Ominous Signs for Electoral Democracy, By Jibrin Ibrahim

There are ominous signs from the 11th November Off-Cycle Elections and from Election Petition Tribunals that electoral democracy is under serious threat in the country today. The CDD Election Analysis Centre (CDD-EAC) report outlines key findings on the conduct of the elections in Bayelsa State, Imo State and Kogi States.

There were extensive incidents related to the abuse of the powers of incumbency, high levels of vote buying by politicians, use of identity markers for political manipulation, orchestrated disinformation campaigns and failure of some institutions such as INEC, political parties and security agencies to perform their duties properly.

The EAC’s major message is the following: there is a need to separate the unpredictable technical failures that are due to the operational, logistical and infrastructure challenges of electoral administration in the country on the one hand from the politically instigated failures attributable in the main to deliberate manipulation by candidates, political parties and their proxies in state and society on the other hand. The challenge, therefore, is how to unscramble the nexus connecting technical to politically motivated failures with a view to enhancing the integrity of elections in the country.

The abuse of the power of incumbency for unfair partisan party-political electoral advantage by the governing parties in the three states is a major factor that posed a challenge to the proper conduct of the elections. Sitting governors prevented opposition parties having access to state electronic media or even displaying their campaign posters and bill boards, they deployed state resources, such as official state vehicles and staff for their own electioneering campaigns. The governors also denied opposition parties access to campaign facilities and public spaces.

But the abuse of the power of incumbency was also deployed to distort the party primary process of the governing parties in two of the three states—Bayelsa and Imo—where the incumbent Governors sought re-election for a final second term; and in the third state—Kogi—where the incumbent Governor, unable to seek re-election because he was serving out his final non-renewable second-term used the full panoply of state power and resources to ensure the victory of his preferred candidate during the ruling party’s primary elections.

The Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room reported on the high levels of results falsification and other forms of electoral irregularities in the governorship elections in the three States and raised serious questions about the credibility of elections and the future of democracy in Nigeria. Nigerians had expected that the lessons learnt from the 2023 General elections by stakeholders, particularly the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), would have been taken to improve the conduct of these elections. Unfortunately, this seems not to be the case, as these elections have proved to be another huge disappointment. The governorship elections conducted in these States represent a major setback for Nigeria’s electoral democracy.

The observers reported over-voting in the three States and INEC’s failure to apply the provisions of the Electoral Act 2022 in addressing the menace. Also, the inability of INEC to synchronize the record of accreditation by the BVAS with the Result Viewing Portal (IReV Portal) in real time despite improved access to internet broadband in Nigeria is questionable. By permitting the bypass of the BVAS, INEC has effectively rolled back the gains of electoral reform recorded in recent times. The Situation Room received reports of falsification and mutilation of polling unit-level results in the three States. INEC had acknowledged incidents of pre-filled result sheets before the commencement of polls affecting 5 LGAs in Kogi State –Adavi, Ajaokuta, Ogori/Mangongo, Okehi and Okene. Regrettably, INEC went ahead to collate results from these LGAs without conducting any thorough investigation and making its findings public. It was particularly disturbing that INEC transmitted results for polling units where the election was not held. The political class appears to have learnt to rig through the technology hurdles INEC had placed before them.

The commercialization of Nigeria’s elections appears to have reached unprecedented heights. Political parties and their agents operated openly and with impunity, distributing money in the purchase of votes without any effort from the security agents to contain it. Sums paid at polling units ranged from N1,000 to N30,000, along with cooked and uncooked food items. There has to be an effective mechanism to halt politicians weaponizing poverty to win elections in Nigeria.

The elections in the three states were conducted against a history of political conflict occasioned by cultism, insurgencies and separatist agitations. Against this background, the prospects of insecurity were a major source of concern before and during the elections. The role of political parties remains a major cog in the conduct of free and fair elections in the country. Their failure to manage inter-party and intra-party disputes amicably and democratically is a major factor that generates violent electoral conflict with ripple effect on the politically generated failures of the electoral process referred to in the introduction to this statement. It nurtures and sustains the general impunity that now characterizes and defines electoral and voting behaviour in the country. It remains the gravest threat to electoral democracy in the country, as exemplified in the impunity that drives the gross abuse of the power of incumbency for partisan party-political electoral advantage, including the erosion of the independence of such democratic promoting institutions as the EFCC, the ICPC, and the separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary.

Bizarre Judgments from the judiciary are today causing an even bigger worry. Today, the Appeal Court will deliver judgement on the Kano gubernatorial race where the election petition tribunal simply reduced the votes of the NNPP candidate to a level where the APC was declared the winner citing INEC mistake in not signing result sheets. Why should INEC mistake effect only the party that won?

The conflicting judgments of the Court of Appeal in the disputes arising from the National Assembly elections in Plateau State is another cause for concern. The court is simply removing all the winners from the PDP and replacing them with APC candidates in spite of the clear verdict from the electorate. Both the election petition tribunals and Court of Appeal have nullified the election of many candidates of the PDP based on pre-election matters on the primary election of the party despite plethora of authorities by the Supreme Court to the effect that tribunals and Court of Appeal do not have jurisdiction over pre-election matters. Some of the decisions show clear inconsistencies. Where the Labour Party (LP) came second in the nullified elections, the court ordered a rerun, but where the APC came second, the court out rightly awarded victory to the party without an order for a rerun. When the judiciary is seen to be openly partisan, the entire democratic system comes under an existential threat.