Nigerians looked forward to their just concluded State elections – Gubernatorial and State Houses of Assembly - held on Saturday March 18, with fervent hope that their expectations would be met. They had managed to survive the Presidential and National Assembly elections of February 25 which resulted in controversy, protests, and two of the major parties heading to the Presidential Election Tribunal to challenge the process and the declaration of the candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu as President-elect. Both local and international observers, with the striking exception of Federal Government spokespersons – Alhaji Lai Mohammed and Mallam Garba Shehu and of course, APC supporters, had dismissed the election as “flawed”, “far short of international standards.” The Presidential candidates of the PDP- Atiku Abubakar and the Labour Party – Peter Obi called for the cancellation of the Presidential election.
In general, questions were raised about the failure of INEC to abide by enabling laws and its own regulations and guidelines, the failure in particular of the Bimodal Voters’ Accreditation System (BVAS), and INEC not keeping to its promise to upload results to its results viewing portal in real time; there were also challenges arising from voter intimidation and logistics, the dominance of ethnicity and religion as deciding factors, vote buying despite the scarcity of cash at the time due to the Central Bank’s Naira redesign policy, violence across many states – Lagos, Rivers, Taraba, Akwa Ibom, Edo, Kogi, Bayelsa, FCT, Enugu, Osun, Ondo and Ogun, the wanton violation of the law by prominent figures displaying their ballot papers at polling units. In that election, voting had to be rescheduled in 141 polling units in Bayelsa state, where BVAS machines had been carted away or materials did not arrive on time or not at all. The general word of advice to INEC is that it should address whatever technical glitches that affected the polls on February 25, and that the security agencies should improve on their performance. Public expectation was further raised by the fact that INEC approached the Court to reconfigure BVAS in readiness for the next elections and having been granted leave to do so, it subsequently postponed the state elections from March 11 to March 18, thus gaining more time. Indeed, INEC and the security agencies after a meeting of the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security assured Nigerians that all would be well on March 18- a far more demanding election covering elections in 28 states, 1, 021 constituencies, and over 930 candidates.
Nigerians are incurable optimists, but their enthusiasm was subdued on March 18, as seen in the emergent reports of voter apathy and low voter turn-out. On the streets of Rivers state, young men chose to play football on the streets. In Yenagoa, Bayelsa people went to the markets as if there was no restriction of movement on election day. The observed shortcomings of the February 25 process robbed many of faith that their votes would count. Nevertheless, INEC officials arrived early in most parts of the country. Where voting commenced early, there were no reports of “big men” displaying their ballot papers. INEC also did a better job of uploading results to its portal, even if in other places, voters were told pointedly that there would be no uploading of results and that all results would be taken to the state collation centres. To be fair, the law does not expressly state how INEC should upload election results. However, in terms of general atmosphere and outcomes, during and after the voting, the March 18 elections were worse.
This has been attributed to the fact that the professional political class had seen how the political map of the country was significantly altered after the February 25 elections. Labour Party, a movement that had been revived only a few months earlier in 2022, won 36 seats in the House of Representatives, four seats in the Senate, and practically swept the polls in the South East. The Labour Party further accomplished the feat of beating the ruling APC in Lagos State, the stronghold of the APC Presidential candidate. Strong, established politicians were also defeated including Senator Philip Aduda who had been in the Senate for a record four terms, Senators Abubakar Bagudu, Gabriel Suswam, Tanko Al-Makura, Uche Ekwunife, Bala Ibn Na’Allah, Kabiru Gaya, Stella Oduah, Biodun Olujimi, Bashiru Ajibola. And in the House of Representatives – Hon. Ndudi Elumelu, Hon. Nkeruika Onyejeocha. These are political heavyweights but they were defeated. In addition, incumbent Governors seeking a trip to the Senate – the usual retirement, idling destination for former Nigerian Governors were disappointed: Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi (Enugu); Okezie Ikpeazu (Abia), Ben Ayade (Cross River) Abubakar Bagudu (Kebbi) Samuel Ortom (Benue), Simon Lalong (Plateau), and Darius Ishaku (Taraba). Ahead of the March 18 elections, President Buhari made it clear that there would be no such thing as the annulment of election as happened in 1993. Whoever is aggrieved should go to the courts. Nigerians have mixed feelings about the judiciary. The manner in which those who were declared winners trumpeted the phrase: “let us meet in court” further deepened suspicions.
