2023 elections: What have we learned from Rivers State and what needs to be done to protect the polls in the future?

The lead-up to the Nigeria 2023 election was characterised by a growing interest among young people in the election process, largely due to the key provisions in the 2022 Electoral Act, which aimed to build stakeholder trust in the election process with the introduction of two key pieces of technology; the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) and the Independent National Electoral Commission Results Viewing Portal (IReV). The Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) was introduced to check if voters were who they claimed to be and eligible to vote. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Results Viewing portal (IReV) allowed election results to be uploaded and viewed by anyone with internet access, providing an opportunity for citizens to scrutinise the outcome of the election and hold the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) officials accountable for any irregularities. However, despite the efforts of stakeholders to ensure a credible election, widespread reports indicate that the election process had extensive challenges and irregularities.  

SDN was actively involved in promoting voter participation – particularly for women, persons with disabilities (PwDs) and young people – through mobilisation and sensitisation campaigns in the lead-up to the election. SDN also partnered with the Civil Society Situation Room (CSSR) and Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) to observe the Presidential/National Assembly and Governorship/State House of Assembly elections in the 23 Local Government Areas of Rivers State.    

This blog discusses some of the key issues that emerged and lessons to be learned from this election.

Proper planning and preparation: During the presidential election, our observers reported late arrival of INEC officials and election materials, which caused a delay in the commencement of the voting process, a reduction in the time available for voting, and meant that many voters who turned up to vote were turned away. Although the severity varied, most of the units we observed opened around 11 am to 1 pm. The reasons INEC gave for the delays in the affected polling units include transportation plans being cancelled and late sorting of election materials. This drastically reduced the number of voters who could vote in the affected polling units, and many others were turned away and disenfranchised due to late commencement of polls. In subsequent elections, it is crucial that INEC takes the necessary steps to ensure that materials and officials are adequately prepared and distributed before election day to prevent such delays from occurring.

Adequate training and communication: The malfunctioning of the BVAS machines, as observed in some polling units, and the lack of proper training of INEC personnel, caused confusion and uncertainty among voters and stakeholders. Many voters who had old Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) experienced significant barriers, as their cards were not recognized by the system despite being on the register.  Leaked documents suggest that INEC  knew that machines in Rivers State were faulty before polls started, but did not remedy the situation. Therefore, it is essential to improve the functionality of the technologies before the next elections, especially the off-cycle ones, with contingency plans for when they fail. Furthermore, it is crucial to provide adequate training to INEC ad hoc officials to ensure that they are familiar with the election procedures and are equipped to handle any challenges that may arise during the process. Proper communication channels should also be established to ensure that voters are well-informed and updated on the election process and any issues arising instead of being left in confusion.  

Transparency and accountability:  Our observers reported that several polling unit results were not uploaded to IReV, as stipulated by the Electoral Act. We recorded that only 6% of the Presidential election results were uploaded 15 hours after the election, by which point, the results were announced. In the Presidential election, several polling unit results were sent to the Local Government Area (LGA) collation centres. The failure to upload results at the polling unit level had a significant impact on the trust in the poll and created issues between polling staff and voters who remained after voting to verify that their results were accurately recorded. By not uploading the election results until after the INEC adhoc staff left the polling unit, there was a potential for results to be tampered with during the collation process. Observers recorded several instances where the observed polling unit results were different to the uploaded polling unit results, suggesting manipulation during collation. This issue has also been identified by Premium Times, following an analysis of IReV results. This raises serious concerns about the transparency, accountability and proper conduct of the election process. It is essential that INEC conducts a thorough investigation into the irregularities between result sheets. 

Citizens’ participation in the electoral process: The Presidential election, as recorded by our observers, witnessed a very high turnout of potential voters – anecdotally far higher than in recent elections. This indicated a strong desire among the electorate to participate in the democratic process. However, the technological difficulties excluded many from voting, and the official turnout was just 15.6% of registered voters, the lowest in the country. This made voters sceptical that their votes would count in the Governorship election, and partly explains why the Governorship election recorded a lower turnout of 14%. It is crucial for INEC to rebuild the trust of the citizens by conducting credible elections in the future. It is also essential that Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), and active citizens continue to engage the electorate to participate in future elections and to ensure that their votes count toward the selection of their leaders.

Freedom of parties: In the run up to the elections, there were several attacks reported on opposition parties. This continued during the elections, with reports emerging across the State detailing how voters were coerced into voting for a particular party. This also contributed to low voter turnout, and eroded the freedom of the electoral process. At the State collation process for the Governorship election, party agents reported that opportunities for raising objections were foreclosed, with officials brushing aside reports of irregularities. Several parties have lodged petitions at the election tribunal, and we will be tracking this to see if it is a fair process. 

In conclusion, Nigeria’s 2023 General Election presented an opportunity to reflect on the country’s democratic progress and the challenges that still need to be addressed. It is crucial to learn from the experiences of this election and to take the necessary steps to ensure that future elections are free, fair, and credible.

In the short-term, election tribunals must evaluate regularities in an objective and transparent way. In the mid-term, the risks of enforcing judgments must be evaluated and mitigated. In the long-term, priorities include reviving citizen participation, combined with addressing concerns with INEC, security agencies, and politicians.

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