Conceptual notes on the challenges and integrity of the 2019 presidential election in Nigeria

Eghosa E. Osaghae, PhD
Professor of Comparative Politics
Dept. of Political Science
University of Ibadan, NIGERIA

The 2019 general elections amply demonstrated the perversities of elections in Nigeria, and showed once again that elections, especially presidential elections, and their outcomes entail much more than the franchise and democratic choices made by citizens to decide who governs them. By some accounts, elections in the country are stage-managed and outcomes are not determined by how people vote, but are rather manipulated, cooked up, even predetermined, suggesting that elections may be surreal and far from what they are supposed to be. This situation obviously led some observers to conclude long ago in exasperation that electoral outcomes in Nigeria defy (rational) explanations; the results have to be taken as declared. The increased roles of election tribunals and law courts in the determination of electoral outcomes sometimes on technical grounds represents another variety of the evolving scenarios of electoral outcomes not determined by votes (this phenomenon is rapidly spreading all over Africa, as presidential elections in Kenya, Ghana, Malawi, DR Congo, and Guinea Bissau have been subjects of litigation and judicial decisions). The pertinent question would be how and why elections can be so dissociative of the franchise, but this is only one of the theoretical puzzles elicited by elections and electoral politics in Nigeria, and the conundrum of ‘choiceless elections’ in which votes do not determine electoral outcomes. Another puzzle relates to how the conduct and outcomes of elections forcefully articulate the fragility of statehood and national cohesion with the character of elections (peaceful, violent or disruptive) fast emerging as an index of state fragility or failure.

Puzzles like these suggest that the core of elections does not consist only of the formal structures and procedures associated with free and fair elections, such as the impartiality of the electoral commission and technological efficiency in the accreditation of voters, card readers and collation of results, which no doubt are important factors in elections. There are, in addition, the hard and arguably more fundamental variables that relate elections to social structure and state politics. These belong to the less obvious and non-formal terrains of participation that go beyond elections and encompass the desperate and surreptitious behind-the-scene activities that involve tradeoffs, manipulation of electoral institutions and processes, rigging, intimidation, in short, activities that mostly undermine formal structures and processes. As IDEA (2016:7) has rightly observed, Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) have largely been inserted into political contexts that have not really changed and often have to fulfil mandates in contentious democratic situations. There is reason to consider the social structure including the non-formal terrain more critical in explaining electoral outcomes especially the bewildering and fiercely contested results that are nevertheless ‘credible’ because they comply substantially with certain unwritten rules of elections in Nigeria, most notably the expectations that incumbents will win and that powerful politicians, godfathers and incumbents should win in – or ‘deliver’ in local parlance – their constituencies, whether they are popular, acceptable or not. The social structure, in which the value system is domiciled, provides the context for interrogating the intriguing nexus between elections and perverse politics.

The intricacies of the foregoing scenarios and tendencies suggest that although effective institutions and procedures or what may be called free and fair election variables (independence of electoral commission and security agencies, orderly voting, compliance with voting procedures, etc.) are crucial to the conduct and credibility of elections, they are necessary but not sufficient to capture the essence of elections and their consequences in Nigeria. Nothing demonstrates this better than the reality that it is quite possible for elections to pass the free and fair tests and still end up with nation-threatening tensions and fiercely contested and unacceptable outcomes. Why are elections, especially presidential elections, so peculiarly troublesome both in their conduct and consequences? The answer lies in the characteristic high stakes that place them in the extraordinary category that Key (1955) characterized long ago as critical elections – as opposed to normal or conventional elections which free and fair variables presume them to be. Although Key’s main focus was on the changes elicited by landmark American presidential elections, the notion of critical elections aptly captures the essence of elections in Nigeria and several other parts of Africa.

Key’s defining elements of high depth and intensity of electoral involvement, and the occurrence of more or less profound readjustments in relations of power, are applicable to most presidential elections in Nigeria. Although Key’s thesis has been critiqued and revised in the light of US experiences which suggest that realignments are products of cumulative presidential elections rather than one ‘critical election’ as well as of the rational choices made by party elites and activists to exploit particular issue cleavages (Shafer, 1991; Mayhew, 2002; Rosenof, 2003; Carmines and Schmidt, 2018), the notion of critical elections as path-setting and engendering of critical changes in political relations remains valid. The Nigerian variant of critical elections is not defined only by outcome; it includes the setting and preparations for elections which are characterized by pervasive tension, uncertainty and fear of the unknown before, during and after the elections (Adekanye, 1990). The hallmarks of this perilous state include cross-country movements of citizens to the safety of their hometowns during election periods, lockdown of the country on election days, low voter turnout, excessive deployment of police, military and security agencies and personnel, and postponement or cancellation of elections or their declaration as inconclusive. By their very nature, critical presidential elections define – or redefine – the strategic trajectory and futures of the country in a manner that rocks the boat of national cohesion, unsettles political relations, threatens the very existence of the state, and often requires one form of compromise or the other to get things going again. A report on governance in Africa explains what makes elections so critical: “elections…have become conflict triggers rather than instruments for resolving conflicts…Rather than unite, elections…divide people, undermining the very essence of elections, which is to peacefully aggregate preferences in the choice of political leadership” (UNECA, 2013:1). This is what gives critical presidential elections the distinctive character of being state legitimacy tests.

This conception of elections provokes a different set of questions from those associated with normal or conventional democratic elections. While the latter typically raise questions about rules, procedures, freeness and fairness, the former raises questions that are more sociological, having to do with history, values, norms, attitudes, culture and elite behaviour: Why do elections elicit so much desperation, fear and tension? Why are they approached in zero-sum, warlike terms and why do politicians believe that elections are won by means other than votes alone? Why are some electoral outcomes more acceptable and relatively peaceful even when the electoral processes that produce them are flawed and rigged? Why have elections been characterized by preferences for self-help actions that do not follow the rules of the game? Could it be that, as a reading of Merton (1968) would suggest, there are more fundamental social structural problems with legitimacy that manifest, among others, in the disjuncture between legitimate aspirations and procedures or strategies for attaining them? Why are elections state legitimacy tests that continually threaten national cohesion and state survival?

By the very nature of their focus on formal, legal-constitutional and procedural aspects of presumably regular elections, as well as the short intervals within which elections take place, analytical frames that take their bearings from the institutional perspectives are not sufficiently primed to account for the intricacies of critical elections. It is against this backdrop that we think that the frameworks for analyzing elections in Nigeria and Africa in general should be reviewed, especially in the light of the fact that the new orthodoxies of governance which now dominate electoral discourses tend to isolate elections as stand-alone events, thereby undermining the larger political and social contexts which make them critical. An alternative analytical frame that relates elections to social structure, taking Merton’s (1968:186-188) analysis of dysfunctional social structure that arises from a dissociation between legitimate aspirations (goals) and socially structured avenues for realizing them (means), often leading to winning the game at all costs rather than winning under the rules of the game, is proposed.

Elections are at the core of democracy and democratic governance. They not only offer the opportunities for inclusive participation, but also make popular sovereignty meaningful by giving citizens the power to determine who governs them, and lay the basis for accountability and legitimacy. Following the democratization ‘revolution’ that led to the diffusion of neoliberal democracy to many countries around the world, elections became the mainstay of democracy, the key instrumentalities of democratic transition, installation and consolidation. The equation of elections with democracy was clearly an exaggeration as correctly argued by Karl (1995, 2000; also Diamond, 1996) who cautioned on the “fallacy of electoralism” or the tendency to focus on elections as the most important aspects of democracy and equate successful elections especially those in which incumbents lost with democratic growth (Przeworski et al, 1996). This did not however halt the growth of perspectives that placed elections at the epicentre of the democratic process. Huntington’s two consecutive successful elections was path-setting for this strand of analysis that was quickly embraced by the regime change-seeking international community which found in elections the appropriate mechanism for exporting, installing, monitoring and measuring democracy in emerging democracies. The election monitoring and observer missions that increasingly became an integral part of the validating process of elections by powerful drivers of liberal democracy (European Union, EU, Commonwealth, donor agencies and international civil society and their local partners) took their roots in this process. Simultaneously, the twinning of democracy with governance further extended the heuristic value of elections in the advocacy and promotion of citizen participation and engagement, transparency, responsiveness and legitimacy (Osaghae and Osaghae, 2013).

All this appeared appropriate and consonant with one major goal of liberal democracy, which is citizen power. The reality, however, is that the reinvented location of elections is much narrower in focus and revolves mainly around the ‘procedural mechanics’ of elections. Elections belong to what Clarke and Foweraker (2001) have described as a ‘thin’ conception of democracy – by contrast, the fat or maximalist conception, is more encompassing and contextual, and relates elections to the deeper political issues of statehood and legitimacy. From what was said in the preceding section, it is clear that the fat conception of democracy offers a more useful framework for analyzing elections, which are only a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy. This is more so in Nigeria and Africa where, as we have said, the high stakes of presidential elections make them double as referendums on the state. Most analysts are likely to agree with this criticism, yet the thin conception which dwells on the soft variables of free and fair elections continues to dominate electoral discourses to the point where all that seems to matter is the effectiveness and efficiency of the formal side of institutions, procedures, technologies and actual conduct of elections, with scant regard for their bearings with, and consequences for, the state.
Why has the thin conception remained dominant despite its obvious shortcomings? The answer lies in the larger governance reforms project whose regime change agenda locates elections as instruments for installing neoliberal regimes. As noted by Taylor (2002:35), “Governance is not…a neutral description of an inevitable process but an ideological narrative justifying the neoliberal state”. Like other aspects of the mostly one-size-fits-all governance reforms, in which the goal is to make targeted changes more manageable as it were, elections are approached in formalistic and institutionalist terms. This approach is further justified by the long-standing diagnosis that the governance problematic in most African states has more to do with weak and ineffective institutions than anything else. Reforms are packaged as technical exercises which aim to optimize efficiency by, amongst others, keeping out politics as much as possible, and proceed on the basis of checklist templates in which core elements like elections and procurement are assigned empirical indicators for monitoring, assessing or evaluating institutions, processes and outcomes (see international electoral codes and standards such as Declaration Governing Democratic Elections in Africa (2002), Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and Code of Conduct for International Election Observers (2005), and African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (2007).

A typical checklist for elections which involves learning, emulation and installation of received global best practices would include technical issues of logistics, distribution and use of electoral materials and technologies, voter education and registration procedures, effective use of voter cards and card reading machines, compliance with pre-election guidelines and campaign deadlines, timely and orderly voting, voter turnout, transparency and reliability of results collation, neutrality of security agencies, and prevention of thuggery and violence, participation of all competing political parties, and electoral administration and independence of the electoral commission, rule of law, and inclusiveness, all of which can be directly observed and scored. So, if elections score highly on the assigned criteria, they are adjudged free, fair and credible. Where they do not, the elections do not pass the free and fair tests, and this simply becomes the basis for more reforms and external support. As the EU Election Observer Mission Report on the 2019 Elections in Nigeria puts it, “the systemic failings evident in the elections and the low levels of voter participation show the need for fundamental reform [read as more reform]” (emphasis original).

The final reports of the National Democratic Institute-(NDI-IRI) and EU Observer Missions on the 2019 Elections followed this ‘logic’. The reports fell short of saying that the elections failed, but concluded that they did not meet the expectations of many Nigerians in comparison with those of 2015 which were adjudged free, fair and credible. The failings were attributed by the NDI-IRI report to template deviations including last-minute postponement of the presidential election; delays in opening some polling units and other administrative challenges; serious irregularities including vote buying, intimidation of voters and election officials; election-related violence; flawed candidate nomination processes in political parties; paucity of women and youth candidates signifying low-level inclusivity; lack of commitment to peaceful and credible elections on the part of political party leaders; failure to restrain and hold accountable party members and supporters who committed electoral offences; and weak dispute resolution processes. The remedies recommended by the report were consonant with the procedural and institutional diagnosis:

• Legal framework and election dispute resolution: pursue a comprehensive, inclusive and expeditious electoral reform process; establish time limits for the adjudication of pre-election petitions.
• Electoral administration: complete constituency delimitation exercises and identify necessary polling units at least one year before the next elections; make continuous voter registration process more accessible to voters; develop and adopt a strong strategic communications plan; reconsider the order and timing of general elections; create a process that facilitates suffrage for those on official duty on election day; adopt more transparent procedures for the tabulation, transmission and announcement of results.
• Political party conduct: urgently commit to and implement measures to strengthen mechanisms for party internal democracy; develop and campaign on issue-based platforms that reflect citizen priorities; build the capacity of political parties to monitor elections.
• Civic engagement: improve coordination among stakeholders to increase and deepen voter and civic education; continue efforts to enhance the participation of marginalized groups including women, youth, people with disabilities and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
• Election security: continue to improve coordination between security agencies and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on the provision of electoral security; enforce electoral laws by investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of election-related criminal acts.

The EU Report made similar recommendations. These included enhancement of INEC’s organizational and operational capacities; further elaboration and strengthening of INEC’s procedures for collation of results; legal backing for full results transparency; increased inclusivity and transparency of inter-agency bodies responsible for electoral security; legal backing for political parties to have a minimum number of female candidates; extension of electoral tribunals to pre-election cases; and reform of the licencing system of the broadcast media to ensure access, pluralism and diversity. The EU Report also believed that provisions of the 2018 electoral reform amendment bill which amongst others gave backing to the use of smart card readers and electronic transmission of results from polling units, serialization of ballot papers for each polling unit, and announcements of results in the presence of party agents, could have made a difference in the elections. The president refused to assent to the bill for reasons that were believed to be tied to efforts to make optimal use of the incumbency factor to secure victory. The checklists, diagnoses and remediations are basically the same for all elections in Africa, as reflected in Kanyinga’s (2018) summary of flaws and remedies highlighted by election observers in Kenya and Zimbabwe: major flaws are lack of constitutionalism; weak culture of rule of law; and poor electoral governance; while remedies include strengthening the rule of law and altering the electoral system to ensure inclusive politics and address challenges embedded in ‘winner-takes-all’ politics.

Yet, elections adjudged to be relatively, reasonably or substantially credible, free and fair, for the most part by observer missions and monitors that have become gatekeepers and validators of elections, sometimes end up with contested and delegitimizing outcomes that linger long after the elections. So, it is quite possible for elections to comply with the key template measures and yet be flawed and problematic, which suggests that the regulatory and ‘technical’ aspects of elections may be important but they are not the key determinants of their flaws, outcomes and consequences. For these, we have to consider the deep social, historical and economic contexts which inhere in the ‘fat’ conception of the election-democracy nexus. For example, the ethnic, religious and regional interests represented by political parties and candidates are key variables that shape electoral calculations, but they tend to be underplayed by the focus on card readers and other technicalities. Thus, analyses of Nigeria’s 2015 and 2019 presidential elections based on template frameworks of free and fair elections could easily suggest that ethnicity was no longer a significant factor in the elections.

This was more so in the 2019 election in which the candidates of the two major political parties – incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress, APC and Atiku Abubakar of the opposition People’s Democratic Party, PDP – were Northerners, Fulani and Moslem. Yet, the elections not only clearly showed bloc ethnic voting patterns, the campaigns, voter mobilizations and selection of candidates reflected strong ethnic sentiments, calculations and preferences that, as in previous presidential elections, polarized the country. For the Igbo of the southeast who had the vice presidential slot in the PDP, for instance, the election provided the best opportunity so far for redressing their self-perceived marginalization. Igbo voters voted in large numbers for the PDP, but this drew the ire of the Yoruba in Lagos for whom support for the opposition was a threat to their (APC) control of Lagos state and calculations for post-2019 access to the presidency. Polling centres and neighbourhoods that were regarded as Igbo strongholds were attacked, ballot boxes snatched, and a few lives lost. In other words, the conduct and outcomes of the elections were not less tension-soaked or less violent simply because they were reasonably free and fair. Ballot box snatching, thuggery, dubious cancellations of results and use of police, military and security agents to intimidate opponents, and suspected manipulation and falsification of results were reported all over the country.

The failure to relate elections to larger issues and contexts of state politics and legitimacy, by treating elections as isolated, stand-alone events, which amounts to literally taking the wind out of the sail of elections, must count as a major flaw of the institutional perspective of elections. But it is not the only one. The narrow focus on the actual periods or days of elections and voting, which derives from the interval specificity of democratic transition perspectives (Osaghae, 1995), is another. The evidence from the Nigerian field at least suggests that, contrariwise, the factors that determine electoral outcomes, including the positioning and calculations of parties, long-drawn campaigns, selection of candidates based on zoning and power rotation arrangements for example, and the compromises and strategies involved in them, bestride election dates and periods. Under the circumstances, strict focus on the period of elections runs the risk of missing out on the factors that make presidential elections more critical than would otherwise be expected.

Another problem is that institutional frames are largely descriptive and offer explanations that literally beg the question. Reports of election observer bodies catalogue infractions of the electoral process, sometimes with the aid of the police, military and other security agencies, that lead to violence, rigging, vote buying, and manipulations of results, which are attributed to institutional weaknesses, and lax enforcement of rules. But the weakness of institutions and enforcement of rules which manifest in violence, rigging and manipulations need to be explained. A member of the Commonwealth Election Observer Mission to the 2003 elections in Nigeria who covered the Niger-Delta reports that the election outcomes were most definitely rigged. This had to be so because, according to him, while voter turnout for the elections was very low in many polling stations, with some polling booths not opening until 2.00 p.m. and closing before 5.00p.m., the election results declared for most constituencies indicated a 90-100 percent voter turn-out (Mole, 2003:427). In the 2019 presidential election, Borno and Yobe states, the states most affected by Boko Haram terrorism and with large numbers of internally displaced persons did not only have some of the highest voter turnouts (70 percent compared to the national average of 34.7 per cent), but returned unbelievable majorities for the incumbent president. By contrast, Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Cross River, and the Igbo-speaking states of the southeast which were the strongholds of the main opposition candidate, Atiku Abubakar of the PDP, recorded the lowest turnouts, averaging less than 30 per cent in some cases. These were by no means isolated cases, so the question is why? There are several other pertinent questions. Why is the process of candidate selection so contentious? Why has there been an increase in the desperation to capture state power as evidenced by the increased spate of inconclusive elections and the devious postponements and cancellations of elections at the last minute, which are deliberate obstructions of the electoral process? Why are some results accepted even when they are obviously rigged, and those that were not so obviously rigged rejected? Why do political parties and candidates for elections believe that elections are not won by votes, but by huge bribes, violence, and manipulation of the process? To be able to answer questions like these, “It is imperative to explore terrains of participation that go beyond elections” (IDEA, 2016:7).