The much talked about 2015 Presidential elections in Nigeria has now come and gone. General Muhammadu Buhari (Rtd), the candidate of the opposition All Progressive Peoples Congress (APC) was declared winner by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Projected to be a closely contested elections, this event certainly lived up to expectations, but it also raised a number of key issues along the way. These matters, which bore significant impact on the outcome of the elections, include significant changes to the electoral process, as initiated by INEC. In particular, this refers to the introduction of the Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) and the card-readers. Both marked laudable steps forward for Nigeria’s democratic consolidation efforts, and perhaps even more importantly worked to stimulate and build trust among citizens in the electoral process. However, as this article explores, neither efforts were without their challenges.
Technical Hitches- Rendering the Card Reader Redundant
One of the key differences between this year’s elections and past ones was the introduction and widely publicized use of the card reader by the INEC. This device was part of the registration and authentication of duly registered voters – those who had Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) – and who ultimately participated in Election Day. The card reader had been promoted by INEC as an anti-electoral fraud device and was introduced to enhance the integrity of the voting process and dissuade multiple voting (as only duly accredited and verified PVC holders could vote). The card readers were also programmed to work for specific polling units. This meant that PVCs could not be used in multiple polling units. Despite the pockets of challenges concerning its use, which included possible battery failures to power the device and timeliness issues in verifying PVC holders and how many voters could be covered within the accreditation process, Nigerians were generally optimistic that the readers would positively impact the voting process. Sadly, technical hitches were still recorded. These complications ranged from simple issues, such as the lack (or poor) understanding among INEC’s ad-hoc staff on the need to remove film covering from the screen of the device which facilitates better fingerprint decoding, to the outright malfunction or failure of the card readers themselves. Of particular note was the failure of the some card readers to recognise President Goodluck Jonathan’s card, which was quite embarrassing for the incumbent leader. After four repeated trials and failures, Goodluck was accredited to vote manually in line with stipulated INEC procedure – i.e. filling the incidence form. But the media soon caught wind, and there were a range of reports circulating about similar card reader and finger recognition challenges nationwide. This prompted the INEC to instruct those polling units that were experiencing card reading challenges to immediately revert to the old system of manual accreditation. The announcement seemed to have eased accreditation in these places, however the extent to which this announcement may have inadvertently opened the flood gates for electoral fraud is yet to be fully analysed. More comprehensive reports from electoral observer groups are expected in the coming weeks.
There were further allegations of voter list mark-up’s (manipulation) and ghost voting (electoral fraud), even though, according to the INEC, the card readers functioned in 99% of polling units nationwide. While this is a very high reliability factor, a number of aggrieved candidates and their parties were still contesting procedures. The card reader challenges, as well as incidences of late arrival of INEC staff and commencement of accreditation, dragged the voting process well into the night (and even the next day in some polling units across the country). Three hundred polling units had their voting postponed to that following Sunday.
Collation: Same stories, allegations of propped numbers and the “drama” before Jega
The collation phase of the voting process has historically been a key challenge for elections in Nigeria. The phase is susceptible to manipulations of figures from the collation centers, and these past elections were no exception. The simple process of transferring results from polling units and aggregating them at ward, local council and state levels was fraught with numerous difficulties. This process of organizing and tallying results is restricted to a much smaller and more highly regulated participation – one that includes INEC officials, selected observers, mainly party agents and high level security officials. But it is how these results are compiled that often becomes the basis for disputes and contestations by parties. For example, many parties have their own agents present at polling units and engage in their own ‘independent’ collation arrangements, which are not necessary in line with INEC’s procedures. It is thus expected that before final collated results are announced by INEC, these parties already have some sense (or even certainty) over how they have fared in the electoral contest. These ‘early pronouncements’ are not always valid, which accounts for the disputes that often follow. Accusations rent the air of propped up and unexplainable figures forming part of final results.
The failure of the card reader-accreditation aggregated system played a major part in accentuating the levels of alleged figure tampering. A record of accredited voters, authenticated by INEC’s card reader system, would have been a deterrent to any plan to mark-up the accredited voters’ list. The reversion to manual accreditation may have triggered propping up the list of accredited voters and the subsequent alleged thumb-printing of ballot papers. We may never know the full details, until some of the parties take their cases to election tribunals for possible redress and INEC appraises the entire exercise for future lessons.
