Since Wednesday when the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) announced that it is redesigning the 200, 500 and 1,000 naira notes and will withdraw the current notes from circulation over a six-week period ending on January 31 next year, there have been excitements about how the measure may affect the 2023 general elections, which begin less than four weeks later on February 25.
It is not clear whether that is one of the intentions of the apex bank, but a sudden change of banknotes in the middle of electioneering and so close to the polls is a potential silver bullet for some of the stubborn problems slowing down electoral reform in Africa’s largest democracy. So, how far can the measure impact the presidential poll?
Another source of excitement in the past week was the announcement by INEC of the final figures of registered voters. Although the new figures, including the total voting population of 93.5 million, bring no major surprise with respect to the spread of voters across the states and the six geo-political regions, the announcement will force some observers to take fresh looks at their permutations for the flagship presidential election.
New Naira Notes
Announcing the planned redesign of the high-denomination naira notes at a press briefing in Abuja on Wednesday, the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, who himself controversially nibbled the presidential election bait earlier this year, said it is aimed at checking counterfeiting and hoarding of the naira. The currency has recorded significant erosion of its exchange value in recent years on the watch of the CBN boss.
Mr Emefiele said statistics available to the apex bank showed that over 80 per cent of the naira in circulation were being held outside the vaults of commercial banks. He said as of September 2022, a total of N3.2 trillion was in circulation, but N2.73 trillion of this was outside bank vaults, a development he said was unacceptable.
Among the prime suspects for hoarding the naira outside the banking system are politicians who will need vast sums of money this election season to fund their campaigns and buy votes on election days.
With INEC continually applying technology in the management of elections, it has become increasingly more difficult to manipulate elections in Nigeria. The introduction of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) last year for accreditation of voters on election day as well as the real-time electronic transmission of results from polling units have eliminated some old habits, such as underage voting, impersonation of voters, mass thumbprinting of ballot papers and snatching of ballot boxes. It has also bolstered the integrity of Nigerian polls.
But the salutary development has only forced politicians to embrace vote buying at polling units, as seen in many off-season elections held after the 2019 general election. Efforts by the security agencies and the EFCC to check the menace have largely failed, most glaringly in the high-stake governorship elections held in Anambra, Edo, Ondo, Ekiti and Osun states.
Many observers have prescribed that vote buying can be best checked up the supply chain, by tracking and stopping the movement of large volumes of cash from the banks, especially by politicians and those who work for them. However, as stated by Mr Emefiele on Wednesday, huge sums of money are already hoarded and being laundered outside the banking system, which makes that prescription inefficacious.
Therefore, the CBN and EFCC have vowed to closely monitor the banks in the transition to the new banknotes with a view to intercepting the black money as they are brought out in exchange for the new notes. If that monitoring process of the authorities succeeds, it will erode the capacity of politicians to mobilise cash for vote buying in February and March of next year, with the result being the outcomes of the elections reflecting the will of the electorate.
The media and other election monitors had always fingered the parties in government at the various levels as the main perpetrators of vote buying, which they transact with stolen public funds. The elimination of that malaise will thus remove another major hurdle on the path of candidates of the opposition and minor parties and significantly level the playing field.
Obi and Kwankwaso
The main beneficiaries of that prospect in the presidential election will, without doubt, be Peter Obi of the Labour Party, Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigerian People’s Party (NNPP) and the candidates of the 14 other minor
Although the LP and NNPP standard bearers are themselves dye-in-the-wool politicians like their opponents of the APC and PDP, they are virtually running as independent candidates in this election because of their parties’ weak or lack of roots and structures in many parts of the country.
However, money remains a big factor in elections here as anywhere else, as acknowledged by the chairman of LP, Julius Abure, on Friday while inaugurating the reconstituted presidential campaign council of the party in Abuja. He said the party needs money to prosecute the campaigns and appealed for donations from its supporters.
Even with the change of naira notes threatening the capacity of politicians to deploy large sums of money for electioneering, some will still have more money than others. Their superior war chest is one of the reasons why many still see this race to be principally between the APC and PDP candidates, despite the exploits of Messrs Obi and Kwankwaso on the field.
