Nigerian hopes for democracy on hold

Many Nigerians saw the 2019 elections as another step toward better governance. For now, they wait in uncertainty. Chitra Nagarajan reports.

Mahmood Yakubu, chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), speaks during a news conference, after the postponement of the presidential election, in Abuja, Nigeria 16 February 2019. REUTERS/Gbemileke Awodoye

In an alternate world, we would now be waiting for results to start coming in. Nigerians should have voted in national elections on Saturday and we should be seeing, 20 years since the transition from military dictatorship, a further consolidation of Nigeria’s democracy. Yet, elections were rescheduled just five hours before polls were set to open. Around 8pm on Friday night, the first indications appeared that all was not well. Nigerian newspapers reported that Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the agency in charge of running elections, was meeting. The agenda? To see if all necessary preparations were in place for voting to open at 8am or if a postponement would be needed.

Many Nigerians went to sleep not knowing if elections would take place the following day. Others stayed awake until the early hours of the morning waiting for INEC to make an announcement. In the end, INEC made its statement at 2.45am. Voting would now take place on 23rd February for the Presidential and National Assembly elections and 9th March for the elections to elect state Governors and Houses of Assembly members, a week later than originally planned. Some people only found out about these changes in the morning when waiting for polling stations to open.

We have been here before. The last two elections were rescheduled. In 2011, INEC, while voting was actually underway, announced that elections would be stopped due to unavailability of election materials. The most recent elections in 2015 were postponed by six weeks, this time six days beforehand. The official reason given was that security agencies needed extra time to make progress in the fight against Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lida’awati wal Jihad (JAS), also known as Boko Haram, to enable the security required for elections to proceed. However, many Nigerians believed the government, fearing they would lose, were buying more time to do the work required to win elections. Nonetheless, the presidency passed from incumbent Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party, the party which had ruled Nigeria since its transition to democracy in 1999, to Muhammadu Buhari of the All People’s Congress.

Street vendors sells fruit after the postponement of the presidential election in Kano, Nigeria 17 February 2019. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

As the first time power had changed hands non-violently, the 2015 elections were rightly lauded as another milestone in Nigeria’s democratization. Nigerians were hoping the 2019 elections would prove another stepping stone paving the way for improved governance. So far, these hopes have yet to be fulfilled. Alarm bells started ringing weeks beforehand with the suspension of the head of Nigeria’s judiciary by President Buhari. The official reason provided was Chief Justice Onnoghen’s failure to declare his assets but, according to Nigeria’s constitution, the President lacks the power to remove the Chief Justice. Besides, the timing raised suspicions of political motivations as the suspension came less than 24 hours before Judge Onnoghen was to swear in members of election tribunals who would rule in post elections court cases.

Recent weeks have also seen a number of attacks by armed opposition groups and increasing insecurity in the northeast. At least 60,000 people have had to flee from their homes as a result of violence. There are reports that those with permanent voters’ cards allowing them to vote get preferential treatment in IDP camps and settlements. While voting is important, what matters to those displaced is that access to shelter, water, food and security is not forthcoming. There have been two protests in the last two weeks by those displaced due to recent violence, complaining of not receiving any food. They say politicians care more about winning elections than actually doing their job and providing for the people of Nigeria.

Then came the date change. It is undoubtedly better to reschedule an election than to have one take place that is badly run and leads to uncertainty, chaos, court challenges and repeated elections. All indications show that logistical arrangements necessary for voting had actually not taken place. In some states, elections materials were far away from polling stations and volunteers from the National Youth Service Corps who run elections had yet to be deployed. But, given Nigeria has elections every four years and dates were confirmed months in advance, why had we come to this stage at all? Indeed, INEC had insisted in the months, weeks and even days beforehand that it was ready and elections would continue as scheduled.

Many Nigerians feel this last-minute change showed a lack of respect for voters. Those who had planned weddings, funerals and other events on the new dates will have to reschedule with very little notice. Schools, universities and businesses which had already declared two or three days of holidays due to elections will have to do so again. Elections in Nigeria also mean movement of people. Some people, learning from past experience, move from areas where tensions are high to escape potential election related violence. Others move to their towns and villages where they are registered to vote, traveling long distances, taking time off work and putting their businesses on hold to do so. If they want to vote, they will have to either return home and travel back for the new dates or extend their stay at locations near their polling stations, incurring costs in terms of travel or work missed. Alternatively, they may choose not to vote at all, with even lower voter turnout than usual (only 33.53 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2015 presidential election) impacting the elections’ legitimacy.

Trust in democratic institutions is severely dented by how elections and governance play out. Over the past twenty years of Nigeria’s democracy, people have been complaining they see politicians only during electoral campaigning with electoral promises made not coming to fruition once they are elected. Indeed, for many youth gangs, getting money from politicians in the run-up to elections is described as the ‘dividend of democracy.’ If things continue in the same vein over the next 20 years, we risk ever further violence, alienation and frustration among Nigerians. While 20 years of democracy in Nigeria is a landmark, for this to be meaningful for Nigeria’s people, democracy needs to be about more than the check box exercise of holding elections.