As we continue to review the 2023 elections, the place of reward system in engendering or undermining our quest for credible elections cannot be overstated. A rationally aligned reward system that offers incentives for good deeds and imposes sanctions for bad deeds is crucial for the proper functioning of human society. So, Nigeria cannot have a lopsided electoral reward system that incentivizes rigging and yet expect free and fair elections, unless such transparent elections do fall from the sky. But as stated in Part 1 of this essay, free and fair elections aren’t manner that falls from heaven; they’re a product of sincere, disciplined, and sustained institution-building that results in the strict regulation of human conduct through the entrenchment of norms, nurturing of values, and proper rewarding of conduct.
On the contrary, what we have with us is a system that only pays lip service to commitment to credible elections as everything about the system encourages rigging. Otherwise, how else can one explain the reality that rigging has become a customary strategy of retaining power, at least at the highest level? History validates this claim. In 1964, Nigeria organized its first general election as an independent state, and the sheer madness that characterized those polls is already a notorious fact. Nonetheless, it was through that highly flawed process that the Balewa-led government retained power, having been first elected in 1959. Writing in his book “The Nigerian Revolution and Biafran War,” General Alexander Madiebo recorded how he embarked on a fact-finding mission to Ibadan on behalf of the Nigerian Army to investigate the alleged complicity of soldiers in the malpractices that characterized the elections, wherein he discovered that the army’s role had been indeed most dishonorable as soldiers were seen even helping politicians stuff the ballot boxes. The 1983 elections through which Shagari retained the presidency equally secured its deserved place in the hall of historical notoriety; an important factor that contributed to the military takeover of December 31, 1983. Of course, the 2003 elections through which Obasanjo retained the presidency were everything but honourable. So widespread were the riggings that a public commentator, just weeks after the elections, released a book titled “This Madness Called 2003 Elections.” Later on, while delivering the minority judgment of the Supreme Court on the election, Justice Sylvanus Nsofor made his famous declaration, “May Nigerians never witness again a Black Saturday like April 19, 2003.” The 2011 elections through which Jonathan retained the presidency he inherited from his erstwhile boss Yar’Adua similarly was not free of fundamental flaws. A Catholic priest friend of mine told me how, at a particular polling unit in Anambra State, he watched as the remaining ballot papers, after voting had ended, were thumb-printed in favour of PDP and stuffed into the ballot box. There may be little need to talk about the 2019 elections that handed a second tenure to President Buhari as the memories of that exercise with the irregularities that characterized it are still very recent.
When rigging works and worse still comes with no consequence to the perpetrator, expecting it to just cease will be akin to a pipe dream. All the high-profile riggers from 1999, when the current democratic dispensation was inaugurated, are, to this day, still walking free rather than being in jail in accordance with the law, even as some of them are today disturbing us with boring sermons of how to conduct free and fair elections, conveniently overlooking their historical complicity in frustrating the nurturing of a credible system that will deliver transparent elections.
It is easy to see why elections will continue to be rigged in Nigeria as long as the present system remains what it is. This is irrespective of how many BVAS machines or iRev portals imported from overseas for policing the process. No matter the number of CCTV cameras installed to catch thieves, as long as those caught are left to go scot-free, thieves will not fear the cameras. While technology is crucial for securing the integrity of our electoral process, more crucial is the role of human agents that operate the technology. No matter how sophisticated the gun you bought for security of your house may be, your safety is more critically dependent on the commitment, loyalty, and sincerity of the security man you procured to handle the gun.
It’s, therefore, clear that our huge expectations prior to the 2023 elections, as inspired by technological innovations like BVAS and iRev, practically stood on nothing insofar as these technologies were not complemented by a reward system that will reliably check the conduct of humans that would work with the machine.
Our failure to evolve institutions that embody the above character is evident in how our narrative of electoral conduct has revolved so much around individual heroism. An example that comes readily to mind is the wide celebration of Prof Nnenna Oti, the Abia gubernatorial returning officer in the last general elections, for what was seen as her heroic display of virtue.
