Like the fingers of one hand, these groups all need perform their roles effectively to ensure successful elections. But also, like a hand the slight lack of capacity in one finger does not prevent the functions of the hand.
The media’s role has always been particularly important to maintain a peaceful, just and egalitarian society. It is also particularly precarious because the major political players use the media as a tool to advance their own interests.
The constant attempts by government to “regulate” (read suppress opposition voices), the rise of fake news and the decentralization of information dissemination by the rise of social media makes the role of the media all the more important, and all the more precarious.
The media faced myriad of challenges in the performance of their roles in the 2023 general elections. Notable among these was the deployment of fake news which was done blatantly and effectively by major political players or on their behalf. It was so widely done that observer agencies had to note the desperation political players had to spread damaging, but fake news, against opponents.
In many instances, the media did not live up to its fact checking responsibilities. In other instances, it did so too late. In yet other instances, it did not matter because political players persisted and the people went ahead to believe what they wanted to.
A third challenge the media faced was the deployment of incendiary and inflammatory rhetoric. Given that this was the first election since 1999 where a major political party fielded a Muslim-Muslim ticket, the nation was already charged along religious lines. This was a topic that ought to have been handled with the greater care and responsibility than it was. In the end, it pushed to the country to the brink, from which the country has not really recovered.
Closely allied to this was the conversation around the ethnicity and zoning. Like the conversation around religion, this was a charged topic. And like the conversation around religion, the conversation around ethnicity and zoning was perhaps not handled with the care and sensitivity with which it should have been.
One can reasonably surmise that the media could have, and should have, done better in assessing the twin issues of religion and ethnicity and their roles in our society, as well as leading the national conversation about the importance of religious consideration vis a vis the need for national cohesion and tangible development.
In my assessment, the media did not do enough to point out the critical security challenges the electoral umpire faced before, during and after the elections. For instance, over a 4-year period between 2019 and 2023 there were 50 attacks on INEC facilities in the country. A breakdown shows that in 2019, INEC recorded eight attacks; 22 in 2020, 12 in 2021, and eight in 2022. The incidents occurred in Osun, Ogun, Lagos, Ondo, Bayelsa, Anambra, Imo, Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Cross River, Enugu, Ebonyi, Kaduna, Borno, and Taraba states. One is of the opinion that not enough media spotlight was given to these attacks which were obviously done to weaken the capacity of the electoral umpire to conduct free and fair elections.
Finally, the media did not always perform its role of leading the conversation on critical issues. In some instance, the media caught onto those issues late and in others, not at all. The end result was that the public often got its information and had its narrative shaped by opinions on social media by political players, most of whom had agendas.
It is important to the consideration of the above identified issues to probe whether the ownership structures of the media house and the political inclinations of their owners impede the objectivity and performance of the media. In many cases, the correlation between owners and the political leanings on the one hand and the reportage and slant on critical issues on the other is very apparent for all to see, especially in cases where the owners are prominent members of political parties or are aligned with one political divide or the other.
One must also consider that many media houses simply shy away from firm, objective and consistent reportage of critical issues simply for the fear of losing advertising patronage, particularly from government. As a result, critical issues and events are barely discussed and, where reported, are barely footnotes hidden at the bottom of pages in obscure segments of print and audiovisual programming.
I will not deign to tell professionals such as yourselves how to carry out their jobs. I will, however, sound a note of caution. Social media presents a valid threat to the existence of conventional media and will weaken its effectiveness and reduce its relevance if the media does not retake the lead on reportage, lead conversation relevant to the Nigerian people and provide unbiased and objective analysis of the issues as they occur.
The Nigerian media needs to find the fine balance between the instinctive need to survive and pay the bills vis a vis the duty to give fair, unbiased and objective reportage on issues are critical to the Nigerian people. You have to evolve or you will slowly watch the media industry as you know it die.
