By Tazoacha Asonganyi inYaounde.
The readers would probably have already heard or read by now that both local and international election observers have praised the Nigerian elections as a great improvement over past elections. They probably also heard or read that I was one of the international observers of the elections. Since the Nigerian elections are a momentous event shortly before our own elections in October 2011, it is worth sharing some experiences.
The elections were organized within the backdrop of the 2003 and 2007 elections in Nigeria which Nigerians say have gone down in history as the most flawed and the most fraudulent elections in the history of elections in the world. They say this in the isolation of their own experience, not knowing that if those elections were to be placed on the same league of most flawed and most fraudulent elections with those in Cameroon, Cameroon’s would occupy places higher up in the league than theirs. In any case, when you are with election experts like were found in the NDI delegation and get the cynical questions they ask you about Cameroon elections, you know that those conversant with election history know what passes in Cameroon for elections.
“Well done!” This is a banal phrase in Nigeria that can be a greeting or the response to a greeting. After having observed the national assembly and presidential elections in Nigeria, I can say “well done” to Nigerians, this time to mean that they did very well. In the build-up to the elections, “free, fair, and credible” became like a password with every stakeholder mouthing it with abandon: officials of the independent national electoral commission (INEC), the paramilitary forces, journalists, and members of opposition and ruling parties, including Goodluck Jonathan himself. In the end, I can confirm that the elections were free, fair, and credible.
Indeed, when Goodluck Jonathan took over the presidency of Nigeria following Yar’Adua’s demise, he promised he would deliver among other things, credible polls to Nigeria. Not many people believed him because in Africa, many of those who seek public office would not want the public to put them there. It was feared that he would use the power of incumbency to influence the process in his favour, like his predecessors had done. The end has vindicated him, showing that he chose to be remembered as a serving president in Africa who did not use his office to influence an election in which he was a candidate. He achieved this by picking the right caliber of persons into INEC, providing the commission with over 88 billion Naira (some 264 billion FCFA) for registration of voters and other logistics, publicly promising to leave office if he was defeated, and telling everybody who wanted to listen that “in the election not only (would) votes count, all the votes (would) be counted.” Since the successful national assembly elections came before the presidential election, they served him well because they gave him the tag of a candidate that matches words with action; who delivers on promises…
Before these successful elections, elections were said to have become the political Albatross of Nigeria’s democratic journey. Their bitter electoral experiences had taught them to distrust all public officials, and to suspect their motives. But here was a university don, Professor Attahiru Jega who had been thrust on them. He enjoyed their trust and confidence, probably because of the saying that the character of an individual can influence the structure he or she heads. His arrival at the helm of INEC caused Nigerians to place their hope in the saying that political mediocrity may prevail for a while, but in the end, it is exposed and shamed by the changing times.
In a way, times had changed, and Nigeria’s time seemed to have come. Nigerians seemed to be confident about the power of their vote; everybody was talking about the need for their voices to be heard. In that, the boisterous press was whipping them on, and the advent of people power that was being played out in North Africa added a feeling of great power and confidence, and strengthened their belief that a determined people can change their destiny at any time. And so when Jega postponed the national assembly elections of April 2 when the people were already lined up in their polling stations to vote, there was fear for the worst. It turned out that the people’s patience and trust in Jega were seriously bruised, but they remained hopeful, not without crying out that Nigeria had again been “disgraced and messed up” in the eyes of the world. The enthusiasm with which they received international election observers seemed to indicate that “the eyes of the world” they were talking about were provided by us, international election observers.
Apart from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) observers that were there, I also saw observers from the European Union (EU), the Commonwealth, the International Republican Institute (IRI), the African Union (AU), and the Economic Commission for West Africa (ECOWAS). There were also thousands of Domestic Election Observers from various civil society organizations including the CLEEN Foundation for monitoring the security services, and coalitions like Election Situation Room Monitoring, Election Incident Report Platform, Project Swift Count 2011, etc.
Upon arrival in Abuja the NDI took its 50-plus observers through a three-day seminar of sorts, during which the atmosphere around the Nigerian elections was presented to us. The electoral framework and overall political environment was presented by experts including the renowned Justice Mohammed Uwais of the Uwais electoral reform commission fame; some civil society activists presented non-partisan views on the elections, while other activists discussed citizen engagement, voter education, and citizen election monitoring groups. Media insights and perspectives were presented by renowned newspaper editors and publishers, and the security plans around the elections were presented by some of the highest security officials in Nigeria, including the Director General of State security services and the chief of policy at the office of the national security adviser.
There was also dialogue with religious leaders, including the Chief Imam of Abuja national mosque and the Catholic Bishop of Abuja. We also had briefings from some of the 63 registered political parties (20 of the 63 parties fielded candidates for the presidential election), and the special assistant to the INEC chairman who briefed us on the plans, procedures, and operations adopted by INEC for the elections. These briefings were crowned by insights from NDI Long Term Observers who had been in the field in Nigeria since January 2011 to observe pre-election
Nigerian Elections And The North-South Divide.
