By Afe Babalola
“The solutions to many of the issues highlighted above and more lie in an urgent amendment to the Electoral Act. Happily there is already in place an Amendment Act which unfortunately failed to receive the assent of President Buhari ostensibly on the ground that it was passed and presented too close to the holding of the last elections”.
THE 2019 elections have come and gone and winners and losers have emerged and have equally been informed of the decision of the electorate concerning their ambitions. Hopes and aspirations have been achieved and dashed. The electorate depending on their choice of candidate have welcomed and in some other instances condemned the outcome of the election.
I, therefore, congratulate all the winners at the various levels of election, from the State to the Federal level. I also congratulate those who after losing the election have been quick to concede defeat and congratulate the winners of same. Such conduct signifies that some members of the Nigerian political class are prepared to emulate the best of political practices as obtains in many developed countries of the world. However as I will subsequently discuss, the conduct of this election has thrown up many issues which indicate that there is so much more to be done if the election of transformational leaders, which ideally should be the objective of any democratic system, is to be achieved.
Violence and voter apathy
Firstly, the last elections were preceded by incidents of violence which unfortunately became more pronounced on the day of the election and even after results were announced. While outbreak of violence is not entirely new, it is still a sad commentary on the lack of political development which continues to trouble our country. Secondly, the election witnessed a worrying degree of voter apathy which many have attributed to the huge militarisation of the entire process. Writing on this subject, the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) stated as follows:
The just concluded presidential and national assembly elections in Nigeria witnessed a voter turnout of just over 35.6 per cent, the lowest in the country since the return to democracy in 1999. According to figures by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, the total number of accredited voters in the election held on Saturday, February 23, 2019, was 29,364,209, out of the 82,344,107 registered voters in Nigeria.
In 1999, the voter turnout was put at 52 per cent, in 2003 it was 69 per cent, in 2007, 57 per cent of voters came out to vote, and in 2011, the figure was 54 per cent. In 2015, despite the serious security challenges posed by the Boko Haram insurgency, approximately 44 per cent of voters turned out to vote.
Why was the 2019 election different? Especially at a time when the federal government claimed that security has been boosted as Boko Haram had been “technically defeated” and no longer hold a single local government in Borno State, as opposed to 2015 when the insurgent group controlled several local government areas in Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe States.”
Many reasons, ranging from the last minute postponement of the polls, general sense of insecurity and the militarisation of the process have been identified as having contributed to this development. Whichever is the main reason, it cannot be disputed that voter apathy signifies a loss of voter confidence in the electoral process. Without such confidence, little or nothing can be achieved. A feeling by the voting public that their votes may not eventually count or that they may come to some form of harm while performing their civic duty is one that portends grave and imminent danger to any democracy.
Thirdly, the elections witnessed for the first time, a worrying number of elections declared as inconclusive by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. In several of those cases, the declaration was made owing to the fact that the margin of victory between the leading contenders was lesser that the number of cancelled votes or number of registered voters in areas where elections did not hold. To be certain, the law does require that in such instances no declaration be made so that an opportunity can be afforded for disenfranchised voters to have a say in the election of their leaders.
However what gives serious cause for concern is the high incidence of cancelled votes or inability to conduct elections recorded in the just concluded elections. In many instances, cancellations occurred owing to violence orchestrated by politicians and their supporters. It is alleged that in order to deny the candidate who may be leading at the polls a clear victory, some unscrupulous politicians have realised that by fomenting trouble in the stronghold of their opponent and either preventing voting from taking place or getting INEC to cancel votes cast in such areas, they may be able to bring about a situation contemplated by the Electoral Act and thereby afford themselves another opportunity at the rescheduled elections.
High number of political parties
Also this election witnessed for the very first time, an embarrassingly large number of parties contesting elections in Nigeria. At the moment, there are over 90 political parties while 73 of them fielded candidates at the presidential election. If this is not alarming, I doubt if anything else will. In an article titled “Too many parties can spoil politics” The Economist stated as follows: “Having too many parties is often unwieldy. Coalitions become harder to form and often include strange bedfellows. In Greece the far-left Syriza party governs with the far-right Independent Greeks; in Denmark the centre-right government needs the support of the Liberal Alliance, which wants to cut social spending, and the Danish People’s Party, which wants to raise it. Such oddball pairings rarely act decisively and fall apart easily.
“They also take longer to form, distracting politicians from the business of governing. Spain’s recent shift from two major parties to four produced a stand-off that left it without a government for most of last year. Its citizens had more choices when they voted, but then spent ten months under the rule of unelected caretakers – not a clear gain in democracy. Small parties may render government incoherent by seizing control of the policy areas they care about.
“In Israel tiny right-wing parties in effect write the rules for West Bank settlements. Splintering can also foster graft. In Brazil politicians form new parties to get public subsidies and then demand more goodies to join coalitions. Far from increasing real choice, multiplying parties can allow politicians to hide the fact that what matters is patronage. Voters may be bewildered when confronted with the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front – or with National Liberals, Democratic Liberals and Liberal Reformists, as they were in Romania in 2014.”
The situation described in Romania is particularly reminiscent of the current situation here in Nigeria in which many parties have names that sound so similar. How the electorate which cuts across different degrees of political sophistication and educational exposure is expected to navigate such a quagmire of political parties and ideologies is better left for the imagination. Furthermore, the huge number of political parties must obviously have presented a logistical nightmare to the Electoral Body as it is by law required to have representatives present at the primaries of these parties.
On election day, all parties are also entitled to have agents present at every step of the electoral process from voting at the units to collation at the Ward, Local Government, State and Federal levels depending on the particular election in question. Was this not bound to present an ideal situation for breakdown of law and order as was eventually the case in many states of the Federation contributing to inconclusive elections as stated earlier? Has the high number of political parties also not contributed to the very high cost of conducting the 2019 Elections which is reported to be the most expensive in the history of the country and costing 69 Billion Naira more than the 2015 elections?
The solutions to many of the issues highlighted above and more lie in an urgent amendment to the Electoral Act. Happily there is already in place an Amendment Act which unfortunately failed to receive the assent of President Buhari ostensibly on the ground that it was passed and presented too close to the holding of the last elections. How far the proposed amendments will go to strengthening our electoral process and whether more needs to be done will be discussed next week.