By Toyin Falola
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” This is the epic opening to Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, considered one of the world’s classics. If this opening were adapted to the reality of Nigeria’s 2023 elections, the result would be akin to this saying, “the presidential election that took place on March 25 was the 7th since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, and depending on who you ask, it was the best or worst election the country has had.” This latter saying is Dr. Chido Onumah’s — the panel discussion moderator at the last edition of the Toyin Falola Interviews.
Dr. Onumah’s claim that Nigeria’s recently concluded election could be adjectivized as either the best or the worst lends credence to the belief that in a democratic setting, a confluence of predispositions and outcomes determine people’s conclusions on matters. And given a case where opposing parties are often in a keen contest for power — the winners will almost always adjudge the process fairly, while the losers will adjudge it as far from credible. Such is the power of outcomes on human conclusions.
Better said, if the election were to have been won by Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, would the Tinubu supporters and the All Progressives Congress claim today that the elections were free, fair, and credible? Would they accept that the elections reflect Nigerians’ true democratic wish — especially as it was the most keenly contested in the country’s recent democracy, the winner emerging by just about 37% of the total votes cast? This percentage, considered extremely low in the context of other elections since Nigeria’s return to democracy, is being touted by many — especially those on the side of the declared winner — as proof of how democratic the process was. To them, the winning candidate would not have scored that low if the election was not fair and credible. However, regarding perception-influenced conclusions, human perceptions and outcomes determine people’s conclusions.
Nigeria’s 2023 elections will go down in history as part of the most emotionally invested elections in the country. Although the same might be said for the 2015 elections, the difference in the two cases is that the results of the 2015 elections were in favour of the majority of the emotionally invested voters — those that were fed up with the People’s Democratic Party’s one-sided rule of 16 years and the worsening state of security in the country. However, the 2023 elections did not favour the larger percentage of the emotionally invested — the third force that had risen in the wake of the multi-dimensional problems of the past 8 years to forge a new alliance and revamp the Nigerian approach to governance.
As the elections did not sway in favour of the rising opposition, there have been doubts about the election’s credibility, and the doubts that could have been about the 2015 elections pale in comparison to the ones we have had in 2023. Are those doubts valid? Or are they only being voiced because the candidates of the doubters did not emerge as the winners of the elections? This, among other things, served as the foundation of the discourse moderated by Dr. Onumah.
One of the first things that come to mind when considering elections in Nigeria is that no matter how seemingly free, fair, or credible the elections might have been, the country is known to have pockets of malpractices across its polling units — from expected and full-blown bribery to over-voting, to voter intimidation, to manipulation of results, to the severe cases of maiming and killing. The nonsense surrounding the gubernatorial election in Adamawa State is proof of this. For days, the Adamawa Gubernatorial election results remained inconclusive, and as the Independent National Electoral Commission strove to make things right, the All Progressives Congress candidate, Aishat Binani, alongside the Adamawa State Electoral Commission and the returning officer, announced what they claimed to be election results. In what seemed to have been a calculated move, news media all over reported Aishat Binani’s win and emergence as Nigeria’s history-making female governor. The shenanigans of the Adamawa gubernatorial election are pointers to two things: first, the 2023 elections had their pockets of irregularities and malpractices. Whether these pockets of violence are enough to declare the elections as far from being free, fair, and credible is yet another issue entirely. Second, Nigeria is being ushered into — or has already been in — a full cruising state, whereby ridiculous and outrageous issues are the order of the day, grabbing the attention of national dailies and the Nigerian populace.
Professor Jibrin Ibrahim believes that the 2023 elections were credible. His belief is rooted in the notion that the claims of irregularities and malpractices are insufficient to invalidate the results. Being a seasoned election observer and the Director-General of the Center for Democracy and Development, Prof. Ibrahim drew on his wealth of experience to establish his claim that the reality of Nigeria’s elections is being masked by claims of irregularities which are not substantial compared to the largest organized process in other parts of the country.
The learned professor based his postulation on the claim that all countries have their electoral irregularities and that, seeing as no country is exempted, emphasis should not be on the irregularities. This begs the question of the degree of gravity. To what extent would irregularities occur in the electoral process before they are considered process-altering irregularities? What percentage of irregularities is allowed in a given election year?
There is no denying that media houses deploy the focused reporting approach, where happenings are attacked from all angles and by all media houses, making them trending issues. This is true for malpractices, electoral violence, and irregularities during elections. Professor Ibrahim’s bone of contention is that if these irregularities and violence happen in possibly less than 10% of all polling units, why do they receive so much attention, so much so that they become the focal point for defining the state of the election? The question would then be whether irregularities — no matter how minute — do not automatically mar the sanctity and credibility of the process. Should we rather play technicality and give a margin of error? Or should we unanimously agree that as long as there is violence — even in 10 of 10 000 total polling units — the elections were not free and fair?
Drawing on what was earlier said about predispositions and election outcomes being the determinants of the conclusions people reach on the credibility of elections in the country, Professor Ibrahim posited that Nigerians approach the matter of elections with an expected outcome in mind and then choose to either positively or negatively react based on the eventual outcome and how it relates to their stance. Thus, if the expected outcome of one Mr. Johnson is that the Nigerian elections are always rigged and that 2023 will be no better, and if there were to be reports of violence in some parts of the country during the election, and if, coupled with these two, Mr. Johnson’s preferred or expected candidate loses the election, then, there will be a positive reaction to the preconceived expected outcome — where Mr. Johnson will go around claiming that the elections were rigged as usual.
There is no doubt that Nigeria has been steadily trailing down a slippery slope as it concerns its elections. The larger percentage of the presidential elections in Nigeria since the return to democracy was eventually resolved by the judiciary. And given that the judiciary in Nigeria is not as independent and devoid of external influences as it should be, it is dangerous for the democracy of the country to keep having elections that are not credible enough to be unanimously agreed as free, fair, and credible.
This also raises questions about the motives of the contenders in court — are they contending the results because they are aggrieved or because they truly have a case? If it were the former, it would be difficult to have Nigeria reach that state where most stakeholders would agree that the elections were free, fair, and devoid of irregularities. However, if it were the latter, Nigeria and all stakeholders in the Nigerian project have to consciously work toward building the country into a truly democratic state where the expected outcomes of a few people are not forced on all through intimidation and electoral malpractices.
This is Part 2 of my reflections on the Panel Discussion on Nigeria’s 2023 elections by Ayisha Osori, Jibrin Ibrahim, Cynthia Mbamalu, and Chido Onumah. The session, which has received millions of views across different platforms, discussed the various aspects of the elections. My views below are not necessarily those of the four panelists. For the transcripts, see: