By Rotimi Lawrence Oyekanmi
The opportunity to serve in my current capacity at the Independent National Electoral Commission has opened my eyes to many underlying factors that shape the conduct of elections in a way I would never have imagined from the outside. From my privileged position, I could not but appreciate the enormous challenges faced by the INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, the National Commissioners and other hardworking staff members of the Commission, as they planned for and conducted each of the 195 elections that the Commission has so far conducted since the 2015 polls.
Organisng elections in Nigeria, just like practising journalism, is a thankless job. Yet, for all the tremendous work that they do at INEC, Prof Yakubu and his team are more often than not derided by mostly ignorant individuals and those who, ironically, are at the forefront of deliberately complicating the commission’s work. Despite all the barrage of insults that have been thrown in his direction since he took the job in November 2015, the INEC Chairman has consistently, to my amazement, maintained his cool – a virtue and gift which I must confess that I don’t have. Some of us are simply wired in a totally different way. A few times that I had prepared rejoinders to what I considered as nonsensical articles, he had stopped me on each occasion, jokingly telling me that I was too emotional, but I didn’t think so. Nevertheless, I have been appalled by some of the narratives I have read in some newspapers and on some social media platforms about him – tons of uninformed, visibly biased articles written by columnists and supposedly senior journalists – containing distorted facts and outright lies. Unfortunately, some Nigerians believe these narratives, now popularly referred to as “fake news” and waste no time in sharing them.
I can understand when familiar forces – who like to refer to themselves as members of the Civil Society confraternity, commissioned Public Relations strategists, “citizen journalists” and pseudo human rights activists engage in what they are famous for in every general election cycle. But my worry is the realisation that some reputable mainstream media organisations are also joining the fray. Thankfully, a number of media establishments have remained committed to the truth and the creed. They acknowledged it when INEC performed well and criticised it objectively when it faltered. Constructive criticism is healthy and acceptable. Yet, the sacred ethics of our journalism profession do not permit an intentional distortion of facts, foul language and character assassination in the brazen manner that I have seen in some newspapers, on social media platforms, and aired on radio and television. Yet, this INEC that they find pleasure in attacking unjustifiably belongs to all Nigerians. It is not anybody’s property. The Chairman and National Commissioners are holding their respective positions on trust and they all have a fixed term. Even the civil servants must leave at some point – either when they attain the age of 60 years old or 35 years in service, whichever comes first. But INEC as an institution will remain.
There is no perfect election anywhere in the world. Not even in the United States, whose presidential system Nigeria has copied – as the events that followed the last presidential election which brought President Donald Trump to power have revealed. The allegations of Russia’s interference in that election have simply refused to go away. Estonia, which has embraced electronic voting has had to endure several cyberattacks allegedly from Russia, forcing it to team up with several European allies to deal with the problem.
Look at the last election held in Kenya on August 8, 2018, in which technology was fully applied and expected to perform some magic. President Uhuru Kenyatta emerged victorious but the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, successfully challenged the outcome at the country’s Supreme Court and got it overturned. Odinga never trusted the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission of Kenya from the outset and had made some allegations against it long before the polls.
The election held in Liberia on October 10, 2017 also presented some interesting scenarios. No candidate won a majority in the first round, necessitating a run-off between the two leading candidates – George Weah and Joseph Boakai. However, Charles Brumskine who came third challenged the results of the election in court because he felt it was marred by irregularities that pushed him to the third position. He lost.
Let’s go to Venezuela where the controversy that trailed the presidential election held on May 20, 2018 is still festering and threatening to tear the country apart. Although the results showed that the incumbent, Nicolas Maduro, won, but the two leading candidates, Henri Falcon and Javier Bertucci, have rejected those results. I could go on and on.
In the three instances mentioned above, lack of trust in the Election Management Body in the respective countries is the clear denominator, as is the case in Nigeria, for every election conducted since 1999. In Nigeria’s case, the do-or-die politics and winner-takes-all attitude of the politicians make matters worse. In this clime, politicians don’t contest in an election with the understanding that they could lose. To them, they simply cannot lose. When a Nigerian politician wins an election, INEC will be described as “credible, dependable and fair.” But when the same politician loses, the commission will be referred to as “fraudulent, unfair and deceitful.”
Many Nigerians are oblivious of what it really takes to organise a general election in a vast country like Nigeria and deliver election materials to all the 36 states and 774 local government areas. There are 119, 973 Polling Units all over the country, 8,809 wards, over 84 million registered voters, 91 registered political parties and 23,316 candidates participating in the general elections. For the six elections taking place this year – presidential, senatorial, House of Representatives, governorship (in 29 states), state Houses of Assembly and the Federal Capital Territory Area Councils, a whopping 421.7 million ballot papers had to printed, in addition to 13.6 million result forms for the presidential election alone. Some 180,000 Smart Card Readers were also deployed, besides thousands of ballot boxes and voting cubicles.
In order to deliver election materials to all the local government areas, INEC had to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with transport unions, enlist the Nigerian Air Force and request the services of other aircraft companies. INEC does not own a single aircraft, yet it had to airlift the heavy consignments to the five zonal airport hubs – Abuja (for North Central), Port Harcourt (South-South and South-East), Kano (North-West), Maiduguri and Yola (North-East) and Lagos (South-West). Unfortunately, bad weather forced a slowdown of its efforts to deliver materials as scheduled, forcing the postponement the nation witnessed on February 16.
I have heard critics say that INEC had four years to prepare, therefore it should have no excuse. But it is not as easy as it seems. Take for instance the 640 court cases arising from the nomination of candidates alone, in which INEC was joined. As of February 16, INEC had received 40 different court orders on whether to add or drop candidates. The implication? There is usually a window of 30 days for the commission to print ballot papers and result sheets and ship them to all the Polling Units in the country. One month. Then, arsonists set fire to the commission’s offices in Awka, Anambra State; Isiala Ngwa in Abia State, and Qu’an Pam local government office in Plateau State days to the opening of polls.
In Anambra State, over 4,600 Smart Card Readers, which take an average of six months to procure were destroyed. In Abia State, hundreds of Permanent Voter Cards were burnt and in Plateau State, printed register of voters, ballot boxes, voting cubicles and many generators were also lost. These are monumental losses.
It is in everybody’s interest that INEC succeeds in carrying out its mandate at all times. It is also the responsibility of every Nigerian to support the commission to achieve its goals. For If INEC fails, God forbid, we will all pay a very high price.
- Oyekanmi is the Chief Press Secretary to INEC Chairman.