Small Chance for INEC to Save Itself in A Big Way By Azu Ishiekwene

Elections in Nigeria this year might be nearly over but the war by other means could well receive fresh fire from three state elections this weekend.

The year began with general elections in February and March, and is closing with off-cycle elections in Imo, Bayelsa and Kogi on November 11.

Conducting elections for three governors after the major round of governorship elections in March that covered 28 states, including the legislatures in dozens of states, and the federal elections before that, might ordinarily look easy. 

But they are not. These three off-cycle elections are in fact products of either violent electoral outcomes or bitterly fought court decisions. Apart from the post-election chaos that Nigeria has had to deal with, on a good day, each of the three states on their own, is a political cauldron – a nightmare for organisers, participants and observers alike.

Imo special

Of the five states in the South East, for example, Imo is arguably the most violence-prone with widespread reports of random fatal attacks, jailbreaks, attacks on security personnel, police stations and government facilities. Even Governor Hope Uzodimma, the chief security officer of the state, has lived largely behind heavy barricades and moves about like a general in an active war zone. 

To be fair, the violence in Imo predates him. It goes back to the years of the farmer-herder clashes; the rise in separatist agitations under MASSOB – a much earlier and far less deadly franchise than IPOB; and then followed by the upsurge in a variety of loose cannons. The situation has been worsened by years of poor governance.

But Uzodimma’s dramatic emergence and his brand of politics appear to have brought a new, more dangerous salience to the violence in the state. If you add the ongoing dispute between the national headquarters of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the state government to the mix, then you might understand why this weekend’s election could be a perfect storm.

Labour has vowed to avenge the black-eye its president, Joe Ajaero, received at the hands of security personnel allegedly at the behest of Uzodimma. It has announced a flight ban on the governor and promised to follow up with a ground offensive. 

Inside Bayelsa’s creeks

Bayelsa is chaotic in its own way. Though the state managed to survive the turbulence after the forced removal of Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha in 2005, its brand of violence has often stemmed from an explosive mix of hostage taking and crude oil politics. A state with some of the country’s most forbidden creeks, Bayelsa is a logistician’s nightmare. It is also a base of former militants ready, able and willing to outspend politicians to secure their political stronghold.

Bayelsa has enjoyed a fairly unchallenged reign of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) since 1999. A brief intrusion by the All Progressives Congress (APC) came to grief when the Supreme Court ruled that Governor-elect David Lyon could not be sworn in because his deputy filed false documents with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

But with former PDP governor and junior Petroleum Minister Timipre Sylva now running on the platform of the APC, power could change hands. Yet, PDP stalwarts still licking their wounds from the defeat in the presidential election, are unlikely to stand idly by and watch the fall of a durable PDP stronghold in the Niger Delta.

Kogi, white lion’s den

The omens in Kogi with its history of political violence — the most horrific in recent times being the 2019 murder of PDP Kogi woman leader, Acheju Abuh, who was burnt to death inside her home — are no less frightening. The ruling APC and opposition parties have continued to trade allegations of violence even days to the election and no arrests have so far been made. 

Apart from Kogi where Yahaya Bello is ineligible to contest again, Imo and Bayelsa have incumbents itching to retain their seats. 

In a country where incumbency is a rock to be circumnavigated, the records suggest that unseating an incumbent takes more than guts. Among the miserable tally of incumbents that failed a reelection bid, were Mohammed Abubakar of Bauchi (2015-2019), Ramalan Yero of Kaduna (2012-2015), Mahmuda Aliyu Shinkafi of Zamfara (2007-2011), Ikedi Ohakim of Imo (2007-2011), and current junior Minister of Defence, Bello Matawalle (2019-2023). If performance mattered there would probably have been more. 

Add to this the huge mutual suspicion of the political players, and the mistrust by the voting public and you might understand why only winners come out of every election season, acclaiming democracy and certifying their victory as the popular will.

Voter apathy

Voter apathy remains a serious concern. According to a Guardianreport on Tuesday, “only about 30 percent of registered voters may decide the outcome in the three states combined.” However, from recent history whether at federal or state elections, 30 percent would be good turn-out. 

The presidential election in February recorded 26.7 percent. While other elections are only marginally better, the South East has remained a catastrophically low performer in recent years. The election that brought Anambra Governor Charles Soludo to power two years ago, for example, recorded a historic low turn-out of 10 percent.

If Guardian’s low forecast turns out right, it would be mainly for two reasons. One, the spike in violence in these states in the run-up to the elections, and two, the bitter aftertaste of the general elections held earlier this year. Seven months after the polls, the elections of a number of governors are still being challenged in the courts. Even if the courts existed solely for the pleasure of politicians, there still won’t be enough justice to serve their desperation. 

Political campaigns, if they have existed at all, have been a joke. Politicians in the three states where elections would hold have been making scandalous promises ranging from free tickets to European job fares, to promises to turn water to wine. 

Voters inclined to go out to vote in spite of these ridiculous offers are concerned for their safety because complicit security services and their political paymasters have refused to punish past perpetrators of violence. There is no indication that it would be different this time.

INEC’s albatross

Yet, more than anyone else, INEC knows that its poor handling of the general elections and their aftermath, could also be a strong reason for voter apathy. Voters won’t come out if, on top of safety concerns, they don’t also believe their votes would count. The commission is once again in the spotlight. It cannot afford to fail. 

Again, the commission has promised that polling unit results would be uploaded directly to INEC’s viewing portal even in largely rural states like Kogi and Bayelsa where there are limited communications and electricity infrastructure across large swathes of polling areas. We can’t afford to have another round of excuses this time.

No one wants to hear about glitches, attempted hacking, failing batteries or poor networks. The bulk of the complaints in the last general elections, which later became the subject of litigation, have been about INEC’s competence, credibility and the transparency of the process.

Elections in Edo and Ondo are next, but the three this weekend offer the commission redeeming grace. All said, since the elections would be held in states outside the top 10 in the country’s voter population, they offer INEC one big chance to repair its image.

Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP