For the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), and the many stakeholders working to promote credible elections, 2020 will surely go down as a defining, but very challenging year.
Firstly, the entire electoral process had to grapple with the realities of the new normal as imposed by the outbreak of the Novel Corona Virus (COVID-19). The pandemic forced INEC to quickly return to the drawing board with the objective of working out strategies to ensure the electoral process does not become a super-spreader point, which could go on to multiply the number of COVID-19 fatalities. In fact, the Commission had to initially postpone senatorial bye-elections in Bayelsa, Plateau and Imo States in the wake of the outbreak of COVID-19 in March.
The emergency mode, which the pandemic imposed on the electoral process necessitated drastic measures and INEC took full advantage of the legal provisions available for it to make the necessary adjustments. Nigeria’s Electoral Act 2010 as amended in Section 26 (2) empowers INEC to postpone an election “where there is reason to believe that a serious breach of the peace is likely to occur if the election is proceeded with on that date or it is impossible to conduct the elections as a result of natural disasters or other emergencies.” However, beyond the initial postponement, the Commission went on to create a balancing act by quickly adopting a modified approach for the conduct of elections. The Commission did this by invoking relevant powers as conferred by Section 160 (1) of the 1999 Constitution as amended. This was done by putting forward the “INEC Policy on Conducting Elections in the Context of the COVID-19.”
One of the positive developments in the 2020 electoral process was in the fact that there was in place a policy framework, which provided a robust set of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during elections. As part of the general protective measures, the guideline outlined INEC’s readiness to provide equipment and materials for voters to sanitise, just as handheld thermometers were deployed to check the temperature of voters in the polling units. Importantly too, the policy stressed the mandatory use of face masks for all involved in the election process. The policy also mandated the disinfection of the Smart Card Readers after the fingerprint of each voter is read. There were also rules to ensure physical distancing, not only on Election Day, but also at related activities including stakeholder engagement, and training.
However, despite the extra cost INEC had to incur to adjust to the realities of COVID, the attitude of voters in the post-pandemic elections conducted by INEC showed general non-compliance to key protocols for preventing further spread of COVID-19. The attitude of the vast majority of voters during the two off-cycle governorship elections in Edo and Ondo States made mincemeat of whatever efforts INEC had put in place to prevent the spread of COVID. In fact, adherence to the protocols was reduced to the partial wearing of face masks, just as voters defied rules for social distancing by continuing to stay within close range of one another. The major take away from INEC’s exertions to prevent COVID is the fact that the populace was not interested because they did not really subscribe to the notions about the lethal nature of the virus.
Beyond the challenge posed by the pandemic, however, there remained the historic gaps in the electoral process, which necessitated mitigation. In the aspect of logistics, for instance, INEC got some commendation for the largely timely deployment of election materials for the Edo and Ondo elections. Several election observers were quick to pick up this positive indicator, which was then used as a basis to encourage INEC to do better. Using the Registration Areas Centres (RACs) as the hub for the distribution of electoral materials appeared to have been a well-executed strategy in the two off-cycle elections. As such, stakeholders in their cautious optimism could only hope that INEC would be able to translate its new-found dexterity in terms of movement of materials to a more complex context, such as during a general election. With the dates for the 2023 general elections already set, interested parties have already begun projecting how to translate the logistical gains from Edo and Ondo to the wider context of national elections.
Another positive indicator, which brought some relief was the relatively peaceful conduct of the September 19, followed by the October 10, 2020, gubernatorial polls in Edo and Ondo. It would be recalled that in the build-up to the elections, particularly in Edo State, there was apprehension that the electoral contest would be a bloody one, which would take a serious toll in terms of life and property. Close watchers who had reflected volatile scenarios in the build-up to the elections were pleasantly surprised by the largely peaceful outcomes. While there were definitely incidents and skirmishes that affected the process in some areas, the outcome by independent observers was adjudged to be largely peaceful. In the post-election period, stakeholders have been particularly interested in identifying the factors, which made the process largely peaceful. In Edo for instance, a lot has been said about the peace efforts initiated by stakeholders to douse the tension generated by partisan bickering.
Although the political actors continued with their jaded and anachronistic tactics of inciting their supporters through hate speech, misinformation and spread of fake news, determined statesmen and women worked tirelessly to preserve the peace. Importantly, the frequent advisories and warnings about the likelihood of violence made peacemakers take their tasks very seriously. This would be gleaned in the fact that the candidates of the major parties were corralled to append their signatures to peace accords, which have become an enduring opportunity for the political actors to be made to reflect on the fact that their participation in the electoral process should be driven by issues, and not mutual recrimination, incitement and mudslinging. The capacity of peacebuilders to get this message across to the partisan actors, it is reckoned, made a massive difference in averting violence, which would have affected the polls on an unimaginable scale.
