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As the Count Begins

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By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

Africa’s largest experiment in electoral democracy is underway as Nigeria counts the votes cast in its presidential and parliamentary elections, which occurred on Saturday, 25 February 2023. It is too soon to say who Nigeria’s next president will be and it may be a few days yet before the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announces the results. 

The early evidence appears to confirm pre-election suggestions that the race will be a close one between Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition, Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP); Peter Obi of the insurgent Labour Party (LP), and Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), with Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples’ Party (NNPP) in a respectable showing. 

The election season has been full of incidents many of which will affect the credibility of whatever the INEC chooses to announce as the results when they do.

Two days before the opening of voting in Africa’s largest elections, the candidates in Nigeria’s presidential elections met in Abuja, the Federal Capital, on 23 February 2023, to sign a “peace accord” promising to eschew violence and hate speech in the ballot and to accept the outcome peacefully. The accord is the idea of the National Peace Committee, a leadership initiative led by Abdulsalami Abubakar, the former Army General who transitioned Nigeria to civil rule in May 1999.

This was the second of such accords by the candidates in the campaign season preceding the vote. A similar accord signed in September 2022 did not much preclude a campaign season in which reports of intolerance and violence sign-posted a fractured political landscape that very much sums up the toxic legacies of nearly eight years of Muhammadu Buhari’s second misadventure in power. 

It was not entirely clear how or why the National Peace Committee divined that two peace accords were needed to police one election. The fact that it considered a second accord essential suggests that the first was insufficient or ineffective. If the Committee bothered to report on why the first accord failedor as to what it did to preclude such an outcome, it did not make such a report public.

All the evidence suggests that the parties and their candidates did not much regard the peace accord. A report issued on the eve of commencement of voting on 24 February 2022 by the Incident Centre for Election Atrocities (ICEA), a civic coalition that tracks election-related violence in Nigeria, compiled in two month period beginning in December 2022 “at least 89 incidents of politically-motivated killings (including of 30 security personnel) and 18 abductions (including of 1 Police Officer). There were at least 13 attacks on political campaign rallies. Within the period, there were at least 7 arson attacks on INEC facilities and at least 12 brazen attacks on police, military and para-military facilities.” At least one senior politician was beheaded in Imo State in south-east Nigeria; another was incinerated in the week of the ballot. 

Voting itself took place in a context of considerable public anxiety. A re-design of the country’s currency implemented shortly before the election, resulted in what the New York Timesdescribed as “chaos and suffering” which threatened to tip the country into mass unrest. Deprived of their loot of cash with which to induce voters or buy election officials to skew the results, State Governors mostly belonging to the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, claimed to have secured a controversial and unclear temporary order from Nigeria’s Supreme Court to defer implementation of the currency change, adding to the air of uncertainty around the elections. President Muhammadu Buhari, who had communicated a desire to create a level playing field for the vote, gave his support to the Central Bank to see through the implementation of the currency reform, effectively drying up much of the usual flow of money used to corrupt Nigeria’s elections and infinitely escalating the costs for anyone wishing to buy votes. 

Voting day witnessed significant incidents of violenceacross the country. In many parts of Lagos and in parts of Rivers State, reports suggested patterns of violence consistent with voter intimidation and suppression. In Lagos, there were rampant reports of attacks on voters in parts not considered friendly to the candidacy of the ruling APC or on polling units considered to have a majority of such voters. Despite these attacks, voters showed remarkable resilience and courage. In Surulere, Lagos, a young woman attacked and stabbed in the face by thugs suspected to be from the ruling party returned bloodied and bandaged to cast her vote.

Contrary to the repeated assurance of INEC’s leadership, election day appears to have caught the Commission unprepared. In many places, the flaws were too evident: shoddy election logistics; confusion over the location of polling units or the allocation of voters to units; misleading configuration of data into the Bi-Modal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS); misconduct or suspected collusion by polling officials with party political interested were reported.

Equally contrary to the assurances of the Commission, the BVAS failed or disappointed in many locations. Some its high-profile victims include the Governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike; and the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and Nigeria’s former Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. As a result, in many places around the country, voting continued well into the night or will resume on Sunday, 26 February.

Where voters braved the hurdles erected by the INEC and the polling officials showed up and coaxed performance out of the BVAS machines, in many cases, the results transmission process became hostage to Nigerian arrangements. Long after voting had closed, on Saturday night, the INEC’s results viewing portal had not yet logged any results and a significant number of locations reported refusal of polling officials to upload result sheets to the INEC results portal, raising suspicions of results manipulation to the end of achieving co-ordinated substitution and replacement of results from the polling units with manufactured outcomes that bear no relationship to what occurred at voting. 

In many parts of the country, a substantial number of reported anomalies occurred under the watch of security agencies. In Kano, the Commissioner of Police, Mohammed Yakubu, was asked why the police took no action against what appeared to be a systematic pattern of voting by persons who were manifestly children. Far from denying it, he stuttered his way to an extraordinary mea culpa, claiming: “it is very difficult to determine by mere appearance who is a minor or not. Most of the ones you are seeing, may be their growth rate might be impaired.”

As the count gets underway, three things already seem very clear. First, Nigerian citizens took this election seriously and their collective belief in the destiny of their country is the biggest single good news in this election. 

Second, the assurances of the INEC about competent management of the election were always empty and lacking in credibility. The citizens deserved better than the INEC served up. 

Third, whatever the outcome that the INEC chooses to announce, the winner in these elections will almost certainly receive less than 50% of the votes cast and will need to run a government of all talents (GOAT), seeking and finding ways to ensure that every part of the country takes a stake in the government that emerges. 

This will be important because Nigeria’s new president will need more than just a good bank of political capital to spend on the country’s myriad problems when he takes over at the end of May 2023. He will also need the talent to bind the country’s wounds. For that, INEC needs to guarantee a credible count for,absent that, whoever is announced as winner will lack the authority needed to put Nigeria back on the map as Africa’s anchor country. 

A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at chidi.odinkalu@tufts.edu

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