Nigeria is in the middle of an election season, and the challenges involved in organising the nationwide and regional polls in the country’s southern Niger Delta region are acute.
With the presidential election of two weeks ago delivering the reelection of President Muhammadu Buhari, this weekend will see votes counted in elections for the regional State Houses of Assembly, as well as the powerful governor, in a majority of states.
For those working to support INEC and others aiming to improve the conduct of Nigerian elections, there are a number of things that can be done, both immediately for this weekend and also for the weeks that follow.
First, the international diplomatic and election observation community should stress the importance of officials being able to do their job without coming under threat. The safety of INEC officials and the temporary staff they engage to actually oversee polling is paramount to delivering a reasonable election.
Second, and related to this, the security services should pledge their political neutrality – and follow through on this, by not allowing themselves to act on behalf of particular parties.
Third, local and international observers should prepare for re-runs. Although it is exhausting to maintain full effectiveness in a context like Nigeria, where elections can sometimes be re-run multiple times, it is vital to do so. The potential for disruption is increased when vigilance drops.
Finally, particular attention should be paid to scrutinising the results and calling out blatantly dubious outcomes. The major parties need to know that they are being watched.
Nigerian democracy: at at turning point?
The stakes are high: since the restoration of democracy in 1999, Nigerian elections have been marred by fraud and violence. However, progress is being made, and, although flawed, the 2015 elections saw the first peaceful change of power since 1999. The current polls have therefore been seen as an opportunity to build on this success.
Nigerian elections are organised over two weekends, two weeks apart. First come the Presidential and National Assembly elections, which this year were scheduled for 16 February. Then come the state elections for the House of Assembly and governorship. These are due to take place tomorrow.
Not least among the challenges in Nigerian democracy this year has been the last-minute cancellation of the first weekend of voting. This is not the first time elections have been cancelled: the same thing happened in 2011 and 2015. But the announcement by the agency responsible for organising the polls, the Independent National Election Commission (INEC), came in the middle of the night – five hours before polling stations were due to open.
The immediate consequence of this was immense frustration among Nigerian voters, many of whom had made costly plans to travel home to vote. Some also claimed political interference in the decision to postpone, saying that it was a government plot to allow more time to prepare to rig the elections.
The presidential polls
Nigeria matters to the world, and the world, in public at least, appears to have accepted that the reorganised polls, which were held on 23 February, were fair enough to deliver a credible result.
However, the elections saw serious violence and disruption, not least in the Niger Delta region, which SDN is reporting on as part of our citizen-led reporting project, Niger Delta Watch. Continuing logistical difficulties, and immense pressure placed on INEC – which saw two of its staff members killed, and others abducted and detained – meant that several areas in the states that we cover did not complete, or even begin, vote counting.
As such, nearly a million votes were effectively rendered void in Rivers State. This undoubtedly contributed to the extraordinarily low turnout in parts of the region. There were also reports of direct intervention by the military in the collation of results, as well as multiple instances of alleged vote buying.
Civil society: supporting good governance
However, Nigerians are proactively challenging these dynamics. No-one denies the challenges in Nigerian democracy, but there are many individuals and organisations around the country working to improve the conduct of the elections. SDN is coordinating with a number of other observation groups, in the Niger Delta and at national level, under the umbrella of the Civil Society Situation Room, a coalition of organisations working to provide independent scrutiny of the elections.
And INEC, which faces a near-impossible task, and is frequently criticised, is at least making the right noises publicly. For example, in the run-up to the elections, the Akwa Ibom Resident Electoral Commissioner – the most senior INEC official in the state – was admirably up-front about the challenges: “No election can be rigged without INEC colluding with politicians. [But] I will ensure that free and fair elections take place in Akwa Ibom.”
Events during the nationwide polls do not bode well for this weekend, but Nigeria cannot afford a post-election breakdown, as has happened in the past. We will report on the situation as it unfolds. Sign up here to follow our updates.