Subsequently, the threat of violence and the disruption of the electoral process by desperate partisan actors was largely neutralised, not only in Edo but also in Ondo. While the achievement of a peaceful outcome in Edo could be credited to the work of statesmen and women who appealed to the politicians and their supporters, the prevention of widespread violence in Ondo was attributed to the influence of issues-driven campaign in the build-up to the October 10 governorship election. The Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), a major observer group, which was on the ground in the two states with a network of observers across the entire Local Government Areas identified the focus on core governance issues as bulwark against widespread violence. In its analysis on the pre-election environment in the build-up to the Ondo governorship poll, the Centre informed that citizens were more interested in raising questions about everyday issues that affect them.
In the build-up to the poll, the group said: “The people in this State have shown a refreshing resolve to focus their debates and conversations around the October 10 governorship election on key governance issues. CDD observation showed that the level of the spread of fake news and misinformation in the Ondo election has been relatively low when compared to recent governorship elections in Kogi, Bayelsa and Edo State. This positive trend is partly so because citizens are busy discussing issues of governance.” The CDD similarly informed that its social media content analysis for the Ondo State governorship election showed that the major concerns raised by prospective voters in their posts focused on preventing possible violence and voter inducement.
Interestingly, these positive outcomes from the 2020 electoral process have been quickly identified as signs that little, but important steps are being taken to improve the overall credibility of the electoral process. There are stakeholders who even went as far as declaring that the developments potentially augur well for the future of democracy and development in the country. In this context, they were full of praises for citizens who showed the resolve to protect their mandate. Commendations were also heaped on the electorate, alongside various strategic stakeholders, particularly INEC, the Oba of Benin and the Abdulsalam Abubakar led National Peace Committee, who worked and intervened firmly, under a very dire pre-election context that portended violent election conflicts. For most stakeholders who closely watched the Edo and Ondo election, the verdict was that these exertions in addition to the largely non-partisan role of the security agencies culminated in largely peaceful elections.
NONETHELESS, while the peaceful conduct of the elections was praised to the high heavens, stakeholders did not lose sight of the gaps and contradictions, which continue to assail the electoral process. The challenge, which left many close watchers befuddled is the dominant role that was played by vote-buying in determining the outcome of the two elections. The massive scale of vote-buying in the two states was one of the grotesque realities stakeholders had in mind when they warned in post-election briefings that there remained anomalies in the process, which if left unaddressed could turn the current euphoria into a mirage. Credible civic organisations, which engaged the process warned that the gains being celebrated could eventually evaporate, precipitating a reversal to the status quo ante of the country’s experience of seriously flawed electoral outcomes.
Specifically, observer groups bemoaned the level of sophistication and effort partisan actors were putting into the reprehensible activity of vote-buying. In Edo and Ondo, observers identified what they described as very consistent patterns of vote-buying. The tactics for vote-buying ranged from cash transactions, use of vote-buying outposts away from the polling area, and the act of rival political camps outbidding each other to induce voters in specific polling units. Other vote-buying tactics used according to observers involved political actors making available large sums for disbursement to community leaders for onward distribution to voters. The quandary for INEC and civic groups has been about how to effectively tackle vote-buying given the complexity of the problem. So far and given the scale of the problem, stakeholders are still ruminating as there is certainly no quick fix for this complex problem.
Subsequently, the other major challenge, which reared its head in the course of the recent off-cycle elections was the decline in voter turnout. Pro-democracy campaigners are expressing worries because the trend as seen in the two polls point to some form of disenchantment or erosion of citizens’ trust in the democratic process. Backing these assertions with figures, CDD data showed that in Edo State, for instance, the 2003 voter turnout stood at 78 percent of 1,432,891registered voters. In 2020 however, only 25.2 percent of voters turned out to cast their ballot out of a registered number of 2,210,534. The figures similarly showed a consistent decline in voter turnout from 78 percent in 2003 to 40.5percent in 2012, and further down to 32.3 percent in 2016. The conclusion, therefore, was that the decline in voter turnout in 2020, which came down to a low of 25.2 percent could be read as a steady loss of faith in the electoral process, as well the entire democratic system of governance.
For the Ondo governorship election, CDD data also indicated a consistent decline in voter turnout. The Centre analysed voter turnout rate in the 2020 governorship election and compared it with the 2012 and 2016 governorship elections. According to the figures, in 2012, the voter turnout was 38.10 percent; this went down in 2016 to 35.20 percent only to further nosedive to 32.70percent. Despite the decline in turnout, compared to the Edo election, Ondo election was adjudged to be an improvement.
One area of improvement, which was spotlighted is the increased level of compliance with the directive on upload of completed form EC8A to the INEC Result Viewing (IReV) platform. The upload of results, using zip files, enabled the public view results of polling unit in real-time as soon as voting ends on Election Day.
Although the elections conducted by INEC in 2020 notwithstanding the threat posed by the pandemic threw up a number of positive and not so salutary outcomes, there is cautious optimism in the pro-democracy community that it is possible to get things right. The nomination of the INEC helmsman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu for a second term by President Muhammadu Buhari, subject to the confirmation of the Senate could afford some continuity in the push to address the challenges in the electoral process. But with the menace of vote-buying and declining voter turnout lurking in the wings to subvert the sanctity, and robust participation in the process, stakeholders have come to the realisation that there remains a lot of work to do if the electoral process is to reflect the democratic preferences of the people of Nigeria.