Given this scenario, it turned out that politicians went to the March 18 polls with greater desperation. Nobody wanted to leave anything to chance. The received wisdom in Nigerian politics is that it is better to win by any means possible, collect the Certificate of Return and allow the aggrieved persons to complain and file petitions. By the way, it is not every loser in an election that would seek legal redress: lawyers don’t come cheap during election seasons in Nigeria! It is their own stomach infrastructure moment too. Hence, what we witnessed on March 18 in most parts of the country was war, with dosages of violence, death, pathos, and burlesque. Every identifiable bane of Nigerian politics was on full display. Violence - in Imo State, INEC officials were kidnapped, and later rescued, persons were killed in Gboko South LGA, Benue state, also in Ibiono Ibom, Akwa Ibom State, in Lagos, persons were killed, macheted, and journalists from Arise News, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), AIT, and celebrities were brutalized by hoodlums and criminal gangs who took over the streets and threatened to harm anyone who voted for any party other than the ruling party.
In Rivers, gunmen invaded Elibrada Community in Emohua Local government, and killed three persons, two others were killed in Bori, Khana LGA. In the same Rivers state, the APC Campaign Director, Chisom Lennard was abducted and later shot dead in Ahoada West LGA. In Ebonyi, the state Chairman of the PDP was beaten to a state of coma. He died from injuries. Two persons were killed in Ethiope West, LGA, Delta State. By the morning of March 19, the media was reporting over 30 deaths. To win an election, those seeking leadership positions were ready to kill the same people they promised to serve! INEC and its officials and equipment were equally a special target: In Taraba, Lagos, Rivers, Kebbi, Benue, and Delta, BVAS machines were snatched, ballot boxes were either stolen and carted way or set ablaze as in the Ojo LGA of Lagos State. It must be added though that INEC officials have been accused of malpractices. In Owerri North LGA of Imo State and in parts of the North, INEC officials were caught helping to thumb-print ballot papers in favour of political parties of their choice. The reign of impunity has since continued. On Sunday evening, thugs invaded the LGA Collation Centre in Obingwa, Abia State. There was so much tension in Kano State, the state government had to declare a curfew yesterday. The people defied it. In Delta State, the collation of results was delayed because INEC officials had been held hostage in Ughelli North, allegedly on the orders of a powerful Gubernatorial candidate. After the announcement of the Gubernatorial result in Nasarawa state yesterday, people took to the streets in protest. Both the PDP and APGA in that state believe that the results were manipulated in favour of the APC.
Vote buying/Voter inducement: It has been reported that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) by March 18 had arrested more than 65 suspects involved in vote buying. The sad news is that in some of the states, cash was given out in the open, with policemen in attendance, looking the other way. The performance of the security agencies varied. The police were happy to be on duty. In fact, in some states, it was reported that they helped hoodlums to snatch ballot boxes. The Supreme Court had ruled that old redesigned notes should remain legal tender, and before March 18, the CBN had formally directed all deposit money banks to comply. Unlike February 25, there was money to go round on election day, March 18. Poverty became a stronger weapon in the hands of politicians. Voter suppression: this was also a big problem, what rankles was the brazenness and the variety of it. The most obvious was the deployment of criminal gangs in various parts of the country, especially Lagos, Rivers, and Delta. In Delta, there is a video of Mr. Fred Ajudua telling voters in Ibuzo: “If you are not voting PDP, stay in your house”. It was worse in Lagos where ahead of the election, traditional rulers in the state announced a traditional Oro festival, telling women and non-indigenes to stay indoors at certain hours. When public outcry made that impossible, thugs and touts were deployed to the streets to tell the people how to vote or face the consequences. On election day, the same thugs took charge. Polling units were relocated either to the main road where thugs could have easy access, or to traditional palaces. One traditional ruler locked the gates to his estate. In areas that had been identified as strongholds of the Labour Party on February 25, Igbos were prevented from voting. It was said that Lagos is for the indigenes, and that Igbo tenants and settlers should not think of dictating who becomes Governor in Lagos. It was absurd and crude. Yet, this election strategy has been defended by otherwise educated and intelligent people. My friend and brother, Femi Fani-Kayode has written a piece in which he says Lagos belongs to Yoruba people and Igbos should return to their own land. He even says Gbadebo Rhodes Vivour (Labour Party), a Yoruba, cannot be Governor in Yorubaland because his mother is Igbo. Coming from FFK, who defended Nnamdi Kanu, and who has four smart, good-looking sons from an Igbo woman, I can only say that I am flabbergasted. This is what politics does to us? Bayo Onanuga, co-founder and Managing Director of The News, former MD of NAN and seasoned journalist is an Ijebu-Ode man but working for APC, he has been arguing that he has no apologies for saying that Igbos should not interfere in Lagos politics. A settler in Lagos telling another settler to mind his business in Lagos?
