Sam Amadi, Senior Lecturer, Baze University

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INEC as a weapon against free and fair elections 08 Mar 2023

In the context of the tragicomedy of the Nigerian election, one may be tempted to conclude, as President Olusegun Obasanjo did, that the leadership of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was compromised through financial inducement. This is a damning conclusion. But the utter lack of intelligence in the manner the election management body got itself into a rut raises concern that something may have caused a sudden failure of intelligence, something dark and corrupt.

It is ironic that it was INEC that finally nailed the credibility of the election it organised. We have always had problems with managing elections. But in 2015, we seemed to have escaped widespread irregularities. The election of that year produced the current government. It is interesting to note that a Supreme Court Justice described as ‘a sham’ one of the elections that President Muhammadu Buhari had lost before then. If this election goes to the Supreme Court, I wonder how the same justice, if he was sitting on the panel, would describe it.

President Buhari has incentive to conduct free and fair elections. He has the distinction of being the politician who defeated an incumbent President because the incumbent organised free and fair election and voluntarily handed power to him. He has also indicated he wants to leave a legacy of free and fair elections. This should be highly desired considering that he has so far failed woefully to achieve any of the objectives he set for his administration. Conducting free and fair elections and handing over peacefully to a legitimate president could cast brighter colours on his poor performance.

But INEC Chair, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, in a moment of regulatory recklessness incinerated any hope that Buhari will salvage anything of his tattered legacy. T his is an election that Nigerian pinned much hope after over seven years of extreme economic hardship and misery. The election was conducted after weeks of fuel scarcity, and scarcity of naira notes, which had subjected Nigerians to the worst-ever austerity.

But Nigerians were willing to go out and vote out the ruling party. It was an election period marked by an unusual excitement of the army of angry and frustrated Nigerians. The projection from pollsters was that the candidate of the third force, Peter Obi, would win, as long as there was massive turnout. Apparently, pollsters did not reckon with the corrupt Nigerian state institutions. Polls are usually accurate, but they do not factor rigging and violent disruptions arising from illegitimate use of the coercive power of the state.

Professor Yakubu, the chief regulator of the election, had assured multiple times that he would deliver free and fair elections. He was able to make such audacious promise because he had been enabled by the electoral law that mandated biometric accreditation of voters in place of the manipulable manual accreditation, and electronic transmission of election results through the Biometric Voter Accreditation System (BVAS). The mainstreaming of technology in election was to remove the albatross of manual collation of results which made Nigerian elections ‘shambolic’ as Justice Silvanus Nsofor put it.

These technological innovations motivated many Nigerian youth to swell the voter register and organise themselves into the third force to wrestle political power from status quo politicians in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Before the amendment of the electoral law, the electoral landscape in Nigeria came close to what Paul Collier of University of Oxford calls the criminal enterprise. Votes were harvested by those with ‘structure’, which means the capacity to steal the vote and force the courts to legitimise the outcome. Status quo politicians struggled to avoid legislation of transparency in the electoral process. But civic power was overwhelming, and the federal legislators grudgingly empowered INEC to use technology to protect the integrity of the ballot. INEC went ahead to enact guidelines that make it mandatory for every polling officer to immediately transmit results electronically to the electoral platform that is protected from manipulation. INEC Chairman continued to assure Nigerians that he would follow the guidelines.

But on Saturday, 25 February 2023, Professor Yakubu reminded everyone that this is a ‘third world’ country. He brushed aside the protection of electronic transmission of results and allowed results to be collated manually. He breached the clear provisions of the electoral law. Despite the protestation of leading opposition parties that staged a walkout, he validated the contested results, and declared a President-elect, claiming that the election management body has the right to disregard its regulations.

With one masterstroke, INEC dismantled the entire transparency and accountability framework for the election. Obasanjo fired a missile against INEC accusing it of being compromised by leaders of the ruling party to undermine the integrity of the electoral system and rig the polls for the candidate of the ruling party. He called for the cancellation of results in the places elections were rigged. The question everyone is asking is why INEC would violate its own regulations for credible, fair, and free elections. International and domestic observers are shocked at the irregularities and illegalities perpetrated by the election regulator.
Opposition leaders are heading to court to further judicialise electoral democracy. There are fears of possible violence. The President-elect has sued for peace, but his voice has been weakened by the fragrant violation of the electoral law and the widespread violence and irregularities that marred the elections. INEC’s regulatory failure again illustrates that it may be illusory to expect free and fair elections without free and fair institutions.

As Robert A. Dahl pointed out many years ago, polyarchy (competitive politics) is not possible in a society where the dominant political groups are in monopoly control of coercion and economic resources and have no restraint in utilising them to block competitors out of power. On 25 February 2023, INEC turned to a weapon against free and fair elections.  
Sam Amadi, PhD, a former Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, is the Director of Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts.