The 2015 presidential contest would be one of the most keenly contested in Nigeria’s electoral history. The ruling party now confronts a single opposition force, an almost unprecedented situation in the country. As the campaign continues, the emotional tempo of the political process is deepening, stakes are rising and conspiracy theories are thriving. It is in this context that the suggestion for postponing the elections is a cause for concern.
Following his lecture at the British think-tank, Chatham House, in London on 22nd January, the National Security Adviser (NSA) to the President had a question and answer session with journalists during which he said that it makes sense to postpone the elections within the time frame allowed by the law, which would still allow the May 29th swearing in of the elected President. He claimed that there are still over 30 million permanent voter cards (PVCs) that have still not been distributed. The call by the NSA to postpone the elections appears to be reasonable due to the difficulties in PVC production and distribution encountered by the Independent National Election Commission (INEC). All Nigerians are indeed worried that the distribution of PVCs has taken much longer than it should have.
We are aware that the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides for holding of elections “not earlier than one hundred and fifty days and not later than thirty days before the expiration of the term of office of the last holder of the office”. This means that the elections could be shifted by another month or so. We believe, however, that the general elections fixed for February 14 and 28 are too close for them to be shifted without a really serious reason. Preparations have reached an advanced stage and the parties and candidates are out in the field campaigning. It is true that the insurgency in the North East has not been tamed but it is clear that with arrangements to allow internally displaced persons to vote, the insurgency will not significantly affect electoral outcomes. In any case, it is not clear when the insurgency will be defeated.
On collection of Voter’s Card, it was not appropriate for the NSA to raise such a sensitive matter to the British press without discussing it with INEC, to which he has easy access. Secondly, according to INEC, the numbers he gave were not current. There has been an acceleration of the collection rate of PVCs since INEC launched the decentralisation of distribution of the cards to the ward level. The latest information is that as at last week, a little more than 13 million PVCs were still awaiting collection and it is very feasible to complete the distribution within the next two weeks. We believe that if INEC further decentralizes the distribution to the level of polling units, no one would be disenfranchised due to non-collection of the PVCs. It is important that no Nigerian eligible voter should be disenfranchised. We cannot overemphasise the importance of the PVC to the success of the election given that it is designed to be read by an electronic machine that records and transmits every vote cast by accredited voters and, by so doing, prevent electoral fraud. This has become even imperative given how keenly contested the elections are expected to be.
The organisation of elections is a collective responsibility of all stakeholders – INEC, political parties, security agencies, the mass media and the citizens. If voters had been well informed about the PVC distribution dates for their polling units and turned up at the right time, the delays we encountered would not have occurred and INEC would not have had the necessity to play catch-up as a result.
Postponing the elections would be a dangerous move for a number of reasons. First, it is unnecessary because the process could be completed before the elections. Secondly, there are speculations that certain political forces are getting jittery about the possible outcome of the elections and would like to divert the country along the dangerous path of an interim government and postponement might be the first step in that direction. For the first time in our history, we have had four successive elections in a row, as and when due, without system breakdown and the fifth elections due next month would consolidate this history of regular elections.
There are concordant narratives emerging, which suggest INEC is not ready for the February elections. These voices have been drowning out the voice of INEC, which has been saying consistently that it is ready for the elections.
It is not surprising that many Nigerians are getting worried because of such messages claiming INEC is not worried. Over the past couple of years, we have observed INEC fine-tune its logistics in the organisation of staggered elections. INEC has neither withdrawn nor amended the Notice of Elections issued, with set timelines, which it says it can keep to. It has commenced training of poll workers, and deployment of electoral materials, including card readers.
This is not the time to postpone. The elections must hold on schedule.