From all indications, the Supreme Court will likely decide the outcome of Nigeria’s tightly contested 25th February presidential election and, in some senses, the judiciary could be on trial.
The main opposition parties have mounted legal challenges to the results declared by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), but they are not the only ones dissatisfied with the electoral process. INEC has acknowledged that there were logistics challenges and “technical glitches” that led to the delay in uploading results from the polling units to the Commission’s Result Viewing or IReV Portal.
Introduced by the Commission as part of its ongoing efforts to strengthen public confidence in the electoral process, IReV was successfully piloted in the recent off-cycle governorship elections. With the introduction of the long-delayed amended Electoral Act 2022, which provides for the electronic transmission of election results, coupled with INEC’s repeated assurances to improve on the delivery of credible elections by leveraging lessons learnt; Nigerians and the international community had expected nothing less from the Commission on 25th February 2023.
However, because an election is a multi-stakeholder enterprise that requires every actor to play their part, it was obvious that some stakeholders dropped the ball on 25th February.
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Under the American-style executive presidential system being run by Nigeria, a presidential election is a sovereign national responsibility, which the constitution reposes on the electoral umpire, in this case, the INEC.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the Commission has come under severe scrutiny and criticism over what happened on 25th February. Even so, the same constitution and other relevant legal frameworks, including the Electoral Act and guidelines, have also made provisions for how infractions or violations can be addressed. For instance, while peaceful and lawful expression of disappointment/disagreement and peaceful protests are allowed, violent and unlawful actions or statements are prohibited under the law.
The legal frameworks are also very clear on the procedures and conduct of all actors before, during and post-election period. For now, the preoccupation of many concerned Nigerians is what happened on Election Day and immediately afterwards.
In their reports, local and international observers unanimously said that the electoral process was peaceful in large parts of the country. But they also reported violence, vandalism, snatching of electoral materials, voter intimidation and suppression and alleged fraudulent practices, especially in Lagos and Rivers states, where the police reported more than a dozen arrests.
INEC also noted that polling started late in some polling areas due to the late arrival of polling officials and materials. Consequently, balloting had to continue in some areas, to make up for the late start, while the Commission suspended elections in some trouble spots in at least three of the 36 states of the federation.
The main bone of contention appears to be that despite the reports of disruptions in some parts of the country and particularly the delay in the upload of the results as promised by INEC, the Commission still went ahead to declare Senator Bola Tinubu, candidate of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC), as the president-elect with 8.7 million of the estimated 25 million votes cast by among the 87 million registered voters.
The Commission further announced that former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, the flagbearer of the main opposition People Democratic Party (PDP), came second in the presidential contest with 6.9 million votes, while former State Governor Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP) was third with 6.1 million votes.
The PDP and LP have rejected the INEC declared results. Obi, who put up a surprisingly impressive showing following his mass followership by Nigerian youths, has claimed that he and not Tinubu won the presidential contest.
It is not the first time that Nigeria’s major election will be decided by the apex Court.
Even so, the political storm and recriminations generated by the 25th of February presidential election should not be allowed to erode hard-earned incremental improvements to the electoral process in Nigeria from 1999 when the country returned to civilian rule after prolonged spells of military dictatorships.
With all the criticisms over its handling of the presidential election and the potential impact on its reputation, it should not be lost on the public that INEC meant well in introducing the BVAS machine and IReV as tools for the improvement of the electoral process in Nigeria.
As stipulated under legal instruments governing elections in the country, the political parties and INEC are within their rights to approach the law courts for clarifications.
It therefore, behoves all political actors, particularly politicians, their parties, and supporters, to eschew violent conducts or utterances that could undermine peace and security in the country. The 25th of February presidential election will not be the last in Nigeria.
Since there is no perfect election, an electoral umpire can be forgiven where there are unintended human or technological failures. It is expected that valuable lessons on public information and crisis communication management might have been drawn from the 25th of February experience for improved performance going forward.
There were reports that INEC’s server was hacked. It is also possible that other security/classified information on what transpired on 25th February is unavailable in the public domain.
Nonetheless, the Commission cannot be absorbed of its constitutional responsibility on public information. Perhaps, assuming it had proactively and effectively communicated its challenges, particularly regarding the upload of election results to the IReV in real-time, public response could have been more empathetic and reactions by the political parties might have been different.
There is no doubt that the use of the BVAS machines has brought some improvements to the electoral process by preventing fraud and drastically reducing the erstwhile outrageous vote returns, which characterised Nigeria’s past elections.
The fact that only BVAS-verified and accredited voters are allowed to cast their ballots is a welcome change as part of efforts to stem electoral malpractices. The opposition parties that rejected the outcome of the 25th of February presidential vote seem generally satisfied with the results of the parliamentary elections held on the same day using the same BVAS machines.
Now that the electoral disputes have shifted to the courts, the burden rests on ‘Their Lordships’ to do their job without let or hindrance. The fate of Nigeria and its more than 214 million citizens are at stake.
The judges are expected to acquit themselves creditably with patriotism and a high sense of responsibility. They owe their allegiance to Nigerians, especially the youths who came out in their numbers to demand what they call transformative changes in the governance systems.
Their Lordships must validate the old dictum, which describes “the court as the last hope” of the citizens, knowing that their decision on the 25th of February presidential election could have far-reaching consequences on Nigeria’s political future.
Paul Ejime wrote via firstname.lastname@example.org