By Margee Ensign
The results are in. The giant of Africa, Nigeria, just completed its Federal election for president. The former military dictator and current president, Buhari, was re-elected. Or was he?
The 36 international and 120 domestic observers, overseeing voting in 119,973 polling places in 8,809 electoral wards, declared the election free and fair. But local civil society groups, and the opposition party, say otherwise. They claim that the election was anything but, and that it was militarized.
Why does it matter? Wouldn’t it just be easier to let the election stand unchallenged? That is what many in the West are arguing. Since it is impossible to know the extent of the “rigging”, they say, for the sake of stability in an unstable world, why not just let the election stand? This perspective fundamentally misunderstands both the role of the military in a democracy as well as the importance of the rule of law.
First, the complaints.
1. Voter Disinformation. It has been reported that in many of the locations, after being verified, people voted for the House of Reps and/or Senate positions on the ballot, thinking they were thus voting for the President and his party. Many Nigerians are illiterate. The unused Presidential ballot papers were then thumb-printed by unscrupulous electoral officials for Buhari’s party and stuffed in ballot boxes. See one case here: https://www.facebook.com/chidi.cali/videos/10219710379808999/UzpfSTEyMDI5MDE0MTE6MTAyMTk3MTAzODAxMjkwMDc/
2. Systematic Disenfranchisement. In many of the locations where Abubakar Atiku, Buhari’s main challenger, is popular, there were patterns of voting materials arriving late, and of card readers not working properly. Thus, many people in those locations couldn’t vote.
3. Ballot Box snatching. There are many reports of ballot box snatchings in Lagos, Rivers and Akwa Ibom states. Hoodlums attacked some polling centers where there was likely to be heavy voting for the opposition PDP and burned election materials. Here is one of such cases in Lagos: https://www.facebook.com/Gbyg124/videos/10155750910231582/UzpfSTE1NjMyMjI5OTQ6MTAyMTg0MDkwNjYyNDg5ODQ/
4. Invalid Votes. Tens of thousands of votes were invalidated for reasons that were never specified. In Niger state, which heavily favoured opposition Atiku for example, over 40,000 votes were rejected for no apparent reason.
5. Arrests and Intimidations. Security agents were used to arrest and intimidate voters. There are many reports in Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Kogi states where the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) voters and party leaders were arrested by security agents.
6. Generally, the election was marred by many irregularities including multiple votings and over-votings. There are reports of centers and wards reporting numbers that are higher than the numbers on the voting registers.
Are there enough votes in play (in an election that was peculiar inasmuch as there was a profound increase in states like Borno, living under a state of emergency from the Boko Haram violence and not incidentally a Buhari stronghold) that these examples would matter to the overall result? That seems to me not the important question to ask, though that is what some Western government are asking, and apparently answering “no”. The major opposition candidate, Atiku Abubakar, believes there are, and is preparing a court challenge to the election. He is claiming that there was widespread voter suppression, assaults by the military on citizens, and now a systematic crackdown on opposition leaders and their families and staff.
The court challenge will eventually end up at the Supreme Court, whose chief justice, in an unprecedented move, was summarily removed from his position by Buhari just weeks before the election.
It is clear that Nigeria, the largest democracy in Africa, is becoming increasingly militarized, that the rule of law is in jeopardy. This matters not just for Nigerians, not just for Africans, but for all of us. Nigeria will become, after India and China, the third most populous country in the world in the next 25 years. While it has the largest economy on the continent, it also has the largest percentage of children out of school and the largest percentage of people in extreme poverty. Unemployment is extraordinarily high and growing. Violence between herders and farmers has increased significantly and ISIS has recently launched sophisticated attacks on Nigerian military positions in a region where the Boko Haram uprising has gone on for years. This is a critical moment in Nigeria’s history: will democracy prevail, or will the country return to an illegitimate autocracy under a failing regime, with all the unrest and disruption that may provoke?
The Buhari regime has been, by any measure, a failure. If Nigeria does not focus its resources on basic human development and reduce violence – neither of which has happened under the current leadership – then the possibility for widespread violence is very real. In one of the most important countries in the world. The world should be paying attention. And what was once called “the free world” should certainly be supporting democracy in a world increasingly marked by dictatorship.
- Prof Margee Ensign is President of Dickson College and former President American University of Nigeria.