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Elections: The bane of Nigeria’s existence

Written by Dorcas Ettang and earlier published by The Premium Times, Nigeria

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Elections contribute to the success of a democracy because they allow people to choose who they want to serve them – not to rule over, oppress or exploit them. But elections are also a persistent feature in false democracies: they are riddled with irregularities, inaccuracies, and hiccups, all held together by the corruption that is built into such systems. Nigeria is a case in point. The latest elections present some familiar characteristics from previous elections in the country. These characteristics include:

Corruption: As with every election in Nigeria, corruption rears its ugly head through the disbursement of funds to key individuals who have access to votes and can manipulate and alter the numbers and cause insecurity. This is also evident in the bribery for votes. An article in 2016 by Gram Matenga shows that in Nigeria, only 6% of citizens believe that there is no bribing for votes in the country. The practice of vote-buying in Nigeria is not new, as voters have been offered food, clothing and jobs in return for their votes. Vote-buying also occurs throughout the electoral cycle, from voter registration, party nominations, campaigns, and even on the election day. On election days, politicians conspire with elections officials to monitor voting behaviour and agents are hired at key voting stations to determine how people vote, and they compensate them for this. The public and private destruction of legitimate votes, ballot snatching, the “creation” of new votes from non-existent individuals, are all part of these corrupt practices. In days preceding the 2023 elections, reports and accusations of corruption between political candidates increased significantly, thus shedding light on the engrained culture of corruption, even by these individuals when in political office. The head of the local chapter of Transparency International, Auwal Rafsanjani, notes that party primaries presented clear cases of corruption, where vote-buying and bribing were common. The practice of ‘hijacking and commercialising’ the primaries make it difficult for honest candidates to emerge. In the recent elections, electoral observers noted the manipulation of votes on a large scale, the compromise of the new electronic voting system – the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS), long delays in counting the votes, and photographic proofs of vote counts having major irregularities. Fact checking organisation, Africa check, noted that information from the ground showed polling results from a unit in Sokoto State was uploaded in another unit in Rivers State. The switching of results was also reported in units in Imo, Lagos, and Rivers states.

Elitistism: Alliances are made between various elites to toss the country around amongst each other every eight years or so, as they see fit. Adekunle Adekoya notes how political parties are ‘special purpose vehicles’ where these elite alliances congregate to accumulate political power and access the resources of the nation. Politicians therefore campaign and win on a specific party platform, and after completing their terms, they defect to other parties or, in some instances, create their own parties. They fail to engage with the general population, except when their votes are needed. These elitist pacts overpower the voices of the many others who face very difficult conditions every day. Because of this, elections are about whose turn it is to pillage resources, sit at the helm of power and reward allies, and not about improving the economic, political, and security situations of the country. This form of elitism is when the ordinary people cannot vote for whom they want, but the elite decide using their resources, networks, and actions to influence the voting process. The constant crossing across party lines and defections by the political elite is very common, and in many instances they are not guided by issues or policies but personal interests and ambitions for power. In 2021, the defections of political elites like the Governor of Ebonyi State, Dave Umahi; Minister for Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio; Senator Elisha Abbo; former governor of Oyo State, Christopher Alao Akala; a former governor of Bayelsa State, Timipre Sylva; and current Edo State governor, Mr Godwin Obaseki, from the PDP to the APC, shows the elitist politics in Nigeria. According to Ayo Olukotun, these defectors switch parties in order to be awarded key political appointments or to forestall their prosecution or persecution by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. According to Emelike and Iniobong, in their many years of existence, the elite in Nigeria protect their assets and during elections make promises but fail to keep them. This elitist approach is seen through the divvying up of Nigeria’s resources and sharing positions among themselves, while leaving the rest of the country in massive underdevelopment and poverty. In his work, “Elite conspiracy against Nigerians”, Lekan Sote describes the elite consensus in Nigeria as “conspiracy against the interest of the poor masses and the most cunning scheme to convert the commonwealth of the country to the advantage of a few”.

