By Tonnie Iredia
From 1959 when the first major election to usher the nation into independence was held till today, it is difficult to describe any Nigerian election as free and fair. The Presidential election of June 12, 1993 which was generally accepted as credible was annulled.
The hallmarks of the nation’s election have thus remained: Imprisonment of opposition candidates, unilateral declaration of candidates of the ruling party as unopposed, scoring more votes than possible, announcement of results in centres where elections did not hold, using the security agencies to alter figures at the point of collation and outright justice for sale by election tribunals.
The only thing that appears to have changed is growing sophistication in the methods of carrying out each of the electoral malpractices already identified. In 1999, for instance, former American President, Jimmy Carter who led some election observers to that year’s election had to wonder aloud that “there was disparity between the number of voters observed at the polling stations and the final results.”
The report of the Election Observation Delegation of the International Republican Institute (IRI) stated that the conduct of the 2007 elections did not “measure up to those observed by the delegation in other countries whether in Africa, Asia, Europe or the Western Hemisphere.” Even the main beneficiary of the event- the late President Umaru Yar’ Adua agreed at his swearing-in as President, that the election was flawed.
At the end of another election in 2011, the pattern of post election violence in places like Kaduna and Bauchi which was not different from what happened in many Nigerian cities in 1965 and 1983 clearly established that the main causes of failed elections in Nigeria were yet to be addressed more than four decades later. Indeed, the rancorous party primaries to select candidates for the 2015 elections, the hate campaigns which followed and the sudden postponement of the elections by 6 weeks were ominous signs of an endangered nation. Yet, the mundane nature of the country’s electoral system was retained by those benefitting from it.
Thus, when Professor Attahiru Jega became the Chairman of our Independent National Electoral Commission in 2010, his plan to introduce several reforms to our election process was hailed in many circles. For the first time in the history of elections in the country, a database voter registration system was introduced. Known as the Direct Data Capturing (DDC) machine, the device was designed to record and store the biometric data of all voters.
A voter authentication device known as the ‘Card Reader’ was also brought in to, first recognize a voter’s card as one validly issued by INEC for the polling unit in which it is presented and second to verify that the holder of the card was the true owner before such holder could be allowed to vote. These were no doubt salutary reforms considering that Nigeria had in the past conducted elections with inaccurate statistics. Painfully, the framework for the use of the device was not allowed to function in many parts of the country. As a matter of fact, the Card Reader was shut down by the judiciary because our electoral law did not provide for it thereby bringing us back to the era of elections by trial and error.
With the next general elections fixed for the first quarter of 1999 around the corner, it is getting obvious again that the nation is approaching another difficult era of possible dismemberment. This was probably what influenced the theme of this year’s congress of the Broadcasting Organizations of Nigeria, BON which held in Abuja last Thursday. BON reasoned that because the mass media were best positioned to use their enormous channels to alter the negative narratives of compromised elections in Nigeria, this writer, a veteran broadcast journalist and communication scholar was invited to deliver the key note address to sensitize broadcasters on the need to help the nation survive.
In line with the commendable role of the media in the struggle for independence and their heroic resistance to unending military rule in the country, the main trust of the address was understandably the need to reinvent the famous agenda setting role of the media. The goal was to remind Broadcasters that what people think about and what constitutes the matters of the moment ought to be determined by the media and not by politicians as is currently done in Nigeria.
In earnest, something ought to be done to draw a line between the period of electioneering and that of governance. Unfortunately, at the end of every election in Nigeria, politicians begin immediately to plot for how to win the next contest four years away thereby turning the nation into an election country whose attention is completely distracted from development to politics. This has created a body of election professionals in the country who live by it notwithstanding that their hobby is at the expense of the nation’s growth.
More importantly, the desperation of the class also makes it impossible for the electorate to vote for those who can formulate and implement good public policies. Therefore, getting the media to reverse the trend through their reportage has become expedient. The argument is that for as long as the activities of these election professionals get effectively publicised for that long will such activities remain in the front burner of national discourse. Put differently, groups like Jonathan’s Transformation Ambassadors of Nigeria and the current numerous Buhari support groups ought not to get media visibility until 90 days to an election as stipulated in the electoral Act
All over the world, the current realities in the conduct of elections revolve around the use of technology. Therefore, the current debate as to whether or not, we need the Card Reader does not arise. When it was first introduced, the current ruling party, the All Progressive Congress (APC) led other opposition parties at the time to openly declare their support for the device which they acclaimed could reverse our history of failed elections.
Indeed, the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties- a forum representing all the political parties in the country issued an official statement at that time that the “device was known to have “been used to conduct free, fair and transparent elections in many countries like the US, UK, Brazil, Ghana, and the 2014 Indian general elections, an election where 600 million Indian voters voted seamlessly.”
Against this backdrop, the Nigerian media must stand firmly to do the needful. First, they must use their reportage to create a level playing field for all parties and their candidates. Second, they must as gate keepers determine what should best occupy the media space of our country in the interest of national development.