Opinion

Cheta Nwanze: Towards a hitch-free 2023 election

By this time next year, I expect governance to have completely ground to a halt as Nigeria would be in full preparation mode for its seventh general elections since the return to democracy in 1999.

In some quarters this would be seen as a sign of progress given that the democratic experience has been pretty much uninterrupted for 22 years now, the longest stretch of its history, the previous two having lasted six and four years respectively.

The focus in the run-up to the polls two years away has been largely pinned on the office of the President because of the highly centralised nature of government in the country which focuses enormous powers on the holder of that office, a mockery of the federal system of government which Nigeria claims to practice.

The 1999 Constitution empowers the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to carry out federal and state elections, and much of Nigeria’s electoral outcomes have been shaped by whatever electoral umpire or its chairman does.

Since June, INEC has embarked upon a registration exercise for new voters as well as those who would like to change their polling units.

So far, the complaints have been limited, and for the first time in a long time, there is an upsurge in registrations from the South-East, particularly from Anambra State which has an election in a few months.

That is a good thing, but a reduced voter turnout is just one of the likely challenges to arise in 2023.

INEC had always struggled with logistics, a struggle which has always threatened the conduct of fair elections in Nigeria.

More often than not, voters arrive at the polling units and wait for hours before the first official turns up with voting materials.

Thai recurring failure leaves voters disenchanted, with many coming to the conclusion that this as a systemic and calculated disenfranchisement by INEC.

The electoral body would need to sort out its logistics problem early enough, map out areas that take longer commute times, and make contingency plans for them.

Based on current trends, security would be a major concern ahead of the elections. The 2015 general election was postponed by six weeks as a result of an offensive launched by the government to reclaim areas in the North East that had hitherto been under Boko Haram control.

The successful offensive enabled elections to be held in those areas. Currently, the Islamic State West Africa Province still holds territory in the North East and several armed groups more or less control territory in the North West, thus rendering parts of Nigeria ungoverned by the Nigerian state.

Looking forward, there is no guarantee that the security situation would improve before the polls take place in 2023, even as radical secessionist agitators in the South continue to appeal to likely voters.

As far as I know, the 1999 Constitution does not anticipate a situation where a large number of Nigeria’s 774 local government areas are not in play for a general election, and this puts us in legal and electoral uncharted territory with regards a potential challenge by a losing candidate who may claim that territory where elections could not be held in were territories he was sure to win in.

Another problem that INEC will have to overcome is trust. Its perception has taken a beating in recent times. A national survey carried out by SBM Intelligence in 2019 showed that young Nigerians had no faith in public institutions, especially INEC, and this trust continues to erode.

An average of 3 in 10 voters have turned up to vote in all the off-cycle governorship elections held since the 2019 general elections, and voter apathy was pronounced in the senatorial bye-election in Lagos East last December which had an abysmal turnout of just over 11,000 voters.

Nigeria’s electoral budget increases with each election cycle with adjustments for inflation but the voter turnout does not reflect the money.

It is clear that INEC has a credibility issue, alongside failings by elected officials. Voter education must be prioritised by INEC and it must not be seen as partisan.

The upcoming Anambra guber elections would be a true test of this. If anything has to go wrong nationally in 2023, such mistakes must be identified now and worked upon.

*Nwanze is a partner at SBM Intelligence

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