On 25 February, for the third time since 1999, I voted in a Nigerian general election and did so without much hassle. I knew my candidates would lose at the station 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 [Independent National Election Commission] 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 Inec, Nigeria’s election management body, in a state election in 2021 – is capable of fingerprint and facial identification. After capture, the information is then uploaded from the polling station along with the result sheets to Inec’s server.
Even with the bimodal system, however, ballot papers will still have to be sorted, collated, counted and the results recorded manually, signed by agents and the polling station officer, before the result sheet can be uploaded.
This educated, middle-class female voter and friend had stretched the promise by Inec chairperson Professor Mahmood Yakubu of result upload and transmission to its elastic limits, confusing it with electronic or internet voting.
The anger, frustration and disappointment from the 25 February election appear rooted not only in the feeling that Inec betrayed its promise, but also in the betrayal of personal fantasies which that promise had spawned in many.
For the fourth time in 12 years, general elections were postponed either mid-vote or just on the eve of voting. This is the third time, however, that postponement of this scale was the result of unanticipated technical difficulties by the election management body. We had similar situations before in 2011 and 2019.
Perhaps given the difficulty that Inec faced after the 25 February election, especially the multiple legal challenges by the political parties, postponing the governorship election from 11 March to this Saturday, 18 March, was the most practical thing. It may have been suicidal not to do so.
Yet the jury is out on how this devil’s alternative will affect the outcome of Saturday’s governorship race in 28 out of the country’s 36 states and state House of Assembly polls.
Perhaps one of the biggest concerns is voter turnout, which dropped to a record low of 26.7% on 25 February. Will voters who turned out 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 on 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 25 February 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 grief is further loss of faith among voters who braved the odds to vote on 25 February. 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 mismanage it. Two voters who symbolise the 25 February historic vote were Jennifer Efidi Bina, who defied beatings by thugs and stab wounds to vote at Surulere in Lagos; and Chiedu Francisca-Oye, who carried her three-month-old baby on her shoulder and 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 forehead, and her baby, swaddled in white linen, held on her left shoulder.
If she or Jennifer or anyone of the millions of voters who turned out to vote on 25 February are reluctant to come out again on Saturday, it will not only be because Inec’s server let them down, but also 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 People’s 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 chose to look for catharsis in scapegoats.
Yet, daunting as the odds may be, sometimes it’s useful to look back and remind ourselves how far we have come. In 19th-century Britain, for example, politicians in cahoots with the church used to lock up voters in boroughs close to polling centres ahead of polls just to make sure they voted in a certain way.
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 would go to extremes to exact the electoral outcomes they wanted to see. The worst thing voters can do on Saturday is to surrender by staying away.
The 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 for politicians. DM