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A younger, better-informed and more demanding electorate is challenging the state and mainstream politicians to run fairer elections
Every week or so a new scandal about a plan to steal the national elections next year hits the headlines and social media. One of the latest claims is that there are over 10 million false names on the voter register; another claims that the ruling party has secured several positions as Resident Electoral Commissioners in key states which would give it the scope to influence voting at constituency level.
The complaints are flying around partly because so much is at stake at the polls, and partly because civic activists have become so much more adept in using technology to detect and communicate corruption and electoral fraud.
None of this seems to have deterred efforts to steal votes and fix results, but some of the crasser attempts at election fraud have been stopped in their tracks. With almost 100 million registered voters, effective electoral fraud in Nigeria has to be on an industrial scale. And its practitioners share tactics with their counterparts in India, Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, Russia and the United States.
The scams range from double or even quadruple registrations to clandestine printing of extra ballot papers, to bribery of election officers and rival party agents, and when all else fails, to old-fashioned thuggery such as stealing ballot boxes or shooting rival candidates.
These days, much of the attempted fraud reflects Nigeria's growing status as a hub for digital innovation: complaints abound over attempts to hack the electoral register as well as mass campaigns for fraudulent registrations, online and in-person. But there are also arguments over whether the use of digital technology, for example to check the validity of voter registration cards, should be mandatory.
At the receiving end of most of the complaints is Mahmood Yakubu, chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission. Taking over immediately after the 2015 elections run by previous INEC chairman Attahiru Jega and which saw an incumbent president lose power for the first time, Yakubu had a difficult act to follow.
A prize-winning historian with a doctorate from Oxford, Yakubu has developed a thick skin against multiple accusations of political collusion and failing to rein some of the most corrupt officials in the commission. The respected Lagos-based Business Day assessed Yakubu's position as impossible – 'whatever he does or fails to do will attract recrimination'.
He insists that he has increased transparency in registration and results management during his tenure at INEC: 'the days of manipulation of results are over. We will make sure that votes cast by Nigerians are protected and the only determinant of who becomes what in our democracy.'
But the practical challenge of administering an electoral register on which there are 11 million more voters than there are in the rest of all other states in West Africa combined is dwarfed by the need to police an organisation which is widely distrusted (AC Vol 60 No 4, Drama in the delay).
Yakubu has said that sponsors of ballot box snatchers and results falsifiers should be arrested and prosecuted. But INEC lacks the power to enforce electoral law.
INEC has been berated for ending the continuous voter registration exercise on 31 July although many Nigerians had not registered and therefore did not have Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs). The main complainants were younger voters. Nigeria has a very young population – the average age is 18 and there are millions in their late teens and early 20s who are eligible to vote in 2023 for the first time.
Political grandees are backing either Bola Ahmed Tinubu or Atiku Abubakar, respectively the presidential candidates of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Both are ailing septugenarians who felt compelled this month to release social media footage showing themselves either on cycling machines or dancing. Neither has responded to calls that they undertake medical examinations as part of their qualification to stand for the presidency.
Their supporters worry about the adulation lavished on Peter Obi, the Labour Party (LP) flagbearer who has seen a surge in support and is the candidate of choice for many, particularly among young people (AC Vol 63 No 13, Tinubu summons the ghosts of Abacha's kleptocracy). A succession of local opinion polls, and international sponsored by Bloomberg News, show Obi with 72% of voter support, with Tinubu and Atiku trailing behind him.
Tinubu and Atiku campaigners quickly dismissed the poll as lacking credibility, given that Obi and the Labour Party don't control any of the country's 36 states or even any local government areas, the traditional building blocks to winning elections in Nigeria. Obi's popularity is dismissed as a social media bubble.
Yet Obi's battle for votes is being fought out on the ground. His supporters say that INEC officials have used voter suppression tactics in cahoots with a desperate ruling party to reduce the number of pro-Obi youngsters on the electoral register.
INEC was lambasted when Chidi Nwafor, its Director of Information, Communications and Technology, was transferred last month from the commission's Abuja headquarters to a regional office in Enugu and given a non-ICT role.