Party agents and parties themselves often make public their distrust of the collation process and call on the INEC to cancel such processes. This hardly comes to fruition however, as the grievances filed are usually not properly articulated or even formally shared with the INEC. Perhaps it was in attempt to reverse this trend that the presidential election collation process was almost truncated by Elder Godsday Orubebe (former Minister of Niger Delta Affairs). He used local, national and international media to voice all manner of bias and accusations of partiality against INEC Chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega. Orubebe remarked that Jega’s refusal to accept a petition against the conduct of the elections in some states in northern Nigeria where the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) sought further investigation. Elder Orubebe also alleged that the final results had been made available by Professor Jega and same had been published by the opposition APC on its website. Jega’s measured and calming reply to these two accusations, on live nationwide television, was lauded as critical to dousing the tensions and possible stalemate that Orubebe’s outburst attempted to create.
There was also the efficiency factor. The collation process would certainly benefit from better time management. Having returning officers (authorized persons responsible for reporting state-wide collated results) physically go to Abuja to disclose results that had been sent ahead to the INEC collation centre, as dictated by electoral law, is simply not a proficient method. The process takes so long that the major parties, who are often aware of the results in advance, have even gone public with their field results before they have been made official. This year’s elections was no different, and as per custom the entire nation literally goes on standstill as the results are being publicized.
Citizens’ vigilance, apprehensions and the relief
For the first time in Nigeria’s democratic history, this year’s presidential elections were really about the people and about their resilience to have their votes count. Special commendation and praise is not undeserving for their determination and patience on Election Day – especially in the midst of the voting challenges. It takes a genuine interest and belief in the electoral process – especially after so many past discounting electoral experiences – to maintain steadfast and optimistic. The mandate protection mantra was played out on many fronts. In Bauchi, a city in north-eastern Nigeria, citizens laid siege on the state level collation centre and stayed up all night to see the outcome of the collation process. Many citizens also kept tabs on social media and reports from electronic (online video, radio and television) and print media (newspapers). The media also played a major role in delivering election-related information, in the form or special programs covering a range of election day issues such as voter participation and conduct; and the operations of security personnel. Citizens remained vigilant and alert, even in the face of fears and concerns about the post-voting results and how this might incite protest or violence. These worries were what Elder Orubebe’s previously mentioned melodrama were in fact heightening. Indeed, many private businesses and public institutions had, upon watching the ensued drama, permitted their staff to close early and return to their homes to ensure their safety. It is to this extent that the call by President Jonathan to General Muhammadu Buhari (Rtd) – the leading contender in the office – ahead of the final results were truly effective in dousing all the tensions, bringing significant relief to all.
A victory for all? What next?
The success of the 2015 presidential elections was a momentous victory for Nigeria in its democratic consolidation journey. The successful election has answered the many questions that have been milling around before this event. Was the country going to survive such a closely contested election considering the levels of divisive politicking that had preceded the polls? Was INEC’s innovation – the PVC and card reader – going to revolutionise elections, mitigate or totally eradicate electoral fraud? Would citizens ever witness and participate in free, fair, transparent and credible elections? Nigeria not only scaled through all these challenges, but did so commendably across several fronts, most notably through the calm and demure nature of its citizens and the INEC chairman.
The elections, now having been won and lost, are over. But a new page has been opened; one where we can look towards the future, including how to continue raising the quality of Nigeria’s electoral process with particular emphasis on the organisation of elections. The application of the card reader technology had its merits, but was made redundant by allegations of electoral officials and community collusion to ensure that the machines played no part in determining electoral results. It is certainly a technology that needs to be improved upon in the run up to the 2019 general elections. The complementary dimension would be to find ways to mitigate community conspiring against the voting process simply due to their sheer determination to have preferred electoral outcomes. The “do-or-die” sentiments that allow communities to look away and permit electoral malpractices – such as under-age voting, organised thumb-printing and use of intimidation by known security personnel, persons affiliated to militant groups and party thugs can and will be mitigated, moving forward. This will require, amongst others, frontally treating electoral offences/offenders more seriously and making deterrents of culprits. Clearly the country will need to assess and consider reforms to portions of its current electoral law; ones that seem to weaken the Nigerian state responsiveness to electoral offences.
The larger question of what the incoming government of General Muhammadu Buhari (Rtd) will bring to impact governance and development is one that is hinged on the pronouncements of the General himself as captured in his covenant with citizens, the manifesto of the APC and the team that his administration will raise. We may have passed the electoral test, but the major work has only just begun. On May 29th Nigerians will witness the swearing in of their new President and they will be keen to see how he rouses the country to realise the positive change by APC while advancing democracy and development in the country.
Mr. Amenaghawon is OSIWA’s Economic Governance Programme Coordinator, based in Abuja, Nigeria. Follow him on Twitter @jogbosky