Nigeria transitioned to democracy in 1999, despite the persistence of insecurity, extreme poverty, and endemic corruption. Nevertheless, the country has conducted six national elections that have frequently been tainted by instances of fraud, technical complications, violence, and legal disputes.
On 25 February 2023, Nigerians again exercised their democratic rights by participating in the presidential elections, even as allegations of irregularities and fraudulent practices loomed over the process. The 2023 general elections were highly anticipated as a crucial milestone for the nation’s democratic process. However, despite initial hopes for transparency and fairness, the elections were marred by widespread allegations of corruption, including voter suppression, vote buying, manipulation of electoral rolls, compromised officials, and the lack of accountability.
The electoral process was tarnished by technical glitches and allegations of flaws, promising legal battles in court.
Over the past 24 years, Nigeria’s constitutional democracy faced significant setbacks due to a distinctively flawed electoral process, reports Foreign Policy. This process, contrary to the principles of civil democratic governance, deprives the people of their freedom to elect political leaders without any hindrance.
The Conversation Africa hosted a webinar that brought together policymakers, academics, and civil society groups to deliberate on Nigeria’s achievements and challenges. The focal point of the discussion was corruption.
“There were initially 93 million Nigerians on the voters’ list. However, when the voting took place, only a little over 25 million, actually cast their votes. This low turnout is considered significantly low for an election in Nigeria. Data from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) shows that voter turnout has been decreasing in almost every election year since 2007.”
“Now, a couple of factors have been blamed for this voter apathy. One of them is the impact of corruption and what it has done in making Nigerians lose interest and trust in the electoral process,” Ghana commissioning editor at The Conversation Africa, Godfred Boafo, said.
Mr Boafo believes there is a growing sentiment, not only in Nigeria but also across the African continent, that voters feel their voices no longer hold significance. This feeling of disillusionment with the electoral process seems to be spreading to African elections in general. In Nigeria, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) acknowledges this concern and implemented measures to restore trust in the system. One such step is the introduction of the biometric voters’ accreditation system, known as the BVAS, which gained popularity on social media during the election.
In order to combat corruption during the election, the Nigerian government implemented measures before, during, and after the election. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) played a crucial role in preventing vote buying and other forms of corruption throughout the entire electoral process. They maintained a physical presence during the primaries of major political parties, where money traditionally plays a significant role in determining the party candidates. Additionally, the EFCC deployed its personnel to various polling units across the country on the actual election day to ensure transparency and integrity. These efforts aimed to address the impact of corruption and promote a fair electoral process.
Did these efforts pay off?
Wilson Uwujaren, the EFCC spokesperson, said the EFCC is investigating and preventing monetary malpractices. “As the sole agency responsible for enforcing economic and financial laws in Nigeria, the EFCC saw an opportunity to assist the INEC in detecting and combating practices that undermine the integrity of the electoral process,” he said.
The commission collaborated with INEC and security agencies to educate stakeholders about the laws and dangers associated with the use of money in elections. Through public enlightenment campaigns, they aimed to reduce the influence of money and ensure electoral integrity. “So beyond issuing advisories, when we started, we have made some progress in terms of checking the influence of warnings in the electoral process, ensuring that the provisions of the Electoral Act in terms of the limits of space by candidates seeking election into various offices that they abide by those spending limits.”
The commission also took additional measures by engaging stakeholders in the financial sector, such as banks and Bureau de Change operators. They were sensitized about their responsibilities under the money laundering law, including transaction limits and reporting suspicious activities. Town hall sessions were conducted to warn against compromising the electoral process through their institutions. On election day, commission operatives were deployed nationwide, deterring illicit activities and making arrests of individuals attempting to buy votes.
Assets, including cash, clothing, and food items, were recovered at polling units. The presence of commission personnel and the government’s monetary policies, like the scarcity of cash, further limited the availability of resources for vote-buying by political actors. These efforts, along with the strategies of the EFCC, aimed to deter financial misconduct during the elections.
During the 2023 elections, a noticeable change was observed in electoral strongholds. Unlike in the past, people resorted to violent means because they could no longer use cash to sway voters, he said.
Assessing the government’s anti-corruption measures in the 2023 election
Emmanuel Aiyede, a professor of political institutions, governance, and public policy in the Department of political science at the University of Ibadan, evaluated the effectiveness of the government’s efforts.
“I think generally Nigerians believe that this election was going to be an election with integrity,” said Mr Aiyede. “The number of innovations to promote or boost the integrity of the election was carried out and tested across the off-season elections. The major challenge facing the electoral process was how to then reduce vote buying to the minimum.”
Mr Aiyede said efforts to increase transparency in the electoral process, customize ballots, and eliminate the manipulation of results, did not work out as planned. “One major challenge was the inability to upload results directly from polling units, which undermined the intended elimination of fraudulent practices. This systemic failure was accompanied by pockets of violence, voter suppression, ethnic profiling, and questionable appointments in certain parts of the country.”
“Consequently, this election is being considered one of the worst in Nigerian history, with comparisons drawn to the problematic 2007 election. Despite efforts to demonstrate innovation, reports from observers consistently describe the election as deeply flawed,” he said.
Is Nigeria ready to deal with systemic corruption?
Auwul Rafsanjani, the executive director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), expressed serious concerns about Nigeria’s lack of readiness in addressing the pervasive corruption that hampers its economic growth and development.
Rafsanjani said his organisation tackles issues of fighting corruption, particularly political corruption, and therefore, they have been working before even the election, to ensure that there’s electoral integrity in the process. “As a nation, we are ill-prepared to tackle systemic corruption, and this has remained a persistent problem,” he said.
His conversation shifted to discussing individuals who receive bribes, particularly those who have close proximity to power. Rafsanjani mentioned the significant amounts of money exchanged during party primaries and elections, highlighting scandals in Kaduna, Adamawa, and other places. He lamented the fact that those who embezzle the nation’s wealth are often granted pardons, resulting in detrimental consequences for Nigeria.
Mr Rafsanjani criticized the federal government for consistently pardoning corrupt politicians, which poses an ongoing threat to the country’s political system.
“The use of money in the electoral process goes beyond small amounts given to voters. Big money, including foreign currencies, is used to buy influence and secure electoral officials’ support.” He said that the increased participation of individuals involved in looting taxpayers’ money poses a significant threat to Nigeria’s democracy.
What happened to the money during the elections?
Hamzat Lawal of Code for Africa said that “interestingly”, the issue of corruption in the political process seems to have started with the conduct of the primaries. Despite the deployment of personnel by the EFCC, “money still exchanged hands during the dominant political party’s primaries,” Mr Lawal said.
“It became evident that politicians were often ahead of anti-corruption agencies, even in times of cash crunch. During the presidential elections, money was exchanged on the ground, with limited availability of the new Naira notes, which were most accessible to those with millions of Naira.”
Mr Lawal said intelligence gathering becomes crucial, and citizen-led movements like Follow the Money can provide valuable information for the government to respond and take action against corrupt individuals.
“If corruption is left unchecked, it leads to abandoned projects, budget inflation, and a cycle of corruption that has persisted since 1999. Timely and accurate information is vital for rebuilding public trust and gaining support for anti-corruption efforts. Transparency about arrests and prosecutions is necessary. With the prevalence of fake news, misinformation, and AI deep fakes, anti-corruption agencies need to be proactive in providing information. Civil society can help amplify their work and foster integrity in our society,” said Mr Lawal.
How did corruption impact women’s participation in the elections?
The panel also focused on women’s participation in the election with the intention of highlighting lessons learned for future reference.
Damilola Agbalajobi from the Obafemi Awolowo University told how corruption impacts women in politics beyond election day – financial obstacles, discrimination in candidate selection, lack of accountability, limited access to information, and reinforcement of gender inequality are the order of the day – and emphasized the need for anti-corruption measures to combat voter suppression and create a fair and inclusive electoral process.
She said discrimination and corruption hinder women’s participation in politics. “Cultural biases affect candidate selection, leading to women being excluded and facing unfair competition. Corrupt practices, like bribery and nepotism, further disadvantage women. Corrupt institutions require women to rely on influential individuals or groups, making them susceptible to intimidation. Addressing these issues requires combating corruption and promoting transparency to create a more inclusive political system for women.
“There is a need to combat this voter suppression that is happening to women because this, for me, is corruption itself,” Ms Agbalajobi said.
Nigeria court hears opposition’s presidential vote challenge
All Progressives Congress Bola Tinubu ‘s victory in the February 2023 presidential election is being challenged. Presidential candidate of the Labour Party, Peter Obi, and the Peoples Democratic Party candidate Atiku Abubakar, filed separate suits to challenge the ruling party’s victory. Mr Abubakar won 29 per cent of the votes, while Mr Obi, who received 25 per cent, told supporters they had been “robbed” of victory, vowing to “prove it to Nigerians”. Election observers from the European Union, the Commonwealth, and other groups reported various problems, including failures in systems designed to prevent vote manipulation, but they did not allege fraud.
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