Some critics argued that Nwafor was whisked away from the main engine room because he might object to attempts to sideline Peter Obi because he, like Obi, is Igbo. Influential musician and activist Charly Boy (also Igbo), called it an ugly development reducing Nwafor to a 'mere' Administrative Secretary.
Oby Ezekwesili, a former World Bank Vice-President, also questioned the 'incomprehensible redeployment of a competent Director of ICT whose team has recorded a string of credible elections in recent times. It makes absolutely no sense to change a winning team except of course there is something more to this.'
Speaking to Africa Confidential, Electoral commissioner Mohammed Haruna played down the significance of Nwafor's transfer, describing it as part of 'a routine redeployment' and dismissing the idea that it is part of any kind of anti-Igbo conspiracy. He also pointed to the 50,000 extra polling units in Nigeria, now up to around 170,000 in total, that will reduce queuing on polling day and improve turnout.
Ikenga Imo Ugochinyere, spokesman for the opposition Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP), contends that Prof Yakubu is being pressured by the government to abandon INEC's apparent commitment to Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) devices which are designed to detect fraudulent and duplicate voter registrations.
Others, like Mike Igini, a recently retired INEC Commissioner, say that activists, politicians and some of the commission's officials are to blame for a 'culture of bribery and cronyism', but argues that the new Electoral Act has made 'the personality and proclivities' of the INEC chair and senior officials largely irrelevant. To that extent, Igini thinks that the legal reforms combined with digital technology have made rigging elections far harder to do and much easier to detect.
The voter registration of millions of young Nigerians increases the stakes, says Igini. 'I pray we get it right in 2023 because if we don't, we might as well say goodbye to Nigeria.'
INSIDE THE COMMISSION UNDER SIEGE
Mohammed Haruna, a veteran journalist and academic who became one of INEC's 12 National Commissioners in 2015, has defended the decision to stop the voter registration period on 31 July, arguing that take up had been very low until the last minute.
Haruna told Africa Confidential that INEC needed several months to do its own due diligence on the registration list to deal with cases of multiple registrations, as well as deceased Nigerians and foreigners on the electoral roll. Replacing lost voting cards, dealing with requests by voters to transfer their voting locations and printing the cards will also take time, he says. INEC faces a tight timetable ahead of polling day for the presidential and national assembly elections on 23 February.
The pruning has already started. Festus Okoye, the National Commissioner and Chairman of the Information and Voter Education Committee, reported that 1,126,359 of the 2,523,458 fresh registrations recorded between 28 June 28 2021 and 14 January 2022 were found to be invalid and subsequently delisted.
At least 24 complainants have filed lawsuits against INEC for 'failing to give them and 7 million other Nigerians adequate time and opportunity to complete their voter registration after they have carried out their registration online'.
The suit filed on behalf of the Plaintiffs by lawyers to the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) NGO, stated that 'closing the gates on eligible Nigerians cannot preserve trust in the electoral process' and pointed to reports of bribery, unethical conduct, irregularities in registration, and insufficient and malfunctioning machines.
Last month, the Coalition of United Political Parties claimed that the national voter register had been doctored by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). At a press conference, CUPP spokesman Ikenga Imo Ugochinyere brandished documents that he said would prove that at least 10 million of the names on the register were fake. Some, he said, were sourced from other countries, and he pointed to instances of photographs not matching the dates of birth.
APC stalwarts denied any wrongdoing, accusing rivals of a smear campaign. Then social media adherents posted fresh allegations online
INEC quickly issued a rebuttal and has promised to reconcile registration data and reject any sham entries using an Automated Biometric Identification System.
Haruna concedes that INEC's poor reputation, which predates President Muhammadu Buhari's administration, is not entirely undeserved, and that some INEC employees have colluded with corrupt politicians.
But he maintains that the riggers' days of easy victories are numbered, 'thanks to the 2022 Electoral Act – which has given strong legal backing to technological innovations like the IREV (INEC Result Viewing) portal, with which we successfully experimented in the [off-cycle] governorship elections that took place in Anambra, Ekiti and Oshun states earlier on this year.'
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