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2023: Four key factors that shaped presidential, N/Assembly elections – CDD

Nigerians went to polls on Saturday, February 25, to elect a new president and members of the National Assembly. The exercise was the country’s seventh…

Nigerians went to polls on Saturday, February 25, to elect a new president and members of the National Assembly. The exercise was the country’s seventh consecutive general elections since the return to democracy in 1999.

The Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), an elite think-tank in West Africa, played a prominent role in the process, deploying over 4,900 trained and accredited observers to monitor the polls across the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

In the buildup to the elections, there was renewed focus on the presidential candidates and their possible paths to victory. Although 18 candidates contested the election, Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Peter Obi of Labour Party and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP) took the centre stage in the race.

Recall that the CDD, through its Election Analysis Centre (EAC), had outlined five key issues – identity, insecurity, institutions, information disorder and intra-and inter-party squabbles (the ‘five I’s) – that would influence the voting pattern and outcome of the polls.

These issues and more, indeed, played out in the just concluded polls, as Nigerians await the electoral umpire to declare the winner of the poll which has already stirred mixed reactions among the citizens and political actors.

The CDD in a report on Tuesday, February 28, signed by the centre’s Director, Idayat Hassan, identified four key issues that shaped Nigeria’s 2023 presidential and legislative election process. They include the election day operational challenges, text box inclusion for people with disabilities, voters’ behaviour, violence and intimidation as well as false information circulated on social media.

Election day operational challenges

That the elections held as scheduled is a feat that has eluded the country in the three previous polls which were postponed. Notably, the February 25 elections were conducted amidst prevailing insecurity across the country, fuel scarcity and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) naira redesign policy, which created currency shortages and threatened to derail operational plans for the polls.

Although the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) confirmed it had received the necessary resources shortly before the elections, deployment plans appeared to have been affected.

According to electoral procedures, voting starts at 8:30am. However, INEC officials were present at polling units before 8:30am in just 36.7% of cases according to CDD observers, with 32.5% of the officials arriving an hour or more behind the schedule. In some cases, INEC officials arrived shortly before 2:30pm – the time polls were officially due to close – which left little time for voting to take place.

“When voting did begin, some challenges with the use of the bimodal voter accreditation system (BVAS) were noted. Despite training delivered to all ad-hoc INEC staff on the use of the new technology tools, recruitment shortcomings and ongoing capacity gaps affected its effective deployment,” CDD said in its post-election report.

The centre, however, noted that INEC’s contingency planning was broadly effective, with more than two-third of the technical hitches resolved within one hour, and where the technology was working accreditation happened at a good pace.

“A final issue relates to the INEC Result Viewing Portal (IReV), which was designed to provide real-time transmission of election results (Form EC 80A) from polling units to the central collation centre in an attempt to enhance the transparency of the electoral process and reduce the incidence of vote rigging and election manipulation.

“However as of 21:00 on election day, there were no results uploaded to the platform for the presidential results. By 11:00 on Monday 27 February just 53,154 polling unit results out of a total of 176,734 were publicly available on the platform despite the legal requirement that results should be uploaded to the platform as soon as they are declared at the polling unit level,” the report further stated.

Though INEC said in a February 26 press release that the challenges stemmed from “technical hitches related to the scaling up of the IReV platform,” CDD believes that the delay in releasing the statement enabled unproven rumours of possible rigging to flourish.

Text Box: Inclusion

Section 54 (2) of the 2022 Electoral Act provides for improved access for persons with disabilities (PWD). Whilst some polling unit locations were inaccessible to those with a physical disability, CDD did not record any significant incidents of those with disabilities being unable to vote.

“Just under 20% of polling units had specialised equipment for PWDs, with this allocation done by INEC through a targeted approach based on an assessment of the voter register,” it added.

Voter behaviour

Despite well-documented instances of insecurity in all six geopolitical zones as well as the fuel and currency scarcity that threatened to derail the electoral process, Nigerians, particularly the youth, had shown a strong interest in participating in this election.

Of the 9.46 million voters added to the register by INEC before the 2023 elections, over 70% were youth (aged 18-34); meaning that they comprised 39.7% of the 93.4 million registered voters.

But the CDD observed that the voting patterns implied that ethnic identity remained an important factor shaping voters’ preference rather than youth being a monolithic block.

It equally noted that based on the results announced so far, voter turnout appeared lower in the Saturday’s elections than the 35% turnout recorded in 2019, showing a pattern of declining electoral participation that began in Nigeria in 2003.

“The fact that a significant percentage of Nigerians fail to engage in elections is a concern and perhaps points to growing disillusionment with their ability to shape a more democratic society,” CDD said.

Though vote buying during the weekend polls seemingly reduced compared to the recent off-cycle elections, 11% of observers reported some form of vote buying taking place in or around their polling units.

“This election also saw an increased use of basic foodstuffs, household goods and materials being exchanged for votes, with observers in states such as Kwara, Imo and Bayelsa all reporting numerous incidents,” the report said, adding that despite the shortages of cash, politicians were still able to secure cash.

