The off-season governorship elections in Imo, Bayelsa and Kogi states end the 2023 electoral season. Individual verdicts on the conduct of the elections may vary but the conclusion is that the Nigerian electoral system is still far from credible and does not produce free and fair election. As Professor Wole Soyinka reportedly stated, the highpoint of the flawed nature of Nigeria’s electoral system is that whilst President Tinubu triumphed at the Supreme Court, he carries about the burden of illegitimacy. Although the Supreme Court’s determination of electoral disputes is final, it does not settle the question of incredibility of the elections and the disputation of legitimacy. We may reprimand any appeal to popular uprising in response to the evident and overwhelming shortcomings of the elections and their adjudication, but we do not disagree that the elections themselves fall short of democratic credentials. We are back to 2007 when President Yaradua triumphed at the Supreme Court but realised that his mandate lacked the verities of democracy and quickly launched a comprehensive electoral reform.
The difference, and that is the problem, is that Tinubu is not Yaradua. He will probably not concede that the election that brought him to power is heavily flawed. He will probably brandish a credential that he lacks and declare that our electoral system is one of the best in the world. That will be a fatal error. I bet that if the President strays far away from echoes of his aides and supporters, he will clearly hear the voices of millions of Nigerians who feel that the elections were a sham, the same word that Justice Nsofor used in joining with the minority justices of the Supreme Court to rule against the validity of Yaradua’s election in 2007. As he travels round the world, he will sense that foreign leaders are also into the narrative of disputed legitimacy. After all, didn’t the EU and the US Monitoring Groups slam the elections as highly flawed?
But whether he admits the flaws in the election that brought him to power, or he does not, the truth is that our electoral system is flawed to the extent that it undermines the effectuality of public leadership in Nigeria. We tried in 2022 to reform our electoral system to respond to past failures at free and fair elections. The result shows that our efforts came short in terms of incentivizing new behaviours from role players like INEC, the security, and the judiciary. The 2023 general elections have the marks of brigandage, of organized chaos designed to enhance leadership failure rather than transform governance. Pictures and videos of pre-loaded election results on the electronic portals, brutalization of agents of opposition parties at collation centers by the police and the kidnap of electoral officers are imageries that speak of robbery than voting.
These are no mere allegations. Credible election monitory groups report that results declared at different centers, especially in Imo and Kogi states do not resemble those electronically uploaded on the IRev portals.
Comprehensive electoral reform is now a national emergency for the simple reason that 2023 revealed to us that the consequence of incredible election is no longer only about the lack of political legitimacy its breeds and how it disconnects from responsive governance. It now includes the generalized lawlessness that could lead to the collapse of the state. Nigeria is a fragile country. It is rated as one of the world’s most fragile countries based on scientific indicators. It ranks 15 out of 179 countries of the world in the 2023 global ranking of state fragility. State fragility reflect, amongst other, the low public trust in institutions and the weakness of conflict management mechanisms in the country. After the declaration of a winner in a less than transparent presidential election, Nigeria witnessed a unique kind of loss of trust in its key institutions, especially the judiciary. The failure of the election petition tribunals and the appellate courts to reverse INEC’s declarations occasioned a hitherto unwitnessed #Eyeonthejudiciary campaign that threatened to unleash violence on judicial personnel who were rumoured as compromised by politicians.
This is not about the truth of the allegations. It is about the changing temperament of our youths and the growing loss of trust in public institutions. Before the 2023 presidential election, Afrobarometer reported that only less than a quarter of Nigerians trust INEC to conduct free and fair election. About 75% of Nigerians have no confidence in the ability of the judiciary to deliver justice. After the election the next survey will show that public distrust of both INEC and the courts will be more than 85%. This is dangerous for democracy and state stability. The #EndSARS protests were a violent response to loss of faith in the institutions of state for self-remediation. The lack of confidence in the effectiveness of remedies for social violations is a very dangerous strand of social distrust. This leads to anarchy and the generalised pessimism that further leads to violent self-help.
We cannot afford this degree of social anomie. We need to develop sincerity about electoral reform and not kick the can down the road in mistaken opportunism and the quest for short-term political ascendency. This was the fatal mistake that President Jonathan took after the death of President that has locked us into the incubus of criminal elections. President Yaradua constituted a high-profile committee to review the electoral system. The committee presented what is now known as the Uwais Report, the high point of which is the reconstitution of the election management body to insulate it from political control and bias. The proposed electoral body would a stakeholder commission that would have less incentive to be compromised or controlled by incumbents. Uwais Committee understood the importance of credible elections to both democratization and development. Unfortunately, when Yaradua died real politics got in the way and President Jonathan careered the train back to business as usual.
