Poll Postponement: Nigeria In The Eye Of Storm - by Chidi Oguamanam

It is really true. A day in politics can make a thousand years’ difference. The idea of postponing Nigeria’s 2015 general election originally scheduled for February 14 and 28 was easily dismissible as a dangerous rumour from a fifth columnist. 

But everything changed following the meeting of the National Council of State on Friday, February 6. Politicians’ inability to give uniform account of what transpired at the meeting was a first sign that all was not well. Various media reports provided some nuanced partisan spins. But the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Attahiru Jega’s late broadcast of Saturday, February 7 helped to lay any lingering confusion to rest. That broadcast was quite commendable as it doused any haunting doubts as to the intrigues that undergirded the election postponement.

While there may be cogent and credible reasons to ground a case for election postponement, the context and consequence of such a decision give strong causes for apprehension.

First, INEC should not be fully exculpated for playing into the hands of forces that wanted election postponement for ulterior motives. For one simple reason: INEC’s poor handling of the distribution of the Permanent Voter Cards. A week before the elections under the original timetable, the commission was only able to deliver 68 per cent of the PVCs to eligible voters. But it was instructive that Jega insisted that INEC was far more prepared going into the elections under the annulled (that dirty word again!) timetable than it was when it conducted the elections of 2011. In short, for INEC, the hiccups regarding the PVCs were not enough reason to warrant the postponement of the elections. As far as the commission was concerned, to the extent of its capability, it was determined to proceed with the elections under the original schedule. However, security issues are outside its control. By the way, no one has mentioned the costs of election postponement at a time of dire national economic pressure.

Second, Nigeria is in an unconventional war situation or, if you like, a serious security crisis. And beyond security crisis, we have yet to attain a position where our elections can be truly a civil process in operation, character and content. Sadly, the nation’s armed and security forces are integral part of our electoral apparatus. That is why they are highly courted by politicians during the elections. The nation’s topmost security agencies, which are part of the apparatchik of the government in power, have advised that they cannot guarantee the security of the elections; including those of citizens and personnel of the electoral body were the elections to go ahead under the original schedule.

The security priority of the nation, according to them, is focused on the crisis in the North-East. Decode: We did not defeat Boko Haram these five or so years; we think that we can defeat them in the next six weeks! But how does that sit with the rest of Nigerians, most of whom had construed the next elections as partly a referendum on the ruling government’s handling of the so-called insurgency in the North-East? Many would wonder whose interests are best served by the postponed elections.

Third, apart from the Boko Haram-anchored shenanigans or fallacy, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of toying with the electoral timetable at the most critical hour is its constitutional ramifications. As it stands, INEC has been able to succumb to the pressure to defer the elections within a very tight window of constitutional accommodation and pursuant to its enabling law. But then, there is quite a tiny vent for further elasticity without real danger of constitutional crisis. The tenure of the President and other actors in the extant electoral process would expire on May 29, 2015. In the event that the presidential election turns out to be inconclusive for some constitutional or other unpredictable reasons, then one wonders whether we have not by this new revised electoral calendar laid the foundations for a constitutional crisis that could undermine our fledgling democracy. It is shocking, to say the least, that after Nigeria’s nasty experience 22 years ago when Ibrahim Babangida annulled the fairest elections in Nigeria’s history that we would be in a position that smells close to history repeating itself. This time round, we cannot pretend that history does not teach us anything!

There would have been little reason to worry if the elections were postponed pursuant to consensus amongst all stakeholders. Such would have been more so the case if there was unequivocal confidence regarding the non-partisanship in truth and in appearance of key agencies in favour of the postponement of the elections. But there is crisis of confidence in the ruling party and agencies of government that have pressed for the postponement of the elections. The onus is therefore on them to restore the confidence of the citizenry. Anything short of that would expose the country to avoidable stress. The opposition and all stakeholders should ensure that there is calm among their supporters. It is an opportunity for all, including of course, INEC, to go back to the drawing board and collectively work towards the best possible elections that Nigeria could deliver. They should mobilise Nigerians to civic vigilantism. We need a huge voter turnout to elect new governments at national and sub-national levels. The legitimacy of the ruling party or the opposition, whichever wins and, of course, the credibility of the electoral process are enhanced by a resounding mandate. One month begets another; as does February, March. We should not be like the tortoise whose patience ran out only a few minutes to its rescue after it had been holed in for decades. That would not be a path of wisdom and patriotism.

As for the security agencies, we hope that they would appreciate the enormity of the responsibility they have taken on. The high expectation of Nigerians and, indeed the world, are on them. In all of this, theirs is a far higher burden. They can only discharge that burden by remaining non-partisan and resisting all attempts by politicians to drag them into the fray. That is the only way they can restore the confidence of Nigerians. If there is any excitement in these uncertain times, it is the security agencies’ indirect promise to restore order in Nigeria’s troubled North-East. In that case, six weeks of postponed elections would be a worthwhile price. Perhaps by then, the Chibok girls can get home, get their PVCs and go to the polls! A win-win. Fingers crossed.

Chidi Oguamanam is a Professor of Law, University of Ottawa, Canada