By Olu Fasan
NOTHING is certain in Nigeria until it happens”, a top British business leader once said at a London conference. That was a damning indictment of Nigeria’s reputation for predictability and certainty. But that reputation suffered a further damaging blow last week when the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, cancelled the February 16 Presidential and National Assembly elections just a few hours before voting started.
A day earlier, INEC officials denied rumours of an impending postponement. Yet, in the middle of the night, at 2.30am, INEC chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, issued a terse statement cancelling polls, due to start at 8am. “The Commission has come to the conclusion that proceeding with the elections as scheduled is no longer feasible”, he said blithely, with a blasé attitude!
Of course, as the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, pointed out last week, “postponement of general elections has become a recurring feature of Nigeria’s electoral process”. In 2011, INEC postponed the National Assembly polls for two days even after voting had started. The Commission’s then chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega, blamed the postponement on “an emergency”, namely “late arrival of result sheets in many parts of the country”. In 2015, federal elections were postponed for six weeks on the ground of security challenges in the North East. Given that only 14 out of Nigeria’s 774 local governments were affected, the elections could have proceeded in the rest of the country. But INEC was under enormous pressure, including from the military, to postpone the polls.
This time, however, the problems are not security challenges or political interference, according to INEC, although the opposition parties allege skulduggery by the incumbent. Let’s take INEC’s word for it. So, what were the problems? Well, Professor Yakubu said the elections were postponed because of “logistical challenges”. First, he said the Commission was sued or joined on over 640 court cases and had 40 court orders to drop or add candidates. Then, he blamed “the recent bad weather” for preventing INEC from “flying election materials” to certain locations, having instead to “rely on slow-moving long haulage vehicles”. Finally, he said INEC “faced attempts to sabotage its preparation” with the burning of its offices in Anambra, Abia and Plateau states. As a result of these factors, said the INEC chairman, “proceeding with the elections as scheduled is no longer feasible”.
How shameful that these reasons can be given for postponing a general election in Nigeria. Such challenges are symptoms of significant institutional failure, associated with countries that have severely weak state capacity. Take the issue of legal challenges. If a nation’s electoral law cannot accommodate isolated legal actions without causing major disruptions to the electoral process, then the law is not fit for purpose. Furthermore, it’s a serious failure of state capacity that an electoral body cannot print new ballot papers speedily, if necessary, without disrupting scheduled national polls.
INEC had four years and a huge budget, estimated to be N189bn, to prepare for the elections, and it kept assuring Nigerians of its preparedness. Thus, to say just a few hours to long-scheduled elections that “following a careful review of implementation of its logistics and operational plans”, INEC couldn’t continue with the polls as scheduled was a national disgrace. The so-called “logistical challenges” were excuses for appalling incompetence. Why, for instance, would “bad weather” disrupt the distribution of election materials? Elsewhere, guided by weather forecasts, the electoral body would make adequate contingency plans. Similarly, one must wonder why INEC offices were not maximally protected, close to elections, to prevent arsonists from reaching them.
All the problems cited by INEC for postponing the elections are so rudimentary they can only happen in a country that lacks basic State capacity, defined as the ability of a government to get things done effectively. Of course, Nigeria’s poor rankings on relevant international indexes show that it lacks the capability for effective governance. For instance, in the 2018 Government Effectiveness Index, which captures perceptions of the quality of public and civil services, Nigeria ranks 162 out of 193, scoring -0.96 points. The Brookings Institute’s Index of State Weaknesses also put Nigeria at the bottom quintile. Bureaucratic incompetence, corruption and the politicisation of state institutions are major obstacles to government effectiveness in Nigeria. Truth is, Nigeria is chronically and acutely institutionally weak, hence it can’t do basic things that most other developing countries, even poorer ones, take for granted – like conducting hitch-free elections!
But the capacity failure comes with very huge costs. For instance, several analysts have highlighted the economic impact of the postponement, with some citing potential losses of between $9bn to $10bn. The political costs are also significant, especially with potential voter apathy. Unwisely, INEC initially stopped parties from campaigning following the postponement, which, coupled with the disappointment over the poll shift, could dampen voter enthusiasm and turn-out for the rescheduled elections. Then, of course, the postponement has done further harm to Nigeria’s already battered international image, with damaging effects on investors’ confidence.
Nigeria must become an effective State, a capable State. Without that, it would continue to suffer huge embarrassment from institutional failures, such as its perennial poll postponement.