But the part of the elections of March 18 that I found even more curious was the spiritual side of it. In Lagos, spirituality and occultism were thrown into the mix. How widespread this was may not be easy to establish but at least we can quote a few examples. In Lagos, there is a video in circulation showing some Lagos Chiefs at a shrine called “Oju Alale”, literally the shrine for the worship of the founders of the community, raining curses on Igbos in Lagos and praying for the incumbent Governor’s victory in the election. On election day, some cultists dressed in complete secret society habiliments were seen in Ikeja shouting “Agan o, Agan o” and warning non-indigenes not to vote foolishly. In Oyo state, members of a syncretic church were also shown raining incantations on a small ram and praying that Senator Teslim Folarin must win the Oyo State Gubernatorial election. Folarin did not win. I believe the remains of that ram ended up in the bellies of the Pastors. Only God knows how many animals lost their lives at ritual conclaves because Nigeria held an election in 2023.
I have tried, thus far, to document the highlights of March 18 for record purposes. But what next for Nigeria? I argued in this same space last week, that despite the avalanche of litigations that would arise, not much would change. Dr. Chidi Odinkalu says the next round of voting is by the judiciary. It is unfortunate that it is the judiciary that would determine a matter that should be the actual prerogative of the electorate. But given the nature of our election jurisprudence, the judiciary cannot cure all the ills that we have seen. Apparently, Nigerians have not learnt any lessons from the errors of the past. In 2007, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua publicly confessed that the 2007 process that brought him into power was flawed. He pledged to correct the situation. His successor, President Goodluck Jonathan kept that promise in 2011, and again in 2015. Between then and now, all the gains have been erased, and we seem to have returned to the pre-1999 era. What is the way forward? One, the task of electoral reform is not yet over. It has just started. The emergence of the Electoral Act 2022 generated a lot of excitement but these elections have exposed many loopholes in it. It has to be reviewed.
Two, we are far from where we should be with regard to technology. BVAS, IREV sounded like nice phrases, but they triggered more problems. Is Nigeria ready for technology or we are just gambling? Three, the independence of the electoral body must be addressed. INEC’s integrity is a major issue today. Rotimi Amaechi, former Governor, and former Minister of Transportation has blown the whistle that the INEC Chair, Professor Yakubu Mahmood was nominated by someone close to the President-elect and that he once worked with Governor Wike at the Federal level. Wike probably knew this all along, but he is now speaking up because it is convenient for him to condemn the same government he served. What we can take from his protest is that going forward, INEC Chair, Commissioners, and Returning Officers should never be appointees or nominees of the ruling government and party. We have to go back to the Uwais Commission Report! Above all, electoral offenders must be punished. We must re-open the conversation about the need for an Electoral Offences Commission, passed by the Senate in July 2021, blocked by the House of Representatives. But now here we are, with thugs all over the place, from INEC officials to palaces, worship places, to social media, making Nigerian democracy a joke. And how can this country find healing and reconciliation after all the wounds inflicted on all fronts in this electoral season?