Before Nigeria’s March 18 elections


Reuben Abati

After the February 25 Presidential and National Assembly elections, now heavily disputed, Nigeria goes to the polls again on March 18, 2023 to elect Governors and members of state legislatures in 28 out of 36 states of the Federation. There would be no state elections in Kogi, Anambra, Ondo, Imo, Edo, Osun, Bayelsa and Ekiti which are in the off-cycle election belt. However, this weekend’s elections were meant to hold last Saturday, March 11, but the polls had to be rescheduled on account of the disputes that arose from the February 25 Presidential election and the orders given by the Court of Appeal acting as the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal. Three political parties – the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the Labour Party (LP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC), acting in self-defence in its case, had gone to court to seek permission to be allowed to inspect the materials used for the election by the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) which announced the Presidential candidate of the All Progressives’ Congress (APC), Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu as winner of the election with 8. 974, 726 million of total votes cast. The Presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubaar, and Mr. Peter Obi of the Labour Party had challenged the results as declared by INEC. The court ruled in their favour on Friday, March 3. By Tuesday, March 7, the ruling APC and its candidate, now president-elect, also sought the leave of court to have access to the election materials. INEC also approached the court requesting that it should vary the order it gave earlier permitting PDP, LP, to inspect election materials, by granting it leave to reconfigure the Bi-Modal Verification Accreditation System (BVAS) ahead of the Gubernatorial and State legislature elections scheduled for March 11.

Counsel to INEC had told the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal that their client would need a minimum of five days to reconfigure the BVAS. As it turned out, the two other matters were determined on Wednesday, March 8. The court granted INEC’s request to reconfigure the BVAS, but it did not rule that this should have any effect on the March 11 date. The Court granted APC its prayers. But in yet another matter, it refused to grant the Labour Party its request to inspect the INEC data base, and oversee the reconfiguration of the BVAS. On its own, after a review of the Court’s ruling, INEC announced that “it was far too late” for the reconfiguration of BVAS to be concluded within two days in over 170, 000 polling units nationwide. Consequently, the Commission rescheduled the Gubernatorial and state Assembly elections till March 18. INEC promised that it would obey the orders of court: grant the petitioners access to inspect election materials, and also upload data to its back-end server and make Certified True Copies of same available to all parties in the matter.

It is now election week again, as Nigerians are expected to troop out this Saturday to participate in state elections. They would be doing so against the background of the drama generated by the elections of February 25. As various international observers have pointed out: Chatham House, Ambassador Mark Green, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, the US Observer Mission, Financial Times, Bloomberg, New York Times, South Africa’s Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), Reuters, YIAGA Africa, The Guardian UK, BBC, Chinese News Agency, Washington Post, Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, the African Union Election Observation Mission to Nigeria, ECOWAS, EU, UN, and the West African Elders Forum (WAEF) among others, the emergent consensus was that whereas the people of Nigeria showed much zeal and determination towards the polls, the entire exercise fell short of the people’s expectations. In other words, INEC disappointed the people. I have already offered a catalogue of the sheer incompetence and poor performance put up by INEC in an earlier commentary (see “Nigeria: February 25 and the aftermath,” ThisDay, Tuesday, March 7). Things have gone so bad that in fact the People’s Democratic Party led by its Presidential candidate and other party leaders had to stage a protest from the party’s headquarters to the Headquarters of INEC, on Monday, March 6.  They asked for a cancellation of the election, and submitted a protest letter. A week later, the Labour Party in a statement issued by its Chief Spokesperson, Dr Yunusa Tanko, is also threatening to call out its supporters on a peaceful protest to challenge INEC’s refusal to obey the order of Court to allow the party to inspect election materials. Tanko insists that the court order was duly served on INEC and a reminder was also sent to it. But whereas INEC is busy reconfiguring the BVAS, it has ignored other court orders. It has failed to keep its promise. Other political parties are aggrieved. It must be noted that on three previous occasions since 1999 that elections were postponed, Nigeria usually cited either security or logistics reasons: 2011, 2015, 2019, but in 2023, INEC’s excuse is that it has to reconfigure its equipment!