While such reaction isn’t intrinsically wrong, it may be rather myopic as it tends to overlook the fact that though individual conscience and personal moral character surely have their place in the progressive functioning of human society, they’re not the primary bedrock on which the society’s good order is built. On the contrary, it is institution-based regulation of conduct as founded in the law that has proven so reliable as the bedrock of behavioural sanity in any modern society. The implication of relying on the individual moral rectitude for transparency of our elections is that we would have to procure saints to manage our electoral process. Nothing points to the unworkability of this option than the fact that even among churches where saints ought not to be in short supply, laws and regulations are made to guide conduct such that not a few times have we heard of people, including clergymen, being suspended, expelled, or otherwise sanctioned by their respective churches. Not even the Vatican that has over centuries canonized hundreds of saints would leave its territory unregulated by law, as evident in the penal system comprising a police establishment, courts, and a prison which that theocratic state maintains.
The foregoing once again lends credence to our position that without a reward system that dissuades misconduct, humans will always take advantage of the situation. This is a tested and incontrovertibly proven hypothesis, as can be seen in the fact that many will freely cheat in exams if there’s no consequence for that, most people are likely to evade tax-paying if no measures are put in place to ensure compliance, many companies will continue to exploit the consumer unless a strong consumer protection regime is put in place, et cetera. The place of reward system in society cannot be overemphasized, more so in elections where the temptation to flout the rules is so strong. Apart from inducements, there is also the factor of threat faced by our election managers. At times, their lives are at risk. This is a recurring experience even though only a few of such instances have prominently made news in the past including the one involving the Ekiti State REC in the April, 2009 governorship rerun, Mrs Ayoka Adebayo,, who at a time tendered her resignation citing pressure to do what was against her conscience (though she later made a U-turn probably under duress to declare a result that was eventually to be upturned by the court) as well as the one involving Governor Rochas Okorocha as the APC senatorial candidate for Imo West in 2019. How many persons can withstand the chilling fear that engulfs one when faced with a real threat to their life? How many can choose to sacrifice their life rather than do the wrong thing? So, rather than expecting from our electoral officers such existential heroism which only a few humans have accomplished since Adam, the solution, on the contrary, lies in putting in place a system that will compell politicians to play by the rule thus saving our electoral officers from this sort of avoidable jeopardy.
For politicians, the temptation to break the rules is even greater most times, given a whole lot that’s at stake in any contest for power. Since the beginning of the world, power has proven to be one asset whose allure has remained unfailingly irresistible for mortals, so much so that people through the ages have committed all manner of unimaginable atrocities,. including genocide and deliberately initiating a war, just to get or retain power. So, mere manipulation of figures to win an election is just too “little” an evil for a politician to hesitate to consent to.
Pointedly, the summary of our argument here is that the criminal aspect of our electoral justice has to be awakened from its present slumber. People found commiting electoral offences have to be prosecuted and punished accordingly. The civil remedy of upturning an election result cannot be enough. At best, it will deter those whose victories may be reversed and their cronies who will directly benefit from the victories. However, it may just prove ineffective in deterring those whose only motivation is bribes offered by politicians for the dirty job of manipulating figures. Such persons are content with whatever they’re paid even if the victory they contrived would not stand eventually.
At this juncture, suffice it to observe that we were not really ready yet for free and fair elections by the time we went into the 2023 polls. People’s expectations about the elections were indeed built on nothing. If we want free and fair elections, we have another chance to start building a system that can deliver such. The task begins today. In particular, for any politician that wants free and fair polls, today is when to start contributing to building such culture, otherwise he would end up like many others such as the now sermonising Obasanjo, who while in the privileged position of power, benefitted from and indeed contributed to entrenching a flawed electoral system in our land, only to now turn around to wonder why our nation cannot conduct credible elections. Luckily, our destiny remains in our hands. Nigeria we hail thee!
Henry Chigozie Duru, PhD, teaches journalism and mass communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria.