The nation is still gripped by the fever of the 2023 general elections following the controversy arising from its outcome. The prevailing emotions are understandable considering the expectations that came with those February and March elections. Not a few Nigerians saw what so much looked like signs that the nation was about to get it right this time as far as credible elections are concerned. While the complaints about the conduct of the elections extend to all levels of the contests, it is the conduct of the presidential election, for obvious reasons, that is eliciting most vehement reactions.
There are too many things that can go wrong with elections in a clime like Nigeria and too many indeed went wrong with the February and March polls. Allegations of disenfranchisement, voter suppression, ballot box snatching and alteration of figures have been rife, and all these have expectedly formed the backbone of the ongoing litigations in challenge of the outcome of that election.
While various commentators have done well to highlight the shortcomings of the election, I am particularly concerned about the fact that this ailment has seemed incurable. Why have our electoral shortcomings persisted over all these years in spite of the justifiable expectations of all and sundry that things ought to be getting better with time? Since the hugely controversial 1964 federal elections, the first we conducted as an independent state, our electoral experience has hardly been any better. Why has the story remained the same almost four decades after despite our supposed efforts to build and strengthen democratic institutions?
My conviction is that the answer lies in our electoral reward system. By this I mean our institutional practice and processes that determine who gains what or suffers what after every election. It’s obviously clear that over the years, there have been more gains in rigging elections than in playing by the rule, nay people who attempt to play by the rule risk returning empty-handed. On the other hand, rigging elections comes with no negative consequence for the culprit, meaning that invariably the rigger is not just rewarded with power but is allowed to go scot-free while the victim goes to lick his wounds. Even in those few cases where the judiciary has succeeded in righting the wrongs of dubious electoral processes, the culprits never suffered any criminal sanction in accordance with the law. What we have, therefore, is in summary a reward system that keeps nurturing rigging and energising riggers.
To be frank, there was nothing that happened in the 2023 elections that’s foreign to our electoral system. Both the malpractices and their perpetrators are products of our system which, by promoting a lopsided electoral reward process, inevitably nurtures electoral sin and sinners. For example, many people have been demonising former Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, for allegedly manipulating election figures in favour of the APC while seeming to overlook the fact that our system gives Wike all motivation he requires to rig elections. He has lived to see that rigging pays, and that in spite being a crime, comes absolutely with no criminal sanction. What he did for APC, he had done for PDP numerous times in the past. During the 2015 general elections, he performed the miracle of producing over 1.4 million votes for the PDP candidate; a figure higher than the total number of votes cast in the entire Lagos State! Those on ground witnessed how, taking advantage of his federal connections, he terrorised the opposition using security agencies. A friend and former colleague who works for the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) sounded utterly scandalised while narrating to me what he experienced covering that election in Rivers. Now those PDP politicians and their supporters who saw nothing wrong with Wike then are now “beginning” to see everything that’s wrong with his repeat adventure in 2023. This illustrates just how we nurture an evil system either by active participation or abetting of such and only to cry foul when the same system starts to haunt us.
Now coming to the presumed beneficiary of the electoral shortcomings; Bola Tinubu, the story is no less instructive. Tinubu was a man who in the past had cried out and projected self as a victim of PDP’s relentless electoral dubiousness. For many years, his communication and propaganda machinery has sustained this narrative. While I plied my trade as a journalist in Lagos years ago, I came very close to this machinery between 2008 and 2010 following the several interviews I had with Lai Mohammed, Tinubu’s erstwhile chief of staff who arguably emerged the strongest voice of opposition in Nigeria by virtue of his position as the national publicity secretary of Tinubu-led ACN. Among my regular interviewees as well was Joe Igbokwe, the spokesperson of the same party in Lagos State. These interviews together with several off-the-record conversations gave me some insight into the deep resentment nurtured by this party and the Tinubu political empire over what they considered PDP’s obdurate refusal to play by the rule. In an interview in September 2009, Lai Mohammed told me that PDP was nothing but “a rigging machine”. To be fair to him and his party, they really had it rough in the hands of the then ruling party. For instance, the 2003 elections saw their victories across the southwest stolen; the same occurred in 2007 but tortuous court litigations saw them retrieve their victories in Ondo, Osun, Ekiti and Edo states.
However, with Tinubu and his party replacing PDP as the ruling party, they have proven to be no better. The reason is quite simple; it’s not about party but about a system that makes rigging attractive. Tinubu himself understands fully the workings of this hypocritical system. As a Lagos State governor, he led a party that simply wrote results of local government elections that gave everything to his party and leaving the opposition empty-handed. In one of such instances, the irrepressible Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, had called out Tinubu and his party for what he described as “an impossible” electoral outcome that saw the AC (later ACN) clear the entire chairmanship and councillorship positions in a state that is by far Nigeria’s most cosmopolitan clime. As usual, there was to be no consequence, so the motivation to rig elections remained intact with Tinubu and his party.
Continuously alternating between being the culprit and being the victim will remain the fate of Nigerian politicians as long as the reward system remains what it is. Peter Obi of LP, one of the supposed victims of Tinubu’s electoral wrongs of 2023, knows this just too well. In 2003, he was a victim of daylight electoral heist perpetrated by now proselytizing Obasanjo and his PDP. But having recovered his victory and consolidated power, he had the opportunity to demonstrate that he would do better as a superintendent of an electoral process. This came in early 2014 by way of Anambra local government election. As it turned out, it ended up a dance of shame. The results released by ANSIEC hardly reflected what transpired on that Saturday January 11 exercise. I was in the field on journalism duty monitoring the exercise in Anambra South. From town to town, local government area to local government area, the experience was the same; people had gathered but could not vote. At some point, I noticed that a colleague of mine who was trying to interview a helpless polling official had engaged him in what could degenerate to a shouting match, I intervened immediately whispering to him to remind him that he was there as a journalist and must not descend into the arena no matter the temptation. He simply told me; “that man knows what he is doing. Peter is using them to frustrate the election to give victory to APGA.” By Monday, all results were out and APGA coasted to victory apart from in Nnewi North where Ifeanyi Ubah and his Labour Party appeared to have successfully resisted the electoral heist. The election in Nnewi was consequently “postponed” enabling the APGA government to impose Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu Jnr as a “sole administrator” in what was obviously a constitutional travesty. Just a few days to that election, I had met an acquaintance who was a PDP chieftain and a law student at UNIZIK discussing about the upcoming polls with a friend and describing his party’s participation in it as mere waste of time and resources being that “Peter will not conduct any election, he will simply leave you people to waste your time in the name of voting and by 4 in the evening he will announce APGA candidates as winners.” The rest is history.
The antecedents of Obi as the leader of APGA and Tinubu’s past as the ACN steersman reveal one mistake we have always made as we discuss elections in this country; focus is almost solely on the ruling party at the centre whenever we scrutinise our electoral process, meaning that we tend to ignore what the opposition parties are doing within states and regions where they control power. After the 2007 elections, a police officer friend of mine who was on election duty in Zamfara State, after witnessing the mindless rigging by the ANPP, an opposition party at the centre but a ruling party in Zamfara and some other northern states, said to me, “I will never take seriously any party or politician that complains of rigging. They’re all the same.” His observation reinforces my thesis that the ailment of our electoral process is beyond party or individual politicians, it’s a problem rooted in the system.
I will not waste time talking about the fate of Atiku Abubakar, another supposed victim of the electoral malpractices in the last presidential polls. His was some sort of poetic justice. At the time he was the vice president and one of the strongmen of PDP, that party became synonymous with the sort of electoral fraud he is complaining about regarding the 2023 elections. Maybe the all-knowing karma has decided to pay them in their own coin. His erstwhile boss Obasanjo is merely being delusional when he sanctimoniously preaches to us about how to conduct free and fair elections knowing too well that he did not contribute his quota in building a culture of electoral transparency when he had the opportunity. Free and fair elections do not descend from the Mars; they are rather a product of deliberate, sincere and consistent institution building which over time will entrench a system that engenders probity and checks malpractice; a system that whips everyone into the line irrespective of your status as a ruling or opposition actor. So, pray where does Obasanjo want free and fair elections to fall from in 2023? The same question should be answered by many other politicians alleging rigging in those elections.
On January 1 1983, Muhammadu Buhari, in his first address to the nation as a military ruler, noted, with reference to the massive foul practices that characterised the 1983 elections, that only the political parties and politicians that “lacked the resources to rig” were complaining of rigging. The sheer correctness of this observation must have now become much more lucid to Buhari himself who have today personally seen it all as a member of the opposition crying against rigging and eventually as a leader of a ruling party that cannot claim innocent of rigging. Politicians have been playing games with Nigerians; they are crusaders for transparent elections while in opposition and its sworn enemy once in power, and the vicious circle continues as different parties and politicians alternate between being in power and being in opposition, leaving us with the sort of eyesore we saw in the February and March elections. The problem lies in an electoral reward system that rewards rigging. With that system in place, I am not convinced that there is any politician or party that will choose not to rig when it is necessary and in their power to do so.
TO BE CONTINUED
Henry Chigozie Duru, PhD, teaches journalism and mass communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria.