Most conversation exploring practical ways to entrench credibility in the Nigerian electoral process tend to take off from the milestone that was recorded in the 2015 general elections. Against the headwinds, and a narrative of flawed elections, Nigeria pulled off what came across as an upset, to record a historic moment in its democratic experience. With the triumph of the opposition in national politics for the first time since independence in 1960, there was an overflow of optimism that the political beneficiaries of an electoral process that was largely fair, would summon the resolve to take up the challenge of entrenching credible elections in Nigeria. Similarly, the key players in the electoral space crowed with a lot of optimism that democracy in Nigeria had been reset for good. There was a tendency to sit back and hand the initiative to the new emperors that have emerged from the political process. By implication, the loud proclamation was that the vote of the people would now attract the weight it should receive from the political class, which had largely grown complacent to the point of feeling that there was no connection between the political power they exercised and the express wishes of the people.
Unfortunately, there was no conscientious attempt to locate the milestone of 2015 in the painstaking efforts of over one decade to push the political actors, and other stakeholders, towards a credible outcome. In other words, the commentary in the space after the 2015 watershed did not do enough to give the credit to the exertions of agitators who insisted that the electoral process as the foundation of the leadership recruitment of the country, must conform to globally defined tenets in terms of its transparency, and the principle of popular participation. If that conclusion was reached and built upon, it would have long been realised that the political beneficiaries of the milestone of 2015 should not be trusted to give the direction required to reform the electoral process. Although it may be conceded that the complacency was fuelled by the celebratory mood precipitated by the outcome of the 2015 polls, the interpretation of the 2015 moment crucially failed to locate the link between the success of the elections and the exertions that had been made in the years before.
Apparently, there was no attempt to contextualise the achievement of 2015 within template of the over one decade old conversations to ensure the votes of the Nigerian people count. As it was, the view was promoted that the monument of 2015 came about like a big bang. No reference was made to previous struggles or even the price that was paid to arrive at the 2015 moment. It was therefore not surprising that euphoric commentary in the post-2015 dispensation did no nuanced observation to show that the firmament of ideas that shaped the 2015 elections benefited from the intellectual and political struggles that had been earlier waged to uphold the sanctity of the votes of the Nigerian people.
Consequently, factors such as the fatigue and the need to bask in the glory of the 2015 moment, made critical players in the electoral space not to mind conceding the initiative to the political actors. As expected, when the critical voices, which contributed to the realisation of the 2015 moment became silent, they gave the impression that the initiative had been handed to the political actors to provide direction for the electoral process as they deem fit. So when the Supreme Court, for instance, dug the grave for the card reader, the response, except in a few instances was largely muted. One day turned into one year for the All Progressives Congress (APC) led administration. The new governing party, which was still too busy trying to get used to the reality of being in charge, adopted a policy of do nothing with regards to the electoral process. For over one year, important vacancies that opened up as a result of the exit of National Commissioners of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) remained unfilled. In several states, Resident Electoral Commissioners whose tenures had expired continued to stay on as if there were no rules of tenure governing the offices they held.
On the hold, the politicians acted true to type; they had achieved the ambition for which they had toiled, schemed and cooked alliances. With respect to the electoral process, the body language of the APC bigwigs tended to suggest that that was the farthest thing on their mind. Even a signature issue like restructuring Nigeria’s unwieldy and largely unworkable federal structure, which was identifiable with a dominant wing of the APC also became a casualty of the new found lethargy. For critical analysts therefore, the message that was subtly communicated was that if the new governing party could so easily walk away from signature issues it had agitated for in the past, was is not foolhardy to assume they would suddenly become altruistic, and consider national interest in a matter like electoral reform, which could invariably undermine the ascendant party’s grip on power?
Critically too, the cookie-like crumble of the erstwhile ruling party, which should have navigated seamlessly to play the role of opposition, left a huge gap. The implication was that no credible partisan voice was available to roughen up the new governing party voice, in the same way it harassed the former ruling party, while it was in opposition. The APC therefore had the luxury to shuffle its feet on the question of electoral reform as much as it wanted.
So while the new governing elite dozed off on the quest for the reform of the electoral process, another critical actor, INEC got entangled in the bubble that enveloped the space in the post 2015 period. As an institution, the post-2015 INEC carried on with the notion that the adversaries of credible elections in Nigeria, had been put out of business for good. It did not reckon that there could be a push back by forces within the political space, which would never be enthusiastic about the move to entrench a culture of credible elections in the Nigerian democratic space. As with all bubbles, the uncritical assumption that the Nigerian electoral space would take momentum from 2015, and build on the positive outcomes, soon exploded.
A familiar past of intrigues and confusion reared its head in Kogi State during the November 21, 2015 governorship election. The logjam was only recently resolved by the Supreme Court, which finally laid the power struggle to rest. For INEC however, it would be recorded that its unsure implementation of the guidelines in Kogi, which were later varied in Bayelsa, created the recipe for the confusion that griped the state. The rerun scheduled for December 5, 2015 was marred by several issues. The Kogi experience gave further warning of what was to come when pockets of violence, including the torching of an INEC office in Dekina Local Government Area tainted the process. These danger signals were not given the required attention. In Bayelsa too, another inconclusive electoral process stared the nation in the face.
The inconclusiveness in Bayelsa was largely caused by the political actors who sponsored violence to undermine the electoral process. In Rivers too, the rerun elections there for a handful of Senatorial seats also turned out to be inconclusive due to the chronic insecurity in the space. Having encountered these challenges, those who were carried away by the milestone of 2015 suddenly came to the realisation that one successful national election would not suddenly wipe away all of the contradictions in the political process. Similarly, the September 28, 2016 governorship election in Edo State, which again manifested the reality of a democratic process without the full complement of real democrats has again served as a clarion call for an urgent reform of the electoral space.
As far back as last August, critical voices in civil society, the media, the academia and the election management bodies, seemed to have arisen from their slumber. The scramble to take an in-depth look at the issues that have continued to undermine the conduct of free, fair and credible polls, is well underway. Subjects like the Uwais Committee Report, which seemed to have been forgotten in the after the post 2015 euphoria, are now returning to the debate. There is now an urgency about taking firm grip of the electoral process.
Expectedly, that has jolted key actors in civil society to pick up the gauntlet from where it was dropped before the 2015 polls. The urgency of electoral reforms, which led to the setting up of the Justice Mohammed Uwais Panel has returned. The key recommendations of the panel, which had for some time being in the cooler, are now providing a rallying point for proponents of reforms. Crucially, the decision by President Muhammadu Buhari to set up a 24 man Electoral Reform Committee to be headed by former Senate President, Dr. Ken Nnamani is getting the better-late-than-never reception as many continue to ponder why it took the President over one and a half years of his Presidency to put the key issue of reforming the electoral process on the front burner.
On the sunny side however, the Committee would be coming into the field at a time several players are already passing the ball towards the goal area. The many questions around election security, the mobilisation of citizens to become active in the electoral and democratic processes, the cost of elections, the role of technology, the place of the much talked about Electoral Offences Commission, as well as the other recommendations of the Justice Mohammed Uwais Panel, are already being tackled in various talk shops.
On the problem posed by barefaced electoral impunity, the debate has tended to point at the incapacity of INEC, and the heavy burden of responsibility it has already, in the form of organising elections across the country. The suggestion therefore, is for another legal entity to take up the responsibility of prosecuting electoral offenders. Although that challenge was recently taken up by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which recently forwarded a list of electoral offenders to the office of the Attorney General of the Federation for prosecution, the discussion has tended to suggest that a much more focused body is needed for the task of deterring electoral crimes.
Not minding the tepid reception that has greeted its formation, the Nnamani Committee, would have to move very quickly to shore up confidence in the electoral process. The fact that it took the post-2015 INEC almost 16 months to organise the first conclusive election reflects the need for serious and practical reforms that would make elections free, fair and transparent. Also, in a season of recession, when the country is grappling to fund other developmental objectives, the Committee must brainstorm on how best to cut the cost of elections, without necessarily compromising quality. There are many countries with functional electoral systems, which are not necessarily draining the treasury.
In the end, when the work of the Committee is accessed, the marking scheme would focus on the practical steps it takes to put power in the hands of the voter. The current alienation of the voter from the electoral process, where a fraction of eligible voters enthrone the political leadership in states, as would be seen in the last three governorship polls, requires urgent attention. Among the many other questions it should be asking, the Committee should ask: what should we do to return power to the Nigerian voter and erase the current apathy that dogs the system. Many argue that one way to do this is to make the voting process less cumbersome. This is why the decision in recent elections to merge the accreditation and voting processes, is resonating well. It is however only one step of a long journey to put power in the hands of the electorate. Starting out on that journey is even more critical when it is realised that the next general elections in 2019 are just barely 28 months away. The earlier the journey begins, the better for democracy and good governance in Nigeria.