Any credible assessment of elections in Nigeria has to appraise the entire process from start to finish, and not pick at parts of the process in isolation. In this wise, it is worthy to note that the 2023 elections had the following important highpoints:
There are many other examples. However, most of the post-election assessment of the elections has unfairly been narrowed down to the deployment of the Bimodal Verification and Accreditation System (BVAS) and the Instant Result Viewing portal, IReV.
BVAS was designed to perform the dual role of curbing incidents of impersonation by ensuring that only a properly accredited voter could cast his or her ballot and transmitting the results from the polling unit directly to the IReV portal.
Several local and foreign observers have put its performance at 98% success rate in ensuring successful accreditation of voters. This level of success is phenomenal and is evidence that a lot of work has been done to curb incidents of multiple voting and overvoting.
However, the BVAS machines suffered a set-back when they encountered a glitch in the system which caused a collapse of the IReV portal making it impossible for the results to be transmitted in real time. This led to INEC suspending the electronic transmission of results and relying on manual transmission, as also allowed by law, while work was being done to fix the system.
The Commission receiving severe criticism over the occurrence of this glitch, perhaps rightly so. But having suffered a technical glitch in the middle of election day, INEC did the best it could, in compliance with the provisions of the law, and ensured that the manual transmission of the results was done, and copies of Forms EC8 appropriately handed over to the political party agents as well as pasted on a wall at the polling unit.
I will not bother to go into the fine print of the legalese stipulated by our court systems. But I want to draw your attention to certain numbers.
|NO OF VOTES
|NO OF VOTES
|NO OF VOTES
|PDP + LP + NNPP
Given these numbers and these facts, it is next to impossible to conclude that the elections were rigged.
One must admit that the Commission faced a number of other challenges in the conduct of the election, most of which were not of its own making. If one considers that the elections were held in the middle of a debilitating cash crunch as well as a fuel scarcity, one will reach a conclusion that the Commission deserves commendation for getting its logistics around the distribution of sensitive electoral materials right.
Of course, one cannot complete an assessment of INEC’s role in the 2023 elections without commenting on the poor conduct of INEC permanent and ad-hoc staff in isolated incidents across the country. We had instances of senior officials going rogue like in Adamawa State, where the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), declared a candidate winner without due process of any sort of legal authority to do so.
We also had instances where ad-hoc staff, retained to ensure the smooth conduct of the elections, received monetary inducements to sabotage the same processes. We all know that many Nigerians see the elections as an opportunity to cash out and indeed create pockets of challenges in the process.
However, one must commend the Commission’s determination to follow the process of the law an ensure the prosecution of all officials caught sabotaging the electoral process. The announcement that the Commission intends to prosecute as many as 215 people for various electoral offences is commendable. If you recall, in the aftermath of the 2019 elections, the Commission prosecuted as many as 300 people for various electoral offences and secured over 200 convictions. What this means is that it is establishing a pattern for the arrest, prosecution and conviction of electoral offenders – something that was never done before.
The occurrence of internal sabotage of the electoral process was to be expected. In the months before the 2023 elections, several Resident Election Commissioners (RECs) were appointed and sworn into office. These appointments were made in apparent violation of the provisions of the law and in spite of protestations by many stakeholders over their partisan pasts. These included at least a former governorship candidate of a political party; the younger sister of the South East National Vice President of a political party; a former civil servant dismissed from service in a state on account of corruption, and the manager of a hotel belonging to a politician who served as minister at the time of the appointment.
A cursory study of the electoral trends will show that many illegal activities occurred and attempts at disrupting the system occurred in the states where these people were posted to serve.
I do not believe there was sufficient public pressure to resist these appointments and attempts at sabotaging the electoral process from within. I also do not believe that enough was done to bring this issue to the limelight.
On a connected note, one must point out that there has been a slow but remarkable departure in the “activist” outlook displayed by the Commission since 2015. This departure is not unconnected with the reduced appointment of people from the civic space and committed advocates for a return to democracy to members and acolytes of political parties who have a clear and present incentive to be biased. I am rather disappointed that this is happening, given that this activist approach has led to an improvement in the legal and regulatory framework around elections and the deployment of technology designed to improve the credibility of elections.
