THE hopes of Nigerians and all lovers of democracy around the world for credible, hitch-free elections in Nigeria were dashed on Saturday when the odious fractures that have persistently marred voting in the country resurfaced. Logistics glitches, violence, intimidation of voters, corruption and incompetence, ballot box-snatching, and impunity conflated with security failures to prevent a smooth exercise nationwide. Despite some improvements over previous elections, Saturday’s polling proved that despite 24 years of trying, officials still cannot organise seamless national elections devoid of hitches and violence.
INEC, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), the Nigeria Police, the military and other security and paramilitary forces deployed in the field, despite marked improvement on past performance, disappointed in several areas. Many find this more painful because the elections come at a time of deep economic and social adversity, and a general resolve by the 82.7 million voters who collected their permanent voter cards to effect change by performing their civic duty.
The chief culprits of course are the politicians, including many occupying public offices. Unconscionable as usual, they sponsored armed thugs, sought to buy votes, and influence electoral officials and security personnel. The watchdog, Civil Liberties Union for Europe, described free and fair elections as the foundation of democracy, but said they are under threat in many places. Among the eight “crucial standards” it identified for an election to be adjudged free and fair, it emphasised the ability to vote, freedom from intimidation and violence, freedom from fraud, and accurate ballot counts. Saturday’s missteps faltered on these benchmarks in parts of the country.
Despite the efforts by INEC to correct past lapses, and its use of technology, a daytime curfew, massive deployment of police and troops, and a cash scarcity that prevented them from deploying their stashed billions of naira to influence the balloting, the politicians still managed to foul up the process in some places, forcing INEC to extend voting and collation till Sunday.
Observers fear that unless the lapses are corrected to general satisfaction, the results may be disputed; further polarising a population already on edge and adding to the daunting problems the incoming government will inherit.
In several states, the election was riotous despite Buhari’s promises to make voting violence-free. Hoodlums disrupted voting, intimidated voters, snatched ballot boxes and BVAS machines in Niger, Taraba, Katsina, Kogi, Edo, Lagos, Ogun, Akwa Ibom, Delta, Rivers and Bayelsa states.
In Ikate, Lagos, gunmen invaded a centre, scattered the voting materials, causing voters to flee. The soldiers nearby saved the day. There was also violence in Oshodi and Okota, compounded by the late arrival of materials in polling centres, which was reportedly instigated by a faction of the road transport union that refused to move materials. Thugs threatened those who refused to vote for the All Progressives Congress in Shitta, Surulere, Lagos.
In Ogun State, where voting was delayed in Obafemi-Owode LGA centres due to the late arrival of INEC officials and faulty BVAS machines, gunmen disrupted voting around 7.00 pm, threatening non-APC supporters. Their shooting brought polling to an instant end.
INEC Chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, confirmed that hoodlums snatched BVAS machines in Katsina and Delta. They malfunctioned in some other states too. In Gwoza, Borno State, Boko Haram terrorists fired gunshots at voting centres, disrupting the exercise. In Gwagwalada, Federal Capital Territory, thugs destroyed 24 ballot boxes in eight polling units.
Following violence in Edo, INEC shifted the elections to March 11 because the symbol of a political party was omitted from the ballot paper in Igueben, Esan North and Esan South LGAs. This also occurred in Ondo State. Polling was deferred by 24 hours in 141 polling centres in Bayelsa State due to violence.
Two people, including a pregnant woman, died in Rivers State, while sporadic violence was reported in parts of Osun, Gombe and Enugu states.
Polling was however reported free of the usual monetary inducement at most voting centres; the BVAS machines worked smoothly in many other areas. However, security agents arrested some politicians and their agents for vote-buying, including through bank transfers.
Experience over the years should have informed better preparations. The number of voters in some places appeared to have overwhelmed the umpire. In several places, officials and materials arrived late. In others, documents were mixed up, with forms meant for one station ending up elsewhere or missing. Late voting ensued. Consequently, millions of eager voters were disenfranchised. More controversially, uploading of results failed.
The security agencies also disappointed. The threats from thugs, ballot box snatchers, vote-buyers and VIPs deploying their offices and security detail to subvert the process were long signposted.
In Lagos, for several weeks before the voting, news outlets were awash with reports of armed thugs professing allegiance to the APC harassing, assaulting and threatening voters. Indeed, the military raided some criminal hideouts days to the polling. Likelihood of electoral violence was also signalled in Rivers, Kogi, Kano, Benue, Edo, and Delta states.
The Inspector-General of Police, Usman Baba, should examine how violence, ballot box-snatching and destruction, intimidation of voters and officials, and attacks by criminals occurred despite the 310,973 personnel he deployed. This is apart from the back-up from the military troops and other security agencies.
Buhari completed the embarrassment when after voting at his Daura, Katsina State polling unit, he publicly displayed his thumb-printed ballot papers in violation of the secret balloting principle and the rules against campaigning on Election Day.
INEC should cancel and reschedule the polls where the process failed to meet the standards of fairness. It should immediately discontinue entrusting conveyance of personnel and materials to compromised, partisan transport union factions and flush out compromised and incompetent officials.
It should perfect its IT platforms and systems. Brookings Institution found that effective deployment of 3.96 million electronic voting machines across 1.03 million polling stations in 2019 enabled India to clean up its elections, encouraged 67 percent of the 912 million registered voters to turn out, reduced fraud, strengthened the weaker and vulnerable segments of the society, and fostered a more competitive contest.
INEC needs to get its logistics right, both for the rescheduled presidential and NASS polling, and for the governorship and state legislative houses polls that come up on March 11. Late arrival of personnel and materials, and failure of BVAS and transmission of results should not re-occur.
The police must do better. To be fair, police performance on Saturday was adjudged better than previous outings. Police need to focus heavily on intelligence and preventive measures; identify, track, and pre-emptively neutralise criminals before they can strike.
There can be no end to electoral violence as long as the politicians that hire and arm thugs are not arrested, exposed and prosecuted. Saturday’s outing was below par; Nigerians deserve better performance going forward.