Unfolding obstacles to the 2023 general elections in the country are worrisome to close watchers of political development; but the signals are neither new nor insurmountable as to constitute serious threats to the conduct of the election. It is important for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to stay focused and appreciate that free and fair election is non-negotiable to Nigerians, given that they are tired of the failure of the present government and desire a smooth change to a more positive government. The commission must do everything in its power not just to expose factors that pose threat to the election but also to liaise with appropriate organs and agencies of government to reverse the threat.
As the elections draw nearer, the state of preparedness of INEC occupies the consciousness of every stakeholder in the electoral process. Indeed, the health of INEC will ultimately decide the health of democracy in Nigeria. Certainly, the commission faces insecurity as well as other logistics some of which it had outlined measures to combat. Nevertheless, Nigerians view as worrisome new reports emanating from and about the electoral umpire as reflected in recent suggestions for an interim government; and possible tenure extension of the current government. Other distractions are reflected in headlines such as: “CVR: INEC uncovers 1.3m invalid registration (The Guardian, April 14)” and “1,149 Nigerians killed, INEC suffers 42 attacks, decries rising insecurity.” (Newsdaily April 19).
In the first account, it was disclosed that 45% of the 2.5 million new registrations carried out by INEC were invalid, that is, about 1.3 million potential voters may be disenfranchised. The commission had embarked on the Continuous Voters’ Registration (CVR) to allow those who have recently attained the voting age and others who for one reason or the other are yet to register to so do. The exercise started again in June 2021 after it was discontinued to prepare for the 2019 elections.
Briefing the press on the development, INEC Chairman, Mahmoud Yakubu listed some reasons for the incomplete registration to include multiple registration, failure of the Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) and incomplete data. But the more disturbing reason, according to INEC, is the “strong indications that some of our staff may be complicit in facilitating these infractions, notwithstanding stern warnings.” It is gratifying that INEC notes the graveness of the involvement of the staff and has “commenced a detailed investigation, which may include the prosecution of those found culpable.”
While continuous voters’ education should be intensified, a thorough internal mechanism for the monitoring, apprehension and prosecution of errant INEC staff has become more imperative. A corrupt INEC staff is a serious danger to democracy. Government and all relevant institutions must rev their supports for INEC to deliver democracy.
The second and equally worrying story has to do with the travails of the umpire especially on the field occasioned by the worsening insecurity. According to the report, 1149 Nigerians including INEC staff have been killed in three elections held in 2011, 2015 and 2019. INEC has also lost 9,836 smartcard readers and other electoral materials in 42 attacks on its staff and offices in three years. In reaction to these attacks, INEC has expressed fears over the 2023 elections. Mike Igini, Resident Electoral Commissioner in Akwa Ibom State, said the body was devising ways to protect its offices, assets and personnel ahead of the 2023 election but warned that there would be no results at polling units with violent incidents.
The summation of the two reports above, along with other tangential incidents and narratives, point to danger to the smooth conduct of the 2023 general elections. Worse still, is a possible dark hint of an orchestrated campaign to make sure that the next election may not hold, which some pundits consider to be a ploy to prepare the minds of Nigerians for the worst.
The view of elder statesman and proprietor of Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti (ABUAD), Chief Afe Babalola (SAN) advocating the jettisoning of the 2023 elections for an interim government pending the evolution of a new constitution for Nigeria is instructive. He believes that the present constitution cannot midwife an acceptable democratic transition in 2023.
While the flaw in the 1999 Constitution cannot be doubted, how his suggestion for an interim government can save the day is disconcerting given that such a government would be unconstitutional and, from the nation’s experience, will only trigger unrest in the polity. The Interim Government arrangement headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan collapsed like a pack of cards. How will the representatives be chosen fairly and acceptably given the multiple fissures in the polity? There is enough reason to fear that an interim arrangement will engender a constitutional crisis in Nigeria.
Nor is it acceptable that the tenure of the Muhammadu Buhari government should be extended as suggested by elder lawyer, Chief Robert Clarke (SAN) to enable the president tackle the nation’s problems before elections can be held. Clarke had argued that the few months remaining before the 2023 elections are not sufficient to put an end to the insecurity in the country to make the conduct of the election possible. Answering questions on Arise Television programme, he maintained that the Constitution provides that the President could extend his tenure for six months in the first instance if he feels that conditions (of kidnapping, insurgency, and Boko Haram terrorism) are not good to carry out elections.
Clarke’s suggestion is strange and potentially controversial given the high disillusionment many Nigerians have against the Buhari administration. In the alternative, all institutions saddled with the conduct and sustenance of the democratic process must be supported to deliver on their mandates. It is too late to supplant the process. Flaws and sundry disappointments will line the path of the democratic journey, but they will be corrected along the way. As is often said, the worst democracy is better than the most benevolent dictatorship or any other gratuitous contraption. Nigerians should support the democratic process through strengthening the institutions saddled with delivering it. To bring John Milton’s Self-Righting Principle to the democratic process, as democracy evolves and endures in Nigeria, the flaws will thaw and eventually yield a free flowing democracy Nigeria can be proud of.