In the months leading up to the 2019 General Elections in Nigeria, I was part of an army of citizens who came out to perform their civic duty during the update of the Voter Register by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Having earlier registered in a different locality, I needed to officially apply to be moved to a polling center near my new abode. It was the only way I could hope to vote on election day since movement was usually restricted on such days. Mine was supposed to be a simple, routine exercise. Yet, after trying on six different occasions, I was unable to accomplish my mission.
Sometimes, we waited in the queues for an entire day only to be told to come back another day. Reasons included that the INEC server was too slow or simply non-responsive. At other times, we were told that a vital material was missing or still on its way. At yet other times, the portable generator to power the INEC team’s operations would not start. On one occasion, a woman in the queue who lived closeby offered her own generator for free. It was politely turned down.
In the course of waiting, we sometimes observed that people came into the centers, greeted the INEC officials familiarly, went through the back door and were attended to. When we complained, we were told that those were “special cases” – people who had commenced the exercise earlier and only came back to complete a minor part. Nobody was impressed by those explanations. The atmosphere was always combustible.
I persevered, and on my seventh trip Mother Luck smiled at me. I completed the exercise and received an acknowledgement slip as reward for my efforts. With it, I was told, I could collect my Permanent Voter’s Card (PVC) in a few weeks. I went home feeling fulfilled. Weeks later, when it was announced that PVCs were ready for pickup, I promptly showed up to collect mine. The INEC official on duty collected our details and disappeared. When he showed up about an hour later, he had only two PVCs from a list of over 20! The two “lucky” prospective voters got theirs. The rest of us were advised to visit the Local Government Headquarters at Ifo, about 100 kilometers away, to see if we could get ours. I had just been technically denied my right to vote in the then forthcoming elections.
As I drove home that sunny afternoon, utterly dejected, I turned on my car radio for much needed company. A radio talk show was discussing the experiences of prospective voters. It was the trending topic of the day. Many called in to share their tales of woe. It turned out that I was only one of many who had been similarly disenfranchised. The talk show host also shared her personal experience. It was remarkably close. The sole difference being that after a few unsuccessful visits to pick up her PVC she made a big scene, introduced herself as an on-air-personality (OAP) and threatened to go public with her experience, including the identities of INEC officials involved. At that point, she said, a “senior” official suddenly showed up at the gates where hitherto only a gateman was left to manage the surging crowd. He listened to her patiently, took her details once more, and went inside. Minutes later, he appeared with her PVC which she had earlier been told could not be traced!
The crowd exploded in disgust, with many raining insults on the electoral officers. The radio host was sure that she got her card only because of her nuisance value. They decided to get rid of her, she said, to avoid a potentially embarrassing media situation. Otherwise, she would have ended up exactly like many of us – defrauded and disenfranchised by an electoral system masterfully rigged to deliver a predetermined result.
Welcome to Nigeria’s 21st Century democracy where the right to vote and be voted for is guaranteed by the constitution but routinely denied by the electoral umpire and its agents at the behest of powerful political parties, public office holders and power brokers.
In this article, I will attempt to unveil the murky underbelly of Nigeria’s electoral system which gives room for widespread electoral abracadabra every four years. If the truth must be told, it is that months (sometimes years) before any ballots are cast the outcomes of most elections in Nigeria have already been decided. What is left is to go through the motions of electioneering and fill in the names of “lucky beneficiaries” of winning party tickets.
This is a system which has ensured that nearly every election result across the country is bitterly disputed or challenged in court. Most electoral litigants are willing to go right up to the Supreme Court in search of justice, except where the law designates a lower court as Apex Court. The result is that months after every election, their outcomes remain uncertain; the courts are overstretched, sometimes compromised.
More elections are now settled in law courts than by voters. And increasingly, the court verdicts leave the voters aghast. This is a system in which no one has faith except the rich, the politically connected, and lawyers reputed to know their way through the dark and mysterious chambers of the judiciary.
