Following the successfully administered 2015 elections and years after the tumultuous electoral process of 2007, expectations were high that Nigeria had finally turned the corner.1see also J. Shola Omotola and Freedom Onuoha, The Promise of Transition: Is there an African Dawn for Democracy? (Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, 2018), http://studies.aljazeera.net/mritems/Documents/2018/7/8/74246f20fce549f1a6e21e813d54ccce_100.pdf; J. Shola Omotola, ‘Trapped in Transition: Nigeria’s First Democratic Decade and Beyond,” Taiwan Journal of Democracy 9, no. 2 (2013): 171-200; J. Shola Omotola, “Elections and Democratic Transitions in Nigeria under the Fourth Republic,” African Affairs 109, no. 437 (2010): 535-553; J. Shola Omotola, “‘Garrison’ Democracy in Nigeria: The 2007 General Elections and the Prospects of Democratic Consolidation,” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 47, no. 2 (2009): 195-221. However, the sudden postponement of this year’s elections scheduled for February 16 (presidential and national assembly) and February 23 (governor and state assembly) seems to suggest otherwise.

The postponement itself may not be the problem because Nigeria’s electoral law grants the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) the power to postpone elections. Section 26 (1) of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) provides that:

Where a date has been appointed for the holding of an election, and there is reason to believe that a serious breach of the peace is likely to occur if the election is proceeded with on that date or it is impossible to conduct the elections as a result of natural disasters or other emergencies, the Commission may postpone the election and shall in respect of the area, or areas concerned, appoint another date for the holding of the postponed election, provided that such reason for the postponement is cogent and verifiable.

Based on this provision, the 2015 general elections were postponed without much backlash. The problem with the current postponement is that no real evidence was produced showing that any of the legal justifications, namely likelihood of “a serious breach of peace,” “natural disasters,” or “other emergencies” were at play. Instead, the elections were postponed due to logistical challenges, bad weather, and sabotage. The timing of the postponement, officially communicated hours before voting was expected to commence, complicated matters further. Until that announcement, INEC had consistently assured the Nigerian public of its readiness to effectively conduct the elections as scheduled.

Why did INEC not anticipate the challenges facing the long-scheduled elections in advance and respond proactively to avoid a last-minute postponement? Its failure to do so suggests an avoidable lapse in judgment and an inability to read the situation accurately. The Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth, and Advancement (YIAGA), a leading youth-based civil society organization in Nigeria, captured this view succinctly, noting “the commission may have overestimated its capabilities and underrated the challenges associated with the management of election logistics.”

This apparent failure in planning is somewhat surprising because many of the key actors in INEC, including national commissioners and advisors, are reputed professionals and distinguished professors in their respective fields. Some of them also have valuable experience in electoral governance, having occupied strategic positions and played prominent roles during Attahiru Jega’s successful tenure as INEC chairman. The postponement, if mismanaged, could become part of a growing crisis of confidence that further undermines electoral management in Nigeria. We may have not heard the last about what began as the politics of succession at INEC following Attahiru Jega’s exit as chairman. The current leadership of INEC has constantly been accused, rightly or wrongly, of having some connection with the presidency.

The postponement has also opened up INEC to criticism by both the ruling party, All Progressive Congress (APC), and the leading opposition party, People’s Democratic Party (PDP). They have made accusations and counter-accusations of wrongdoing against each other, while also expressing misgivings about INEC’s neutrality and impartiality. The insinuation that the postponement constitutes sabotage by the electoral body, with some going further and interpreting this in ethnic terms, has further complicated the issue.

Matters appeared to reach a boiling point when several news media outlets reported that the Department of State Services (DSS)—Nigeria’s main domestic intelligence agency—had invited top INEC officials for interrogation, including a national commissioner in charge of operations and logistics. The DSS has since withdrawn the invitation due to public outcry, which included accusations of an alleged ethnically-motivated witch-hunt. Even more important was the press conference held by a group of eminent Nigerian political scientists and democracy activists, including Professor Adele Jinadu, Jibrin Ibrahim and Barrister Femi Falana, among others decrying the development.

INEC alone cannot resolve all the challenges facing the electoral and political system. A lot will depend on the collaboration and support of other key stakeholders in the electoral process, including political parties, security agencies, media, and civil society organizations. Rather unfortunately, INEC does not have control over these actors. The political parties, for example, hardly respect their own regulations governing party conventions/congresses and primary elections. These party activities often produce parallel executives and candidates. Internal mechanisms for redress are ineffective leading to a plethora of litigations over intra-party elections and nominations. Apart from the unnecessary distraction such lawsuits impose on INEC, they clog the courts with numerous cases arising from political disputes, which further exposes the judiciary to immense political pressures.

According to the INEC chairman, the commission “has been sued or joined in over 640 court cases arising from the nomination of candidates,” and as at the day of the postponement, there were “40 different court orders against the commission on whether to add or drop candidates.” Another complication is rising judicial politicization and corruption, epitomized by the issuance of contradictory court pronouncements on the same/similar electoral matters. Increasingly, the professional, ethical, and autonomous foundations of the judiciary as a democratic institution are being overloaded, if not eroded. Tensions in legislative-executive relations have also worsened, leading to delays in the passage of INEC’s budget by the legislature which affected the electoral body’s preparations for the elections.

As stakeholders continue to grapple with the implications of the postponement of Nigeria’s 2019 elections, the main lesson seems to be that the success of the 2015 election is not a sufficient guarantee that electoral management is well institutionalized in the country. Unless members of the political class moderate their desperation to win elections using all means at their disposal and act within the provisions of the law, the postponement poses a real danger to the consolidation of Nigeria’s electoral democracy.

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