Opinion: Beyond INEC’s 2023 Timetable – By Emeka Alex Duru

Parts of the headline for this piece, are taken from the Editorial of The Sun Newspapers of Tuesday, March 8, 2022. It sought to set a template for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on how to achieve a free, transparent and credible poll next year. This is without doubt, the main issue in the country, presently.

For us here in Nigeria, any election, no matter how local, is a big issue that often results to governance being put on recess. Despite the declarations of our politicians on playing by the rules, they see every electoral contest from the absurd angle of life-and-death. Some say it is in their Deoxyribonucleic Acid, otherwise called DNA – the chemical name for the molecule that carries genetic instructions in all living things and says who we are. Others argue that Nigerian politicians pick their bizarre tendencies from association with colleagues in the field. But no matter the interpretation, the average politician in the country is shrewd, mean and fraudulent. They take no prisoners and work from the answer, always incubating plots to subvert the system to their unmerited advantage.

So, while INEC unfolds the timetable for next year’s general elections, there is need for great deal of caution in celebrating the feat. It has fixed the Presidential and National Assembly elections for February 25, while governorship and state assembly elections will be held on March 11, 2023.

Political parties have from April 4 to June 3, 2022 to conduct their primaries and ensure resolution of disputes arising from the exercise. Parties and candidates have between Friday, June 10 and Friday, June 17, to submit their nomination forms to the INEC for presidential and national assembly elections, while those contesting for governorship and state assembly elections have between Friday, July 1, 2022 and Friday, July 15, 2022 to do so. Timelines are also given for campaigns.

On the surface, the timetable looks enticing. But as it is said here on the streets, the commission needs to ‘shine its eyes’, for the onerous task ahead. There is still much work to be done. It is one thing to have a beautiful outlay of plans but another to accomplish them.

More than any other time, the intervening period between now and the election, is one that should matter to the President, Muhammadu Buhari, INEC chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu and all the agencies involved in the exercise.

INEC is particularly the organ to watch if the 2023 polls will be successful. It is the major gatekeeper which if compromised, will see the entire efforts ending in futility. Knowing the culture of desperation among the political players, it is one institution that will be targeted to be undermined.

If we adopt the analogy by Harvard Professors of Political Science, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book, “How Democracies Die”, INEC, the electoral umpire, is expected to be neutral as a referee in a soccer match. The authors observe however that, to acquire power, “would-be authoritarians, (in our case, politicians), must capture the referees, sideline at least some of the other side’s star players and rewrite the rules of the game to lock in their advantage, in effect tilting the playing field against their opponents”.

Incidentally, Electoral commissions in the country are not known for sustaining the trust of Nigerians. In virtually all the poll manipulations, they have acted as willing tools, either as a body or through their corrupt personnel. From the days of the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) of the Second Republic, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) of the General Ibrahim Babangida’s political transition programme, through to National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) of the General Sani Abacha’s misguided self-succession agenda to the present INEC, there has always been a huge cloud of doubts on the agency’s transparency and independence from the government of the day.

Most malpractices in the country, have been perfected with active connivance of fraudulent staff of the electoral body. The crusade for credible polls should therefore commence with the commission. In that case, Prof Yakubu and his team have a date with history in 2023. One thing with Nigerians is that they know when something is done properly and easily detect any agenda at manipulation. Yakubu’s shining academic record of a First Class graduate of History will glow further or get permanently sullied by the way and manner his commission handles the elections.

It is good that the National Assembly has acceded more powers to INEC in the 2022 Electoral Act to ensure that it conducts a free, fair and credible election. One major clause in the Act is the electronic transmission of election result, which Nigerians have been yearning for. That, it is hoped, will substantially check rigging. The Act also stipulates that the total number of accredited voters will now be the basis for validity of votes. This means there won’t be any room for over-voting. With these expanded powers, INEC has no excuses for not delivering this time. This places heavy burden of trust on Prof Yakubu.

The rest is for President Buhari who has repeatedly promised to bequeath a legacy of free and fair elections to Nigerians. With the signing of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill into law, he has taken a bold step in actualising the pledge. What is left is providing the enabling environment and demonstrating the neutrality needed for free polls. This is where his character as a person and the need to learn from his predecessors come in. 

Despite President Olusegun Obasanjo’s efforts in repositioning Nigeria’s economy and relaunching her to comity of nations from her near pariah status during his time, the suspicion of his tenure elongation project is one that has remained a huge dent that dims his interventions on major national issues.

Babangida has similar self-inflicted wound to nurse. I am sure that while the carpets were rolled out for him when he celebrated his 80th birthday recently, the silent voice in him would be reminding him that he would have harvested more ululations if he had allowed Nigerians have their way in the 1993 presidential election where they chose late MKO Abiola. That singular act of indiscretion in annulling the election is one massive load Babangida will continue to carry.

Fast-forward to President Goodluck Jonathan who declared and maintained that his second term ambition did not worth the blood of any Nigerian. How he has been riding on high reputation across the world over that principled action, should put Buhari in a better position to choose how he prefers to be remembered.

The President has the next 12 months to write his own history. One thing that may go for him if he handles it well, is that he won’t be a participant in next year’s contest. But how he tackles the insecurity in the land, refloats the economy and supervises the 2023 general elections, will constitute the major points in his assessment. Nigerians are watching and taking notes.

DURU is the Editor of TheNiche Newspapers, Lagos   

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