Democracy delayed

Africa Confidential

Even a six-week postponement of the elections looks unlikely to slow the momentum of opposition presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari

Such is the febrile mood in national politics that President Good-luck Jonathan felt compelled to tell delegations from the European Union and the Economic Community of West African States on 18 February that there were no plans to abandon the elections and form an Interim National Government. The idea of some form of backroom deal between selected members of the two leading political parties amid an engineered political stalemate brings back unhappy memories of the electoral crisis of 12 June 1993. That resulted in the eventual galling of election winner Moshood Abiola and ushered in a harsh and corrupt military regime led by General  Sani Abacha.

The latest speculation about government intentions follows the announcement on 7 February that the presidential and National Assembly elections scheduled for 14 February would be delayed for six weeks due to security concerns. The governorship and state elections are also delayed for six weeks, until 11 April. Opposition politicians and civil activists see this as a reaction to a perceived groundswell of support  in the north, Middle Belt and south-west for the All Progressives Congress and the APC presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari.

The past few months of growing economic hardship as state revenue shrinks – reflecting a 50% cut in the price of oil exports and leading to a 30% drop in the exchange rate – have put huge pressure on the middle class and even some of the business barons in oil, gas, telecommunications and transport, let alone the beleaguered manufacturers.  Budget cuts at state and federal level are already undermining services for the poorest Nigerians, the more than 60% of the population estimated to live on less than $2 a day. Over the past six months, this bad economic news seems to have convinced many waverers of the case for political change pushed by Major Gen. (Retired) Buhari and the APC. Although many of the published polls show the two main parties neck and neck, the Buhari campaign, with its massive rallies and substantial media support, was gathering momentum as Jonathan and the governing People’s Democratic Party (PDP) struggled to get a clear message across.

For the 68 million voters, the APC message of change is more appealing on almost every level than the PDP’s arguments for continuity, especially at a time of sharp cuts in budget revenue and the unabated insurgency in the north-east. If sentiment has swung significantly towards the APC for those reasons, it would take some dramatic news on the economic and security front to push the needle back towards the PDP.

Ndjamena HQ
News such as the capture of the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, and the rebounding of world oil prices could change the picture radically but neither looks likely within the next six weeks. There has, however, been an upswing of military activity against the Islamist in the north-east, following the African Union summit and the resuscitation of the military cooperation agreement among Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria under the Lake Chad Basin Initiative.

The decision to base the 7,500 troops (5,000 from Nigeria, 1,500 from Chad and the remainder from Cameroon, Benin and Niger) in Ndjamena reflects the widespread view that President Idris Déby Itno’s battle-hardened army has proved the most effective in fighting jihadist groups in the region. France and the United States have sent some of their special forces to the Chadian capital to work alongside the task force and provide it with better aerial and other intelligence about Boko Haram’s positions and logistics.

Doubtless this has stepped up pressure on Boko Haram in Nigeria’s north-east borderlands. However, the militia’s attack on 13-15 February on Gombe – almost mid-way between the areas it holds in the north-east and the capital, Abuja – points to its resilience and capacity to run several parallel military and terrorist operations at the same time. When Nigerian troops repelled the Islamist, they scattered leaflets in the town threatening to execute anyone who voted in the coming elections. Again, such is the mood of skepticism towards the government and its official announcements that opposition activists suggested the leaflets could have been distributed by the political establishment to suppress the vote in the opposition strongholds of the north-east.

All this raises wider questions about the effects of the insurgency on the elections and on the military’s capacity both to guarantee security for 68 million registered electors at a time of heightened political tension and to fight insurgents in the north-east. Senior officers say they fear the rebels could try to use election confrontations as cover to launch a ‘spectacular’ terrorist attack.
Whether another six weeks of military operations will help to reduce that risk looks at least questionable. Certainly, the opposition APC doubts it and sees the postponement of the elections as a ‘setback for Nigerian democracy’. That view is shared by several foreign powers, including the USA, and may help Buhari. US Secretary of State John Kerry said he was ‘deeply disappointed’ by the postponement and expressed concern about attempts to pressure Attahiru Muhammadu Jega, the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Professor Jega has been the target of a relentless stream of criticism, mainly from the government side which seemed at one stage to be preparing the ground for his dismissal.

