some entrenched challenges, which continue to undermine its integrity, there is no doubt that in the last decade at least, incremental positive changes towards electoral integrity have occurred. The challenge is how to improve upon these, and prevent their erosion or reversal and unwholesome truncation of the people’s will. Indeed, it is about how to revive, sustain and increase public trust and confidence in the electoral process, in spite of the challenges.

As Kofi Annan (UN 2012) observed, 

When the electorate believes that elections have been free and fair, they can be a powerful catalyst for better governance, greater security and human development. But in the absence of credible elections, citizens have no recourse to peaceful political change.

To enhance and expand the scope of electoral integrity in the Nigerian electoral process, and safeguard people’s will for democracy to thrive, all the key stakeholders have a role to play: INEC, political parties, candidates, the three arms of government, civil society organizations, the media, religious and traditional leaders. Supportive/complementary roles are also necessary from development partners and international governmental as well as non-governmental organizations that are globally involved with promotion and development of electoral democracy.

Specifically, stakeholders need to pay attention to the following:

  1. The political parties and candidates, in deed the ‘political class’ must give electoral democracy the seriousness that it deserves. They must eschew the ‘do-or-die’ with which they engage in electoral contests and see electoral contests as something you can only win or lose; and if you lose, you accept the result, congratulate the winner and live to prepare to contest again at the next available opportunity.
  2. The best way for INEC to enhance electoral integrity and to conduct free, fair and credible elections is to pay attention to the following:
    1. Building an independent EMB, which has credibility and which operates transparent electoral processes
    2. Enhancing institutional capacity of the EMB and professionalism of its staff
    3. Utilize a pool of competent, well trained, impartial and non-partisan poll workers
    4. Developing the capacity of the leadership of the EMB to resist and / or withstand pressures emanating from the political class, stakeholders and the incumbent government
    5. Developing mutual trust and confidence between the EMB and all major stakeholders in the electoral process
    6. Developing a strategy of open and transparent as well as constructive engagement with all the major stakeholders in the electoral process, namely:
      1. Political parties and candidates
      2. Government in power and the Legislature
      3. Civil society organizations
      4. Print, Electronic and Social Media platforms
      5. Traditional and religious leaders
      6. Security agencies
      7. Development partners and International actors in the fields of democracy development and elections
  3. The Government, the legislature, in collaboration with the INEC and civil society organizations need to review, update and enhance the constitutional and electoral legal frameworks with a view to improving the scope of integrity and credibility of elections.
  4. The Government and the Legislature also need to provide for sufficient financial and administrative autonomy for INEC to catalyze electoral integrity.
  5. The media has to engage with the electoral process professionally and impartially, eschewing fake news and hate speech and other unprofessional or partisan conduct.

Conclusion: Towards a Thriving Democracy in Nigeria

Nigeria needs a thriving democracy in spite of its complex diversity, the dynamics of its politics and the structural weakness of its economy. Indeed, it is quite possible to bring about a thriving democracy in Nigeria, in spite of the evident challenges. It would only require a more serious and purposeful engagement with, and in, the electoral process by all the key stakeholders, to ensure that it brings the desired quality representation and elected public office holders are responsible and responsive to the needs and aspirations of the citizens, and that would catalyze and nurture good, democratic governance. As is the task of safeguarding the people’s will, this is also a task that must be done and the earlier it is done the better for Nigeria and Nigerians. 


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