By Toyin Falola
Expectations breed disappointment and in the case of Nigeria’s 2023 elections, this saying was brought to the fore, yet again. Nigerians — hopeful for a change and expectant of a new approach in the conduct of elections in their country — soon had their hopes dashed when the promised use of technology went up in shambles. It is important to look at the rollout of events introspectively. At what point did hope cloud rational thinking and the consideration of past events — history — as a precursory predictor of how the elections will likely play out? Many Nigerians that participated in the 2023 elections have been Nigerians all their lives, some living through both the military tenures and all the democratic tenures in the country. They have seen things play out time and time again — they have seen the government make lofty promises to the people, only to renege on such promises. They have seen betrayal again and again, yet, they chose to believe that for once, the INEC’s promise to deploy BVAS and IREV and to allow people access to real-time election results would be fulfilled.
What served as the ingredients to convince Nigerians that INEC would do as it promised? Looking at how events played out, it could be said that many Nigerians became Utopian in their expectations of the 2023 elections. First, for the first time in a long while — in fact, for the first time since the return to democracy in 1999 and the coming of the third republic — there were signs that the elections will feature a formidable third force. Second, there were pointers to an increase in overall voter participation and a more promising increase among the Nigerian youth. Third, there was a general increase in the use of social media and citizen-controlled information platforms during the run-up to the 2023 elections, which might have invariably convinced Nigerians that power was indeed to the people. This might be likened to Nigerians living in a bubble and not applying their reality to their expectations.
Fourth, is the underlying trust Nigerians have had — for far longer than anyone would have imagined — in President Muhammadu Buhari, especially as it relates to corruption, discipline, and leaving a legacy. As seemingly unfavorable as the Buhari administration has been, and with all that has happened during the two-term governance of the president, the slightest hint at Buhari wanting to leave a legacy of the freest, fairest, and most credible election in the country’s history got several Nigerians believing that he would truly do that and stay to it.
It was perhaps the reason many were willing to live through the hardship of the life-threatening scarcity brought about by the cashless policy — a case of Nigerians having an underlying belief that the cashless policy is all a part of Buhari’s grand masterplan to hinder vote-buying and make the elections free, fair, and credible. The same belief that Buhari would belong to everybody and no one. All these, coupled with INEC’s reassurance, served as the ingredients to convince Nigerians that technology would indeed play an important role in the election and that it would help make it one of the most credible elections in the history of the country’s democracy.
For Cynthia Mbamalu, two of the key issues that made the 2023 elections turn out the way they did — technological disappointments, violence, schemings, and compalints of voter intimidation and conscious vote buying and electoral violence — are the present inability of INEC to act and make decisions as an independent and constitutionally backed electoral body and the disregard for the legal framework and body of laws out together to guide electoral processes and conducts in the country. In the first case, Nigerian political leaders are culpable. Seeing as the Nigerian political system is designed in a give-and-take, pay-it-forward, do-for-me-I-reward-you manner, there is often high pressure on elected leaders to stay loyal to their political parties, do things in the interest of party members, lord their position over party members in the state or nation — depending on the position they hold.
And, seeing as the average governor or president has the loyalty of half the majority of the legislative house — no thanks to the winner-sweeps-all pattern in Nigerian politics — it becomes a case of the elected executive lording their powers over the INEC to push their interest and the interests of their party and its members. This lording often comes in the form of withholding or threatening to withhold funding. Also, considering the fact that the president appoints the Chair of the electoral body, INEC, it is often the case that the elected INEC Chair is either from the sitting president’s party or a loyalist to the president in one form or the other, making it easier to bend them toi the rules.
In the second case, all stakeholders — including INEC — are culpable. Take the 2023 elections, for instance, lots of stakeholders were found wanting in the flouting of the laws in the Electoral Act. Laws binding voters from taking pictures of their ballot papers, showing their used ballot papers publicly, among other laws were flouted, even by political leaders. There was also the case of the INEC, its officials, and staffers flouting laws in the Electoral Act, including laws dealing with thr electronic transmission of results, voter accreditation, and the computation of results. These flouting of electoral laws are pointers to the fact that elections in Nigeria are still in the nascent stage when it comes to credibility.
While the 2023 elections might not have been the worst elections Nigeria has had as a country, there are aggravated concerns about these elections because prior to the election days, Nigerians had built a lot of hope and had higher expectations than before, expectations based on the new Electoral Act that had been signed by the president. Cynthia Mbamalu rightly puts it in saying that the competitiveness of the election cannot be our only focus if the process went down in such a way that it has been raising doubts ever since the elections.
That the gap between the winner and the runners-up was close is not enough reason to say the elections were credible, free, and fair. What do we then make of the promises that were made prior to the elections but not adhered to? What shall we say of the technological breakdown, in such a way that the election process of times past had to be revisited — one where election results from several polling units will be pooled together at collation centers? These collation centers have served as the strongholds for rigging and result manipulation since time immemorial. If the technological innovations as contained in the Electoral Act were adhered to, there would have been difficulty manipulating results all over the country, as the results would have been displayed in real-time and according to polling units right before they were taken to the collation centers. This would have indeed curbed or totally eradicated result manipulation, thereby helping Nigerians have more faith in the outcome of the election.
Cynthia Mbamalu raised some valid points that the Independent National Electoral Commission and all Nigerian stakeholders should consider as Nigeria prepares for the next election. These points rest on the foundation that although there were some positives to the 2023 elections, there were a lot of negatives too, thereby raising the question of whether it is possible to have an election totally free, fair, and credible. To that effect, Cynthia suggested that Nigeria and all stakeholders in the Nigerian election process need to start reviewing the standards by which we want to hold Nigerian elections. She suggested that questions such as ”What are the minimum standards?” “What is the integrity quotient for our elections?” “When do we as a people assess from a point of objectivity?” as valid questions that need to be asked to avoid putting Nigeria in a state of auto-pilot where the country is moving, but not progressing positively.
While the legal battles continue, and as we await the inauguration of the new government this month — and while we have often advised that new governments should focus on delivering on their promises and not start planning toward the next elections immediately — it is important that Nigeria sets standard frameworks for assessing its elections, holding its people accountable, and ensuring that the electoral process matches up to the expectations and hopes of stakeholders in the elections — especially the voters.