By Simon Kolawole
WHEN your wife is pregnant and gives birth at the end of nine months, you cannot claim you were caught unawares and so you couldn’t buy items for baby delivery ahead of time. Since 2015, we had known that we were going to hold another general election in 2019. It is every four years. It is there in the constitution. We knew we would need ballot papers, ballot boxes, ink pads and result sheets. We knew the geography of Nigeria. We have meteorologists who forecast the weather all the time. We knew that some locations have peculiarities at a particular time of the year. We knew we would need to fly materials earlier for ease of distribution. We knew. There is nothing new under the sun.
The postponement of the 2019 general election by one week — even if by one day — is yet another spectacular testament to the pathological incompetence ruining our country. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) told us a million times that it was ready for the elections. Literally a million times! Unlike in 2015 when the postponement was forced by the military hierarchy who said they needed more time to “diminish” Boko Haram, most Nigerians never saw the latest one coming — a few of hours to the opening of the polling stations! Is there any other country in the world where elections are scheduled and routinely postponed every four years?
The two things we should normally worry about in our elections are rigging and violence. We have a history of stuffed ballots, voter suppression, ballot-snatching, violence and killing. Since the colonial masters left our shores in 1960, almost every election we have conducted by ourselves is filled with all these shenanigans. Only God knows how many Nigerians have been maimed or killed in electoral violence. Our elections are usually a do-or-die affair. But, increasingly, we now have to add a third worry: uncertainty of electoral timetable. It has become a recurring decimal. Since 2011, we have been postponing elections despite having all the time in the world to prepare.
In 2011, we had actually started voting in the federal parliamentary elections when Prof. Attahiru Jega, then-INEC chairman, asked us to calm down. INEC had discovered, midway, that we didn’t have enough result sheets. The elections were moved twice. Four years later, we did not keep to the timetable again, this time at the instance of the security chiefs who curiously requested more time to fight Boko Haram. Many were convinced that the PDP was afraid of losing the polls. Senior INEC figures would later confess in private conversations that the postponement saved the umpire from a disastrous outing. They were not ready for the original February date, they said.
It was more dramatic in 2007. We almost did not have an election. To put it more bluntly: we practically did not have an election. What we eventually did was a charade, so much so the results were merely written after the self-inflicted chaos. As it was, President Olusegun Obasanjo did not want his vice-president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, to succeed him. The two had publicly fallen out before the 2003 presidential election. Obasanjo was virtually forced to pick Atiku as his running mate for the second term, but he immediately set out to neutralise his deputy after the general election. The killer punch was branding Atiku as “corrupt” — a nickname that has stuck since then.
Obasanjo set up an administrative panel headed by Prof. Ignatius Ayua, with Mrs Oby Ezekwesili as a notable member, to probe Atiku over the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF) affair. It indicted Atiku and barred him from holding public office. INEC, under the inimitable Prof. Maurice Iwu, quickly disqualified Atiku from the 2007 elections because of the indictment. It was at this stage that the judiciary stepped in and declared that any indictment must be accepted by a court of law. It stopped tyranny on the one hand but castrated INEC on the other. Today, INEC cannot disqualify candidates even if they present forged certificates. It has to be the courts.
Atiku fought all the way to the Supreme Court to fight his disqualification after the corruption charges against him had been quashed by a high court. On the day the judgement was to be given, Obasanjo declared a public holiday so that the court would not sit. In the interim, INEC had printed the ballot papers without including Atiku. (In those days, pictures of candidates were also on the ballot.) A senior government official reportedly asked Iwu: “What if Atiku won his court case and has to be on the ballot?” Iwu dismissed the possibility. However, five days to the election, the Supreme Court ruled that Atiku must be on the ballot.
Shamelessly, INEC rushed to South Africa to start printing 65 million ballot papers overnight. The Nigerian contractor instantly made billions of naira from the turmoil. Eventually, more than half of the ballots did not make it to Nigeria before election day. In fact, they were later abandoned at a warehouse in South Africa. A South African newspaper made fun of us. It is not today that the South Africans started disrespecting us. Even the ballots that made their way to Nigeria did not have serial numbers, and many polling units did not have voting materials. A military aircraft flying materials overnight crashed, killing the pilot and INEC officials.
In the end, Iwu simply blessed Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (PDP) with 24,638,063 votes, awarded 6,605,299 to Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (ANPP) and allocated 2,637,848 to Atiku. Iwu also took time out to tongue-lash the opposition parties for complaining about the shoddy elections. He reminded them that only PDP had billboards and posters across the country and they should not complain about Yar’Adua’s 24.6 million-vote windfall. Yar’Adua, it must be said, acknowledged that the election was a mess and promised to carry out electoral reforms. For all intents and purposes, we did not hold a presidential election in 2007, no thanks to INEC. We simply wrote the figures.