Poisoned at Source
At the start of every election cycle, when INEC begins recruitment of temporary staff for Voter Registration or update of the Voter Register, the parties usually populate the process with their own agents and proxies. On face value they are university lecturers, primary and high school teachers, and civil servants. In reality, most are secret card-carrying members, agents or proxies of political parties.
They manage to evade detection because those higher up in the system who should fish them out often choose to look the other way – being compromised themselves.
At the federal level, the party in power in Abuja usually dominates this process. At state and local government levels, the party in power at the state capital holds sway. Victory often goes to whoever outmaneuvers the other(s) in this game of remote-controlled Chess.
The pawns are in it for pecuniary benefits and promises of reward and promotion at work. Others are forced against their will mostly under threat of losing their jobs or being bypassed during promotions. Every civil servant in Nigeria knows that they cannot afford to openly express support for a political party other than the “ruling” party in their jurisdiction. It is either mortally dangerous or career limiting to be even remotely associated with any other party.
Recently, President Muhammadu Buhari nominated one of his personal aides, Miss Lauretta Onochie, for appointment as INEC national commissioner. A furore broke out. The media, civil society organizations and opposition parties cried foul. The President insisted. The nominee appeared before the Senate for screening where she denied “having any political leanings” despite serving at the time as a Personal Assistant to the President on New Media!
The Senate eventually rejected her appointment, not on grounds of being too close to the President but on grounds that her state (Delta State) already had a serving commissioner. If not for the brazen nature of Onochie’s nomination and the public uproar that ensued, she might have slipped into the system undetected – like many others.
Once in, they become moles for their parties, benefactors and secret sponsors, feeding them with sensitive internal information in time to enable them develop appropriate evasive or remedial measures. They also become willing instruments for manipulating the electoral register to achieve desired ends.
Planting weeds with the good seed
During voter registration or update of voter register, for instance, these party agents on INEC payroll begin to systematically expedite the registration of their own party members and sympathizers. At the same time, they frustrate attempts by persons sympathetic to rival political parties. They monitor and minimize the number of persons with unknown political alignments on the primary electoral database.
Residential areas, districts, states and regions where voter behavior is known to be unfavorable to the party in power are usually blacklisted at this stage. Registration materials and electoral staff deployed to such areas are deliberately sabotaged. So, they usually arrive late, experience unusually elaborate “logistic challenges”, and close early.
In some places, especially rural areas where media attention is thin and independent monitors are unlikely to be found, electoral officials do not show up at all. But voter registers are compiled and election results are written and submitted for collation. Most of these results are written in private homes, guest houses and hotel rooms of local godfathers.
If you live in an “unfriendly” area and manage to defy all odds to register, your voters’ card may never materialize. Or, like me, you may be asked to travel several kilometers away to collect it. Even so, you are not sure to get it. The end game is to suppress voter numbers in electoral “opposition” areas, frustrate potential voters among demographics with uncertain political alignments and render their ballots insignificant in the final outcome of polls.
In the end, elections are simply roll calls of party faithfuls. Election figures are photoshopped versions of party membership registers. The real people who are independent minded enough to make rational (not party-dictated) choices are schemed out. No wonder voter apathy is quite high.
Proxy parties and candidates
There are officially 18 registered political parties in the books of the national and state electoral commissions as at September, 2021. There used to be as many as 92 before INEC delisted 74 parties which did not meet minimum constitutional requirements early in 2020.
Even with the current shortlist of registered political parties, a good many are set up, funded and run by agents of the major political parties and/or interest groups. They are used by the few big parties to divide, distract and destabilize other parties perceived as real threats.
The proxy parties exist only at the pleasure of their principals. They have no real political ambitions, manifestos, structures or future. But they have leaders who are handsomely rewarded for their services.
Often, this truth is well concealed from the public. The vast majority of those on their nominal lists are family members, friends and associates of the proxy leader. Most often, even party members do not know who their secret financiers are.
When their work is done, the proxy parties promptly go into hibernation – either stepping down for or declaring support for the parties and candidates of their secret paymasters. At other times, they simply melt away on the eve of elections, not even bothering to send party agents to polling stations as required. But they stay in the books of the electoral commission, waiting to fight another day.