Even when they are not postponed, Nigerian elections are some of the hardest to administer for technical and structural reasons. The combination of a vast territory, complete with 522 languages and six geopolitical zones that vary sharply in terms of demographics, political context, landscape and environment, would challenge an electoral authority anywhere. Add to that frequent, lengthy power cuts (with much of the countryside without grid electricity), fuel shortages and complex transport logistics and the task looks monumental, especially on a tight budget with disbursements to the Commission in arrears.

INEC’s mixed record
Set up in 1998, INEC has a mixed record. Many observers described the elections of 2007, conducted under Maurice Iwu, as among the worst they had ever seen (AC Vol 48 No 10, Opportunists and activists struggle to shake out the system). Following the 2007 debacle, Professor Iwu was replaced by Jega, another academic and with a history of activism against overbearing authorities. He has cultivated a reputation for improving the organization of INEC and of elections. There was agreement that the 2011 polls were a major improvement.

As part of a process of reform, a new legal framework was adopted, including amendments to the Electoral Act and constitution in 2010 and early 2011. INEC re-registered all electors using a biometric system that included a photograph and complete set of fingerprints. The fact that INEC later declared that it had identified 870,612 duplicate entries and that these would be removed helped to restore public confidence. However, the 2011 elections were far from flawless and the positive evaluation from many foreign officials blinded commentators to INEC’s limited capacity to hold free and fair polls. Polling was postponed in all three elections (presidential, legislative, gubernatorial) after voting had begun and monitors reported evidence of malpractice in parts of the country where the governing PDP did well. Several observers were concerned that INEC’s positive evaluation of the use of electoral technology had glossed over significant problems, including equipment failures at several polling stations, Africa Confidential understands.

One of the main recommendations of observers in 2011 such as the US National Democratic Institute (NDI) was that INEC needed greater authority over the resident electoral commissioners who are responsible for ensuring the smooth running of the elections on the ground. Jega can choose where to deploy RECs but the President appoints them directly. In a bid to reduce the ensuing political bias, Jega has systematically redeployed RECs to diminish the chance of their being undermined by local political elites.

After complaints about the RECs’ lack of impartiality in 2011, many election monitoring groups recommended that their appointment be taken away from the President. This hasn’t happened. In response, Jega once again moved to rotate the RECs last December. A source at INEC explained the strategy: ‘Some of these RECs have served in these states since the last general elections and may have become stakeholders in these places. So, it is better to reshuffle them and put everyone on his or her toes for the next assignment, which is less than two months away’. Yet rotating the RECs only partly solves the problems, because individuals close to the PDP can be expected to shape the polls in their interests, no matter in which state they are based. Those RECs who see personal opportunities for advancement may be open to influence by the highest bidder. INEC is also struggling to meet basic logistical challenges. By the end of January, it had distributed just 42.77 million of the necessary 68.8 mn. permanent voter cards (PVCs) that electors need to cast their ballots. By 16 February (two days after the original election date), INEC declared that 70% of the electorate had collected their cards.

This late completion of key tasks means that it is unlikely that all the political parties will be able to check the nearly 69 min. names on the electoral register in time. Moreover, the card readers needed to verify voters have not all arrived in the country and as late as mid-January, training manuals for election staff and volunteers had not been completed. Some 700,000 Nigeria Youth Service Corps and other young volunteers are due to help run the elections but now they will do so with little training. These problems are especially relevant in a close election, because they leave the process more open to manipulation. They also created the opportunity for figures close to the PDP to push for a postponement.
National Security Advisor Colonel (Rtd.) Sambo Dasuki first publicly raised the idea of a postponement because of INEC’s lack of preparedness in London on 22 January (AC Vol 56 No 2, Elections face new risks). Nigerian newspapers carried reports that the PDP had planned to fund proxies to launch a campaign to pressure INEC into delaying the polls because millions of electors would be disenfranchised. After both INEC and Armed Forces service chiefs had assured all the parties that preparations were on schedule, a letter from Dasuki to Jega surfaced stating simply that the military had made commitments to the regional operations against Boko Haram and could not provide security for elections on 14 February.

