By Paul Ejime*
After consistent bashing, castigation, and blame for disputed elections, sometimes unjustifiably, the Prof. Mahmood Yakubu-led Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) must take comfort in the commendations over its conduct of the 19th September 2020 governorship election in the politically volatile Mid-western state of Edo.
The INEC praise has come from across the spectrum – civil society groups, including the Situation Room, citizen groups from Kaduna State, the Federal Capital Territory, government ministers, and even the two main political parties – the victorious Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), whose candidate Governor Godwin Obaseki won re-election, and the All Progressive Congress (APC), which fielded defeated candidate Pastor Osagie Ize-Iyamu.
And from outside the country, the United States, through its Ambassador to Nigeria, has also lauded INEC for a good job. An electoral umpire being singled out for praise for doing its duty speaks volumes in a country where elections have become a trigger and driver of political conflicts.
Indeed, before the polls, the political atmosphere in Edo was anything but normal with all the recipes for the process to go awry. The political parties, politicians, and their supporters were threatening fire and brimstone. Chieftains of the two political parties, including governors of other states, literally relocated to Edo, abandoning constitutional duties in their states.
Also, coming after the governorship elections in the central State of Kogi and Southern State of Bayelsa, which were marred by wide-scale violence that resulted in deaths, Nigerians and the international community had every reason to be apprehensive over the Edo poll.
The stakes were made unnecessarily high, mainly because of the interests of individual politicians and their political parties, and not necessarily about the people or governance. The two rivals in the Edo political contest were the same in the last election in 2016 – then Obaseki won the governorship vote under the APC platform, while Pastor Ize-Iyamu, ran and lost on the ticket of the PDP. But for the 2020 election, they both switched parties, raising the question, whether there was ever any ideological underpinning or principle behind their political pursuit, or was it merely personal political ambition?
Furthermore, so much has been said about the destabilising factor of “godfathers” in Nigerian politics. Edo was no exception. Despite the claims to deal with or defeat the monster, Edo State created its own godfathers. Governor Obaseki would tell whoever cared to listen that he fell out with the APC former National Chairman and former Edo State governor Adams Oshiomhole, because of the latter’s alleged overbearing influence on him.
You needed to have seen how Oshiomhole campaigned for Obaseki in 2016 and his well-documented virulent attacks on Pastor Ize-Iyamu. In a manner of speaking, Oshiomhole was Obaseki’s political godfather, until their relationship went sour. In a 360-degree turnaround, Oshiomhole in 2020 switched his support to Pastor Ize-Iyamu, the same man he had described in unprintable words four years ago, and then tried to bring down Obaseki.
The APC denied Obaseki the ticket for his re-election and anointed Pastor Ize-Iyamu, who had himself, left the PDP for the APC. Embattled Governor Obaseki then headed straight to Port Harcourt for “consultations” with Rivers Governor Nyesom Wike, an influential member of the PDP, and as expected, Obaseki eventually decamped from the APC to the PDP. Subsequently, the two political parties mobilised forces behind their newly adopted candidates in a manner that raised the political temperature in Edo beyond normal.
Oshiomhole, who hails from Edo State, galvanised the APC machinery to remove Obaseki from power. He and other APC chieftains, including some State governors, relocated to Edo. The PDP, on its part, refused to be outdone. Governor Wike and other PDP stalwarts also relocated to Edo State. The jury is still out on the total cost on governance for the public office holders who abandoned their duty posts because of a gubernatorial vote in another State!
The APC-controlled Federal Government did not help matters by launching a controversial women empowerment programme in Edo, with a few days to the Election Day. No matter the good intentions, the timing of that project left much to be desired. If the government felt so strongly about empowering women in Edo State, why wait until a few days to the date of the governorship election?
Allegations and counter-allegations of vote-buying and intimidation by both parties also trailed the 19th September balloting.
But, going by the results of the governorship vote, the Edo electorate should be commended for absorbing the pressure from all sides and going ahead to express their will through the ballot box.
Many would agree with Mike Ejiofor, a former Director of the Nigerian Department of State Security (DSS), who described the Edo election as a “watershed” for future elections in Nigeria. He and others have equally commended the security agents for acquitting themselves creditably.
Edo was an off-season election. The situation could be different when elections are conducted simultaneously in Nigeria’s 36 States and the Federal Capital Territory. Even so, there are positive takeaways from the Edo experience, especially in comparison to the electoral fiascos in Kogi and Bayelsa States.
But in commending those who deserve praise, the statement by Governor Wike in Port Harcourt on his return from Edo State deserves serious interrogation. In the widely circulated speech on 20th September, he said: “The only people that can (make) elections free and fair in Nigeria are INEC and the police.” For election experts, this statement does not represent the entire truth in the task of managing the electoral process.
While the roles of electoral umpires and security agencies are crucial in the success or otherwise of an electoral process, they constitute only part of multi-layered stakeholder-contributions towards credible, transparent, and successful electoral outcomes.
For instance, Governor Wike conveniently ignored the critical role of politicians like himself in the electoral process. The disruptive ‘godfather factor’ cannot be blamed on INEC or the police. And what about vote-buying and selling; hate and inciting statements by politicians; the refusal to accept poll results, instigation of violence, disputed party primaries, decamping from one party to another, and the institution of legal challenges? All these anti-democratic activities are traceable to politicians and not the electoral bodies or security agents.
And even when the electoral umpire or security agents try to bend the rules or compromise the electoral process, experience has shown that they do so at the behest of politicians. Politicians, whether in the ruling party or the opposition, are the ones that exert undue pressure on the electoral bodies or the security agents to undermine the electoral process for their selfish interests.
While the electoral commission and security agents must obey the relevant rules and eschew corruption to deliver credible elections, other stakeholders, especially politicians and their parties, the civil society organisations, faith and community leaders, the media, and the electorate, must all play their part.
Election does not necsessairily equate to democracy, but it is an indispensible ingredient or pillar of a democratic process.
Indeed, if any of the stakeholders can be considered an enemy of democracy because of their anti-democratic conduct, it is the politicians. They are the ones that must show leadership. They must purge themselves of the do-or-die mentality: Election is not about life and death.
Politicians are the ones who wield executive and legislative powers. The legislature must enact effective, democratic and pro-people laws to strengthen the electoral process to deliver credible elections, including by punishing electoral offenses. The executive arm of government must be rigorous in making and implementing decisions/policies that would enhance the electoral process.Similarly, , the judiciary must, through unbiased court verdicts and pronouncements, act as a facilitator, not a hindrance to credible elections to ensure the consolidation of democracy in Nigeria.
All stakeholders must work to create the enabling environment with the right legal framework, inclusive, participatory and level playing field that respects democratic principles and consistent with international best practices.
According to INEC Chair Prof Yakubu, an honorary President of the ECOWAS Network of Electoral Commissions (ECONEC), which he headed for two years (2017-2019), election is a process comprising pre-election, during the election, and post-election period activities. Each stage of the electoral cycle and the conduct of every stakeholder are critical in determining the electoral outcome.
*Paul Ejime, an Author and former War Correspondent, is an International Affairs Expert and Consultant