The biggest calamity in Nigeria’s democratic process this time around is the embarrassing conduct of the electoral umpire. The people have lost trust in INEC. The institution suffers a credibility crisis. The worst thing that can happen to any public institution is to end up in the eyes of the same people it is established to serve as a fibbing, clumsy, unreliable institution. Between February 25 and now, INEC has broken virtually all the promises it made to the people of Nigeria, including the ones its Chairman rolled out for effect on the floor of Chatham House in London! INEC’s much-trumpeted confidence in the deployment of technology as enabled by the law and its own guidelines has been shown to be nothing more than an exercise in hypocrisy. On February 25, results from polling units were transmitted to the INEC portal called iREV, but not Presidential election results from the same polling units. More than a week after the elections, INEC could not fully load results unto its portals. Many voters could not get their Permanent Voter’s Cards, the same cards that have been sighted in bushes, forests, in the hands of foreigners and shadowy apartments across the country. INEC could not distribute its own PVCs! The Court of Justice Obiora Egwuatu has now ruled, March 9, in favour of two persons: Kofoworola Olusegun and Wilson Allwell that they should be allowed to vote with their Temporary Voter’s Cards (TVCs), but although the ruling is in personam, the matter having not been filed in a representative capacity, INEC says it will appeal the Federal High Court ruling. Since the return to democratic rule in 1999, no other electoral process has been this confusing and uncertain.

Those who are familiar with the subject argue that the postponement of the state elections alone comes with “staggering economic loss.”  It could also harm voter enthusiasm and voter turn-out rates. The perception that the elections could be rigged at will is a major issue. Galaxy Backbone, Nigeria’s ICT services provider owned by the Federal Government, has confirmed that it had to fend off over 200 cyberattacks during the Presidential and National Assembly elections. Perception is important in any electoral process.  Even IT experts believe that INEC is lying when it says it wants to reconfigure BVAS – the same INEC that cannot figure out whatever “technical glitches” that sabotaged its operations more than two weeks after the fact.

Every aggrieved party has been advised to go to the courts, and seek redress through legal and constitutional means. President Muhammadu Buhari has also expressly declared that there is no plan to annul the Presidential election – that is impossible, we are in a democracy – not under military rule. What anyone can hold on to is the general admonition that INEC should by now have carried out a thorough review of the elections of February 25, to understand what worked, what did not, what went amiss, and to learn the relevant lessons and ensure that these are used to deliver a much better process on March 18. But do we ever learn in Nigeria – a country where amnesia is a national malady and rascality seems at once genetic and contagious? INEC is expected to rebuild the people’s confidence. It is in the best interest of everyone that INEC succeeds on Saturday, March 18.  The errors of February 25 have pushed the people to a corner where they are poised for war in various parts of the country. The people are determined more than before to defend their votes. Gubernatorial and state legislature elections are mainly local elections, and understandably, they are invested with a higher dosage of emotionalism. The tension in the country is at an all-time high. The thugs who snatched ballot boxes two weeks ago may find that it won’t be easy to do so this week. The battle will be tough and fierce in some of the states: Edo, Delta, Enugu, Abia, Rivers, Kaduna, Kogi, Oyo, and especially Lagos.

