Editorial: Buhari’s Legacy of Free, Fair and Credible Elections

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Nigeria’s renascent democracy has been threatened by electoral irregularities and sundry abuses, but these absurdities assumed melodramatic proportions with the violence that marred the 2019 general elections where soldiers, police officers and armed thugs took over polling stations, assaulted  INEC staff, election observers, and journalists, even during supplementary polls that had to be conducted because of earlier unrest. At least 20 states saw disruption in polling, with voters chased away and ballot boxes destroyed. There were also reports of partisan security officials, compromised INEC staff and incidents involving soldiers blocking voters. These were elections all Nigerians had to win but the country snatched defeat from the jaws of victory; and in the process, repudiated the gains of the 2015 elections. Therefore, the statement credited to President Muhammadu Buhari that he intends to bequeath a legacy of free, fair and credible election to Nigerians is incredulous and laughable. For a man who is the beneficiary of free and fair elections, Buhari’s failure to ensure that the 2019 elections fully reflects the genuine desire of Nigerian voters is inexcusable. Certainly, the signs do not portend positive signals for future elections.

Empty promises and glib talk about legacy of credible elections by Mr. President would be diversionary under the circumstances. The Situation Room, an umbrella group of over 70 civil society organizations that monitored the elections, said election-related violence claimed at least 39 Nigerian lives. Police said 128 people were arrested across the country for electoral offences, including murder, vote-buying and ballot box snatching. In addition, no fewer than 736 petitions have been filed by aggrieved politicians to challenge the outcome of the 2019 general elections at various levels. According to the Chief Registrar of the Election Petitions Tribunal, as of April 4, 2019, the State Houses of Assembly elections had attracted 381 petitions, House of Reps elections 101; Senate elections had 207 petitions. In addition, 43 governorship election petitions were filed while four sought to upturn President Buhari’s victory. 

The relatively high number of petitions that have followed the elections not only indicates the disagreement of candidates with election results, it brings to the fore issues bordering on the integrity of the electoral process regardless of who oversees it. And for the umpteenth time, it underscores the urgent need for reforms in the nation’s electoral processes. To be sure, President Buhari, who has been criticized for organizing an election fraught with irregularities, was also a perennial litigator after every election he contested since 2003 until he won in 2015. His victory is being challenged at the tribunal.

In 1999, Chief Olu Falae, President Obasanjo’s main opponent at the time, alleged the Feb 27 election was characterized by rigging and corruption; hence, his resolve to challenge the result in court. In 2019, 20 years after, Atiku Abubakar, President Buhari’s main challenger, has again cried foul. Atiku said: “In my democratic struggles for the past three decades, I have never seen our democracy so debased as it was on Saturday, February 23, 2019. 2007 was a challenge, but the late President Umaru Yar’Adua was remorseful. In 2019, it is sad to see those who trampled on democracy thumping their noses down on the Nigerian people. Consequently, I hereby reject the result of the sham election and will be challenging it in court.”

It is an assault on the sensibilities of weary Nigerians, who already bear the heavy burden of poor leadership and bad governance, for Buhari to promise to bequeath a legacy of free, fair and credible elections whereas his own electoral victory is tainted with fraud and malpractices. It reeks of impunity for the president not to admit the massive irregularities that marred his supposed victory even when the evidence is so overwhelming. While the conduct of the ruling APC party that stage the electoral heist for Buhari is disturbing, the conduct of the electoral umpire, INEC, which has the responsibility to regulate all electoral activities, has been pathetic; by throwing up its hands in open complacency over this open assault on Nigeria’s democracy.

It is rank hypocrisy that stinks to the high Heavens for Buhari to be talking about free and fair elections when under his watch, violence has returned as an electoral decimal in Nigerian politics; raising fears, and justifiably so, that future elections, including the 2023 presidential elections will also be threatened. The scandalous and shameful electoral backslide of 2019 got the most devastating advertisement after the staggered Rivers election conundrum where the police and the army traded accusations and blamed each other for the mayhem.

It is saddening that after the 2015 general elections adjudged worldwide to have been free, fair and credible; and the high bar set by INEC under its former chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega, INEC is, directly or indirectly, undermining whatever social capital and public trust it may have acquired in recent times. Moreover, it sends the wrong signal to the local and international community that INEC is incapable of securing and guaranteeing a level playing field for all players in future general elections. Worse even, President Buhari seems to have become passive and disinterested, to intervene and remedy this blight on the toga of Nigerian democracy, which calls to question, the integrity of those leading Nigeria today.

A return to do-or-die politics is unacceptable and those who submit to such egregious anti-democratic antics betray their lacking in vital attributes of political tolerance and democratic engagement, and are not fit to be in any public office. It puts into question what the intention of the political elite really is. This escalating sequence of entropic political violence has turned political thuggery into instruments of electioneering and this should worry the president more than his legacy. A situation where the total number of votes cast in a State is more than the number of accredited voters by INEC’s own reckoning is more than just electoral malpractice. It is a debasement of the collective psyche of Nigerians. Also, the shoddy manner in which valid votes cast were cancelled by INEC in states deemed to be pro-opposition not only belittled Nigeria before the international community, more importantly, it advertised to the whole world a certain Nigerian definition of democracy that diminishes the ideal and mocks the primacy of the people in the process. There was no excuse for INEC whatsoever, to have delivered such a poor performance, other than gross incompetence, partiality, corruption and mischief.

The standing view is that the presidency has opted to suffocate the political space through the excessive deployment of incumbency power. Recourse to abuse of presidential power to secure electoral victories is not a sign of political strength. Rather, it is a manifestation of an embarrassingly low level of political immaturity as much as a sign of desperation by the president and his party. Election violence is one of the absurdities which make a mockery of Nigerian democracy. The situation is bewildering because it is happening under a democratic system that was supposed to engender change. Unfortunately, the present dispensation even under a much touted change president remains addicted to garrison politics.
It is indeed regrettable that the audacious impunity comes down to the leadership question. Buhari is not setting good examples, so everything else falls in line with the fraud and corruption which marred the election. The instruments of state - the police, the DSS and the Army-were abusively deployed by the federal government to subvert the will of the people. The Nigerian Army, for instance, has no business with elections. The militarization of the electoral process is a disservice to our democracy and a throwback to the jackboot era of military dictatorship. If Buhari’s pledge to free, fair and credible elections will ever see the light of day, he and his party must begin to play politics by the rules.

Nigerians deserve leaders elected on merit, not on their ability to hire thugs to intimidate voters or buy polling officials, and public office should not be a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. This only hurts our democracy. Nigerians are apprehensive of the Gestapo tactics employed by the APC to win the 2019 elections; fearing the country is receding to the transmutation trajectory of military dictatorship which stifled Nigeria, claimed the lives of innocent citizens and brought shame upon the country. The growing trend of electoral violence is frightening. The issue leaves no room for equivocation: if the Nigerians cannot at freely change their leaders through the ballot box; then there is a bigger problem than the country thinks it has. What this means is that a president can abuse his office and power and exhibit dictatorial tendencies and when it is time for elections, deploy the military to intimidate citizens and confiscate power. This is the true meaning of Buhari’s pledge to bequeath a legacy of free, fair and credible elections to Nigerians.