As election day draws near all over Nigeria, there is talk on the streets about which party will win or has the “structures” to win. Little or no mention is made of the candidates contesting for office or their capacity to hold office. This is because people know from experience that candidates rarely matter.
More often than not, the party tipped to win is the party in power in the state or “at the center.” These statements are carefully seeded and reinforced by agents of the big parties. They seldom take into account the real performance of the parties or candidates in question or whether they deserve to win. It’s always about which party has the bigger muscles.
Experience has shown that political parties in control of the Federal Government never lose election in states where they have interest.
In Kogi State (North Central Nigeria) during the last governorship elections, for instance, there was near unanimity that the sitting Governor did not do well. Even the head of his party’s campaign team, a Governor of another state, admitted that much in televised rallies. But he “pleaded” with the people to give his brother governor another chance. We have no way of knowing exactly what the people did in response. What we know is that major opposition party supporters, candidates and leaders were reportedly attacked across the state. Some were said to have been shot at. Police helicopters hovered over opposition strongholds throughout the voting period. Opposition politicians said they were used to scare away their supporters. A party chieftain was burnt in her home. In the end, the underperforming Governor won again.
Only in very rare circumstances do underdogs win elections in Nigeria. Like when Peter Obi contested the Governorship of Anambra State under little-known All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) in 2007. Even then, the election was officially awarded to the behemoth PDP by INEC. Obi proved at the Supreme Court that the polls were massively rigged to favor the PDP candidate who, meanwhile, had been sworn in as Governor. Surprisingly (some say by divine intervention), the Supreme Court agreed with Obi and overturned the election as manifestly fraudulent. But no persons of note, including beneficiaries of the adjudged malpractice, were put on trial or sent to jail.
Is it possible to have an offence without offenders? Clearly, the Nigerian legal and judicial systems have not evolved to ponder such weighty questions, especially when high-profile persons and interests are involved. It was considered landmark enough that Dr. Chris Ngige was removed from office. Today, he is a minister and leading member of the ruling APC.
The use of federal and state government machineries to distort electioneering outcomes works in two ways. First, on the psychological level, it intimidates some voters into believing that the only sensible way to vote is in favor of the ruling party and that voting for anyone else (party or candidate), however deserving they maybe, is a waste of time.
A large number of Nigerians are not enlightened enough to recognize that this is propaganda designed to nudge them into herd behavior. In the end, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This practice is already in full display as things hot up for the November 6 Gubernatorial elections in Anambra State. Officials of the APC are going about openly boasting that their party will “capture Anambra State” come what may. It does not matter that the state has historically never voted for APC or any of the parties and major candidates that gave birth to it. And nothing has happened in recent years to significantly alter that equation.
Road to the Collation Center
A second way in which government or party might is used to distort electioneering results is more overt: Electoral umpires, police officers, secret service officials and party thugs are used to intimidate opposition supporters, suppress opposition voter turnouts, and sometimes outrightly alter polling results in favor of politicians in power.
Years ago, a friend told me the story of how as a young corps member in one of the states he was drafted to serve as a polling officer. At the end of polling, he said, votes were counted and results duly entered into the appropriate sheets. Party agents present signed on dotted lines. However, on his way to the collation center located several miles away, the hired motorcycle on which he was traveling was stopped by an armed mob along a lonely bush road. He was told to surrender the result sheets and ballot cards. The motorcyclist, apparently one of them, asked him to comply without any fuss. He did. Fresh, original documents were given to him and with the help of his captors and motorcyclist these were quickly filled out and thumb-printed in the nearby bush. His journey to the collation center continued smoothly thereafter.
My friend said he decided upon sighting the mob that he had no intention of dying as a hero in a remote village far from home shortly after graduating from university.
“I owed my poor peasant parents too much, knowing how much they toiled to see me through school”, he said. “I did not want to break their hearts and waste my life.”
How about the signatures of rival party agents who were supposed to sign the results at each polling station? How were those obtained? Did they keep quiet when it became clear that the authentic results were switched?” I asked.
“They are usually called aside and given money to shut up”, came the reply. “Besides, they know that even if they shout no one would listen. So it makes sense to take what you are given and look away,” he added.