As was the case in the February 25 elections, ethnicity, religion, power and territory would be big issues. Against all odds, after the vote count in that process, Labour Party which was accused of not having a party structure ended up with more than 25% of the votes in 12 states including the Federal Capital Territory, with 6 winners in the Senate, and 34 in the House of Representatives, coming third in the Presidential Election, which the party says was rigged against it. The Labour Party would seek to consolidate on its February 25 election victories this week.  Delta, Enugu, Abia, Rivers, Kaduna, Benue would be major battle grounds for the party. And Lagos in particular, where the Labour Party won majority votes and would want to repeat the feat. The President-elect was Governor of Lagos for two terms. He is the Godfather of the ruling APC in Lagos. To beat him and his party’s incumbent Governor in Lagos is not impossible as the Labour Party has shown, but to do so twice will be quite a feat. And that is why there has been so much desperation in the campaigns in Lagos in the lead up to March 18. The APC has played the ethnic card against the candidate of the Labour Party in a most vicious manner. His offence is that his mother is Igbo. He is also married to an Igbo woman. His grandmother is also said to be Igbo. And he bears Patrick. He bears Chinedu. He speaks Igbo. The ethnic irridentists of Lagos politics have been swearing that Lagos belongs to the Yoruba, it is not a no-man’s-land, and anyone with a small drop of Igbo blood would not be allowed to become Governor. They forget that the Rhodes-Vivour family has been a Yoruba family in Lagos for more than five generations. And those who voted for the Labour Party in Lagos State on February 25 were not necessarily Igbos. They cut across all ethnic groups, and they were probably mostly Yorubas. Those who are targeting Igbos must desist from doing so. They must remember Rwanda, where the politics of ethic hate resulted in a massive blow-out. If they don’t know where Rwanda is, let them remember how ethnic politics catalyzed Nigeria’s civil war.

And for the benefit of those who think Igbo votes would be frustrated by burning markets dominated by Igbos in Lagos, I draw their attention to the Lagos Area Council election of 1950. As reported in the Daily Times of Wednesday, October 18, 1950 to wit: “ELECTION RESULTS: Demo-Labour Alliance Wins: 18 Seats Against Area Council’s 6”. The Demo-Labour Market Alliance won 18 out of the 24 seats in the new Lagos Town Council. Out of these, there were non-Yoruba winners: Nduka Eze in Ward C, Mbonu Ojike in Ward D, Anyiam F. and Gogo, C.N in Ward F. Before then, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo man represented Lagos between 1947 and 1951 in the Legislative Council of Nigeria. It was in this same area called Lagos that Emmanuel Ebubedike from Ozubulu in present-day Anambra State won election in the First Republic to represent Ajeromi-Badagry-Ifelodun in the Western Region House of Assembly. Each time I cite this example, I am reminded that it was Ebubedike who first snatched the Mace in the Western House on May 22, 1962 and turned it into a weapon of assault. He didn’t grab the mace because he was Igbo. Everyone had literally lost their head in the Western Region on that occasion.

In more recent times, a certain Oghene Emma Egho represented Amuwo-Odofin Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives on the platform of the PDP in 2015.  The truth is that Lagos is a cosmopolitan melting pot of cultures, tropes and influences and its diversity and accommodative, liberal temper is part of the city’s mystique and essence. It has been reported that some acclaimed Lagos “omo oniles” – the self-styled land-owning families of Lagos are beginning to revoke lease agreements to remind non-Lagosians that Lagos belongs to its indigenous people! It has also been reported that some traditional rulers in Ibeju-Lekki are withdrawing traditional titles that they had conferred on some Igbos in their quarters. All of this just because a Yoruba son whose mother happens to be Igbo wants to be Governor?  Absolutely ridiculous. There are no illegitimate children in Africa! It is a good thing that Governor Babajide Sanwoolu, the incumbent Lagos Governor has publicly decried ethnic politics. Other stakeholders in Lagos politics should do the same. The President-elect, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, should step forward also to let everyone know that the people of Lagos, both indigenes and non-indigenes have the right to vote for the leaders of their choice.

The security agencies have their work cut out for them. They were conspicuously ineffectual on February 25. The police have been given money and equipment and the necessary support they asked for from President Muhammadu Buhari.  The stakes may have been high on February 25. They would be higher on March 18. It goes without saying that the international community is watching. Nigeria’s success is critical for the stability of neighbouring countries and the larger project of democracy, good governance and accountability in African states. INEC and other agencies involved in #NigeriaDecides2023 should not turn Nigeria into the laughing stock of Africa.


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