Fortes and the foibles of Nigeria’s 2023 general elections

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Nigeria’s seventh general elections in this Fourth Republic has come and gone but the ripples will take a while to settle. I was an Independent National Electoral Commission accredited observer in the election under the platform of Nigerian Women Trust Fund. As the saying goes, “one eye witness is of more weight than ten hearsays.” In order to refresh our collective memory, there is a need to recount the key statistics on the elections. The polls were held over two separate days– the first which was for the national elections to elect people into one presidential seat, 109 senatorial seats and 360 House of Representatives seats held on Saturday, February 25, 2023. The second strand which were for state level elections into 28 governorship seats, and 993 state Houses of Assembly seats were held on Saturday, March 11, 2023.

As against 2019 when 91 registered political parties contested the polls, in 2023, 18 political parties contested the elections. There were 176, 846 polling units though elections were not conducted in 240 of the PUs, leaving 176, 606 PUs. There were 93,469,008 registered voters but only 87.2 million persons collected their Permanent Voter Cards. An estimated N478.6bn was given to the Independent National Electoral Commission by the Federal Government over two budget cycles (2022 – N305bn and 2023 – N173.6bn) for the conduct of the elections. Nigerian police was given N64bn for election security according to news report. These costs did not factor the humongous sums spent on the polls by international donor partners such as the European Union, USAID, UKAID, UNDP, KAS and many others.

At the end of the exercise, the ruling All Progressives Congress was able to retain the presidency and majority of the seats in the Senate, House of Representatives, state Houses of Assembly and governorship. News report has it that 24 out of the 28 governorship election results declared by INEC as of the morning of Tuesday, March 21, 2023, the All Progressives Congress won the governorship polls in 15 states namely Sokoto, Katsina, Jigawa, Gombe, Lagos, Kwara, Niger, Yobe, Nasarawa, Cross River, Ebonyi, Ogun, Benue, Kaduna and Borno. The Peoples Democratic Party on the other hand won in seven states namely Plateau, Bauchi, Oyo, Delta, Rivers, Zamfara and Akwa Ibom states while the New Nigeria Peoples Party emerged victorious in Kano. Governorship elections in Kebbi and Adamawa states were declared inconclusive while those of Abia and Enugu were suspended for possible review before final declarations are made.

By INEC’s own admittance, though the planning for the February 25 election was painstakingly done, the commission met some unforeseen challenges. INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, listed logistics, election technology, behaviour of some election personnel at different levels, attitude of some party agents and supporters, as some of the challenges. On the side of the public, most pronounced were the late commencement of polls and failure to upload the polling units results on IREV portal in “real time” as promised marred the first strand of the elections. Three weeks after, INEC was able to significantly overcome the initial hiccups experienced on February 25.

Yiaga Africa is one of the accredited observer groups. In its March 19 preliminary statement, the youth-focused civil society organisation commended INEC for the significant improvement in the management of election logistics especially the early commencement of polls due to the prompt arrival of election officials in a majority of polling units. The group added that unlike the February 25 presidential election, the INEC Election Results Viewing portal functioned optimally enabling citizens to download polling unit-level results. Electronic accreditation using the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System was successfully implemented in a significant number of polling units observed.

The Nigerian Women Trust Fund Gender and Election Watch Room deployed 350 accredited observers across the six geopolitical zones of Nigeria to observe the governorship and state assembly elections from a gender perspective in Adamawa, Kano, Lagos, Oyo and Rivers and the state Houses of Assembly elections in Anambra and Kogi. GEW reported that the polls were mostly peaceful in all the states where observation took place except in Lagos, Kano, and Rivers where there were reported cases of violence and destruction of poll materials which in turn impacted on the turnout of women and their participation in the polls.

The European Union Election Observation Mission issued its second preliminary statement on Nigeria’s 2023 elections on March 20, 2023 and reported inter alia that “Public confidence and trust in INEC were severely damaged on 25 February due to lack of transparency and operational failures in the conduct of the federal level polls. Up until the postponement, INEC continued to abstain from providing information, limiting its communication to a few press releases and ceremonial statements and hence failing to address public grievances and rebuild confidence in the electoral process. From 11 March onwards, despite compressed timeframes, INEC introduced various corrective measures to render a timely delivery of electoral materials, efficient use of election technologies, and ensure prompt publication of result forms, some of which were effective.”

EU-EOM added, “Overall, on election day, multiple incidents of thuggery and intimidation interrupted polling in various locations, primarily across the South but also in states in the central and northern areas. There were reportedly some 21 fatalities. In polling units in several states, violent incidents targeted voters, INEC personnel, citizen observers and journalists. Most polling units opened with materials and personnel deployed on time….. Vote-buying, also observed by EU-EOM observers, further detracted from an appropriate conduct of the elections. The March 18 elections did not face the same problems with the use of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System as on 25 February. Result forms for the governorship races were uploaded and displayed for public scrutiny.”

The above sampled views of national and international observer groups show that the electoral umpire started the conduct of 2023 elections on a faulty note but was able to significantly improve over the initial setbacks in last Saturday’s elections. Unfortunately, Nigeria’s political class went for broke during the March 18 polls. In several states, they killed, maimed, engaged in voter intimidation, deployed misinformation and disinformation to de-market their political opponents and engaged in several anti-democratic tactics. This reminded me of the scholarly opinion of the late Prof. Claude Ake, a renowned political economist at the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, who said that Nigeria practices democracy without democrats.  The desperate political elites were a total disappointment last weekend as they did not even spare the poll officials in their vicious attacks. Nineteen INEC Ad-Hoc staff who were on their way to seven different polling units in Ugbelie Ward 06 in Ideato South LGA of Imo state were abducted. Thankfully, police were able to rescue them. Similarly, the electoral officer and the returning officer for Zamfara State governorship election in Maradun Local Government Area of the state kidnapped on Monday, March 20, were later released by their abductors.

Despite the imperfections of the 2023 general elections, I still hold on to the view that it was largely peaceful, credible and successful. Noticeable upsets in the election was the defeat of seven incumbent governors who lost their bid to go to Senate. They are those of Kebbi, Benue, Plateau, Abia, Enugu, Taraba and Cross River states. Only those of Ebonyi and Niger states succeeded. In the just-concluded polls, national party chairmen of the Peoples Democratic Party, Dr. Iyorcha Ayu and his All Progressives Congress’ counterpart, Senator Adamu Abdullahi, could not deliver their states to their parties on February 25. Even the president elect, Bola Tinubu, lost his political base – Lagos as the Labour Party won the state. Last Saturday, governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State, lost his re-election bid while the fate of his Adamawa counterpart hangs in the balance. Many states that were won by the PDP on February 25 such as Sokoto, Gombe, Yobe, Katsina and Kaduna were lost on March 18 to the APC while the PDP was able to poach Zamfara, Plateau from the APC and retain Oyo. Indeed, it was a mixed grill of euphoria of victory and agony of defeat. The ultimate winner of 2023 general elections is the Nigerian electorate who defied the odds to participate and ensured the success of the poll conduct.

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