It was to protect their dubious interests at this vital checkpoint in the electoral process that members of the National Assembly recently voted against a proposal by INEC to accommodate the electronic transmission of voting results from polling centers.
Their fear is easy to see: If results at a polling center are not favorable but electronically transmitted to higher authorities, the opportunity to substitute them with false results along the way would be eliminated. Transmitted and manually submitted results would vary. Offenders will be easily caught.
Legislators don’t want this to happen, being beneficiaries themselves. And so, even though they routinely use electronic mail, electronic devices and electronic funds transfer for private transactions, they promptly rejected the use of the same technology to transmit voting results!
A Conclave of Hyenas
If for narrow selfish interests the National Assembly could so brazenly sabotage an attempt to improve the electoral system, what can we expect from the political parties?
One of the most important functions of political parties in a democracy is the identification, grooming and selection of top leadership talents. By finding and projecting the best people, parties improve their chances of electoral victory, enhance the overall performance of society and guarantee their own longevity in power.
In Nigeria, this logic doesn’t exactly hold water. Political parties tend to have an allergy to clean, quality candidates who will deliver real value in public service. They are actively discouraged from joining and frustrated if they have already joined. Parties even seem to hold a natural attraction for mediocres, educational and corporate underachievers, wheelers and dealers willing to subvert all ethics to achieve their personal goals.
To put it differently, it would seem that having found clever ways of achieving their goals without the people’s votes, Nigerian political parties feel no moral or existential need to recruit people with sterling qualities.
From their crooked ranks, candidates for “election” as State Assemblymen, Honorable Members of the House of Representatives, Distinguished Senators, Governors and Presidents are selected. Naturally, this process is anything but transparent and democratic. Party conventions, elections and other internal screening processes are fraught with controversy, allegations of fraud and litigations. They are dominated by political godfathers who pull the strings with a lethal combination of guile, money, blackmail and violence. These kingmakers are not interested in seeking what is best for society. They are only interested in those willing to do their bidding. Sometimes, they want to be Kings themselves.
In the end, it’s garbage in, garbage out. Between the parties, the electorate is presented with choices ranging from the rock to a hard place. So, heads they lose, tails they lose. And the beat goes on.
As if to officially confirm these findings, Dr. Bukola Saraki, former Senate President, recently made some startling confessions. Speaking at an Independence lunch event with youths in Abuja, early in October, Saraki who also served as two-term Governor of Kwara State, gave the following prognosis of the 2023 general elections:
“It is too late to win election (sic). I will be very honest with you. The system is too rigid (sic) against you. You are a young guy, you don’t have money or network (sic) where are you going to start from?
“I don’t even want you to [contest] because you still have some good values. I don’t want you to be corrupted because for you to win you have to give up some good values that you have to be able to be competitive.
“We don’t want that because it means your generation will be as bad as ours. Let’s keep you where you are for now for those who are not yet corrupted…
“Until those of you that matter take it upon yourselves and ask what kind of Governor, President, Senator you want, nothing can change.
“When you get the right kind of Governor and he knows you have the power to vote him out, you will have the chance to come into government because you would have built a pact.
“The point now is, politicians don’t believe you can vote them out. If they believe you can vote them out, they will do the right things.
“… Nine months to election, they will share the money and win… If they know the vote is not about sharing money they will perform well…”
There is no greater testimony of the rot in the Nigerian electoral system than this. And it comes from a long-standing insider, participant and beneficiary who is now out of power. Bukola Saraki is a scion of Late Olusola Saraki, a man who for many years was known as the godfather of Kwara politics. So we can take his words to the bank.
What manner of democracy is this? Does it even qualify to be called a democracy? Where in all of this is the will of the people?
Perhaps Nigeria’s present form of government is best described as Hostage Democracy – Government of the parties, by the parties, for the parties. The people of Nigeria are hostages, held down by a complex web of chains and at the mercy of political parties who pretend to serve them. The captors rule and reign in the name of the people.
Victor Anazonwu, a journalist, historian and author, writes from Lagos.