“An individual in Lagos was detained on the eve of the polls by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission with N32.4 million new naira notes that it believed were to be used for vote buying. Elsewhere in the run-up to the polls, in Rivers state, a PDP aspirant for the House of Representatives was caught with almost US$500,000 in cash, which investigating agencies claimed he intended to use to buy votes,” CDD stated.

Violence and voter intimidation

Intimidation linked to identity or political party affiliation was recorded across the country and was reported by 3.4% of observers. Incidentally, the prevailing insecurity in the country was not a significant factor that contributed to pockets of violence during the polls. Rather, the incidents were mainly caused by political thugs.

Also, a review of media coverage on the election day suggests that there were 10 election-related deaths – two each in Abia, Rivers, Kano, and Ondo states, one in Kogi state and one in Delta state.

While the polls were largely violence-free, destruction of voting materials in about 2,000 polling units, representing 1.2%, impacted on a sizeable number of voters seeking to exercise their civic right.

“For example in Lagos state, there were documented gunshots and attacks on polling units to deter voters. CDD observers reported gunshots in Oshodi at 14:00 while monitoring nearby polling units. Meanwhile, media reports also highlighted the snatching of ballot boxes in Surulere by armed thugs in the state, and thugs also attacked a collation centre in Kano state,” the report added.

Online falsehoods

In the Nigeria information landscape, while some renewed level of sophistication was observed in the disinformation campaigns during the elections, many of the strategies used were similar to 2019. There was a rise of synthetic and manipulated media whereby images were doctored to push certain narratives against candidates and videos were presented out of context to misinform the voting public.

For instance, a video showing Peter Obi campaigning for Atiku Abubakar in 2019 re-emerged hours before the 2023 vote. It was adapted from TikTok and shared widely across the platform and WhatsApp.

Efforts to undermine INEC’s credibility were also recorded throughout the campaign and even as polls were set to open. An audio file that started as a WhatsApp voice note evolved into a video that was shared across platforms, claiming the PDP candidate, Atiku, was working with the INEC to rig elections.

The CDD noted that despite the fact-checks done to dispel these falsehoods, many persons would choose to believe the disinformation, as long as it favours their political leaning.

Emerging trends

It was observed that expectations of an increased voter turnout had been defeated. This could be partially attributed to the 7% (about 6 million) of permanent voter cards uncollected, INEC performance issues and widespread security concerns. However, the fact that a significant percentage of Nigerians fail to participate in the elections is a concern and perhaps, points to growing disillusionment with their ability to shape a more democratic society.

Early voting patterns showed that ethnic identity might have been a key determinant in voters’ choices in the elections. The PDP, prior to the polls, had always secured the majority of votes in the South East and South South, but strong support for the Labour Party presidential candidate indicates this will not be the case in 2023 from the results declared so far.

“Likewise, Yobe, which had never voted for a PDP candidate, did so in 2023, with Atiku the only northerner among the three leading candidates. However, the result from Lagos, where Obi was able edge Tinubu offers some optimism for a generational change independent of the ethnic cleavages that have historically dominated Nigerian politics,” CDD stated.

It also predicted another wave of electoral litigation in courts which may reverse some electoral outcomes and perhaps impact on governance in the short term.

Recommendations

For improved electoral process in Nigeria, the centre recommended that INEC should ensure voters better understand the reasons behind delays or technical hitches. It advised the commission to review its communication policy and train staff to support proactive communication with voters, adding that doing so will help improve transparency and accountability and reduce the risk of social media rumours.

CDD also urged INEC to come up with a dedicated and prompt page for communicating updated decisions or positions around election-day. This includes, but not limited to, reports around postponed elections, reassigned polling units and logistical delays. Running a dedicated site for verified results can help citizens distil between projections, reported results and misinformation.

The elite think-thank further enjoined that investigations into voting day violence, and those involved in voter suppression and vote buying should be thorough and result in convictions where proven.

“A more robust stress testing of IReV is needed to avoid its malfunction undermining the forthcoming governorship process, more than it strengthens transparency around it,” the CDD added.

It called for effective collaboration between INEC and the judiciary in properly adjudicating complaints concerning the election process to avoid many instances of candidates being ‘elected’ by the courts, rather than by the electorate.

“Political parties must take more seriously their commitments to peace laid out in the National Peace Accord by reigning in thugs acting at their direction. Also, social media companies need to expand their ability to respond promptly to falsehoods circulating on their platform, particularly on and immediately after election day. There should be improved collaboration with recognised fact-checking platforms to allow for quick response and action,” it said.

The CDD equally noted that there is a need for periodic cleanup of the voter register to better reflect the levels of voter turnout, a review and redistribution of voter allocations to polling units to reduce scenarios in which some have only a handful of voters and others have thousands, more robust and timely training of ad-hoc staff, particularly in the use of technology, stronger support to INEC by security agencies to address prevailing insecurity, among others.

“An independent post-election review by a group of civil society organisations that observed the election, alongside representatives from legal bodies, should be constituted to provide a report and recommendations on a way forward for continued improvement in the management of elections and the operational deployment required and the role for INEC and other key stakeholders,” it concluded.

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