Today, we have an electoral commission that is weaponized to incinerate even some modest safeguards in the electoral law. Before he left office, President Buhari made fresh appointments of Resident Electoral Commissioners. Many of them were members of the ruling party and political cronies of leading APC chieftains. The civil society protested but the Senate confirmed. Some of those appointees are implicated in gross electoral manipulations that characterised both the general and the off-season elections. An outstanding case is that of the Imo state Resident Electoral Commissioner whose evident partisanship elicited a public protest from the opposition parties in the state before the governorship election on Saturday. President Tinubu has also appointed card-carrying members of his party as electoral commissioners in Rivers and Akwa Ibom state, continuing the tradition of packing the commission with partisans who will deliver electoral victory in future elections.
There is an understanding cynicism amongst Nigerian politicians about the verities of democracy. Many Nigerian politicians see credible elections as a nicety of public leadership. As far as they know, the pragmatics of power politics can coexist with rigged elections. They could argue why should we take credible elections seriously. This cynicism is partly fed by the misbegotten love for China. In the last administration efforts to squash press freedom in the form of social media gag laws were justified by reference to China’s repression against social media. At a point, the nation’s First Lady wondered why the fetishism about freedom for social media when a successful economy like China could easily gap the media. If China can do it, Nigeria should.
The problem is that China, despite its lack of democracy, is ironically more stable and less dangerous than Nigeria and its electoral autocracy. The China-India paradox has been a staple of political economy discourse. Amartya Sen once dealt with it. That paradox explains how China, though not a democracy, is more orderly and prosperous than India which is notorious for its chaotic politics. Sen argued the superiority of democracy to autocracy by highlighting that despite its chaos India has never suffered a famine unlike China because of the informational advantage that democracy has over tyranny. This is true. Despite its chaos, India works. India escaped the violent tyranny that China suffered under the cultural revolution because its system is disposed to freedom. Yes, India may be chaotic, but its elections are credible.
Electoral autocracy is worse than chaotic politics. When elections are grossly flawed like in Nigeria, the utility of democracy as the system that ensures the responsiveness of political authority to citizenship, as Robert Dahl and other political theorists conceive democracy, is gone. Also gone is the notion of representative democracy as the pragmatic expression of democratic liberty in a large, plural society as articulated by James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and J.S. Mill. When elections fail as mechanism for choosing leaders, it is not just the freedom to choose leaders that fails. Perhaps, the most significant consequence of failed and flawed electoral system is the destruction of the social mechanism that helps society avoid and mitigate conflict. The benefit a credible and trustworthy electoral system is that it ensures peaceful transition of power and therefore constitute one of the most credible mechanisms for managing conflicts in a society.
Even if the ruling elites in Nigeria are generally cynical about the ideals and values of democracy and would bank on the effectiveness of Nigeria’s cultural exceptionalism, it should reconsider its lack of sincerity on electoral reform, for the simple reason that the Nigerian state is so fragile that it cannot withstand the deepening distrust of its citizen and the unregulated competition by elites for political power. The Nigerian political elites are notoriously disorderly and disoriented from organic pursuit of development. This creates a tendency towards social debilitation. With an electoral system that looks more like a criminal structure, it is a matter of time before social disintegration. This is what happened in the 1960s. The potentials for greater anomie and violent disintegration are more now than then.
It is possible and necessary that the political elites agree on the urgency of radical electoral reform that brings back the Uwais Committee’s recommendation of a recreated election management body as a compulsory first step to restoring credibility to Nigeria’s electoral system. That recreation begins with truncating the life of the present INEC through legislative intervention and constituting a new INEC that is a stakeholder platform that is largely desensitized to the control and suggestions of partisan politics. If the Nigerian opposition cannot take its stand unmovable on this fundamental pillar of representative democracy, if it can falter on the necessity of ending the life of an election management body structurally designed to fail in the test of independence and impartiality, then it shows that the political opposition want to gamble with the survival of democracy and the nation itself.
Considering the troubles since the 2023 elections, Nigerian politics elites should not find it difficult to agree to sincerely pursue electoral reform, starting with ending this INEC as presently constituted.