Never before in the history of Nigeria's democracy has a general election lasted this long before its consummation. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has succeeded in elongating the electoral process through its devious implementation of incongruous schemes that were not contemplated in the Electoral Act, including cancellation, muffled collation and inconclusive outcomes.
Exactly four years ago, the month of March emerged as the country's golden month, because by March 31, 2015, then incumbent President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, who was also the Peoples Democratic Party's (PDP) presidential candidate, made the historical concessionary phone call through which he congratulated his main rival, General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd), who was the candidate of All Progressives Congress (APC) in the election.
Given the unusualness of the concession call, most Nigerians woke up the next day, April 1, thinking it was an 'April fool' joke being sprung on them when the news of Jonathan's commendable action filled the airwaves.A public affairs commentator, Mr. Bolaji Akanni, recalled that those that had walked away from their television sets when, in the midst of the announcement of results by the then INEC chairman, Professor AttahiruJega, the great "Elder Godsday Orubebe, staged his award-winning show as he tried, screaming and cursing, to truncate the announcement process," were pleasantly surprised by Jonathan's announcement.
According to Akanni: "The old general has repeated the 2015 feat by defeating PDP's candidate in the February 23, 2019 presidential polls, former Vice President Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, by 15.1 million to 10.7 million votes, to clinch a second term mandate. But March has literally lost the 'gold medal' it won four years ago. There would be no call from the defeated to the victor this time."
It is interesting to note that immediately INEC announced the return of President Buhari as winner of the presidential election, most stakeholders, either out of relief that the election did not expose an Orube show or desire to predispose the runner up to follow suit, congratulated the winner.
A faction of Ohanaeze Nd'Igbo congratulated Buhari, describing his victory as "well-deserved," stressing that the president's victory with a majority of votes cast, "has clearly shown that the president has been on the right course in the last four years."
In his own message, the Sultan of Sokoto and President-General of Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, praised the incumbent president on his re-election, just as he commended all the other contestants and the Nigerian electorate that conducted themselves peacefully and with high spirits of decorum during and after the elections.
But despite those early effusions of praise, subsequent polls by INEC, particularly the governorship and State Assembly elections, exposed the imperfection of the electoral process as defined by whimsical cancellations of votes and declaration of inconclusiveness on some polling units and registration areas.
Perhaps sensing the possible disconnect between planning and execution of the election process by INEC, President Buhari implored his supporters not to rejoice over his victory, even though his supporters and party allies insisted that the outcome of the election, was in reality, quite predictable and "a resounding victory for his relentless anti-corruption campaign."
Yet while the imperfections of the 2019 poll were emerging in installments, members of the ruling party and supporters of the president began to justify his victory, noting that apart from his battle against sleaze and unrelenting plugging of most of the loopholes exploited for official malfeasance, President Buhari executed the most ambitious infrastructural projects in the country's history in his first term.
On the other hand, APC's apologists conveyed the idea that "it is a salutary attestation to the evolution of Nigeria's democracy and party politics that Buhari's rival, Atiku, in spite of his alleged unflattering credentials, still hauled in almost 11 million votes in the presidential election."
The partisan division over the profile of 2019 polls did much to obfuscate INEC's tawdry performance compared to the 2015 version. Supporters of the ruling party described the reservations on the election fidelity as "unpatriotic attempts by some Nigerians, especially the opposition PDP and their supporters, to totally denigrate and discredit our electoral process whilst also condemning the conduct of the February 23, 2019 Presidential and National Assembly elections in its entirety."
Meanwhile the PDP and its presidential candidate, Atiku, raised the bar on the complaints against INEC when it indicated in its election petition that the commission's server indicated that the result of the election was skewed to reflect a contrary outcome. That the 2019 election is yet to be rounded off more than three weeks after polls opened belatedly on February 23, instead of the initial February 16, shows that INEC as presently constituted, seems to have pulled the country backwards in its ongoing electoral reforms by eight years.
There were irregularities interspersed with pockets of violence in some parts of the country, just as reports of contrived late arrival of electoral materials that led inevitably to late voting at some centres were commonplace. Then despite assurances by INEC's chairman. Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, card readers malfunctioned, ballot boxes were snatched amid alleged seizure of electoral materials by unauthorised persons and groups.
Reports of alleged tampering with poll results between polling stations and collation points, heavy military presence in some states, loss of lives occasioned by election violence and the painful inconclusive declarations were like the poisonous icing on the cake. Whether widespread or localised, the general impression is that these violations did much to detract from the acceptable minimum standards of a free and fair election. How far those anomalies affected the February 23 2019 election could not be ascertained because the sudden postponement of the poll from February 16 to 23, riled voters.
The main report was that more than 26 million Nigerians cast their ballots for their preferred candidates in a peaceful exercise around the country. The electoral process, its handling and conduct of the election by INEC, was imperfect, given the overwhelming transportation, logistics, security, monitoring and staffing challenges and problems the commission complained about.
But given that the commission had four years to plan and strategise for the polls, not discounting the near infinite capacity of political parties to compromise and circumvent the system, thereby degrading the integrity of the electoral process, no excuse is tenable.INEC could tout the following facts as indicators of its credible performance, including that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo lost in his Victoria Garden City (VGC) polling unit and a sitting governor did not rig himself into victory during his senatorial contest for a senate seat. These shocks and upsets recorded across the country and across party lines on February 23 could raise reasonable doubts against the accusation of failure on the part of INEC, which claims that the election results reflected the authentic choices made by Nigerians.
But be that as it may, INEC has much explaining to do over the dissolute process witnessed during the last lap of the general election, which incidentally involved the grassroots, namely the governorship and State Assembly polls. There is a convergence of opinion by informed observers that the entire spectrum of Nigeria's electoral system and institution is in constant need of fine-tuning, amendments and adjustments.
As incorrigible optimists, Nigerians believe that the process can only get better. But the failure of Buhari to endorse the Electoral Act, coupled with the body language that tended to defray consequences for violence and electoral malfeasance by miscreants, helped to pull the clock backwards in the efforts geared towards bettering the country's electoral process.