Twenty four days from now, Nigerians of voting age will file out in large numbers with a tinge of excitement and partake in an exercise billed to define their lives and shape the future of the country. With the first election – the presidential bout – billed to kick off the other categories, February 14, unlike other countries of the world, does not connote, albeit just for this year alone, any feeling of love to the average Nigerian as the “Valentine’s Day” is otherwise known.
Rather, it would mark a defining moment in Nigeria’s political history with hate, resentment, violence, aggression and discontent as some of its attendant features. It is so because the day beckons change to the political evolution of the country, either through the platform of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) or the ambitious opposition All Progressives Congress (APC).
Although the options are already limited between President Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP and former Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari of the APC, Nigerians, on that day, have an obligation to elect a president of choice. There is no doubting the fact that Nigeria with its natural and human resources can do better than offer “just these two”, that the options are limited is no longer a debate; the real debate now amongst Nigerians is making a careful and wise choice between the options that are hardly better than each other when the indices are thrown flat on the table.
Ironically, there are two sides to the almighty February. The first side thinks possibility, the second does not. For the first side however, the defence is probably prosaic and in fact, trite. A date has been chosen and as such, all the concerned institutions must work to ensure the date is kept alive. This side is idealist in thoughts. It is of the view that once the decision is taken, those saddled with the responsibility must keep faith.
The second side begs to differ. It is more of the realist school. Yes, a date may have been chosen, but is everything set to make sure the day runs smoothly without hitches? Are the institutions truly ready to drive the date to a safe harbour? Its position is profound and is contingent on the prevailing circumstances that would rather speak to the reality on the ground.
With these two sides to February, how practicable is the month for the general election? The first indicator that the month may not be ready for the challenges before it was thrown up by the leadership of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) which said the commission did not have the capacity to galvanise a rerun in the event of a tie between Jonathan and Buhari as many had thought given the feeling on the turf.
An official of the commission was quoted thus: “The more the process becomes credible, the likelihood of a presidential run-off. But INEC’s management is in a fix on how to go about the presidential run-off if it becomes necessary for the nation to go through it in 2015.
“The seven-day gap between when the presidential election will hold and the run-off is not feasible for us to print ballot papers, result sheets and distribute the sensitive election materials nationwide.
“In 2011, we did anticipatory printing of ballot papers for presidential run-off, but some people/groups wrote petitions against INEC. They said we printed run-off ballot papers ahead because we wanted to rig the elections.
“They also accused INEC of wasting taxpayers’ money on run-off ballot papers when the poll did not hold. Some of our officials were taken to the Force Criminal Investigation Department (FCID), queried and subjected to unnecessary interrogation.
“With this nasty experience, INEC will not want to print presidential run-off ballot papers in advance again. It has learnt its lessons in a hard way. But in 2012, we made a proposal to the National Assembly for the amendment of the seven-day clause in the Electoral Act for more days to prepare for any run-off.
“As I speak with you, the National Assembly is yet to effect the amendment. This kind of lapse can lead to more electoral challenges in 2015.”
If that does not strike as anything fundamental or serious, wait to read this: INEC’s projection is a little above 68 million voters for this election with the Permanent Voter Cards printed in the same region/number. It is however common knowledge that it took INEC about two months to distribute the first batch of the PVC which was 30 million across the country. Curiously, the remaining batch of 38 million (eight million more than the first batch), according to sources, is still in China where they were ordered from.
Therefore, if the election is just some 24 days away and 38 million more PVCs which will obviously take more days to distribute are still in China, what does this portend? Are the 38 million Nigerians going to be disenfranchised? If not, is INEC planning some stop-gap measures that is bound to elicit controversy and further make a huge mess of the whole process since it evidently lacks the capacity to multi-task?
Still doesn’t add up? Okay, the other leg to this debate is though a familiar argument however made more lucid for the purpose of this discourse. It is security. The security situations in the three North-east states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa are to say the least, niggling.
With government’s obvious lack of commitment to contain the excesses of the insurgents operating under the cover of Boko Haram, the clandestine move to cancel out the people of those states is not only a failure on the part of government, it is more about the significance of the victory of the elected candidates which cannot be said to be representative with technical disenfranchisement of the people of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa.
Yet, the constitution is very clear on this. To win in a presidential contest, a candidate, the constitution stipulates, must obtain at least 25% of the vote in at least 24 of Nigeria’s 36 states. In this context, therefore, the three states of the North-east are a critical factor yet under the huge threat of rising insurgency. That the president made an unscheduled stop-over in Borno last week is a clear attestation to the reality that this situation presents. No doubt, the security situation in the zone is appalling to say the least.
But why is this important? The insurgents, according to reports, are still in firm control of many local government areas of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, 24 days to the presidential poll, hence the fears that elections may not hold in territories under the control of Boko Haram.
Of course, this has sparked increasing calls for the electoral law to be amended to give opportunity to persons displaced by the conflict to vote at the various places they are being sheltered. When will the amendment take place and what form and shape will it take to prevent manipulations, even though the Nigerian security forces had insisted that all the territories under the insurgents would be liberated to pave the way for the electorate to exercise their civic right.