Exclusion: Citizens are cut off from participating fully in elections. This is apparent through disallowing them from voting, using thugs and security sector personnel to terrify them off, unnecessary delays at voting stations, and non-supply of voting material. An article by Times Magazine on 1 March highlighted the strategy and structure of violence and theft in Nigeria’s elections. According to the Head of a women’s rights non-profit organisation called TechHerNG, who has been monitoring Nigeria’s elections since 2011, this strategy and structure of violence and theft were also evident in the recent elections, which resulted in the final outcome. The ECOWAS Electoral Observer Mission reported the late arrival of polling officials, delay in delivery of voting materials and delivery of the wrong voting materials at various polling stations. Reports from Channels News provide first-hand accounts of armed men shooting in the air in an active voting ward and burning ballot boxes, which means that some votes were not counted. News reports by Africa News and DW News present scattered episodes of violence at various polling stations across the country, with armed men stealing ballot boxes in efforts to disrupt the process and prevent people from voting. According to political analysts, there have been disruptions like these but on a larger scale in previous elections.

What is most alarming is that these characteristics have become well-established norms. These norms are captured by the “winner-takes-all” mentality that defines Nigeria’s elections, where individuals use all their resources and networks to win by all means, and violence is used through physical attacks on party candidates, their supporters, campaigns and voting sites. All of Nigeria’s elections since 1999 have been characterised by violence, delays, and allegations of fraud. The practice of vote buying includes buying voter cards from individuals to be used by someone else on voting day, the selling of empty voter registration cards to politicians from opposition parties and the use of funds (alleged to be ranging from $16 million to $25 million) in buying votes, as was the case during the 2015 primaries. The practice of party switching can be deemed as an inescapable reality of Nigerian politics as it is significant in winning or retention the of power, thus it is a highly common practice during elections. Norms here mean that elections in Nigeria will continue to be carried out in dishonest, elitist, and exclusionary manners – all of which are the antitheses of true democracy and fair elections. It is almost as if the expectation and the resulting action is that political parties, along with their party representatives and constituents, will continue to engage in elections fraud and rigging because it has become a regular way of practicing politics in the country. For the most part, Nigeria’s elections have always delivered on reports of elections rigging, manipulation of votes, threatening and disruptions of voting sites and paying whatever amount is needed to shift the votes to favour the highest “bidder”.

The bright light in all of this is the commitment of the Nigerian people to the elections process. This was evident in the longest voter turnout ever and their efforts, commitment, and peer support in obtaining their permanent voter cards (PVC), waiting to vote for hours on end and in spite of violent disruptions, waiting to see the votes counted and loudly questioning every dishonest action or activity. They have to contend with “those” who work aggressively and at all costs to manipulate, rig and win the elections, no matter what. These “others” show they have no respect or regard for the elections process and for the democracy they promote so loudly in public.

Elections can be an important and true reflection of the people’s ability to choose if:

  • There are new political parties that are not just a reflection of ethno-religious entities, but which present candidates that have proven records of performance, have shown fair and transparent use of funds, held records of ethical behaviour and practices, and had the right skills and abilities to perform their roles effectively;

  • The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is reviewed and composed of individuals who are not biased, and decentralised structures (in partnership with civil society and an unbiased media) that will ensure elections are devoid of influences that manipulate the vote. INEC must act immediately on the evidence of rigging;

  • There is a zero-tolerance policy for vote manipulation, thuggery and elections rigging. There should be speedy and rapid prosecution with dire consequences;

  • There are grassroots-led processes of unlearning the current practice of elections and newer processes of learning how elections should be conducted as they are meant to be: fair, organised, safe, inclusive, egalitarian, and above-board. This involves educating and equipping the general population on their rights and responsibilities as citizens;

  • Political parties are held to the highest standards of ethical and appropriate electoral behaviours. The use of inciting language, corrupt practices, thuggery, and any other actions that jeopardise the election process should not be allowed or tolerated. Party members and representatives should be held accountable for their corrupt activities and inflammatory language before, during and after elections.

As long as elections are not conducted as fairly as possible in their entirety: involving a process where citizens decide who to vote for without manipulation, fear or force, Nigeria’s false democracy will become the reality for many years to come. Elections should be simply what they are: that people vote, and their choices serve them. They should not be spaces for haggling, disruption, chaos, triviality, and further corruption.

Dorcas Ettang is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She holds a PhD in Conflict Transformation and Peace Studies.

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