A country’s elections provide an important window into its practice of democracy. Nigeria’s citizens know that the country’s past elections were not a true representation of the social construct of democracy. In the past, many Nigerians protested the unfair elections in many ways, sometimes even resorting to violent killings and riots. The need for change was not only about the ruling party or individual but instead the manner in which its elected representatives were chosen.
“Nigerians do not take no for an answer.”
Experts jokingly repeated this phrase at a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies talk. But it could also serve as a motto for the way Nigerians pursued electoral reform. At the event, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) chairman Attahiru Jega discussed the triumphs and failures of the 2015 election. Nigeria, a relatively new democracy, has held only four presidential elections to date, three out of four times electing members of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Nigerians were frequently dissatisfied with the results of the past elections, often suggesting the PDP was synonymous with electoral fraud of all kinds. The International Crisis Group, which published research on the country’s electoral practices, cited the ways in which the polls were riddled with malpractices, logistical deficiencies and procedural inconsistencies.
This mistrust came to a head in 2011, when widespread allegations of fraud were made. After the results were published, widespread dissatisfaction led to riots at more than 500 voting fatalities. This political unrest placed a lot of pressure on the INEC, which began a tricky but strategic transition toward complete independence from governmental influence.
To start, the INEC evaluated past elections, in order to create an Election Project Plan which recommended specific activities, timelines, and cost for the next election. The Strategic Plan of the Commission informed this plan. The committee worked with the African Union consultant to develop the plan and liaised with development partners where necessary to ensure an inclusive and implementable process. “If you have beautiful plans and you do not have partners that can help you execute it, it will be a serious challenge,” Jega said. To that end, the INEC enlisted civil society organizations, security agencies, and the UNDP to help fund election planning.
To combat fraud, the INEC introduced new technology, providing each voters with a biometric card containing a microchip with the biometrics unique to each registered voter. The cards required each voter to identify him or herself at the polling station by scanning their fingerprint on a Smart Card Reader. INEC also used the 2015 elections to address the lack of female participation in electoral processes. They created a gender policy to ensure that INEC policies, plans, processes, and operations were gender-responsive, encouraging gender equity and balance within political parties. This included campaigns encouraging women to register and vote, and encouraging more female candidates to run for electoral positions.
To maximize resources, the INEC employed ad-hoc ballot officials from the compulsory National Youth Service Corps and universities who were recruited, trained, and deployed to assist the INEC in carrying out the elections. After nine polling officials were killed in the post-election violence that ensued in the 2011 elections, security became a top issue for the INEC. By deploying security from the military to the polling stations, the INEC also ensured the safety of polling station personnel.
Despite these triumphs, some obstacles threatened the group. Paranoid politicians fretted over the INEC’s potential partisan allegiance, scrutinizing their every move for evidence of bias. “Not only are we non-partisan,” Jega said, “we [had] to do everything possible to ensure that we [were] perceived as non-partisan.” To bridge the communication divides; the INEC scheduled quarterly meetings with the political parties to update them on all developments.
The INEC also struggled to operate under a contradictory legal framework. For example, the country’s constitution stipulates that only candidates who win Democratic primaries can compete in the general presidential election. However, in another section, the Constitution states that the INEC cannot, under any circumstance, reject candidates submitted by parties. This contradiction put the INEC in a tough position. They could identify particular candidates who had not won the right to compete nationally, yet they couldn’t refuse the submission. This legal issue and many more created grounds for disputes and confusion as the election drew closer.
Then, the election was postponed due to security issues and the rise of Boko Haram. After military officials had told the INEC that they could not keep polling places secure, the INEC used its constitutional discretion, and made the difficult decision to postpone the election for six weeks.
When Jega made the announcement, citizens accused INEC of trying to commit electoral fraud. In truth, however, the extra time afforded the commission a chance to do additional training for officials, to produce more voter cards, and to increase card collection rates.
The elections were not perfect. In some polling stations, the electronic biometric scanners failed, the delivery of ballot papers was delayed, and the INEC official website was hacked. But the 2015 elections were a major improvement over those of the past. Generally viewed as democratic, the elections resulted in the country’s first peaceful transition of power from one party to another. Many Nigerians commended the work of the INEC and Professor Jega, saying he was the face of calm in the sight of a storm. The commission’s response to criticism and political mayhem was exemplary and extremely professional.
Now that the new president has been sworn in, there is much to learn from the 2015 elections. The country needs better infrastructure, competently trained polling officials, and a legal framework that resolves the ambiguity that led to much of the confusion. Nigeria has ample room for growth, and the potential is very visible.
“Good elections are important, but they are not enough for Democratic sustenance and socio-economic transition,” Jega said. Elections, he said, “must translate into good democratic government.” By combatting the corruption that infiltrates every sector and organization, perhaps Nigeria can finally become the democratic powerhouse the country envisions itself to be. Of course, democratic elections are just the beginning.
Photo courtesy Getty Images, PIUS UTOMI EKPEI.
Peniel Ibe was the summer 2015 Communications and Events Intern at PYXERA Global. She is a student at Earlham College where she is studying Environmental Studies and Economics. She is interested in increasing the resiliency of Nigerian communities and also seeks to contribute to global engagement around the world.