We have seen several instances in the past where the electoral umpire has insisted on preserving its credibility as an unbiased umpire by disowning results whose integrity it could not vouch for. Unfortunately, it has not done so often enough and seems increasingly reluctant to do so. I will give an example by citing the Kogi State gubernatorial election of 2019 and asserting that the electoral umpire had no business given the wide scale violence that destroyed the credibility of the results, a fact attested to by INEC staff, CSOs and observer groups that participated in the elections. There are so many cases where the Commission departed from recent history and failed, refused and neglected to intervene in blatant cases of electoral malpractice.
This is a stance that the Commission must depart from. Otherwise, it will give vent to increasing levels of desperation within the political class, who are already desperate enough as it is.
My final comment on the Commission is note its failure to replicate its commitment to open and transparent information dissemination as it did in 2019. In the build up to the 2019 elections, the Commission deployed all its available resources – including its chairman – on all available media platforms to keep Nigerians informed of the state of the election, especially when a postponement was announced. On the contrary, in 2023 the Commission failed to keep Nigerians sufficiently informed of events as they occurred, particularly when the IReV portal experienced a glitch leading to it malfunctioning. This failure ultimately led to a vacuum which was ultimately filled with a potent mixture of facts and conjecture that have almost undermined the credibility of the process.
Commendably, the 2023 elections were held in a largely peaceful atmosphere across the country. In most places, people were able to arrive their polling units, cast their ballots, wait for the announcement of results and go home without any incidents or breach of the peace. One must point out that the coordinated deployment of security agents led to a drop in the casualty figures from the two previous election cycles.
However, there were a number of flashpoints in certain states that nearly led to a breakdown of law and order. Notable amongst these states are Benue, Cross Rivers, Delta, Imo, Kano, Kogi, Lagos and Rivers.
There must be some criticism for the security agencies regarding these incidents of violence. In many cases, the security agents deployed to provide security for the peaceful conduct of the elections actually provided operational cover to enable the perpetration of these acts of violence by thugs sponsored by political players. In other cases, they stood by unwilling and unable to do anything to stop the violence. And in other cases, they responded late to calls for help or did not respond at all.
It must be said that 161 reported casualties, as well as the maiming of several others and kidnappings of several others, is bad enough – no matter that there was a reduction in the occurrence of such events from previous years.
The security agencies have to do more to discipline officers who collaborate to subvert the electoral process, improve response times and train officers in de-escalation techniques while ensuring the integrity of the electoral process.
The security agencies also have to do more pro-active policing aimed at gathering intelligence and preventing these attacks before they occur. It is no longer enough to react long after the attacks have been carried out, nor has it ever been enough.
To achieve this, the security agencies have to overcome the problem of under-policing and over-policing during elections. While I am aware that it seems incongruous to this, a careful study of elections will reveal that this is an actual problem that occurs when large numbers of security agents are deployed in urban centres or specific locations to the detriment of rural areas or other locations. The result is what while elections remain peaceful in certain areas due to the concentration of security agents there, it leaves other areas susceptible to the nefarious activities of political thugs.
Hopefully, we will get to a point in the not-too-distant future where there are no casualties or breaches of the peace during the conduct of our elections.
But it almost feels like this is a vain hope given that the security agencies are mostly deployed with partisan considerations in the first place. It happens all too often that security personnel are deployed to parts of the country and allowed to operate with obvious partisan agenda. How then will elections be peaceful when the security agencies who have the duty to maintain the peace descend into the arena on behalf of one side?
And the true conundrum about this descent into the arena is that it varies according to local considerations in the various. As such, a security agency that may be pliable and favourable to a political interest in an area may be aggressive against it in another area.
Nigeria desperately needs a return to a situation where the security agencies are loyal to the Federal Republic of Nigeria and our constitution rather than this situation of being loyal to different fiefdoms and interests.
