Thursday, March 30, 2023

Azu Ishiekwene: INEC server and other election day stories

The worst thing voters can do on Saturday is to surrender by staying away.

• March 16, 2023
Yakubu and Melaye protesting at the National collation Centre

For the third time since 1999, I voted at a general election on February 25 and did so without much hassle. I knew my candidates would lose at the unit where I voted, but that didn’t matter. Voting mattered more.

The Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) processed me so quickly it was almost like magic. I had no reason to suspect my experience would not be the norm that day.

As I walked away from the booth, a family friend who had just voted caught up with me. 

“Thank God that I have voted,” she said. “What gives me even greater joy is that my vote has gone directly to the INEC server, unlike the last time.”

I was puzzled. 

“How do you mean?” I asked. 

She explained that the last time she voted in 2019, a manual register was used to accredit her. The process was so long and time-consuming, she said, it left her drained. 

“Yet, even as I was voting on that day,” she recalled, “I knew that my vote could be tampered with very easily. But it was different today. My thumbprint went straight to the INEC server, as I pressed the ballot paper.”

I was even more puzzled now. 

Where did she get that from? The bimodal voting machine first used on a limited scale by Nigeria’s election management body (INEC) in a state election in 2021 is capable of fingerprint and facial identification. After capture, the information is then uploaded from the polling unit along with the result sheets to INEC’s server. 

Even with the bimodal machine, however, ballot papers will still have to be sorted, collated, counted, and the results recorded manually, signed by agents and the polling unit officer before the result sheet can be uploaded. 

This educated, middle-class female voter and friend had stretched INEC Chairman Mahmood Yakubu’s promise of result upload and transmission to its elastic limits, confusing it with electronic or internet voting.

The anger, frustration and disappointment from the February 25 election appear rooted not only in the feeling that INEC had betrayed its promise but also in the betrayal of the personal fantasies which that promise had spawned in many.

For the fourth time in 12 years, general elections have been postponed either mid-vote or just on the eve. This is the third time, however, when postponement on this scale would be as a result of unanticipated technical difficulties by the election management body. We had similar situations in 2011 and 2019.

Perhaps given the difficulty that INEC faced after the February 25 election, especially the multiple legal challenges by the political parties, postponing the governorship election, earlier scheduled for March 11, was the most practical thing. It might have been suicidal not to do so. 

Yet the jury is out on how this devil’s alternative might affect the outcome of Saturday’s governorship and House of Assembly polls in 28 out of the country’s 36 states.

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns is voter turnout, which reached a record low of 26.7 per cent on February 25. Will voters who turned out in their numbers in defiance of threats and violence in some places still brave the odds and turn out to vote again on Saturday? Or will they be so disappointed and frustrated with the outcome of the presidential and National Assembly polls that they won’t bother?

There’s still a lot to play for. The suffocating hold of state governors over Nigeria’s politics, for example, appears to have been broken. For the first time in decades, the ruling party lost nine states, while seven sitting governors failed to make the Senate their new retirement home. 

Also, 20 winning candidates emerged from political parties other than those of the incumbent governor in the February 25 poll, significantly redrawing Nigeria’s electoral map. These gains weaken the argument of widespread rigging by the opposition. 

Unfortunately, the trope has gained ground among the party faithful as flame-throwing by politicians has worsened. One unintended consequence of the prolonged grieving is further loss of faith among voters who braved the odds to vote on February 25. This is the last thing the opposition needs at a moment of promise and significant electoral gains. 

Voters have sacrificed a lot for this moment, and it would be a shame if politicians mismanaged it. Two voters who symbolise the February 25 historic vote were Jennifer Efidi Bina who defied beatings by thugs and knife stab wounds to vote at Surulere Local Government in Lagos; and Chiedu Francisca-Oye, mother of a three-month-old baby, who carried her baby on her shoulder and also dragged her husband around Abuja until she finally voted.

These two voters and millions like them didn’t turn out for an electoral one-night stand. Francisca-Oye, in fact, told me after going to three different wards without finding her name, that whatever the difficulties she encountered on that day, she was determined to vote. Neither technical glitches nor thugs nor even the blazing noonday sun would prevent her.

“I will not give up,” she said, with beads of sweat forming on her brow and her baby on her left shoulder swaddled in white linen. 

If either she or Jennifer or anyone of the millions of voters who turned out to vote on February 25 are reluctant to come out again on Saturday, it would not only be because INEC’s server let them down. It would also be because politicians who ought to help them deepen faith in the process have been clutching at straws.

They have a right to seek redress, and INEC should respond forthrightly. Yet it’s fair to say that these politicians have looked for scapegoats everywhere except in the mirror, where it would have been obvious that more than anything else, their own poor choices, especially internal divisions, have landed them in this misery. 

A viral joke described how in 2015, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) formed an alliance of four main parties to defeat the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) at the time. In 2023, however, instead of using the APC’s playbook against it, the PDP waged a war against itself and splintered into four miserable parts, each part hoping to win.

There have been challenges in this year’s election: Underperformance by the electoral management body; attacks by thugs and threats to life; bank note misery in the midst of an economy in chaos; severe petrol shortages; and on top of it, politicians who after causing their own defeat choose to look for catharsis in scapegoats!

Yet, daunting as the odds may be, sometimes it’s useful to look back to remind ourselves how far we have come. In 19th-century Britain, for example, politicians in cahoots with the church used to lock voters up in boroughs close to polling centres ahead of polls after corning them, just to make sure they voted in a certain way. 

This election season gimmickry included a range of self-serving schemes intended to bend voters’ will. According to Susan C. Stokes and others in Brokers, Voters and Clientelism, politicians continued in this perversion for years until the material condition of voters began to improve. 

Nigerian voters may have left the 19th-century voter detention camps, but our politicians are not significantly better than the brokers of that British era who will go to extremes to exact the electoral outcomes they want to see. The worst thing voters can do on Saturday is to surrender by staying away.

The last straw that broke the camel’s back was not one stroke. It was, instead, a gradual accumulation of strokes just before the final blow. Voting this Saturday may well be one more strategic stroke that brings the back of this monstrous electoral camel near breaking point.  

It’s not a job to leave to politicians.

Ishiekwene is Editor-in-Chief of LEADERSHIP

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