Who’s the villain?
When the INEC announced the postponement, it referred not to logistical problems but solely to the security chiefs’ advice about the insurgency. To many people, the army became the villain of the piece, not the INEC. Others working on the election organization, such as the United Nations Development Program, also dodged scrutiny of their organizational shortcomings.

The advantages of the delay for the PDP are obvious. The party has more time to slow or at least counter the APC’s momentum. During the past week, the PDP has been trying to reorganize its election campaign, which had been sinking deeper into disarray. Yet the delay might be counterproductive: some undecided voters see the delay as signalling a bid by Jonathan to extend his tenure or undermine the vote, with the help of his allies in the military. The Buhari campaign has openly criticized the military’s lack of progress against Boko Haram, linking it to corruption in procurement and poor morale among the troops.

Rumors swirl around Abuja of further plans to delay the elections; some talk of indefinite postponement until the government can announce the decisive defeat of Boko Haram. Options mooted include the formation of a military-backed Interim National Government. Opposition activists insist the PDP would rather cede power to such a structure than face defeat by Buhari and the APC at the polls.

A senior aide at the Presidency told Africa Confidential about the growing doubts about a ‘decisive outcome’ in the elections and that both sides would have to be pragmatic enough to negotiate some form of power-sharing deal. Such arrangements have a poor track record in, for example, Kenya and Zimbabwe, and probably an even worse one in West Africa, with the example of Côte d’Ivoire. That ended with the defeated President, Laurent Gbagbo, being arrested at gunpoint and flown to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
There are many constitutional trapdoors that could be used to promote such a project or to maintain the PDP in power, even if Jonathan himself stepped down as ordained on 29 May.  If Boko Haram retaliates against the current offensive, the President could use the excuse of increased violence to declare a general state of emergency, further delaying elections. He could use the constitutional clause that allows the National Assembly’s tenure to be extended for six months in a time of war to transfer power to the Senate President, Col. (Rtd.) David Mark.

All such options would however trigger huge public discontent, probable violence and, perhaps most dangerously, splits in the military. The badly-supplied foot soldiers and junior officers are already angry at the army’s mauling in the north-east at the hands of the insurgents. The arrival of a lot of new equipment and air-power in the last couple of weeks seems to be a parallel, but very belated, effort to pull the army back together.

Despite its public concern regarding INEC’s failure to issue voter cards, the PDP has paid little attention to helping the more than one million internally displaced people (IDPs) who have fled Boko Haram to vote. Perhaps this is because they might be expected to favor the candidacy of Buhari. According to the rules, most IDPs will be disenfranchised since they can vote only in the location in which they have registered. We now hear there is some negotiation on this critical point.

The credibility of the elections in the three north-eastern states hit by war will remain unclear until the eve of the polls, when INEC says it will take security advice on which areas to declare that elections can be held. That will also change the electoral equation. To cancel out the effects of regional dominance, an outright win requires an absolute majority plus at least 25% of the vote in two-thirds of the states, 24 of 36. Fewer votes from the north-east almost certainly helps Jonathan and hits Buhari.

However, some of the problems also fall outside INEC’s or the military’s control. As late as December, INEC had received less than half of its budget. The main international organization responsible for channeling donor support to the elections, the UNDP, has also dropped the ball. An initial effort to commission a political analysis to enable donors to identify the sources of electoral manipulation and violence well before polling was undermined by chronic delays in dealing with applications.

Opposition parties complain the UNDP is too close to government. Foreign donors agree and complain about the UNDP’s reluctance to release reports they have paid for. Governments are making plans to work with Nigeria’s small but experienced civil society organizations. We hear the contracts under UNDP auspices that were drawn up for CSOs to conduct civic and electoral education were not finalized until late January. So it is likely that little education will be completed before the elections. That’s a major worry, given the new technology and procedures being used. Ensuring that people trust that technology will be critical to managing tensions.

Results are to be posted at each polling unit. That makes it possible, with mobile telephone cameras and other devices, to run a really accurate check on the process of vote tabulation at national level. Most overseas monitoring missions are too small to operate as a deterrent, much less to investigate rigging: the European Union Mission is just 30 strong for about 120,000 polling stations. The NDI is preparing a form of parallel vote tabulation that will provide a check on the official figures.

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