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Nigeria must pass 7 basic tests of credible polls

By Olu Fasan

The campaign for next month’s presidential election officially started on November 18 last year. Yet, to date, beyond the glossy manifesto booklets and the propaganda blitzes that followed their launches, few Nigerians really know the issues the candidates are canvassing. Their ideas are not ventilated on the campaign trail or scrutinised by the media. Nothing is heard about presidential debates, the sine qua non of any serious presidential contest.

Indeed, the campaign has been anything but issue-based. Instead of debating issues, the main candidates, Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar, through their overzealous spin doctors, have been engaging in tit-for-tat mudslinging, scavenging for dirt to throw at each other. But any campaign that’s not based on issues, ideas and the performance of the incumbent debases the electoral system.

Osun election

Which brings me to my main subject: the criteria for credible elections. The usual mantra is that elections must be “free, fair, transparent and peaceful”. But these qualities are not mutually inclusive. You can, for instance, have an election that is free but not fair. For example, one aspect of fairness that’s ignored in Nigeria is constituency structures. Professor Attahiru Jega, Chairman of INEC during the 2015 elections, said in a speech in London after the elections that one of his regrets was the failure to review electoral constituencies and polling units before the elections. In the UK, electoral constituencies are reviewed every eight years on the basis that constituency structures should be fair in order for elections to be credible. That’s not the view in Nigeria!

Well, leaving that seemingly complicated issue aside, here are more basic ones. In their book, Political Systems of the World, Denis and Ian Derbyshire state that to be truly free and democratic, elections must satisfy seven basic criteria. Let’s briefly consider the criteria vis-à-vis this year’s elections.

Right to vote. This is first basic condition. No eligible voter should be disenfranchised. So far, this hasn’t been an issue. But in 2015, there were huge outcries about PVC distribution, with allegations that millions of Nigerians didn’t receive their PVCs or that the distribution was skewed to favour areas believed to be certain candidate’s strongholds. Much of this was, of course, political posturing, but eligible adults must enjoy the right to vote.

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No voter intimidation: That seems straightforward enough, but the militarisation of elections in Nigeria would count as voter intimidation. The massive deployment of heavily armed soldiers in the 2015 elections was a major concern. That mustn’t be repeated next months. Elections are not a state of war!

Freedom to campaign openly. Like the second condition, no restrictions must be placed on the free operation of opposition parties. Police arrest or harassment of opposition politicians during the campaign or the election should be avoided. Vandalising opposition posters, campaign vehicles, etc, is anti-democratic. That shouldn’t happen or must stop where it’s happening.

No vote-buying, please. This is a serious problem. In a statement issued by 26 foreign missions in Nigeria last year, they said: “We were gravely concerned over widespread incidents of vote-buying during the recent gubernatorial elections”. Vote-buying can be in cash or kind. In the UK, once election campaign formally starts, the government is banned under the “Purdah Rules” from engaging in activities which could amount to bribing voters or be seen to be advantageous to any candidates or parties in the forthcoming election. The Buhari government’s controversial use of state resources, such as Trader-Moni, in outreach to traders and other beneficiaries during campaigns would fall foul of such purdah rules!

Equity in media access and coverage. It is absolutely important that all candidates are able to get their messages across, and that media coverage is not slanted slavishly in the ruling party’s favour. Professionals should be bound by the ethics of their profession at all times. Sadly, journalists in state-controlled media and those working as political spin doctors often abandon the principles of fairness, objectivity and truth, as evident in the toe-curling behaviours of Buhari’s and Atiku’s media officials. Of course, credible elections also require the absence of media control or intimidation, which made the Army’s recent invasion of Daily Trust in the middle of election campaign particularly unacceptable.

Vote counting must be sacrosanct. The British playwright Tom Stoppard once wrote that: “It’s not the voting that makes a democracy; it’s the counting”. That’s true and calls for impartial supervision of vote-counting. In that regard, the appointment of Amina Zakari as head of election collation centre if she is, indeed, a relation of Buhari, however distant, even by marriage, was wrong. This is not about her integrity; it’s about transparency!

All parties should accept the adjudged results. Well, finally, once an election has been conducted in accordance with these basic criteria, the losers should accept the results. President Jonathan set the standards in 2015 by conceding defeat in a free and fair election. Nigerians and the world expect nothing short of that behaviour next month.

Truth is, Nigeria can conduct credible elections if politicians and relevant agencies are willing to do the right thing. They must demonstrate that willingness in this year’s elections.

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