By Michael Owhoko, Ph.D
Real losers of 2023 Nigerian general elections are not the electorate who were deprived of their rights to freely choose candidates of their choice nor the first-timer youth who were disappointed by the Nigerian state nor the candidates who lost or won as declared by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
The biggest losers are President Muhammadu Buhari, INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, President-elect, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Nigeria as a political entity. Except for Bola Tinubu who carries the burden of legitimacy arising from flawed process and total miniature votes garnered, the others will live with scar and collective guilt slammed on the country by ethical deficit in delivery process of the elections.
With general disenchantment over the conduct of the 2023 Nigerian general elections by over 145,000 national and foreign observers deployed across the country, INEC failed to leave a split opinion on its capacity to conduct a free, fair and credible elections, a development that will hunt Mahood Yakubu, Mohammed Buhari and Nigeria for a long time to come. The exercise was not only a horrendous phenomenon on the psyche of Nigerians but a fleeting nightmare.
A consensus negative opinion on the flawed elections by European Union, African Union, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Commonwealth, The International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI), Joint Election Observation Mission (IEOM), four former African presidents, and Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), is an affirmation of global skepticism about Nigeria’s reputation. They all concluded that the electoral process lacked transparency, which encouraged manipulations and undermined voters’ confidence.
This trust deficit was also highlighted by Chatham House when it declared that INEC had learnt nothing from its past failures. Specifically, it said, “The INEC’s performance and controversies over these results mean that the electoral reforms and lessons declared to have been learned were not fully applied and, as an electoral body, it was significantly less prepared than it claimed.”
As a consequence of these opinions, President Buhari might have missed the opportunity to etch his name in gold over his failure to provide a secured and enabling environment for free, fair and credible elections. As Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, he failed to optimally use his offices, including effective deployment of the police, army, DSS, and other security agencies to protect voters during the elections.
Nigerians were mortified by horrendous images of election violations, and no rationalization could justify such criminal acts. An election where about 27 persons were killed nationwide over violence, ballot snatching, thuggery, voters’ suppression, ethnic bigotry, use of tribal gods and deities, even in the presence of security operatives in some instances, can only be a national shame.
Besides, whatever is left of Buhari’s legacy might have been further weakened by the naira redesign and currency swap policy which brought untold hardship to citizens during period of the elections. Perhaps, the intention of the policy was to eliminate monetary inducement and vote buying, unfortunately, Buhari and the Central Bank Governor, Godwin Emefiele, were outwitted by politicians through use of extra-constitutional and procedural means to contrive and achieve sinister objectives.
For the INEC Chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, there might be no second opportunity to redeem his character. With a budget of over N305 billion and other sundry support, he had no reasons to have failed. Yakubu gave assurances in both local and international events, including Chatham House, of his Commission’s preparedness, pledging that with use of technology, including Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS), results would be transmitted in real-time to INEC Result Viewing Portal (IReV).
These assertions receded into irrelevance when INEC failed to comply with the Electoral Act and its own guidelines. The Electoral Act, 2022, requires INEC to upload the elections of polling units in its portal as stipulated in Section 60 (5) and Clause 38 of the INEC Regulations and Guidelines.
Specifically, Clause 38 of the INEC Regulations and Guidelines for the Conduct of Elections, 2022 states: “Upon completion of all the Polling Unit voting and results, procedures, the Presiding Officer shall:-(i) Electronically transmit or transfer the result of the Polling Unit direct to the collation system as prescribed by the commission. (ii) Use BVAS to upload a scan of ES8A to INEC Result Viewing Portal (IReV), as prescribed by the commission. (iii) Take the BVAS and the original copy of each of the forms in tamper-evident envelope to the Registration Area/Ward Collation Officer, in the company of security agents. The polling agents may accompany the Presiding Officer to the RA/Ward Collation Centre.”
With non-compliance and deviation from these regulatory provisions, INEC opened the electoral process to manipulations, resulting in lack of justice and fulfilment for voters.
These violations have exposed existential gaps in the capacity of Mahmood Yakubu to deliver on a significant national assignment. This might cast aspersion on his reputation and capabilities. Indeed, this election is a minus for his profile, as no government or any serious organisation may want to bequeath him with such responsibilities in future.
Unfortunately, the President-elect, Bola Tinubu, is a product of INEC’s flawed process, and this has triggered legitimacy challenge that is further fueled by lean number of votes secured at the election relative to total votes cast. Tinubu polled 8.87 million (the least by any presidential candidate since 1999), representing 36.61 per cent of total votes, and 10.08 per cent of all eligible voters. Out of approximately 93 million registered voters, only about 25 million, representing 28.63 percent, actually turned out to vote.
Implicitly, Bola Tinubu was not only elected by minority voters when viewed against 25 million persons that voted, and in a country of over 200 million people, skepticism resulting from INEC’s multiple irregularities are unhelpful to his presidency. Perhaps, this accounts for the absence of national pomp and celebration that would have heralded his victory.
Without prejudice to outcome of current litigation, going forward, Bola Tinubu should activate his social capital to open up channels across to influential groups and personalities in the country, including his political rivals aimed at legitimizing his presidency, and achieving unity through formation of all-inclusive government.
INEC’s performance has also rubbed off on Nigeria’s image as a corrupt country. Through the foreign observers, perception of the international community about Nigeria as a corrupt country might have worsen on account of their opinions over lack of transparency and operational failures that characterized INEC’s performance.
In the 2022 Transparency International (TI) Corruption Perception Index (CPI), Nigeria was ranked 150 out of 180 countries, and also placed as second most corrupt country in West Africa. By INEC’s standard and performance, it has unwittingly further confirmed Nigeria as a corrupt country, and deepened global negative impressions.
Nigeria lost the opportunity to demonstrate before the world of its preparedness to be a leading light in Africa and world affairs, using the elections as spring board to exhibit its leadership potentials and capacity. Hopes for these attainments have, however, been frustrated and shattered by INEC.
Besides, with world’s attention on Nigeria as connoted by presence of foreign observers, Nigeria should have used the elections as public relations tool to strengthen the country’s image through conduct of free, fair and credible election under a transparent atmosphere. This would have left foreign observers rattled as to Nigeria’s new values and ethical orientation.
It was an event Nigeria should have used to shore-up its dwindling reputation. It is more effective than image-laundering programme where huge amount of money in foreign currencies is budgeted for public relations and reputation management. With good image, Nigerians’ dignity and respect would be restored, and largely put an end to discrimination at border posts in foreign countries.
This experience should serve as a lesson on the need to be transparent in conduct of future elections. Former American President, Jimmy Carter, who was in Nigeria in the past to observe elections vowed never to observe elections in Nigeria again after his ugly experience of brazen violation of electoral process. He was upset with the impunity with which politicians used thuggery to deprive electorate from freely voting for candidates of their choice.
It is hoped that Nigeria will not allow a repeat of this ugly experience. It is time to make political offices unattractive to discourage desperation which is the underpinning motive for all these electoral atrocities. The electoral body should be reformed and repositioned with people of integrity as drivers aimed at restoring electoral integrity.
Dr. Mike Owhoko, Lagos-based journalist and author, can be reached at www.mikeowhoko.com.