Before his appointment, Jega was reputed for his integrity and uprightness; he was known to be a bold, no-nonsense man. The pre-electoral briefings we got left us with no doubt that he enjoyed the trust of Nigerians across the political divide. Once he was appointed head of INEC, he made demands on the executive and legislative arm of government that he felt would allow the commission to organize free, fair, and credible elections. He was given the budget he needed, and the electoral act was adjusted many times to meet his requests. INEC, like ELECAM in Cameroon is not a legislator, but Jega did not spend his time reminding people about that!
He bought Direct Data Capture equipment which allowed him to register 73.528.040 Nigerians in a short period of time using the biometric system. All those registered went away with their voter’s cards bearing their photos and other identification information that showed the state, local government area, polling unit, and the polling station of the voter; the same information and the photograph appeared automatically in the general register in the central processing unit. At the end of the exercise, some 870.612 registered voters were identified as multiple registrations; those registered were classified into 119 973 polling units, and some 245.000 polling stations with each polling station having some 300 voters. Some critics saw the over 73 million figure as raw and inflated, claiming that it was not verified to weed out multiple registrations through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). However, some voters with voters’ cards that did not find their names in electoral registers on Election Day were said to be people whose names had been weeded out because they registered more than once.
I was sent to Gombe state for the national assembly elections and to the Cross River state for the presidential. As an election observer, you want to observe all the stages of the election in the area to which you are sent. The strategy is to carefully choose a few polling stations at representative areas at which you can observe how the elections are conducted for all the key stages. For the Nigerian elections such key stages included: 1) opening of the polling station during which the accreditation procedure is explained to the voters, 2) accreditation or verification of the eligibility of voters using their voter’s card, 3) opening the polling station for voting, 4) voting, closing the poll, counting, public declaration of results, distribution of result sheets, and posting of results at the polling station, 5) transfer of results from the polling station to the collation unit, 6) collation or addition of results from different polling stations in the unit, declaration of results at the collation unit, and posting of results at the collation unit. By the time you have gone through these stages, it is time to call it a day because the NDI is very strict on security. The collation that continues at the Local Government Area, at the constituency, state, and national levels as the case may be, were all done in public with the security services, representatives of political parties, the press, and observers present; results were declared, distributed and published at each stage.
Because of past experiences with ballot box snatching by political thugs, INEC adopted a “modified open ballot system.” There are separate periods for accreditation and voting. Voters arrive at their polling stations between 8 a.m. and 12 noon and line up for accreditation during which the polling agents ensure that the information on the voter’s card conforms to that in the register of voters; the name of the voter is then ticked in the register, and their fingers are marked with indelible ink. They remain in the polling zone until 12 noon when they line up and come forward one by one for their identities to be verified, their fingers marked again with indelible ink, before they collected the single ballot paper from the polling station officials; they then put their fingerprint against the party/candidate they want and cast their vote. Those who are not on the queue at the start of the voting process are not allowed to join the line later. In principle, voters were directed to stay at the polling station after voting to “protect their vote.” Counting started at 4 p.m. or when everybody on the line had voted. During the pre-election period the security services expressed fear that massing up at the polling stations after voting would cause security problems, but in the end, there was no violence or disorder related to that process.
Gombe is a state in the northern part of Nigeria, Cross River in the south. The areas I covered in these two states showed clearly the divide between North and South, with the CPC of Mohammadou Buhari calling the shots in the north while the PDP of Goodluck Jonathan called the shots in the south. Although this divide was not very clear following the national assembly elections, it came out very clearly during the presidential election. However, Jonathan’s gains in the north during the presidential election were far more than Buhari’s in the south. I doubt that with the electoral process we observed, there was any computer programme to defraud Buhari of his votes, or that his votes were not counted in the south, as he is claiming. Buhari seems to be just a bad loser!
No human endeavour can ever be 100% perfect, especially when it involves thousands of people required to act in synergy. The shortcomings were highlighted by the NDI and the other observer teams that were in the field. In my assessment based on what I personally observed in the areas where I was present, INEC performed very well. The fact that the results were declared and displayed publicly at the various levels, including distributing copies to security officials, and representatives of political parties, left very little leeway for manipulation of the results from the ballot boxes. Indeed, Project Swift Count 2011, a joint initiative of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), Federation of Muslim Women Associations of Nigeria (FOMWAN), and Justice Development and Peace/Carritas Nigeria (JDPC) scored the national assembly elections 96% in credibility index. It is certain that the score for the presidential election is not too different.
Nigerian Elections: Security, Violence, and Symbolism
By the time the elections were taking place, there had been the twin bomb blasts around Eagle Square on the 50th Anniversary of Nigeria, and many others without a clue as to who was behind them. Over 130 people had been killed with over 400 injured in pre-election related violence since July 2010. Property worth billions of Naira had been destroyed. Therefore the greatest worry of Nigerians during the whole electoral process was violence. There was a bomb blast at Suleja on the eve of the April 9 national assembly elections, and in Maiduguri on Election Day.