Things have certainly improved between 2007 and 2019, but we are still far from getting things right. Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, the INEC chairman, has given us cause to worry and doubt his pledge to conduct credible elections. For a man who told Nigerians again and again and again and again that INEC was ready and that nothing would make him postpone the elections, this is nothing but a big let-down. His budget was passed as presented to the National Assembly; nothing was cut. This was to forestall excuses. I also understand that all his requests to the president were treated within 24 hours. He assured all of us —Nigerians and foreigners alike — that all was set.
What does it take to get materials to locations? Do we need God to come and help us take ballot papers and result sheets from Abuja to Kaura Namodia and Ikot Ekpene? It is all about logistics. It is about meticulous planning. Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and even Plan D. It is all about painting scenarios, simulating movements and asking the big question: WHAT IF? Someone said Nigeria is very big, geographically, so it presents a logistical challenge and I am asking: so how many years do we need to distribute voting materials across Nigeria? We continue to advertise our incompetence to the whole world. It is one of the reasons we are hardly respected in the comity of nations.
The best way Prof. Yakubu can compensate for this disappointment is to organise a transparently free and fair general election. I agree that he deserves a second chance. After all, Prof. Jega started on a shaky note but ended up on a credible note. I will not write off Yakubu just yet. But he has to realise that he has dropped the ball. We should be getting better with every election, not going backward. The town is filled with rumours over Yakubu’s motives, with both the ruling party and the opposition accusing him of working for one side or the other. Millions of Nigerians have also suffered economic losses because of this postponement. We deserve much better.
This unfortunate turn of events has, predictably, provided a golden opportunity for fake news entrepreneurs. One of such is that Mrs Amina Zakari, President Buhari’s “blood niece”, is the INEC commissioner in charge of electoral operations and logistics and — you know it — she was the one that sabotaged the elections. In fact, the commissioner in charge of logistics committee is Mr. Okechukwu Ibeanu, not Amina. The re-assignment was done as far back as October 2018! For me, I want the general election done and dusted so that we can face other national issues. It has become a serious distraction. Let’s just do it and move to the next phase of our lives!
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
Mallam Abubakar Malami is arguably the most substandard attorney-general Nigeria has ever had. It is not just a problem of crass partisanship but also gross incompetence. Sections 158(1) and 160 of the 1999 Constitution specifically declare the operational independence of INEC in simple English, yet Malami, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), audaciously directed the electoral umpire to postpone elections in Zamfara state in favour of his party, the APC. Pray, is he the attorney-general of APC or the attorney-general of the federation? This same minister comically swore in Mr. Adams Oshiomhole as APC national chairman in 2018. Shame.
One of the most amusing aspects of electioneering in Nigeria is the crowd at rallies. The “my crowd is bigger than yours” game is regularly played by the two leading parties. People will see a stadium filled with supporters and scream: “This man has support.” Meanwhile, it may be just about 100,000 people in a state with two million registered voters! Even if everybody at the stadium votes for you, it still does not mean you would win. The sad part for me, though, is the poor crowd management skills of the Nigerian security agencies. There will always be stampede and suffocation. It is a regular feature. I look forward to an election season when there will be zero death at rallies. Paramount.
How can we have credible elections when security agencies continue to participate actively in intimidating and harassing the opposition? In Lokoja, Kogi state, on Friday, police surrounded the home of the former governor, Alhaji Ibrahim Idris, who was playing host to PDP leaders across the senatorial zones ahead of the now-postponed elections. The street was cordoned off. In Akwa Ibom, same day, the army withdrew soldiers from the government house — a clear signal of “you are on your own”. On Thursday, in Niger state, the EFCC arraigned the PDP governorship candidate, Mallam Gado Nasco, and Dr. Aliyu Babangida, ex-governor, for fraud. Level-playing field? Indeed.
The postponement of the general election has elicited a lot of comments from the social media. No matter what, Nigerians will always find something to cheer them up in the midst of the gloom and the anger. Indicting INEC, one Twitter user wrote: “They should just sack everyone at @inecnigeria and hire 10 event planners from Lagos, you will see how the elections will happen today today!” Another user said: “INEC, with its ₦189 billion budget and four years to prepare, managed to behave no differently from a Nigerian tailor who collects ₦15,000 for your wedding outfit but switches off his phone on the day he is supposed to deliver.” Comical.