The role of CSOs and Observer groups in the 2023 electoral cycle cannot be over-emphasized. The deployment of many of the legal, regulatory and technological innovations for the 2023 elections were only possible because of the relentless pressure applied by CSOs to ensure the passage of the Electoral Act 2022. I must speak to the memory of my late friend and brother, Comrade Ariyo “Aristotle” Atoye, who drove the process and rallied critical stakeholders to pressure the National Assembly. Unfortunately, he passed away in October 2022 and did not live to see the benefits of his hard work in operation. May his soul continue to rest in peace.
Many CSOs also played very commendable roles in voter education and sensitization. They spearheaded so many initiatives designed to discourage flaws like vote buying, electoral violence and to encourage high voter turnout and peaceful conduct during the elections.
It is important to observe that the participation of CSOs was not all positive. There are several instances where CSO were established or retained with the intention of pushing negative and divisive rhetoric along regional, ethnic or religious lines or to promote fake news or to attack political opponents. In so doing, their activities served to heighten tensions and worsen the climate in which the elections were held.
This presents us with the need for an urgent national conversation around the role of CSOs in our democratic process. It has become increasingly important to find the balance between the rights to freedom of speech and the rights to freedom of association vis a vis the need for some sort of regulation that prevents organizations from exacerbating tensions during electoral season.
There were several commendable things about the participation of observer groups in this electoral cycle. Most notable amongst these was they served to point out the loopholes/gaps in the electoral process and make recommendations to plug such gaps in the future.
However, many observer groups did not observe the entire electoral process and so only gave their recommendations about election day activities. As such many of the recommendations do not give any insights about how to improve pre-election day aspects of the process.
It must be said that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a CSO and observer group that gives a fair, balanced and objective assessment of the electoral process. And this is traceable to the vice like grip the government and donor agencies have over the activities of these organizations. It has also become increasingly frequent to see reports written by these organizations differ greatly from the press statements and media interventions they make.
The end result is that one is often left wondering whose/which agenda CSOs and observe groups serve, why the conflicting positions and where (if) one can find unbiased and objective assessments of the electoral process. And this presents a challenge to the improvement of the process as it becomes difficult to find objective ways to improve the electoral process.
For instance, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) prepared a report that assess the 2023 general elections as fair and credible, a far cry from what is contained in the press statements made by the organization and media interventions given by its staff, which gained significantly more traction than the report.
It is my recommendation that more electoral observer groups get involved in the Nigerian election process from the beginning rather than only towards election day. This will, amongst other things, ensure that gaps in the process are identified and plugged well ahead of time.
I also strongly recommend that CSOs and observer groups find and toe the fine line between the instinctive need to maintain their funding and the duty to objectively assess the electoral process and report their findings to the Nigerian people.
Having discussed all else, I will now come to the biggest challenge to the electoral system itself – the politicians. It is ironic that politicians pose the biggest threat to a democratic process. However, the winner takes all nature of our political system means that politicians have the most incentive to subvert the process. And over the years, they have demonstrated the willingness and desperation to subvert it.
The ingenuity employed by politicians to seek out the loopholes in the legal and regulatory framework is enormous and their determination to find the gaps the process cannot be over emphasized.
It is the politicians that have designed the system of vote buying to circumvent the innovation of card readers and BVAS. It is the politicians that offer monetary inducements to key stakeholders in the electoral process including security agents and staff of the electoral commission to subvert the process or to look the other way. It is the politicians who continuously stress test the electoral eco-system to find the ways to weaken the process and gain an undue advantage. It is the politicians who pay thugs to disrupt the casting of votes and collation of results, and in so doing endanger the lives and properties of Nigerians.
It is now evident that the first step towards ensuring freer and more credible elections must resolve with designing systems that limit the influence politicians have over the electoral process. And this limitation must begin with reducing the influence politicians have over the appointment and employment of permanent and ad-hoc staff of the Commission.