The paramilitary services – Nigeria Prisons Services, Nigeria Customs Services, Nigeria Immigration Services, Nigeria Police, etc. – all came together under the command of the police, and provided security officials that were present at polling stations. They had all received thorough training with respect to the elections, and sworn to respect a code of conduct during the elections. At the polling stations I visited both in Gombe and Cross River, I saw at least three security officials per polling station, each wearing a special identification batch. They succeeded to make the process violence free, until Jonathan was declared winner of the presidential poll by the president of INEC Attahiru Jega.
Buhari had since said that election riggers are worse than armed robbers and so in 2011 they would deserve the same treatment reserved for robbers...He had since directed his supporters to “lynch” election riggers. Following the presidential election, here was the man claiming that the presidential election had been rigged in favour of Jonathan! In addition, the Northern Political Leaders Forum (NPLF) had been saying that Jonathan’s presidential interests would “cause irreparable damage to the peace and oneness” of Nigeria. Now that there is post-electoral violence in the north, everybody is condemning the violence, forgetting that in the words of James Brice, they had already sown the seeds (of violence) in the embryo beneath their feet, like seeds hidden in the snow of winter, which will shoot out under April sunlight…
Eleventh hour allies always have something incongruous about them. The Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) of Buhari and The Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) of Akande/Tinubu tried to enter into an eleventh hour agreement to see how they could work together to wrest power from the ruling PDP by preventing Jonathan from winning. The two parties agreed initially that between them, the party that would win more National Assembly seats would produce the presidential candidate while the other party would produce the leadership of the Assembly. This was when the CPC looked forward to sweeping the north.
When Atiku Abubakar the consensus candidate of the north for the PDP primaries was beaten by Jonathan, the hope of the north of retaining the presidency seemed to have turned to Mohammadou Buhari of the CPC. Unfortunately for the CPC, the shinning lights of the party were crossovers from other parties that had put in place the system the CPC was promising to bring an end to once it got to power. In the eyes of the electorate, the same people who were around Buhari promising them heaven and earth to be delivered by the CPC, were the same people who yesterday were in the PDP and other parties, lording it over them. Therefore the image the CPC was reflecting was not different from that of the ruling party it was claiming it wanted to dislodge. Many analysts are pinning the poor performance of CPC candidates during the national assembly elections in the north on the people’s view of the candidates as opportunists.
The poor performance of the CPC at the national assembly polls seems to have jilted the northern elite who still hoped that in spite of the northern consensus candidate losing the PDP primaries, the presidency could still return to the north. This is why a few days to the presidential election, it was reported that the CPC and ACN were negotiating to produce one presidential candidate between them. This of course, was not the real news. The real news was the involvement of 3 former presidential candidates – General Babangida, General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, and Alhadji Atiku Abubakar – a group referred to as G3 – all PDP members! What was interesting about the G3 is that all three had signed the agreement of the Mallam Adamu Ciroma-led Northern Political Leaders Forum (NPLF) to produce a consensus candidate of the north to challenge Jonathan in the PDP primaries. G3 probably saw in Buhari a joker to meet the fading goals of NPLF, which were to complete the second presidential term of Umaru Yar’Adua which was considered a northern presidency.
It is probably for these reasons that when the G3 got involved, the initial deal that the party that performed better at the national assembly polls would provide the presidential candidate was reneged on. The ACN and its presidential candidate Nuhu Ribadu were convinced to accept that they would give up their presidential candidacy to Buhari. So the rumour mill was set in motion that Ribadu had stepped down for Buhari!
Symbols are a vehicle of political communication. Symbols and symbolic acts ascertain deep seated political values far beyond the public expression of political views. Buhari, Babangida, Gusau, and Atiku have never been good political bedfellows. I think that the involvement of G3 to promote the candidature of Buhari was a highly symbolic political act that was meant to send a strong message to the grassroots in the north that the northern agenda was still on, and depended on Buhari. The negotiation probably failed because its success was not the main aim of G3; their main aim seemed to be to send the message to the northern grassroots that the northern agenda still enjoyed their blessing. The results of the presidential poll in the north showed that the northern grassroots received their message 5 on 5. The violence that broke out in the north is a reflection of the hope that their veiled message generated in the grassroots.
Displacing a ruling party needs a lot of hard work, sacrifice, sincerity of purpose, good faith, the ultimate motive of promoting the national interest, and being prepared to give something when various interests are tabled. Before the presidential election, both the ACN and CPC, the two leading opposition parties, had acknowledged that neither of them had the strength and national spread to take on Jonathan’s PDP. They had acknowledged that an alliance was their only saving grace. The ACN, the strongest opposition party according to the national assembly election results, was even prepared to give up its presidential ambition to encourage the CPC to enter the alliance. In the end, the two parties went to the election separately, and were soundly defeated by the PDP. This has lessons for opposition parties elsewhere, especially in Cameroon where the playing field is not as level as Nigeria’s.