25 February 2023 would go in the history of Nigeria as a bell weather day in which a free and fair election was held to elect a president and members of the National Assembly. Was it a perfect election? By all means, not so, but it would be uncharitable to denigrate the outcome and dismiss the will of the electorate as many are now doing because their preferred candidate(s) lost.
Many of the issues thrown up by the election stem from the state of our technological and administrative infrastructure, not unexpected for a developing country such as ours. Those issues are, however, not sufficient to, as the old saying goes, throw out the baby with the bathtub, a fact recognized by many stakeholders in the country and the International Community. It was an election won by the ruling party as much as lost by the leading three opposition candidates, who, as recently as 2019, were all of the same party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and collectively secured 14.6m votes or 61% of the votes, an absolute majority.
It would therefore be quite disingenuous to blame everybody else for something that is best attributable to the inability of the three leading opposition candidates to unite around a single candidate, as happened in 2019 when one of them was, in fact, the vice presidential candidate of that party given the stark reality of our demographics. When weighed against the fact that two of these candidates were with the ruling party in 2015 and before then in the then-ruling PDP, their cynicism and opportunism become more obvious.
As in the rest of the world, identity politics is becoming more accentuated in Nigerian politics. It has always been with us, probably contributed to the gory 30-month Civil War, and was an issue in our Second Republic. Unfortunately, it is rising in prominence and probably now has center stage in Nigerian politics since 2015. This identity politics has generated an election denial industry only comparable to that spurred by President Donald Trump after the American elections of November 2020. It is not a misplaced coincidence that we had protesters marching to our Defence Ministry to appeal to soldiers to mount an insurrection and seize power not too dissimilar in motivation to the treasonous attack on the US Congress or the massive and obstructive right-wing protests in Brazil. It is also a curious fact that many of the demographics of a particular opposition candidate but by no means all are ardent Trump supporters, even in Nigeria with some organizing rallies and prayer meetings for him during the American 2020 elections however ineffectual or comical that might have been. Human nature is universal.
Views and articles, some surprisingly from thought leaders, do nothing but encourage such lawless encroachments, many borne out of ethnic affiliation, religious fervor or a simplistic and romantic view of the noble and justified End Sars protest in which a major culprit is then upheld as a hero and a key person that has actually acted against police brutality is condemned as the villain in a case of twisted and unexplainable logic.
There is no doubt that the election threw up some uncomfortable issues in Lagos State. What is however lost on many critics of the election is that an election is not adjudged to be free and fair on the basis of what happens on the election day or the immediate days preceding. It is the totality of the conditions precedent in the months to the election. It would be difficult and quite simplistic to divorce Peter Obi 95% of the valid votes in his native Anambra State and a preponderant majority in the rest of the Southeast from the violence and intimidation of IPOB/ESN in the months and years prior to the election.
In many instances, you had a cynical change of hats from IPOB/ESN to Labour Party in the twinkle of an eye with no dichotomy. The point here is there are reasons to complain about the process from all sides, but fundamentally, the outcome reflects the will of the majority. There are villains on all sides.
Nigeria is too big to be allowed to fail. There are a multiplicity of issues, and with Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, and Sudan in its vicinity now governed by military governments, delegitimization of a free and fair election, albeit with imperfections, in the largest democracy in Africa would not be consistent with democratic ideals and interests or indeed world peace. And all this for an election held substantially compliant with the governing law, the Electoral Act of 2022, so much that it produced astounding surprises. A ruling party governor lost his reelection bid, and two lost their senatorial election ambitions. Governors in Nigerian politics are even more consequential in influencing the electoral process than can be believed.
It would be thought that if the elections were not largely free and fair, these governors would have been able to guarantee their own election given the enormous resources and influence at their disposal, being of the ruling party, and the power they have in their respective states. The ruling party presidential candidate and election winner would also have secured his own victory in his home state, a matter of great prestige in Nigerian politics, but he lost to Peter Obi. All these were possible partly because of the technological innovations promised and delivered by the electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
The Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) was meant to accredit voters (and it did an excellent job in weeding out ghost voters, underage voters, and overvoting; traditional albatrosses in Nigerian elections) but is often mistaken for a collation system which is not the case. It was certainly discomfiting to see a leading presidential candidate amplify this error on national television. Presidential Election Collation in Nigeria starts at the almost 177,000 polling units with Form EC8a, to EC8b at the ward level, to EC8c at the 774 local governments, to EC8d at the level of the 36 states and Abuja and thereon to EC8e at the presidential level. At each level, all the party agents are expected to sign off on the respective forms as they are collated along the line.
This collation and transmission to the subsequent stage of the process from the polling unit level is a manual and not an electronic process and complies with Section 50(2) of the Electoral Act, which states that voting and transmission of results shall be in a manner determined by the Commission, whilst Section 60(5) goes on to say that the Presiding Officer shall transfer the results in a manner prescribed by the Commission. The elections are not expected to be conducted under the auspices of what the Chairman said or did not say at Chatham House or press conferences but by the Electoral Act.
It is rather sad that there is widespread confusion between the manual collation of results at each relevant stage of the process from Form EC8a to EC8e (all manually collated), BVAS and another acronym, the INEC Result Viewing Portal (IReV). IREV is not a collation system but a viewing portal for results uploaded and transmitted from the nearly 177,000 polling units as recorded on their respective Form EC8a.
The time this form was transmitted to IReV should have no bearing on the sanctity of the election as the key issue should be that the Form EC8a that went into the collation of Form EC8b at the ward level was the one attested to and signed off by all party agents present at the polling unit and is the same as was transmitted to IREV. It is a fact that all parties have copies of these forms and are represented at each stage of the collation process and presumably would look after the interests of their party. Nowhere in Electoral Act is the electronic collation of results mentioned.
The misunderstanding of the role of IReV has been one of the fuels of Nigeria’s growing election denial industry. It has been a case of the opposition clutching at straws by using the inability of INEC to transmit all the results from the polling units to IREV on the day of the election (which it attributes to technical glitches), neglecting that all the party agents have copies of the form that they have signed on.
This form was transmitted manually to the ward level, where they were collated and reconciled in the presence of party agents in accordance with the Electoral Act and Paragraph 38(1) of the subsequent guideline issued by INEC, which provides for electronic transmission or transfer of the result of the polling unit direct to the collation system and as in 38(2) use BVAS to upload a scanned copy of the EC8a to IReV.
Nowhere in the Electoral Act or INEC guideline does it say this uploading must be done immediately from the polling unit, though Section 64(4) provides that a collation or returning officer shall collate and announce the result of an election subject to his verification and confirmation that the number of accredited voters and the votes stated on the collated result is correct and consistent with the number of accredited voters and the votes recorded and transmitted directly from the polling units.
This requirement is the real elephant in the room as the courts presumably now have to determine if the transmission referred for comparison of the result must necessarily be from IREV rather than the manually delivered result or otherwise electronic reading the Act in totality given the discretion given to INEC by the Electoral Act and what it portended to do in its guidelines and if so, whether this assumed non-compliance is enough to upturn the result or trigger a recount.
This would even be more intriguing if in the courts INEC is able to prove that what is uploaded on IREV substantially reflects the basis of the collation barring human errors. In that case the main point of consideration by the courts would be whether best practice is a compelling substitution for the explicit provisions of the law.
Nigeria must not be allowed to fail from ethnic, religious or misguided sentiments. The consequences are best imagined. We have various insurgencies, including the pernicious Boko Haram one, but it is also an irony that we act as the bulwark against the spread of Salafist insurgents such as AUIM, JNIM and ISGS from the Sahel, a far more sinister threat to Nigeria and indeed the whole of Africa (In fact here already but currently prefers proselytizing, ‘charity’ and criminal low-grade terror attacks). Those calling for the de-legitimatization of the election are pursuing an all-or-nothing strategy of weakening the country further without exhausting the democratically provided avenues to address election grievances.
