I am not making any excuses for the Independent National Electoral Commission’s [INEC] last minute postponement of the presidential and National Assembly elections two days ago. I was personally not happy that we had to yank off ten pages of election-related material from Daily Trust on Saturday, which were ready by sunset on Friday, when we first got wind of the impending postponement. Nor was I very pleased to have to stay awake for most of the night, making calls, sending text messages, surfing websites and toying with story angles. However, there is a much larger problem to last Saturday’s election failure and I think this is the time to talk about it.
Just before the 2003 elections, the then INEC Chairman Prof Abel Guobadia visited us in Kaduna. I was editor of the New Nigerian then. We had already read somewhere that that year’s elections were to cost N45 billion and we asked Guobadia why it was so expensive. The old man said, “We are paying for our indiscipline as a society. Many of the expensive things that we are doing, we would not have to do them if our society were not so indisciplined.”
Weekend’s election failed because of logistical problems and the burning down of some INEC offices. Those things however became an insurmountable problem only because things had been left to the last minute. For example, as soon as we concluded the 2015 election, we knew that we will conduct another one in four years’ time. Ideally, we should have assembled all the kits many years ago, printed the ballot papers and result sheets and moved them near the polling stations, but how could we do that when the number of political parties keeps changing, more and more are applying for registration every day and no one knows how many candidates and how many parties will be standing for election until the very last minute? Even after the deadline passed, the Attorney General asked INEC to extend it so that his party could field candidates in Zamfara.
A date was set for party primaries, and another date was set for parties to submit the list of their candidates to INEC but too many primary election contests ended up in court. Courts were issuing injunctions left, right and centre; courts of coordinate jurisdiction issued rulings that contradicted each other. INEC said it was sued 600 times after the party primaries, when it did not conduct them. Of course, the endless court cases stemmed from the messy, corrupt and self-serving manner in which party leaders organized primaries, only for the chaos to end up on the election commission’s desks.
Think of the printing of ballot paper. Even though this country has thousands of printing presses, the ballot paper must be printed at a secret location abroad with many security features on it. Even the colour of the ballot paper is a state secret. Ferrying the materials into Nigeria is a secret, and Air Force planes then ferry them to states and lodge them in Central Bank vaults. All these things must be done with only days to the elections, otherwise chances are high that some politicians will get hold of them, and may even go and print their own ballot papers and result sheets. In 1979 FEDECO had to rush and reprint ballot papers just before the presidential election when its chairman Chief Michael Ani heard that a political party had printed its own ballot papers. Compare that to Bangladesh, where an election observer said he saw ballot papers being made from torn school exercise books.
Guobadia told us that when he attended a meeting of African election commissioners and briefed them on the preparations for Nigeria’s 2003 elections, many of them asked him why a policeman must be stationed at every polling station. As we now know, one policeman at a polling station is extremely inadequate and since 2003 we have had to draft Civil Defence, DSS, Customs, Immigration, Prison Service and Road Safety agents to help. In addition, there are roving squads of Mobile Policemen in each local government, ready to move in wherever there is trouble. On top of that, there are military platoons at the ready in their barracks to move in and help the police. INEC even maps out what it calls “volatile areas.”
In Nigeria we have this concept of sensitive and non-sensitive election materials. Even the non-sensitive ones are only moved to the states and LGAs two days to the polls, while the sensitive ones are moved to polling stations early on Saturday morning. That gives little room for mistake in such a large operation. Up until 2011, late arrival of materials at the polling station was frequent but in the run up to 2015, INEC did some decentralization and created what they call clusters, I think. Election officers for a local government area will be camped in a school and arrangements made for vehicles to move them to the polling stations early morning. Even that arrangement was not fail-safe; in the FCT in 2015, members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers failed to turn up in the morning to move the polling agents because there was a delay in paying them.
Guobadia observed, for example, that in India, election materials are distributed to all nooks and crannies of the vast country through the Post Office. In Nigeria however, election materials are kept at the Central Bank, and each REC must go with a truckload of Mobile Policemen to move them out. That year, the then Postmaster General of the Federation Abubakar Musa Argungu also visited us in New Nigerian and we asked him why our Post Office cannot distribute election materials. He said, “We have the capacity to do it, but we will not do it.” We asked him why and he said, “Because our distribution vans will be attacked.”
All of these unnecessary difficulties are due to indiscipline in Nigerian society. Prof Attahiru Jega told a story some years ago when he went on election monitoring duty in Kenya. He said the night before the polls opened, they visited a station in rural Kenya and they found the election officer, sitting alone in a school. There was no electricity and he had only a bush lamp on his desk. Remarkably, the ballot box and all his election materials were lying in a bag beside him, including what we call sensitive materials. He was waiting patiently for morning when voters will arrive and queue up. Try that in Nigeria.
Some people have said that INEC’s problem is because it has to rely on a million ad hoc staff. In 1997, I accompanied Sultan Muhammadu Maccido on a visit to India and we spent hours at the Indian Central Election Commission in New Delhi. India’s Chief Election Commissioner at the time Dr. Manohar Gill, had worked in Nigeria as a World Bank agricultural engineer. He told us that his commission had only 200 permanent staffers but that during elections, the staff expanded to five million.
How do they do it? Simply by commandeering state and local officials. These officers, while on election duty, answer only to the Chief Commissioner, are not intimidated by their employers and cannot be victimised even after the election. Dr. Gill said, “India has attained a reasonable level with regards to elections.” I then asked him why Nigeria did not attain a similar level and he said, “I think it has to do with the quality of the civil service. We both inherited our civil service from the British but since independence, our civil service has been slightly damaged whereas yours has been badly damaged.” He had worked in Nigeria for five years!
I thought about what Gill said when I heard that the election will now hold this Saturday. My fear is that the quality of our civil service would not have improved much in the next five days. More seriously, discipline in Nigerian society is unlikely to improve much by this Saturday.