Nigerians will be going to the polls today, March 18, to elect governors in 28 out of the country’s 36 states as well as legislators across all the states to occupy a total of 993 State Assembly seats.
The March 18 election, the concluding part of the 2023 general election that began with the presidential and National Assembly elections held February 25, comes after an initial postponement from the earlier date of March 11.
Many Nigerians have a cause to worry about today’s election given their widely-expressed disappointment at how the country’s electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), handled the presidential and National Assembly elections.
Nigerians’ disappointment in INEC is not without a reason. Local and international observers have given their verdict on the Feb. 25 poll, and they all point to the many irregularities that made the electoral process less than desirable.
For instance, Mark Green, president and CEO of the Wilson Center and a former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Derek Mitchell, president of the National Democratic Institute and a former U.S. diplomat, and Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute and a former counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, in a recent article ‘Nigeria’s flawed election risks a democratic backslide’, pointed to the “serious flaws in the election process” despite the high hopes invested in it by citizens and the outside world.
“Widespread delays in poll openings, violent disruptions of the voting process, and questions of outright results manipulation in some states left millions of voters disenfranchised. The Nigerian Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) lack of transparency throughout the election fueled distrust in the results, leading to the announcement of Tinubu’s victory being challenged by opposition parties,” they said.
The International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI) Joint Election Observation Mission (IEOM), led by former Malawian President Joyce Banda, said the February 25 election fell well short of citizens’ reasonable expectations despite the much-needed reforms to The Electoral Act 2022.
In a preliminary statement on the election, the IRI-NDI Joint Election Observation Mission said logistical challenges and multiple incidents of political violence overshadowed the electoral process and impeded a substantial number of voters from participating.
The mission also said currency and fuel shortages across the country also imposed excessive burdens on voters and election officials, while marginalised groups, especially women, continued to face barriers to seeking and obtaining political office.
The Banda-led delegation further said it observed that late opening of polling locations and logistical failures created tensions and the secrecy of the ballot was compromised in some polling units given overcrowding.
“At the close of the polls, challenges with the electronic transfer of results and their upload to a public portal in a timely manner undermined citizen confidence at a crucial moment of the process. Moreover, inadequate communication and lack of transparency by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) about their cause and extent created confusion and eroded voters’ trust in the process. The combined effect of these problems disenfranchised Nigerian voters in many areas, although the scope and scale is currently unknown,” the mission said.
On its part, the Commonwealth Observer Group, led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, in a preliminary assessment of the electoral process, noted administrative and logistical hurdles at many polling units across Nigeria despite “largely peaceful” general elections.
The group also noted late arrival of election officials and materials at many polling units, technical issues with biometric identification machines in some cases, and delays with the live results transmission system, while encouraging INEC to conduct a thorough post-election review of the electoral process to draw lessons and consider setting up appropriate mechanisms to implement the recommendations of observers.
In the wake of these negative comments and reactions, UK foreign secretary James Cleverly asked relevant Nigerian authorities to ensure that all the concerns raised by opposition parties, observer missions and civil societies are carefully addressed.
“We note the position of opposition parties on the election outcome and the concerns expressed by observer missions and civil society about the organisation of the process, including delays and technical challenges,” Cleverly said in a statement.
“We encourage the authorities to examine all concerns carefully, take action to resolve outstanding issues and focus on delivering the will of the Nigerian people,” he said.
INEC has not denied these flaws. At a meeting with Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) in Abuja to review the commission’s performance in the presidential/National Assembly elections and assess preparations for the governorship and state assembly elections, INEC chairman Mahmood Yakubu admitted that the Feb. 25 elections were fraught with logistics, technology and other issues that made the election environment even more challenging.
“The planning for the election was painstakingly done. However, its implementation came with challenges, some of them unforeseen,” Yakubu said.
“The issues of logistics, election technology, behaviour of some election personnel at different levels, attitude of some party agents and supporters added to the extremely challenging environment in which elections are usually held in Nigeria,” he said.
The INEC chief said the commission had learnt some lessons from the February 25 election and that what was of immediate concern was how to address the identified challenges ahead of the Governorship and State Assembly elections.
“As we approach the Governorship and State Assembly elections, we must work harder to overcome the challenges experienced in the last election. Nothing else will be acceptable to Nigerians,” Yakubu said.
“All staff found to be negligent, whether they are regular or ad hoc officials, including Collation and Returning Officers, must not be involved in forthcoming elections. RECs must also immediately initiate disciplinary action where prima facie evidence of wrongdoing has been established,” he said.
Yakubu told the Electoral Officers (EOs) at local government level to handle election day logistics which must finalised days before the election. He said centralising the process as was done in some states of Feb. 25 resulted in delayed deployment of personnel and materials and late commencement of polls. He said INEC had enough facilities, like electric power generators, in all the states of the federation and such must be deployed to collation centres where needed. He directed that refresher training be conducted for ad hoc staff who took part in the Feb. 25 election, but where they are replaced for good reason, the new intake must be properly trained in order to forestall delay or compromising of processes at any stage. He said the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) would once again be deployed for voter accreditation and result management. And so on and so forth.
These assurances notwithstanding, not many Nigerians still repose any iota of confidence in INEC. Nigerians heard similar assurances before Feb. 25 but got a disappointing outcome.
Some analysts have predicted low voter turnout on March 18. they base their projection on the fact that many of those who voted on Feb. 25 and were disappointed with the way the electoral umpire bungled a process that it had made many of them put absolute trust in may not bother to show up at their polling units for the governorship/state assembly elections. INEC’s feeble attempt to explain why it could not transmit election results from the polling units directly to its portal on election day does not seem to have convinced anyone that it was not a deliberate scheme to subvert the will of the people and achieve a predetermined outcome.
Prior to March 11 earlier slated for the governorship and state assembly elections, INEC asked the courts for and got permission to reconfigure the BVAS used for the presidential/National Assembly elections. It then extended the date for the election by a week.
From all indications, INEC has got all it asked for to make today’s election a success. The commission, therefore, owes Nigerians a duty to ensure that all the issues that nearly marred the Feb. 25 elections do not crop up. More importantly, here’s another golden opportunity for the electoral umpire of Africa’s biggest democracy to redeem its battered image. It must not throw this opportunity to the pigs.