By Onyishi Chidiebere Charles
With the 2023 general elections approaching, INEC’s integrity will again be tested to ascertain if genuine improvements have been made since the 2019 polls. Given the conditions surrounding the previous general elections, there were concerns about the malpractices that marred the conduct of the ballots.
INEC must recognize that the 2023 general election will be emotionally charged for the majority of Nigerians both at home and abroad. As such, tensions are high, and all eyes are on them to conduct a hitch-free general election. For years, especially since 1999, the country has been led by two dominant parties, the APC and the PDP. Both have performed below par and have little to nothing to show for it other than throwing blame around, inflating contracts and budgets, and sharing scarce resources with their cronies. At the same time, Nigerians continue to suffer for their lack of competence and leadership.
Hence, there has been a yearning for third force candidates who would challenge the popularity and stronghold of the ruling party, APC, and the PDP, who have failed woefully in their function as the lead opposition. Third force parties such as the African Democratic Congress (ADC), New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP), and Labour Party (LP) have grown increasingly popular over the last few months. They have presented well-known, younger, and vibrant presidential candidates with concrete support bases.
However, the argument of whether these parties have reasonable prospects of capturing the strongholds and power bases or whether they have the ability to fight the political overlords to victory is primarily dependent on the absolute independence of Nigeria’s election body, INEC. Therefore, no matter how little analysts believe their chances are, INEC has a crucial role in assuring and ensuring an equal level playing ground for all parties. As such, it must not allow political interference to ridicule its integrity.
Interestingly, Nigerians have decided to put their feet on the ground to vote in 2023. The voter registration, mobilization, and rise in voter registration preceded it indicate that Nigerians, especially the young people, who make up the more significant percentage of new registrants, corroborate that fact. In addition, it is pretty evident by the number of rallies being conducted by third force party supporters, strike actions and a couple of other economic and political realities that Nigerians are tired of the ruling party, and INEC must not allow itself to be used as a pawn in their desperation to remain in power.
In the run-up to next year’s general election, legitimate concerns about the commission’s preparedness, independence, and integrity have been raised. To begin with, INEC has been accused of attempting to disenfranchise voters by refusing to extend the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) process. Ironically, after years of attempting to convince Nigerians to register and vote during elections, INEC abruptly chose to suspend the CVR process six months to the polls, even though the law allows anyone to register until 30 days before the election. Worse still, when there is a clear indication that Nigerians are eager to register and vote. It is questionably odd that INEC would choose to disenfranchise people who have not completed their physical registration due to no fault of theirs but INEC’s. It is worth noting that the Commission is allocated enough funds to meet its needs but has very little to show for it, which explains the complaints about the lack of registration and capturing machines and the lackadaisical attitude of INEC personnel who deliberately ignore or blatantly refuse to register Nigerians who do not pay inducements to them. Furthermore, there is also a shortage of personnel, which contributed to the delay in registering prospective voters. As a result, Nigerians who wished to register were effectively disenfranchised because there were insufficient personnel to register them before the deadline.
On the other hand, there is a fundamental flaw with the modality of the nationwide display of preliminary voters’ register. That process, like the CVR, could have been made available both online and offline. In this day and age, the commission should have considered that things are changing; they should have also considered that not everyone resides in the state where they registered to vote and, as such, ends up making the procedure unnecessarily difficult for voters. This explains why some Nigerians would rather stay home than go through the unnecessary burden of applying for a voter’s card.
Very recently, INEC denied doctoring and backdating documents to certify the candidature of Sen. Ahmed Lawan and Sen. Godswill Akpabio as APC flag bearers for the Yobe North and Akwa Ibom North-West senatorial districts. News like this does more harm to the image of INEC, which many believe may be complicit in electoral malpractices. It is disturbing that the commission had to wait for a backlash before issuing a rebuttal to set the records straight. It is expected that in a high profile matter involving the Senate president and the ruling party, the commission should be ready to set records straight to absolve themselves of any culpability.
INEC redeployed two Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) and eight directors, including its Director of ICT, Mr Chidi Nwafor, who was redeployed to Enugu to serve as INEC’s administrative secretary in the state. This was either a wrong call by INEC or a deliberate one. Whichever it is, it doesn’t bode well for the commission in the eyes of the public. Especially since the Commission explicitly refuted a 2019 news report claiming he resigned before the 2019 general election. As the commission’s ICT Director, Mr Nwafor was in charge of the department overseeing the electronic voting and transmission of election results. This is happening when there was news making the rounds that INEC had jettisoned online transmission of results for the upcoming general election in favour of manual transmission. Despite the controversy, the commission has provided no justification for its decision to relocate the head of a department whose work is essential to the conduct of next year’s general elections. Even more disturbing, his redeployment appears to be a witch-hunt, with his being reassigned to a lower role away from the commission’s headquarters barely six months before the elections.
Finally, the fundamental responsibility of INEC as the electoral umpire is to ensure that Nigerians have a peaceful, free, and fair election. This will be much easier for them if they continue to work towards gaining the trust and confidence of Nigerians. Bearing in mind that other African countries, and indeed the international community, will have their eyes fixated on Nigeria since the dynamics of the next elections appear to be different from previous elections. Hence, there is a need for INEC to show more visibility and inclusivity. Furthermore, INEC must appreciate that the way and process leading up to and after the elections will affect how Nigeria’s image is perceived internationally. They must be intentional in their dissemination of information and promptly address all concerns relating to fake news or misleading updates. In addition, if practicable, INEC may consider including clear images of candidates next to their party logo on ballot papers, like their counterparts in Kenya. This approach will be critical to curbing the issue of invalid votes, further educating voters on who they want to vote for, and curbing voter disenfranchisement.
Onyishi is an analyst at SBM Intelligence