With the forthcoming 2023 general elections scheduled to begin on February 25, barely 24 hours away, Nigeria has become the cynosure of all eyes in the global arena while its electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission is, indeed, in the eye of the storm.
This is the seventh general elections since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999. The forthcoming elections have been described by political analysts as a defining moment for the country as it is expected to be keenly contested with an outcome that will largely determine the future of Nigeria’s democracy.
Lately, stakeholders have continued to express serious concerns and worries over the conduct of a peaceful and credible elections in the country. INEC has an unenviable task of delivering credible elections under intense pressure from both domestic and international stakeholders, the electorate and the political parties. Early last month, the electoral body raised the alarm that the general elections might be cancelled if insecurity was not properly addressed.
INEC Chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, who was represented by the Chairman, Board of Electoral Institute, Prof Abdullahi Abdu Zuru, gave the warning at the Validation of Election Security Training Resources in Abuja. But following a rash of backlashes from social media commentators and even the Federal Government, the commission later made a U-turn, assuring Nigerians that the situation had been brought under control.
Even the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States have lent their voices, warning Nigeria against violence in the forthcoming general elections. While the UN expressed fears that if things go wrong in Nigeria, there would be serious consequences for the peace and stability of the entire region, ECOWAS warned that if violence occurs in the country, no other nation in the sub-region has the capacity to accommodate refugees from Nigeria.
Already, scores of persons have been reportedly killed and several others injured in the 2023 general elections-related violence in different parts of the country. For instance, on January 19, 2023, some persons were seriously injured in two different explosions when hoodlums attacked the South-South campaign rallies of both the APC and the PDP with dynamites and even fired gunshots. Series of violent attacks have also been carried out on INEC offices and facilities in different parts of the country and several staff of the Commission and security personnel have been killed, particularly in the South-East where the outlawed Indigenous People of Biafra has been fingered as the usual culprit.
The INEC Chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, while speaking as a guest at the Royal Institute of International Affair, popularly known as Chatham House in London in January, had revealed that between 2019 and 2022, the Commission suffered over 50 attacks on its facilities, usually in the form of arson and vandalisation in which buildings and election materials were destroyed.
Also, during the resumption of the House of Representatives plenary in January, after a short recess, Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila said it had become imperative to halt all threats to the conduct of the 2023 general elections.
Gbajabiamila had expressed regrets that there had been marked increase in the incidence of insecurity and vicious attacks on political actors in parts of the country.
He, therefore, warned that Nigerians “must unite to ensure that such a dangerous trend does not lead to circumstances that threaten the forthcoming elections.”
It is now clear that taking the alarm initially raised by INEC with a pinch of salt is courting trouble; it is dangerous! Of course, the worsening insecurity enveloping the country is real and ominous and it poses serious challenge to the hitch-free conduct of this year’s general elections. There are clear indications, just as INEC and other stakeholders have observed, that if care is not taken and proper security measures put in place, violence, terrorist threats and intimidation may mar the general elections kicking off on February 25.
For months before now, INEC has suffered multiple premeditated and coordinated attacks on its offices and facilities across the country in the run-up to the forthcoming general elections. Scores of the Commission’s offices have been burgled, ransacked and burnt down by hoodlums in different parts of the country, resulting in the destruction of thousands of Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs), ballot boxes, BVAS machines as well as other election materials. The latest of such attacks was the one on the commission’s office in Enugu South Local Government Area in which a policeman was shot dead. The gunmen also razed a section of the INEC office. Several violent incidents targeting INEC offices, staff and security personnel have also occurred afterwards.
These are no doubt enough warning signals that must be taken seriously by all concerned, particularly the security agencies and the government. INEC should not be seen as crying wolf where none exists. It is manifestly clear that the elections face serious threats in different parts of the country, particularly in the South-East geo-political zone, if effective preventive security measures are not urgently put in place before the polls commence in a few hours’ time.
One veritable source of violence and insecurity which INEC and the security agencies must focus on during the elections is, of course, voter inducement. According to Yiaga Africa’s pre-election report, vote buying and selling during elections have become rampant in at least 33 states in Nigeria with the fraudulent electoral act more prevalent in Abia, Bauchi, Borno, Delta, Katsina, Kano, Oyo and Sokoto.
It is now clear that taking the alarm initially raised by INEC with a pinch of salt is courting trouble; it is dangerous! Of course, the worsening insecurity enveloping the country is real and ominous and it poses serious challenge to the hitch-free conduct of this year’s general elections. There are clear indications, just as INEC and other stakeholders have observed, that if care is not taken and proper security measures put in place, violence, terrorist threats and intimidation may mar the February elections
The fear, therefore, is that this electoral crime and other factors predispose the 2023 general elections to manipulations by unscrupulous politicians, a situation which usually degenerates into political thugs and supporters of politicians unleashing violence on the opposition members on election day. But the situation can still be mitigated within the little time left for the conduct of the polls to begin. The Inter-Agency Committee on Election Security (IACESS) and other election stakeholders should immediately adopt more effective security framework to tackle all potential threats to the conduct of the general elections kicking off on February 25. This is a critical moment for INEC, the political parties, Civil Society Organisations, National Orientation Agency and other stakeholders to rise to the challenge of defending and protecting the integrity of the 2023 general elections. At this point in time, voter education targeted at women, youth and other citizens must be intensified and ramped up.
Given the high level of insecurity experienced in different parts of the country, it is our considered opinion that the 530, 538 security agents to be deployed for the general elections are definitely not adequate to provide security for the over 93million Nigerian voters, 707, 384 presiding officials, 17,685 supervisory presiding officers and 9,620 collation/returning officers expected to participate in the conduct of the polls.
Although the security challenge and attack on INEC facilities are beyond the Commission’s powers as insecurity poses a major threat to free and fair conduct of the polls, everyone including community and political leaders, must be carried along to ensure the delivery of credible elections. There is no doubt that violence will make deployment for elections difficult, especially in areas where the electoral process and the participants are made the target. INEC’s efforts at working with security agencies and other stakeholders to put in place mechanisms to understand, track and mitigate security challenges are, therefore, commendable and appreciated.
Security agencies must, however, be ready to act swiftly by arresting and prosecuting perpetrators of election-related violence in accordance with the law. They can no longer be treated as petty criminals. Security must also be reinforced around electoral personnel and infrastructure.
Above all, INEC will only be able to deliver on its mandate if security agents refrain from sabotaging the elections and refuse to allow themselves to be compromised by desperate politicians.
The recent decision by the Federal Government to seal a pact with the International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL) and West African Police Information Programme (WAPIS) towards ending insecurity in Nigeria is very gratifying. This initiative is long overdue and crucial during this period of elections in Nigeria, and its impact must be felt throughout this period and beyond.
It must be noted that adequate security is crucial to the conduct of free, fair and credible elections. Therefore, security agencies should immediately deploy innovative intelligence and other preventive security strategies to counter and even neutralize existing security threats. Doing this will create a salutary election environment where voters won’t be disenfranchised by anyone, group or circumstances from exercising their constitutional right and casting their vote under a peaceful and secure atmosphere.