Guest Post: After this month’s postponement, giving Nigeria a credible election

This is a guest post by Christopher O’Connor, Assistant Program Officer for Nigeria at the National Endowment for Democracy. The views expressed are his own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Endowment of Democracy.

To the dismay of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) and a sizable portion of the electorate, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) held a press conference on February 7 announcing that the federal elections originally scheduled for February 14 would be postponed for six weeks citing security concerns. To many, this eleventh-hour delay comes across as a gambit by the governing People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to improve their electoral chances, and one more likely to exacerbate, rather than improve, election security. Despite this setback, the 2015 elections have been shaping up to be the most competitive, and potentially the most democratic, since 1999. INEC’s decision to postpone the polls need not undermine this potential if civil society, the international community, and the Nigerian public demand that the political parties, the electoral management bodies, and the security services respect Nigeria’s democratic spirit and serve the needs of the people.

For the past year, Nigerians and the international community alike have debated the challenges that Nigeria needs to overcome to conduct free, fair, and credible elections in 2015. There are deep and warranted concerns about rampant corruption, elite factionalization, the electoral commission’s capability to conduct elections, and widespread insecurity that serve to undermine both Nigeria’s democracy and its electoral process. In particular, the Nigerian state has all but relinquished control of large portions of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe states to the Boko Haram insurgency. So concerning is this security crisis that Chad has launched military offensives into Borno State in the past two weeks. Whether a proposed international task force will get off the ground, and if so, how it will impact security, is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, in 2015 Nigeria has three major preconditions for democratic elections in place: competitive political parties, an engaged electorate, and a competent and neutral electoral management body.

With the emergence of the APC, an amalgamation of several regionally based political parties, the ruling PDP has lost its monopoly on power at the federal level. Against all odds, the APC avoided the pitfalls of previous opposition alliances and successfully established a national campaign, with a presence in most states. It organized transparent primaries through which it nominated former military dictator Major General Muhammadu Buhari as its presidential candidate. The PDP has endorsed incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. On the surface, the stage seems to be set for a rerun of the 2011 election, with Buhari carrying the Muslim-majority north and Jonathan carrying the Christian-majority south. The political calculus, however, has changed, because Buhari now has a southern support base.

Although identity politics still matters, Nigerians from all geopolitical zones are also asking who is more competent and who has better ideas, rather than who is from which state or who practices which religion. The electorate is better mobilized and informed in 2015. While the press and public have leveled sensational accusations at both sides, there have also been substantive debates about the candidates’ track records. Recent polling suggests that the electorate is roughly evenly divided between Buhari and Jonathan and their respective parties. As in all political systems, Nigerians may have reservations about the candidates on the ballot, but that has not prevented tens of millions from registering to cast their ballots. INEC has stated that over 45 million out of approximately 68 million registered voters have picked up their Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs). Whether in Lagos, Warri, Jos, or Kano, there is palpable excitement about the elections. For the first time, many Nigerians feel their votes will actually count, that their voices will influence the decisions made in Abuja, the federal capital city. In some cases, voters may feel they have even more of a say at the state level; however, this arguably depends on state.

By most accounts, including those of APC and PDP supporters, INEC is fulfilling its mandate in a capable and neutral manner. It has purged fraudulent names from the voter registries. PVCs and electronic card readers are making it more difficult to tamper with ballots. At times, civil society has expressed concern about INEC’s shortcomings, but INEC has proven itself responsive. It has worked hard to improve voter card distribution and to address the voter registration of internally displaced people, two of civil society’s biggest criticisms. In the past few weeks, INEC has also sought to improve communication with the broader Nigerian public to assure them of its ability to conduct free, fair, and credible elections.

While INEC abruptly postponed the elections at the behest of the security services only a day after it stated that it could conduct credible elections despite security concerns, the security of the Nigerian people during the elections is a valid concern for both INEC and the Nigerian government. Moreover, INEC is within its constitutional right to delay the election, and it needs the support of the security services to hold the elections. Motives aside, the government also played by the rules in pushing for a postponement.

The postponement does not have to irreparably damage the credibility of the elections, but it begs a few questions for which civil society and the international community need to push for answers:

  • Why did INEC, or the Jonathan administration, wait until the week before the elections to announce a postponement?
  • If security concerns are the main impetus for the delay, what happens if the security situation fails to improve prior to the new election date?
  • How can INEC guarantee that elections will not be delayed again, or indefinitely?

INEC and PDP must provide credible answers to these questions. Regardless, civil society and the international community still have the opportunity and the responsibility to ensure that this postponement does not derail or undermine the elections. The United States has already criticized the delay, voicing its concern about potential future delays. It is imperative for civil society and international actors to guarantee an impartial INEC moving forward, one fully in control of the election process, without dissent from the political parties or the security forces. Additional delays or interference would significantly undermine the credibility of the elections.

Questions and criticisms aside however, the postponement has a silver lining. INEC now has additional time to ensure its electoral management is as strong and voter participation is as high as possible. The Jonathan administration has a chance to prove it can deliver on its security promises. A tempered response from the APC might strengthen its hand, painting the party as responsible and committed to the nation’s democratic structures, while a rash response would undermine its support. Civil society and the international community will be instrumental in urging restraint from Buhari’s camp. So far, it appears that APC is heeding calls for restraint.

Nigeria’s elections were never going to be easy, and they have just become more complicated. But postponed does not necessarily mean fraudulent, unfair, or undemocratic. It raises the specter of electoral malfeasance and violence, but it does not preordain it. Civil society, the international community, and the Nigerian public must work to ensure that today’s obstacles are overcome and transformed into opportunities, and that INEC can deliver elections wherein Nigerians chart their own democratic future. Nigeria is a resilient, pluralistic, and optimistic society. It is during times of adversity that Nigerians can reaffirm that tomorrow will be brighter.

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