President Jonathan too had after picking his party’s ticket last December, promised that elections would be held in all parts of the country, including the restive North-east. But this has not changed the fact that a large part of the North-east, a critical Nigerian territory remains under the control of Boko Haram. Thousands of the residents have fled these areas since the group began capturing the territories in August last year, while many others have been killed.
In Borno, for instance, nine of the affected local governments are Gwoza, Bama, Mafa, Dikwa, Kala-Balge, Ngala, Marte, Abadam and Mobbar. The other four are Michika and Madagali in Adamawa State, as well as Gujba and Gulani in Yobe State. The insurgents have also reportedly established partial control in parts of some local government areas in Borno, comprising Mungono, Kukawa, Guzamala, Gubio, Magumeri, Damboa, konduga, Chibok, Askira Uba and Jere.
Sequel to this takeover was the huge damage caused by Boko Haram in various parts of the zone, sometimes destroying entire villages, markets, military barracks, police stations, government facilities, prisons, farmlands and worship places. Boko Haram’s audacious move however peaked on August 23, last year, when its leader, Abubakar Shekau, declared Gwoza town in Southern Borno as the headquarters of what he called the “Islamic Caliphate,” a move that challenged Nigeria’s sovereignty, having dislodged the entire population of the town and kept it under its watch.
Since then, Boko Haram had intensified its drive for territorial conquest, believed to be culminating in both total and partial control of not less than 20 out of the 27 local government areas of Borno State. The situation was confirmed during last Christmas when the deputy governor of the state, Zannah Umar Mustapha, said over two million people had been displaced from at least 20 local government areas of the state.
Although in August last year, the army reportedly recaptured Damboa from the sect, attempts by the military to liberate other occupied towns like Bama, Gwoza, Marte and Abadam, among others did not succeed, guaranteeing the continued atrocities of the insurgents. While the Adamawa State troops have succeeded in retaking four out of the six local government areas that were captured by the sect, most of the areas had been captured by the insurgents after the Nigerian soldiers had reportedly abandoned their positions and fled (or was it retreated) with civilians into other places.
In total, the militants had seized about one-third of Adamawa, with Madagali, Michika, Mubi North, Mubi South, Maiha, Hong and Gombi areas firmly under their control before November last year.
And in spite of the front put up by the military, Michika and Madagali are still under Boko Haram.
Conversely, the recent successes recorded by the military in liberating the four local government areas may have gone steps ahead to restore the confidence of the residents in the ability of the troops to protect them against the insurgents given a different situation of better equipment and motivation. The soldiers, assisted by local hunters had reportedly dislodged the insurgents from Gombi, Hong, Maiha and Mubi at different locations.
But this sometimes unreliable or accidental feat by the military is not entirely bankable and understandably so at the time of elections. It is no wonder therefore that the Governors of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe state rose from an expanded emergency security meeting with President Jonathan early this month and insisted that elections must hold in their states inFebruary.
At the end of the meeting attended by security chiefs and relevant ministers, the governors reportedly argued that if elections could be held and recently in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other war-torn places, the North-east should not be an exception. But is the situation in Nigeria same as those countries? No!
Yobe State Governor, Alhaji Ibrahim Geidam, perhaps got it right when he told State House correspondents that there was the need for the deployment of more troops in the North-east ahead of the general election. He admitted that the troops on the ground in the affected states were not enough to handle the security situation.
But they also must be sufficiently armed to effectively contain the challenge that Boko Haram poses.
His Borno State counterpart, Alhaji Kashim Shettima, insisted too that elections must hold in their states to send a strong signal to the Boko Haram insurgents. He said by not holding elections in the states, the government would be seen to have given in to the antics of the militants.
The essence of this intervention is not about the election holding or not. In fact, as far as the matter is concerned, election must hold and in all states of the federation. The issue is the timing given the issues raised in the preceding paragraphs. There is no doubting the fact that if the issues are to be addressed, February 14 which kick-starts the election would not be feasible.
This is where INEC must come and be truth to type. The commission must tell Nigerians and in clear unmistaken terms if the elections are feasible with the pending PVCs, the security situation in identified places and its readiness in the event of a tie in the presidential or governorship polls.
Certainly, there is nothing esoteric in the handling of the situation that presents itself as difficult. The ingenuity of the leadership is all that is required. If INEC could announce the postponement of the start of the 2011 elections with its dire consequences even on the finances of parties and their candidates as the people had filed out to vote and agents mobilised, leadership is required at this time when the elections are still a few days away, otherwise INEC would have no excuses to bungle the process if with the clear and existential impracticality, it goes ahead with the exercise. In fact, the opposition would have been justified in its assertions that INEC is operating in cahoot with the ruling party.
After all, the Constitution states that elections shall not hold earlier than one hundred and fifty (150) days and not later than thirty (30) days before the expiration of the term of office of the last holder. Although the commission is by virtue of Section 30 (1) of the Electoral Act, 2010 expected to issue notice for the elections not later than ninety (90) days before the date of the election, what it seems to be confronted with threatens more the foundation of the country and the unity of her people than paying feigned obeisance to rules and regulations at the risk of simple discretion.
Olaleye is the Group Head, Political Desk of THISDAY