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2019 elections: A call for caution and hope

Today we are just one week away from the general elections and all of us – election stakeholders, need to caution ourselves about the extremely…

Today we are just one week away from the general elections and all of us – election stakeholders, need to caution ourselves about the extremely reckless statements being made that can lead us to the abyss. That is not where we want to be. With the 2011 general elections, we had a turning point on the integrity scale with the election being much better than the previous one. In 2015, there was a qualitative leap forward on the scale with the outcome being universally praised not just because it led to an alternation of power from the incumbent to the opposition party but mainly because the result reflected the choice made my voters. We must all ensure that we continue to move up the integrity scale with the 2019 general elections. It is for this reason that we must ensure that our words and utterances lead us towards credible results rather than stoke the embers of fear and hatred, which can transform the elections into chaos and general violence.

The latest statement in the news in which Kaduna State Governor Nasir El Rufai threatened to send back foreigners who intervene in our elections home in body bags is totally unacceptable. Although it was not clear from his statement what type of foreign intervention he was referring to, his choice of words gave the impression that Government was planning a violent response around electoral issues. Let us recall that on Monday, the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, addressed a press conference where he claimed that: “opposition parties were working with hostile foreign intelligence services to scuttle the elections.” He added that the opposition parties have sent out a ten-man delegation to Washington DC, London and Brussels as part of the plot. In 2015, the ruling APC party was the beneficiary of very positive assessment of the elections by both domestic and foreign observers. They should be the last group to see nothing but evil intentions in the work of the same groups.

The opposition parties have been just as reckless and alarmist in their statements. Both the PDP and the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) have been making wild and unsubstantiated allegations about the intention of the Federal Government and the Election Management Body to massively rig the elections. Such statements do a lot of disservice to election integrity because they start sowing doubts in the minds of voters, which could lead to violence if people believe that the allegations are true. It is irresponsible to make such categorical allegations without offering any proof.

We should not forget that Nigeria has a long history of playing politics along the lines of identity fractures linked to religion, region and ethnicity. The fact that the two leading candidates have the same identity profile has considerably reduced the identity stakes and tension of the electoral campaign. Nonetheless, ethno-religious tensions persist. The massacres associated with the farmer-herder crisis over the past few years have created a lot of antipathy along the divide Fulani-Muslim and Christian-Farmer even is the dynamics of the conflicts have not been strictly along religious lines. The political legacy of the crisis however is that very many Christians believe that President Buhari has not worked hard enough to protect their people and many of them would vote for Atiku Abubakar as a protest vote against President Buhari. These dynamics have pushed many in the Muslim community to rally behind President Buhari so identity divides would still play a significant role in the elections. Reckless statements deepen these divides and pose a real risk around the elections.

I have been a student of Nigerian politics for a long time and I am aware that we have a history of the abuse of incumbency powers to affect electoral outcomes. Yes, electoral commissions, security agencies and government media have been used against opposition parties in the past, most notable in 2003 and 2007. The fact of the matter however is that significant reforms have occurred since then to make massive electoral fraud impossible. The electoral register, the permanent voters card and the card reader combine to create transparency and make electoral fraud impossible. The collation process has also become transparent and observers have access to the venues. The presidential elections are collated on live television. There is therefore no basis for some of the claims being made by the opposition. The most important development is actually the increased vigilance of the Nigerian voter. Nigerians are not going to allow anyone to change electoral outcomes so there is no need to unnecessarily heat up the political system.

Let us allow the campaigns to go on peacefully so that Nigerians could make up their minds who they want to vote for in a serene environment. What I like about the campaigns this time is the search for evidence on who is leading. Both PDP and APC for example have been engaged in photo tricks and photo analysis to convince voters that their candidate’s rallies are attracting more crowds than the other. That’s fine, voters have ayes and can assess for themselves. Campaign platforms are churning out survey reports claiming that their candidates would win, that’s fine. The ultimate choice is done by the voter who would pick their choice. What is important is the return of civility in our campaign discourse.

Let us not forget that this election is not only about Atiku Abubakar and Muhammadu Buhari. The 2019 general election is by far the largest in Nigeria’s political history. There are 73 presidential candidates and 1,008 people seeking to be State governors. 1,904 candidates are contesting for the 109 senatorial positions while 4,680 candidates are hoping to be elected into the 360 seats available in the House of Representatives. 14,643 candidates will contest for seats in the 36 States Houses of Assembly. Over 23,000 candidates are therefore contesting for seats in the elections. We have been looking for new breed politicians for a long time and now we have them, a lot of them. It is hoped that this huge array of contestants and dissatisfaction with the two leading parties would create opportunities for new parties to make inroads into office now and in the coming years.

The greatest challenge facing Nigerian democracy remains the absence of a real and functional party system. There are currently 91 registered political parties in the country but only two are strong. They have no ideology or programmatic vision, and even more important, they have no members who participate in party activities because they believe their parties have something to offer their country. Depending on their financial capacity, most parties source for and pay crowds to provide participants for their activities. It is for this reason that often, the same persons would be seen attending the activities of different parties. With 23,000 new politicians in the arena, we now have an opportunity to focus attention not just on who wins this election but on how we can significantly improve our political system in the coming years.

Yours faithfully will be observing and reporting on the elections from the Election Analysis Centre (EAC), established by the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD). We have recruited and trained  2,642 polling unit observers to be stationed in 30% of the 8,804 wards in the country. They will be assisted by 800 roving observers, 500 of whom are journalism students from our higher institutions. At our headquarters in Abuja, ten leading election experts have been assembled from all geopolitical zones in the country under the leadership of Professor Adele Jinadu and they would be working with 40 data analysts to provide continuous analysis of the elections. We would be working with major media organs with broadcast, print, on-line and social media capacity so please tune in. We will counter fake news and provide Nigerians with objective and high-quality analysis. Let’s all devote ourselves to working for free, fair, credible and violence-free elections so that we continue to deepen our democracy.

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