We must also ensure speedier trials for people found subverting the process, including the politicians who offer the inducement and provide the logistic support, and enact legislation prescribing stiffer punishment for those crimes.
The challenge with achieving this objective is that we require the input of the very politicians whose excesses and influence we seek to curb in the first place. While the deployment of technology is proving very effective in curbing the shenanigans of the politicians, the human factors still remain highly susceptible to the inducements provided by the politicians.
I hope we find a solution to this conundrum soon because before our eyes the politicians are displaying and will continue to display a determination to find an undue advantage by subverting the electoral process as much as they can.
Even as I say it, the difficulty of this prospect stares me in the face. After all, it is the same politicians who perpetually refuse to abide by the internal rules of their own parties or conduct free, fair and credible primary processes, and who deploy all sorts of vicious antics against even their own party members.
Every single act of violence, every single piece of fake news, every manipulation of the electoral process, the subversion of law and regulations and the use of divisive rhetoric are always traceable to the interests of one politician or the other. And it leaves one in wonder – if you are so desperate to be voted for, why not just do good and be good to the people so they reward you with their votes? Why fail and then desperately seek to hijack the electoral process to get into office?
Nigerians seem to have the short end of the stick with its political class and scarily it appears that there is no help in sight.
This stance has become necessary in the wake of the all too frequent inconsistencies displayed by the judiciary, many times in violation of the provisions of the law and in flagrant disregard for decades of jurisprudence and decisions of the Court. Or the reliance on technicalities to determine cases rather than doing substantial justice in a bid to protect interests of politicians.
It has long since been the desired position that elections should be decided by the ballots not by the courts. However, every Nigerian must be worried when a former senator stands in the hallowed chambers of the Senate to say his wife used to give favourable judgments to his colleagues. Every Nigerian must be alarmed when a senator alleges that his election was overturned at the behest of the President of the Senate because he did not pander to certain interests. Every Nigerian must be concerned when a retiring Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria alleges that the bench is a cesspool of corruption, increasingly people by judges appointed on the basis of nepotism rather than competence and increasingly unwilling to be a fair arbiter in the best interest of the wider population.
It used to be that the outcome of certain cases can be determined by a careful study of previous decisions of our courts in the knowledge that the principles of stare decisis or judicial precedents will apply. However, this is no longer the case. It now seems “justice” is served dependent on the parties before the courts and whose interests need to be protected rather than the law.
Otherwise, how do you explain the judgment of the Supreme Court that declared Senator Ahmed Lawan as the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate for Yobe North, even though he clearly did not participate in the primaries to produce a candidate? Or how do you explain the judgment of the National Assembly Election Petition Tribunal sitting in Imo State nullifying the election of Ikenga Ugochinyere as the House of Representatives member for the Ideato Federal Constituency on the basis that the primary of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) did not comply with the party’s constitution, even though the position of the law and the Supreme Court is that only members of parties who participated in a primary can challenge the outcome of that primary? The list goes on and on.
We have departed from an era when litigants approached courts as the last hope of the common man into an era where the judiciary has become a willing tool in the hands of the political elite who subvert the electoral process to further rob the people of their electoral choices.
The unfortunate thing is that this era into which we have been unwillingly pushed threatens to consume us all as it only ensures that an already desperate political class is given an extra incentive for further desperation. And unless something is urgently done to compel the judiciary to assume its role as an impartial arbiter, politicians will view elections as a no holds barred venture they must win, regardless of the rules. And the phrase, “Go to court” will continually be thrown around in condescension and mockery.
The good thing is that the judiciary can save itself. The National Judicial Commission must immediately and more forcefully implement its rules and regulations and enforce its powers of supervision and discipline of any judge found to have given judgment that fly against the letter and the spirit of the law, and the disregard of jurisprudential principles established over the years. This internal mechanism designed to self-heal must be activated while there is still hope and while the faith of the public in the judiciary can still be restored. Otherwise, a day will come when the judgment of the people will be visited on the judiciary, as it is being visited on Nigeria’s political elite.