INEC Chairman Mahmood Yakubu, on Wednesday, announced that registered voters in Nigeria now stand at 93.5 million after the addition of new registrants in the last continuous voter registration exercise that was suspended in July.
Analysis of the new register shows that the North-west geopolitical zone still has the highest number of registered voters with a total of 22.27 million voters, up from the 20.15 million on the register for the 2019 elections. The South-west zone follows with 17.93 million voters, rising from the 16.29 million voters it had in 2019. The South-south zone has 14.4 million voters to rank third among the zones. It had 12.8 million voters in 2019.
The North-central has 13.8 million voters, the North- east 12.5 million, the South-east 10.9 million and the Federal Capital Territory has 1.5 million.
Six of the states – Lagos, Kano, Kaduna, Rivers, Katsina and Oyo – have a combined 27.68 million or 29.59 per cent of the total registered voters. Three of these vote-rich states are in each of the northern and southern regions of the country, with four being run by APC governors and the other two by the PDP.
The incumbency factor has lost weight due to the improvement in election management and the openness and transparency enforced by social media. Yet, many advantages remain in being the candidate of the ruling party, especially in pre-poll activities.
These candidates have access to government facilities and other public resources in running their campaigns while in many states, signage and other public media space are strictly controlled to black out opposition candidates and their messages. Such issues were recently highlighted in Lagos and Edo states, with Governor Godwin Obaseki claiming his own was in retaliation for the maltreatment of the PDP governorship candidate in Lagos.
The candidates of the two major parties are hoping to benefit from such shenanigans. But even without the underhand activities, their structures mean the APC and PDP will be in the game in most of the states across the country.
Despite his intra-party crisis woes, Atiku Abubakar of the PDP is still expected to draw strong support in southern states, although his till from the South-east and the South-south will be determined by the performance of Mr Obi of the LP in those traditional bastions of the former ruling party.
However, Atiku will have his mind firmly set on wresting control of the northern states from the APC, hoping to take advantage of Bola Tinubu being from the South. An immediate irritant here is Mr Kwankwaso who has turned down overtures from all his three main rivals. The supporters of the NNPP candidate project him as the most popular politician in the North after President Muhammadu Buhari, although he still has to prove that at the poll. But observers expect him to have a say in how his home Kano State votes.
The APC candidate on his part will be counting on his party’s governors in 14 of the 19 northern states to maintain their fortresses. He will also count on the three in the South-east and South-south, while also hoping to take advantage of his own ancestry in the South-west.
More than anything else, the voter registration figures confirm where the February 25 presidential election, like recent ones before it, will be won and lost. But the new elements safeguarding the electoral process will help us to better understand voters’ behaviour in Nigeria from the outcome of that crucial poll.
Slow take off
The first of the six weeks allocated to campaigns for the presidential election ended on Friday with most of the parties yet to put up any show. Among the four major candidates, only Atiku and Mr Obi have formally flagged off their campaigns. But even the two have only managed to hold a few rallies.
Atiku has interrupted his own rally fixtures with abrupt trips abroad to Europe, Dubai and last week the US. It was his first trip to America since the last presidential election. Although the trip of 2019 elicited interest because it disproved the claim by his opponents that he was wanted in that country for alleged financial crime, his recent travel there seems only to draw amusement.
Obi had also suspended his campaign, ostensibly to commiserate with victims of flood disasters in the country and was in Benue to visit some of the affected communities. But the LP candidate only managed to resolve a crisis over the composition of his campaign council last week. Although he addressed his North-central rally in Lafia, Nasarawa State on Saturday, his campaign appears to be losing steam even before it gets underway. Saturday’s rally was his second rally in the North-central, indicating the value he attaches to the zone in his presidential bid.
Mr Tinubu is yet to even flag off his own campaign, not even after Mr Buhari inaugurated his campaign council and manifesto. It is not still known when he will begin mounting the podium at state rallies. All he has been doing since his nomination are consultations with figures in and outside his party.
It is still four months before the elections, so there is still time until then for the carnivals that usually precede the polls.
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