Lest we sweep our democracy away

Lest we sweep our democracy away

Last week, the Independent National Electoral Commission once again postponed an election after much arm-twisting by Nigerian security agencies, few days to the date set for the polls. This happened when most stakeholders had mobilised for the Edo State governorship election fixed for Saturday, September 10.

The postponement set off the alarm bells for many of us. This is because it brought back memories of February 2015 when INEC also shifted the country’s general elections: presidential, governorship and National Assembly, just one week to the date of the presidential election. Recall that on that occasion, the security agencies as spearheaded by the Office of the National Security Adviser submitted an advisory to INEC urging it to shift the elections. They claimed that given their new attempt at crushing the insurgents in parts of the country, they were not available to provide the needed security cover for the election. What we saw then was INEC being forced to act without independence.

Last week’s similar efforts by the security agencies however lacked finesse. In Edo State, INEC officials held a planning meeting with stakeholders including the police, represented by an assistant inspector-general where they expressed readiness to proceed with the election. Yet, while that happened, the same police held a joint press conference with the Department of State Services in Abuja where they called on INEC to consider a postponement. The statement by the police spokesperson, Deputy Commissioner of Police Don Awunah, based the call on “credible intelligence available to the agencies” which indicated plans by “insurgent and extremist elements to attack vulnerable communities and soft targets” including communities in Edo State during the period coinciding with the election.

INEC’s initial response was to declare that it was going ahead with the polls, more so as the security agencies had not formally informed them of any negative intelligence report. While many applauded INEC’s courage and show of commitment to delivering on its mandate to strengthen democracy, anyone conversant with the duties, responsibilities and capabilities of various state agencies had cause to worry. One of my fears then was the possibility of the same security agencies manipulating or instigating a security situation or failing to mobilise adequate resources for the election or failing to respond adequately in the event of a negative occurrence. And if that happened, the blame for such consequences was going be heaped on INEC.

Incidentally, the authorities of the National Youth Service Corps also refused to release youth corps members to support INEC for the election, citing the same security advisory. The stakes were then set against INEC and the agency did what was reasonable in the circumstance – postpone the election.

As I said earlier, the whole country, including the political parties, their supporters and general public would have so easily blamed INEC for any negative consequences had they gone ahead with the election. This is much the same way citizens roundly condemn the commission whenever elections become inconclusive. This happens without people even worrying about the roles played by many other forces including the political parties, politicians and their supporters to desecrate the electoral process. I keep saying that the greatest obstacles to democracy in Nigeria are the politicians, working with the system they can easily manipulate. And as ridiculous as this may sound, the one thing most Nigerian politicians fear is election. We cannot let them run away from elections any longer, unless we are ready to jettison democracy.

The postponement is disappointing for many reasons, one of which is the concern that we are gradually stringing a narrative that submits the final authority to determine election dates on the “security” agencies. Since the security agencies are managed and controlled by the Federal Government and given our country’s experience, it is so easy to believe that whoever controls the agencies could use them to suit their political interest.

In fact, in 2015, many Nigerians believed and still believe that the security advisory was a mere stratagem by the sitting Peoples Democratic Party government then to buy time and hope to deepen its appeal for votes as some opinion polls or “intelligence reports” supposedly indicated that the opposition party then (All Progressives Congress) was likely to clinch victory in that election. That same narrative has been resorted to in the Edo election as the roles have now been switched between the APC and the PDP. But while the politicians and their rabid supporters are fighting and accusing each other of who was manipulating what, I am concerned more with what is becoming a dangerous precedent. In fact, when it happened in 2015, some of us raised fears that the precedent was too ominous for our fragile democracy.

I describe it as ominous because I know how precedents work. In fact, those who supported the shift in the Edo election were all too quick to remind everyone of the fact that this has happened before, rather than focus on the veracity of the security advisory.

With the Edo situation, my fear is further deepened. In 2015, I had asked, what if we were further told, when the time came that the situation had not improved or the risk had not abated, thus occasioning another postponement. How far can we possibly go, knowing that there is a cut-off date by which elections to each elective office must be held? What would happen if the situation fails to improve until the tenure of an incumbent governor or president expires? We would have dribbled ourselves into another constitutional crisis.

I recall how the National Assembly attempted unconstitutionally in 2012/2013 to determine the tenure of office of local government administrations and the fight that ensued between it and state governors who were equally manipulating the local government system. That was how the tenure of office of most local government councils lapsed without the states conducting fresh elections. That constitutional crisis led each state governor to then appoint caretaker administrations for the local governments, contrary to the clear provisions of the constitution. And that is how this criminality has perpetuated.

Now that we have had postponement of election for security reasons at the general elections and at single elections, the stage is ripe therefore for the further desecration of the sanctity of elections as the means for selecting leaders in Nigeria. I say this because this desecration had effectively been done at the local government level where state governors in virtually all the states have in practice determined when the election into local governments should be conducted. This they do in clear violation of the constitution which guarantees that local governments must only be governed by democratically-elected officials.

Interestingly, in the attempt to insist on the shift of the Edo election, some people even attempted to throw into the confusion, the need to steer the date away from the planned Eid el Kabir fixed for the Monday and Tuesday following the planned election. The argument was that many potential voters might travel or otherwise be involved in preparations for the celebration and that the election could suffer apathy or become a distraction to the religious event.

That argument held little attraction for me. This is because in 2003, the general elections fell on the Easter weekend; the Saturday after Good Friday and the day before Easter. I was one of those who wrote articles in newspapers urging the “too religious” Christians to let the date be as a shift was likely to lead to a constitutional crisis as to the time frame allowed under the constitution for the elections. The same argument was apposite here.

This whole idea of using subterfuge to manipulate the electoral system must be condemned and resisted by citizens lest we allow the politicians to manipulate the security agencies to sweep away our democracy and its gains while claiming to secure us.

First published in The Punch newspaper of Monday September 12. 2016 http://punchng.com/lest-sweep-democracy-away/

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Written by
Obo Effanga
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