A week after the scheduled date, the Nigerian general elections finally held on the 23rd of February 2019.
Notwithstanding numerous reports of violence and malpractice—including those confirmed by the electoral body itself, the official results were judged by some observers to be a true reflection of the will of the people. While many may disagree, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will take the praise for their work, and some Nigerians will count it as an achievement that shouldn't be taken for granted.
INEC may have been credited with achieving their primary target this time around, but a lot needs to be done to reduce violence, increase voter turnout, and resolve technical and logistics issues. The consensus is that INEC has failed to improve—or has even regressed—from the 2015 elections. In summary, the four years in between have somehow been squandered.
Going back in time
In 2015, INEC introduced Permanent Voter's Card (PVC) and card readers for voter authentication. This was a significant step forward in Nigerian elections as the new system should have prevented voter impersonation or disenfranchisement. In 2011, there were 73 million registered voters. This number fell to 58 million after INEC introduced the new system.
President Buhari may have deservedly won the 2015 elections, but the new initiatives could barely be considered a success as both voter and INEC staff education and use of the new devices was poor. Most notably, Goodluck Jonathan could not be registered after four attempts and had to vote manually. For others, this verification process took the entire day.
The 2019 elections
In 2019, the logistics issues remained, leading to the initial postponement of the elections. Meanwhile, when the presidential elections finally held, more than 6% of the votes were rejected in six states; sometimes, this amounted to over 50,000 rejected votes. And according to the reports from the returning officers for the different states, card reader failure caused elections to be completely cancelled in hundreds of polling units across the country.
Why do we care about all this?
Having free and fair elections does not just mean that the overall results are accurate and legitimate but implies that each person’s vote counts. Technical issues cannot continue to undermine citizens' rights. Though these individual errors are somewhat overshadowed in a general election, they can be detrimental to state outcomes.
Just look at Oyo state: the gap between the APC and PDP candidates was 1,461 votes. Rejected votes in Oyo? 54,549. Likewise, APC took Nasarawa by just 6,056 votes, with 18,621 votes being rejected in the state.
In general, polling units suffered from issues ranging from the late arrival of officials to incomplete equipment, vote buying, and ballot box snatching (or burning).
As it stands, INEC has many internal and external problems to solve before Nigeria’s elections get a decent turnout or credible results. You didn’t need to have been at the polling units to observe the lack of organisation. How State Collation Officers sporadically arrived in the collation centre in Abuja made the whole program a delayed and messy affair on live TV. It included a spreadsheet on a projector and the listing of all the 73 parties, many of which received less than ten votes. A system that one would expect to be seamless after years of experience and time to prepare resembled a secondary school prize-giving ceremony.
So, how does INEC improve?
The next steps
For such a logistically intensive exercise, some would say that INEC is destined to fail.
Well, a good start may be ensuring that electoral materials are ready a few months before the elections. They had four years to plan the elections; yet, on the 19th of February—three days after the initial election date—INEC had only deployed 90% of election materials. It's easy to blame INEC for having the time management skills of a lazy undergraduate, but the electoral commission had a very short time to begin printing 500 million ballot papers and result sheets. Its budget was only approved late last year.
And then there's the Electoral Act. The Legislative and Executive arms of government have turned passing the bill into politics; from arguing over which elections should be run first to the Senate increasing the maximum amount senatorial candidates can spend on elections from ₦100 billion to ₦250 billion.
The amendment to the electoral bill was not signed in time for the 2019 elections. As a result, INEC was unable to bring in significant improvements such as electronic voting and legal backing for the card readers in court.
Some analysts have highlighted the potential for electronic voting. Electronic voting could reduce a lot of the malpractices that occur at polling units as results could be instantly sent to a single database, but is Nigeria ready for such technology? The patchy success of the simple card readers suggests otherwise.
Ultimately, elections are not run by one individual or institution, but by a coalition of groups (with INEC at the centre), with varying intentions—and some of these can be bought. INEC will keep trying to deal with its internal structures to improve elections, but it might struggle to deal with more structural issues such as the trust of INEC officials at polling units or elsewhere or the desperation of Nigerian politicians.
Like most of Nigeria, the commission is at the mercy of the Nigerian government getting its act together, signing the required bills and releasing funding in good time. And as you can see these are Nigerian problems, not INEC problems.
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