In the next few weeks our lives as citizens will very likely become more complicated. Social and political relations will become more stressed. Violence involving partisan supporters and communities will become more pronounced. Those declared winners in recent elections by INEC will fight desperately to retain their victory. Those who were supposed to have lost to them will fight even more desperately to wrest, by all means possible, mandates they rarely concede were won legitimately. The judiciary will be further crippled and compromised by the deluge of disputes it will need to resolve. A number of elections declared as inconclusive may be held on appointed days, or stopped by the courts. Tensions will remain high as constitutional ceilings on current mandates are challenged by persistent quarrels and disputes before the judiciary and pervasive violence. And all because we just conducted elections to decide who can legitimately lay claims to the right to lead or legislate in our nation.
Our elections are once again poisoning our politics. Our politics will not allow our democratic system to grow and develop. INEC is in danger of losing its entire store of integrity, in part because it operates in a context that has very low thresholds of responsibility and accountability. The popular narrative that the 2015 elections had created new, higher standards of reliability and credibility is being torn to shreds by our politicians and INEC itself. Perhaps it is the case, after all, that 2015 itself was a gigantic fraud that allowed regime change to occur without interrogating the process that made it possible. True or not, the popular perception, as we speak, is that INEC is back to its 2015 levels of infamy, and our democratic system in is the gutter.
It is tempting to make the case that INEC is good and means well, but our politicians are incurable saboteurs of every rule designed to create space for fair and credible elections. It will not be a bad case. This INEC went along with all the steps taken to improve the electoral process, sometimes even showing a remarkable openness to new ideas and processes. So much went into amending the Electoral Act by the same politicians who then went into the process with the finest tooth combs to seek advantages through it. In the end, the same President Buhari who told the world last week that he plans to leave a legacy for an improved electoral process pushed it all away and said, later. Later is perhaps in the next few months or years, long after he has secured his second term on the old law and processes. Even then, it will be contingent on the disposition of the powerful interests around him who will hope to milk the system to make succeeding him a bit less challenging because they will only abuse a process they are already familiar with.
When INEC has only the presumed interests of millions of Nigerians to elect their leaders as its major pillar of support, you have to ask from where it draws such confidence to ask Nigerians to trust it. It has no control over the security environment which plays such a huge influence on election contests. It cannot eliminate or reduce vote-buying, ballot snatching, thuggery and fraud from the process because it lacks the legal authority to stop or punish those who commit them. Those who have such powers are the same people who encourage citizens to commit these acts. When it conducts elections, it has to rely on millions of ad-hoc staff, people drawn from a population which seems to have come to terms with the belief that nothing is so sacrosanct that it cannot be compromised for a small personal return, and elections are fair game for all types of scam. It is hostage to unspeakable challenges around social and economic infrastructure, local and national security challenges, an entire industry which exists only to rig elections, politicians who spend more money to rig than win elections fairly, and a nation that gets all worked up over credible elections, then quickly adjusts to the poor governance of those who steal them.
Yet INEC can and must make a difference, the type that encourages the growth of a political culture which values credible elections and holds leaders accountable. It can only do this by defying all the odds against it and delivering increasingly higher quality of elections. At this stage, it is safer to recognize the possibility that the abuse of the process is so extensive that it must not get worse. Too much violence, including violence from state agencies, has been unleashed at these elections, and citizens have registered its place as a major factor in future contests. Too many voters have been bought, in most instances as they stand in polling queues, and they know they have been involved in a transaction, not a choice. Too many polling officials have been compromised and far too many know that the results they announce are fraudulent. Too many people will be pronounced winners, and too many people know that they rigged their ways to victory. Every lesson or experience will be carried over to future elections, so benchmarks have been severely lowered.
The manner INEC sorts out the inconclusive elections will be decisive in terms of its integrity and the future of elections in Nigeria. It should know by now that its space to do justice to all parties has become severely limited by suspicions that its decisions to conduct the inconclusive elections in the first place were motivated (or hijacked ) by decidedly partisan interests. Its ‘margin of lead principle’ looks like a well-conceived solution to subversions and failures that could limit full expression of popular will, but politicians appear to have exploited its fundamental weakness, which is that the margin can easily be contrived using violence and/or compromising the polling stage of the electoral process. In the three weeks between the first and the inconclusive elections, every vice and subversive weapon has been sharpened. Tiny percentages of voters will now be targeted to decide who eventual winners are. Under no circumstances should INEC abdicate its responsibilities and pass on to the judiciary the burden of deciding who winners are. It must do its job thoroughly and fairly, even though it is certain that whatever it decides will be challenged by strong partisan opinion and within the legal process.
If the democratic system of governance is to take root in Nigeria beyond mobilizing the population every four years to attend rallies and vote in elections whose outcomes are at best suspect, major reforms of the political and electoral processes before the next elections must be undertaken. The unhealthy attraction of elective offices as sources of plunder and wealth must be addressed within the wider context of vital political reforms. The electoral process needs more than cosmetic changes. Subversion of the process must be curtailed and severely punished. The electoral process must learn from a dispassionate review of its performances and limitations, and a major review should be undertaken to strengthen it. If we cannot engineer genuine consensus that our elections genuinely reflect popular will, the democratic system has no value or future in Nigeria.
Jamila Abubakar wrote this piece from Abuja.