By Tony Eluemunor
Nigeria is going through despicable times!
The country is faced with the dire task of making the 2019 general elections free (as in truly unrestricted and according to people’s choice) and fair (as in actually impartial). Last Saturday, despite all the alluring promises by leaders, Nigeria pulled off a “no show;” the poll was cancelled at the last minute. But instead of asking the right questions so as to get the right answers, public officials have been dodging responsibilities and pulling off the most acrimonious blame game.
Then, as though that postponement was not shameful enough, President Mohammadu Buhari issued an order to the security agents to shoot, yes, shoot as in shoot to kill, any ballot-snatcher.
Yet, (and here I feel like screaming, nobody has reminded Gen. Buhari that if HE had done the needful, the era of ballot-box snatching would have become history in Nigeria.
Shooting ballot-snatchers will not protect the wholesomeness of any election as it is not the only infraction that renders a country’s poll defective. Election-rigging is the systematic manipulation of the voting process or the counting of ballots in such a way that it is intended to distort the outcome of the election. So, rigging could be activated at any point in the long chain-link from the delineation of electoral constituencies and wards, to the provision of adequate voting materials, the security provided at the voting and coalition sites, security agents or outright criminals (such as party hooligans) forcing people to vote in a certain way, or to even prevent citizens from trooping out to vote, to the outright thumb-printing, to the way and manner the votes are counted, collated and announced.
So, did Buhari’s administration ensure that Nigerians could as much as humanly possible, say that the 2019 election would be free and fair? No! To the self-deceivers who would counter that no election anywhere is truly free and fair, I will point out this stance of confidence assumed by Prof Edward Foley, an election law expert from Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. Just before the last US election, he said: “Historically, a rigged election has meant tampering with or stuffing ballot boxes or buying votes. I think it’s extraordinarily unlikely that we’re going to have a rigged election because of the fact that our system is so decentralized. And so I do confine the concept of rigging to this manipulation of the voting process itself and the counting of votes. Now, there may be efforts to try to do that—there have been these instances in history—so that’s why the risk is not zero. But as a country we should be confident in our electoral process. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Statisticians talk about confidence levels: that notion that we can be 95 percent confident or 99 percent confident or 99.9 percent confident. Those are pretty good levels of confidence. We just can’t say it’s 100 percent confidence—you don’t need to ask any questions. We should go into this election very confident that it will be a fair and free election and at the same time monitor it so that we can confirm that that was correct, or if something went wrong we have the institutional capacity to correct it through recounts and the courts and the like.”
Do we have such institutional capacities to correct electoral errors or subterfuges? If the answer is no, then INEC should be commended for postponing an election that would have been faulty, had it held.
It was clear that materials would not have reached some states in time. That would have meant that voting would have needed to take place in some states on another date—staggered elections, against the letters and spirit of our electoral laws. What lessons should be learnt from the curious fact that while the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) officials were busy evidencing how defective the presidential election would have been if it had not been cancelled, their All Progressives Congress (APC) officials were busy castigating the INEC Chairman for not going ahead with what would have been a defective election? Or did election materials arrive on time everywhere? Were all the logistics fully met? And why the logistics failure? Why?
Buhari’s order that ballot-snatchers be shot came too late to enhance the sanctity of the polls. Had he wanted to combat ballot-snatching, he would have signed the electoral bill, which the National Assembly presented to him in December last year into law. Several INEC officials, including the INEC Chairman Prof Mahmood Yakubu, showed considerable courage when they openly stated that INEC not only needed the Smart Card Reader-enabled voting system, but also that INEC had been practicing how to make it hitch-free.
Prof Yakubu, a few days after Buhari withheld his assent, said at the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room National Stakeholders’ Forum on Elections in Abuja, “The upgraded smart card reader is faster, more robust and has new features that enable it to store additional data and transmit results,” even as the commission had also redesigned the voters’ register and abolished the use of incident forms.
Specifically on electronic transmission of results, the Electoral Bill rejected by President Buhari said: Section 63; (4)said:“Presiding Officer shall announce the result at the polling unit and transmit the same in the manner prescribed by the Commission.” If this had become law, the reason for ballot-snatching would have been minimised.
Issuing terrible orders that are not rooted on Nigerian laws may be more destructive than helpful to the electoral process. What if innocent souls are mowed down by security agents who surrender to some strange murky forces?
The law guiding this 2019 election has a specified penalty for ballot snatchers. If Buhari considered the penalties inadequate, he should have sent an amendment bill to the National Assembly. That the Federal Executive Council, on Wednesday, actually backed Buhari’s shoot at ballot-snatchers, shows how far Nigeria has deviated from the concept of the rule of law, a concept that gained currency as far back as 500 years ago, when libertarians were dismissing the divine right of kings. Now, we are debating the Divine Right of President Buhari.
Rule of law refers to a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the state itself (how much less the President?), are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.
So, no President, not even Buhari should just wake up and announce a new law or punishment. That otherwise enlightened persons are supporting him shows how much despotism has encroached into the Nigerian polity. But it does not need to enslave us. Today, we will either embrace despotism or repudiate it…if the people’s votes will be allowed to count.