By 2:30 am in the morning of February 16, 2019, less than six hours before the polls were scheduled to open, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Mahmood Yakubu, announced the postponement of presidential and national assembly elections citing logistical and operational problems. Predictably, INEC’s decision was widely condemned by Nigerians who were upset by the last minute announcement. People who had put off personal engagements on the dates originally set for the elections (February 16 and 23) were also disappointed to discover that the new dates (February 23 and March 9) coincided with other personal and family engagements. The widespread anger was also partly because the postponement came after multiple assurances by INEC of its preparedness to conduct the election.
The decision to postpone elections at the very last minute came at a huge economic cost to the country and its citizens. Such costs included the closure of businesses and markets, restricted movement of goods and persons, and travel expenses and time lost by those that traveled to their homes in the countryside to vote. Given that many Nigerians are either self-employed or employed in the informal sector, election postponements are always traumatic.
Many conspiracy theories about the “real” motives for the postponement of the elections have emerged in both the mainstream and social media. The latest postponement of elections takes place at a most inauspicious time when political tensions are already running high. However, canceling, postponing, and rescheduling elections has become part of the pattern of electoral management in Nigeria. There are precedents as far back as the era of military rule, particularly during General Ibrahim Babangida’s military presidency. During that period, the federal military government postponed and rescheduled elections, and even canceled election results, as in the case of the annulment of the1993 presidential election. A similar trend was witnessed under General Abdusalami Abubakar’s military government when elections conducted under his predecessor, General Sani Abacha, were canceled. In 2011, the Attahiru Jega-led INEC postponed elections twice citing logistical problems. In 2015, general elections were delayed by six weeks due to the military’s concerns about the level of insecurity in North-east Nigeria.
In a sense, all of Nigeria’s post-independence elections have been bitterly contested. Discussions about election management in Nigeria have to be situated in the context of the institutional capacity of the electoral management body, the nature of the political class and its willingness to abide by the rules of the game, the perceptions and attitudes of the electorate, and the political commitment of governments to free and fair elections. Since INEC is constitutionally mandated to administer elections in the country, ideally, responsibility for any problems with the electoral process rests with them. However, the situation is a bit more complicated given the history of elections in the country, INECs dependence on other government agencies and institutions, and the machinations of a desperate political class for whom the competition for political power is a zero-sum game.
To give a recent example, a few days before the February 16 presidential election, INEC offices in Abia and Plateau states were set ablaze by yet-to-be apprehended arsonists suspected to be acting on behalf of political actors. In the process, about four thousand card readers meant for the elections were destroyed. Trucks carrying election materials were also attacked by gangs reportedly acting at the behest of politicians.
In the run-up to the elections, particularly during the hotly contested party primaries, a series of court cases were initiated by aggrieved party members who felt they had been unfairly denied a nomination —who had lost out switched parties in a bid to realize their political ambitions. The petitions were poorly handled and different courts gave contradictory rulings; some were still giving decisions ordering INEC to include certain names on ballots a few hours before the election began. All these actions constitute challenges that affect INEC’s capacity to perform its role.
The role of government actions in elections also matters. For example, the 2015 general election was postponed for six weeks at the insistence of then-President (and candidate) Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, even after INEC had announced that it was ready for the election. Some commentators argued that INEC was pressured to move the vote to allow the government to buy time and play the “money game” by extending the campaign and forcing the opposition to use up all their funds.
In conclusion, Nigeria’s electoral management body needs to take additional proactive steps to increase its capacity to predict, pre-empt, and respond to logistical and other institutional capacity and resource-related challenges. Of note is the need to partner with civil society and the media to transform the political culture, particularly through voter education and empowerment of youth and women to better protect their votes.
While many are understandably disappointed with the postponement, they may be missing a significant development showing the determination of the electoral body INEC to, against all the odds, defend its credibility by delivering what will be widely regarded as free and fair elections that reflect the choice of Nigerians. Hopefully, INEC will have learned some important lessons from the latest incident, make the necessary adjustments, and establish a strong institutional foundation for conducting well-organized elections in the future that help consolidate democracy in Nigeria.