There are several things that make the 2019 elections unique. This sixth general election in this Fourth Republic is the first to be conducted by the Prof. Mahmood Yakubu-led Independent National Electoral Commission. Although since coming into office in November 2015, his team has conducted 196 off-season governorship and other by-elections, the announcement of the date for this year’s elections was made two years ago, precisely on March 9, 2017. The elections were the most planned for. Preparations started with the INEC Strategic Plan 2017 – 2021; thereafter, there were Election Management System, Election Project Plan and Elections Operations Support Centre.
Besides, the elections are the costliest in Nigeria’s history. Officially, the Federal Government funded the elections with a whopping N242bn, N189bn of which went to INEC while the remaining N53bn was shared by the security agencies for the purpose of election security. This is outside the millions of dollars spent on the commission by the various international donor partners.
A factsheet on the 2019 General Election revealed that there were 84 million registered voters out of which 72 million voters collected their Permanent Voter Cards; 91 registered political parties; 119,973 Polling Units; 120 Accredited Domestic Observers and 36 Accredited Foreign Observers and 23,000 candidates competing for 1,558 positions. Seven elections were also conducted over two Saturdays. They were Presidential, Senate and House of Representatives elections on February 23 and governorship, state Houses of Assembly, chairmanship and councillorship elections of the six Area Councils of the Federal Capital Territory held on March 9, 2019. This is unprecedented in Nigeria’s electoral history.
Being the most competed for, this year’s elections have also attracted a lot of controversies. From October 7, 2018, when political parties finished conducting their primaries, there have been over 640 court cases from aggrieved aspirants. The electoral commission is joined as defendants in all these pre-election cases. In the lead-up to the elections, there was a constitution amendment that now pegs the time limit for pre-election matters. Hitherto, there used to be no such thing but on June 8, 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Fourth Alteration No. 21 which now asks all aggrieved aspirants to file their matter within 14 days of the action while courts are to deliver judgments on such matters within 180 days while appeals from such judgments shall also be disposed off within 60 days.
Recall that President Buhari had also opened up the political space for the Nigerian youth ahead of the elections when he, on May 31, 2018, signed the Not too Young Bill into law. The Act lowers the qualification age for presidential aspirants from 40 to 35 years and that of aspirants to House of Representatives from 30 years to 25 years bringing it at par with the qualification age for councillorship positions.
A number of unprecedented things that happened during this electioneering period included the open anti-party activities of two All Progressives Congress governors. Governors Rochas Okorocha of Imo State and Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun State defied the party that brought them to power by sponsoring and supporting opposition candidates against their own party candidates. While Okorocha preferred his son-in-law, Uche Nwosu of the Action Alliance, to succeed him, Amosun chose Abiodun Akinlade of the Allied People’s Movement. They encouraged these two to defect from the APC to the Action Alliance and All Progressives Movement respectively. Meanwhile, the two governors did not defect with their adopted godsons but rather stayed put in the APC, contested and won elections into the Senate. Ahead of the March 9 governorship election, the APC leadership suspended the two governors while equally threatening them with expulsion.
It was during the 2019 elections that a court of law denied a ruling party at the centre the opportunity to contest all elections in a state. Due to the lingering dispute over the party congresses held in Rivers State in May 2018, the High Court, Court of Appeal and even the Supreme Court barred the APC from fielding candidates for all elective positions in the state. Two states, Zamfara and Rivers, were initially involved before the Supreme Court came to the rescue of the Zamfara APC by ordering INEC to enlist the party on the ballot paper.
Another thing that singled out the 2019 general election is the high number of cancelled votes due to violence, over-voting and non-adherence to the use of Smart Card Readers. The cancelled votes which are in millions brought about five inconclusive governorship elections in Kano, Sokoto, Plateau, Adamawa and Benue State. INEC initially enlisted Bauchi among the states before reversing itself after a review of the investigative panel it set up on the governorship election. There were also seven inconclusive governorship elections, 24 inconclusive House of Representatives election and three inconclusive Area Council chairmanship polls in the FCT. Supplementary elections in the Polling Units where elections were cancelled in the affected states are to hold on Saturday, March 23, 2019.
Something unprecedented in the annals of Nigeria’s electoral democracy is INEC’s review of the decisions of its Returning Officers in Imo West Senatorial Election and Bauchi State governorship election. In Imo State, the Returning Officer for the Imo West senatorial election, Prof Innocent Ibeawuchi, alleged that he was forced to declare Okorocha the winner of the poll by the supporters of the APC candidate. He was reportedly held hostage from 7pm on Sunday, February 24 till 11am on Monday, February 25. The don said because he feared for his life, he had to announce the result which he claimed was inconclusive, because of the alleged electoral fraud in eight LGAs. For allegedly making its Returning Officer to declare result under duress, INEC has withheld the Certificate of Return for Okorocha. The question is, where were the security agents meant to protect INEC officials?
In Bauchi State, INEC similarly reviewed the declaration of his Returning Officer concerning the nullification of the result of Tafawa Balewa Local Government Area. According to the commission, its investigative panel found out that halfway into the LG collation, armed gangs attacked the collation centre and destroyed the LG Result Sheet (EC8C) and some collated results from the Registration Areas. The results of seven out of the 11 Registration Areas for governorship and six out of the 11 for state Assembly elections were affected. The collation officer, under pressure from party agents who could not wait for the arrival of a replacement result sheet, decided to collate the result on an available RA result sheet instead of the replacement LGA result sheet. “The investigation committee also established that the number of cancelled votes for the four Polling Units in Ningi LGA which was recorded as 25,330 in Form EC40G (1) was incorrect. The actual figure is 2,533.
The big question which has attracted litigation is whether INEC as a commission can overrule its appointed Returning Officer in the light of provision of Section 68 of the Electoral Act 2010, as amended which states that: “The decision of the Returning Officer on any question arising from or relating to: (a) Unmarked ballot paper, (b) Rejected ballot paper, and (c) Declaration of scores of candidates and the return of a candidate shall be final subject to review by a tribunal or court in an election petition proceedings under this Act.” This is why the governor of Bauchi State, Alhaji M A Abubakar, has dragged the commission to court urging it to halt the resumption of collation of results of the Tafawa Balewa LG.
The 2019 elections have thrown up a lot of issues no doubt. One thing the commission cannot take for granted is the appointment of credible and trustworthy people as Collation and Returning Officers. Recall that on March 11, 2019 INEC ordered the arrest of the Collation Officer for Ohaji/Egbema Local Government Area of Imo State, Kelechi Ezirim, as well as the Electoral Officer for the LG, Chris Ogbuadu. They were handed over to the police for committing electoral fraud. This advice should be taken seriously in view of the forthcoming supplementary elections coming up this weekend.