It is a fact that nobody has been able to show that the procedural manual collation system used by INEC does not derive from the actual results at the polling unit level despite some social media distractions. The irony is probably lost on many of our election deniers where in one breath, they talk about mutilations in some of the EC8a forms uploaded onto IReV (a manually collated form, what other way to correct errors before the party agents sign off on the form), presumably to tally with results declared and then in another declare without batting an eyelid that the results uploaded on IReV contradict the results announced by INEC.
For sure, INEC cannot be that incompetent not to align the IReV result with its manipulated result if indeed there was any. This is also not the time to cast aspersions on the electoral umpire by even remotely suggesting the possibility of its head being compromised because the result did not go their way or, more worrying, that the Supreme Court cannot be trusted. As in America, our Supreme Court has its own partisan issues too, but the case of Imo State that the deniers refer to about the person that came 4th being declared as the winner of the election was based on a well-reasoned judgement and on the face of it, reversal of an injustice.
The raison d’etre was based on the premise of reinstating lawful votes that were hitherto excluded by the electoral umpire, catapulting him to the first position. Coincidentally many appear to have conveniently forgotten to mention that two ruling party candidates that won governorship elections had their victory nullified by the same Supreme Court on more mundane technical grounds in favor of opposition candidates and in the same election cycle.
Polls don’t win elections and as is said in American politics, polls don’t vote, people do. Some of the false hope was no doubt encouraged by false or biased polls. Two such polls readily come to mind. One by Bloomberg who hired an American company that missed the nuances of Nigerian demographic segmentation and the second by a local company, ANAP, whose Board of Trustees comprised a wealthy Nigerian and declared Labor Party supporter and his relatives. Some other polls were however quite accurate.
Many also forget that Obidients (a worrying sign of an incipient personality cult for supporters to characterise their political affiliation after a person), as the more enthusiastic segment of Peter Obi’s base is referred, started a collation exercise of theirs from IReV almost as soon as a winner was announced with considerable fanfare and a dedicated portal. However, as soon as this exercise began to mirror the results declared by INEC, it was shut down under an atmosphere of mutual recriminations and brickbats once it was clear the trend did not promote their denial agenda.
A scenario in which groups like AQUIM, JNIM, ISGS and allied insurgent groups seep from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger into Nigeria and thereon to Central Africa (there is an ethnic affinity between certain Seleka backers and a major Nigerian tribe that also features in the Sahel groups) must not be allowed to fester as this could degenerate into a Pan African Islamist insurgency from the Sahel to Mozambique probably a nightmare already discussed at the higher echelons of Western Intelligence. Nigeria needs help, and lots of it, not sanctions, as some of our election deniers would rather wish.
A strong and viable Nigeria is essential to the stability of the African continent. We need encouragement, not international isolation. Those priming and promoting violence in Nigeria to truncate our democracy or organising protests in the West to encourage the isolation of the country because they are refusing to accept the outcome of a free and fair election subject to the affirmation of the courts deserve our condemnation and certainly not our understanding. Nigeria must move forward.
The scenes currently coming out of Sudan must not be allowed to happen in Nigeria. The collective understanding and support of Nigerians for our democracy and the efforts of our armed forces to defeat the various insurgencies are vital in this regard, not only to Nigeria but the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, from the north to the west, east, and as far south as Mozambique.
My appeal is simple, support democracy and the democratic process in Nigeria, not ethnic irredentists, election deniers, and conspiracy theorists in the mode of President Donald Trump and his supporters. It does not mean giving a free pass to the political class but as the Yoruba proverb says, let’s chase away the fox first and come back to deal with the chicken. It would be a big folly if the political class thinks it can be business as usual. It simply cannot be.
Awonaiya is a chartered accountant, development finance specialist, and private equity practitioner. He is a trained geologist and businessman with degrees in Geology, Finance, and Business Administration.
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