As the world looks on in tickled silence, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has postponed the general elections. That’s a problem. But the funny part is that it was done the morning of the day, literally 5 hours before voting was due to begin.

Of course it’s not the first time this has happened. What will compete with this in infamy as probably the worst ever was in 2011 when the elections were cancelled while people stood in line waiting to vote. Elections were also postponed in 2015, though the chairman at the time could not be blamed because it was for “security reasons”, something out of his range of responsibilities.

Mr Chairman, Sir

In one word, what is the job of an INEC chairman? Logistics. He doesn’t make the rules, that’s the National Assembly. He doesn’t enforce the rules, that’s the executive. He doesn’t interpret the rules, that’s the judiciary. His role, simply, is to run the logistics and count the results.

And now he has informed us that, despite his assurances up until 2 days prior, he is not currently capable of doing that. I’m tempted to call for his resignation but that will just add to the confusion. As Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Center’s Auwal Musa pointed out on Channels Television, this keeps occurring because nobody is ever sanctioned for their roles in it. If the current chairman or whoever is responsible is sanctioned after the elections that would send a good signal to whoever comes next. Why the chairman? Because the buck stops with him.

“Logistical problems” is what I call my body’s reluctance to get out of bed.

When it comes to elections, INEC is the body that sets the date and pretty much everything else. As an INEC official pointed out recently, even a policeman on Election Day does not work for the Nigeria police but is an employee of INEC for the day. All the monies it requested in its budget was provided, and its independence somewhat assured. But the chairman, in his subsequent explanations (more on that shortly), intimated at one point that the commission mobilized all the nation’s resources (according to him) but still could not overcome the logistical hurdles it faced. Thus, Mr Mahmood Yakubu inadvertently suggested to the entire world that the Federal Republic of Nigeria is unable to conduct its general elections in 2019, a damning self-capitulation.

In aviation, when the airplane is going down the runway to takeoff, there is the concept of V1. That is the point (speed and runway distance left) at which the takeoff can no longer be aborted and, regardless of what problems may occur, the pilots are clear that their only option is to somehow get their bird in the air and then figure out a solution afterward. The same should have been done here; there should have been a point, whether a month or even two weeks ago, at which the chairman should have made a final decision on whether or not to proceed with the elections. But to postpone 5 hours beforehand should not be an option unless your resignation is attached to it.

Finally, it appears that it was known at least since Thursday that the elections would not hold as planned. First of all, certain groups of ad hoc staff never received their postings, much less mobilization. I know this because I was personally involved. The youth corps members who have sent pictures of their accommodation have testified that the arrangements are inadequate. Even more telling, however, are politicians who claimed on Thursday that they were reliably informed the elections would be postponed. Politicians are generally not to be believed, I know, but what convinced me was that they did not travel as planned. For a politician to pass on the chance to do one last campaign run convinced me that they were 100% sure it’s not the last run before the election. Make of that what you will.

Wait, I Can Explain

The special session called by the INEC chairman to provide explanations for the 11th hour postponement was, frankly, deflating. I’m sure it will be intensely analyzed over the next few days but suffice to say that we went in there with an open mind but came out horribly disappointed. Where’s the smoking gun? No satisfactory explanation was given for the cancellation and postponement.

Indeed, one part of it stuck out to me as a bit contradictory (to put it mildly). The chairman said the commission considered running the election 24 hours late, that is on Sunday but decided against it because people worship on Sundays. First, that’s ridiculous because people worship on Saturday as well, and have even lodged their objections to elections always being held on that day. He next said they considered Monday but were informed by the IT people that they would need about 5 days to configure the card readers to work properly. Again, that doesn’t make sense. Now, I’m no expert on the card readers’ operation but I did attend the training for INEC technical support ad hoc staff (one heck of an experience) so I have firsthand knowledge of the basics. During the training we configured the card readers, including setting both election start and end date/time. Also, setting the relevant polling unit is done on the card reader, all of which takes no more than a minute once you’ve done it a couple times. While one might argue that those card readers were specially configured for training, we were informed by the trainers that the new updated software prevents the date and time from being manipulated on the device but is rather pulled directly from INEC servers. What that also means is that it would only require the INEC ICT department to make one configuration at server level and it would reflect on all devices. Therefore, the chairman’s reasons don’t appear to hold water and I’m disappointed that the stakeholders gathered did not take him up on it.

Finally, his refusal to unreservedly apologize to the Nigerian people for this show of gross incompetence and putting them through so much was painful to watch.

The indications then, are that the chairman and by extension the commission is either compromised or incompetent. Worse, the integrity of the commission and indeed the process itself has been seriously damaged by this turn of events. Millions across the country will be concerned that this is a ploy by the ruling government to pull a fast one. And who can blame them?

Strategic Rigging

I highly recommend listening to this talk called How to Rig an Election on some of the newer and more ingenious ways of rigging elections.

I recall when President Buhari, in a statement, asserted that the days of military coups are over and my first thought was, “it hasn’t ended, just evolved.” We can examine that in the Nigerian context sometime in the future but, for now, think of the coup against Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe not so long ago. It is the way of the world that we have now moved from overt power grabs to more subtle power plays. The methods may be different but the results are the same. In the same way, one of the important things to remember is that rigging elections has evolved past simply stuffing ballot boxes. These days it is much more strategic and often begins long before a single vote is cast.

The greatest political paradox of our time is this: there are more elections than ever before but the world is becoming less democratic.

⁃ Nic Cheesman

Among the different examples given in the podcast linked above, one of my personal favorites is the example of Madagascar where the incumbent president prevented the main opposition candidate from registering by first basically exiling him and then consistently closing the country’s airport whenever the candidate attempted to enter the country. Eventually, the deadline for submitting his forms in person passed and the president was rid of his main competitor. Deliciously evil.

Voter suppression is a second method of rigging the election in your favour. While doing it with violence will likely get you found out by observers, internationally condemned and possibly revolted against, there are subtle methods that can be applied instead. The example of a country which supplied pens with disappearing ink in opposition strongholds is a fantastic, if rather extreme, one. However, the postponement of our elections here could also be considered a form of it too. The incumbent’s stronghold consists of many who don’t tend to leave their state while the region in which he has not won a single state in 4 attempts has people spread all over the country who go home for elections and special occasions only. Having already dropped their businesses to travel once, many are unlikely to do it again in a week’s time, what with the economy being the way it is and all. Could it be a form of voter suppression? Difficult to prove, but certainly enough to raise concerns.

Yet another method of strategic rigging is voter apathy. The chairman’s refusal to apologize could generate some of that. Even more, however, was his inexplicable decision to declare campaigning to still be over. As the PDP representative at the special session intimated, allowing campaigns to go on for a few more days could help convince voters to make the journeys one more time, but the chairman ignored that completely in his reply, instead making an inappropriate joke about politicians not needing encouraging to come out. What I find ridiculous about it is that campaigns stop, by INEC’s own rules, 24 hours before elections. But where the elections do not hold, then logically there should be no reason to stop the campaigns.

But I guess the chairman has his reasons.

In conclusion, we have found ourselves in the most avoidable farce of our own making. While I understand the INEC chairman’s approach to the special explanatory session as possibly designed to not lose face and therefore confidence, I believe it is a misreading of how deep the public mistrust goes. It also appears not to have taken into consideration the longer term damage done. I hope next week goes hitch free but, as someone pointed out, the inevitable after-election court cases will be more interesting than ever before. And it will all have been very avoidable.