Media and Nigeria’s 2015 Elections

Professor Attahiru Jega, chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission, at a recent event:

INEC Chairman Prof. Attahiru Jega, in Abuja on Monday attributed the success of the 2011 general elections to the commitment of the Nigerian media.

[...]

The chairman said that voter education had become imperative as the nation approached the 2015 general elections, noting that there was need to deepen democracy through credible elections.

Jega said that INEC also benefited from inputs by all stakeholders which resulted in substantive achievements.

He said that the commission was determined to ensure that the 2015 elections were more remarkable than those of 2011.

“The success of credible elections is not the responsibility of INEC alone, but the joint responsibility of all enlightened citizens in the electoral process,’’ he said.

Prof. Jega made somewhat similar remarks approximately one year ago:

Speaking at the opening ceremony of a two-day confer­ence on ‘New Media and Gov­ernance: Tools and Trends’ held at the Shehu Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja, he said in­ternet platform “provided a vehicle for the unprecedented mobilisation of the emergent generation of youths in the political process.”

The INEC boss said this was “crucial because youths between the ages 18 and 35 constituted 62.4 percent of the 73.5 million people registered by INEC during the voter reg­istration exercise conducted early in 2011. There is no doubt that the level of interest shown by the younger gen­eration in the 2011 elections was never before witnessed in Nigeria’s political history. But I believe that the most gratifying dimension of this development is the patriotic zeal demonstrated by corps of young technophiles who volunteer to man our new me­dia platforms every time we open the Situation Room for election. They did that during the 2011 general elections and they have done so for all the state governorship elections we have conducted this year.”

Jega said there was no doubt that new media tools have added value to Nigeria’s electoral process, noting that new media has the potential to deepen Nigeria’s democracy.

Nigeria’s 2011 elections have been called the “best run, but the most violent.” (For more on these issues, readers may be interested in reports from International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch.)

What role will different media play in 2015? There have been high hopes that media can enhance transparency and accountability, for example by allowing civil society groups to rapidly share – with the entire world – photographs and reports from polling places. Can media help reduce violence in 2015 by promoting accountability – or are social media activists themselves potential targets of violence? Or both?

Nigeria 2015

Yesterday I attended a presentation at the Woodrow Wilson Center by Professor Attahiru Jega, head of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Professor Jega assumed his post in 2010, served during the 2011 elections, and continues in the position.

Observers generally rated the 2011 elections much more favorably by outside observers than the 2007 elections, which domestic and international observers basically condemned. Prof. Jega’s personal reputation for integrity has contributed to a widely shared perception that Nigeria’s electoral system is headed in the right direction.

This is not to say that no one criticized the process in 2011 – skeptics pointed toward the post-election violence, which claimed some 800 lives, and the high margins incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan scored in the states of the Niger Delta, as evidence that the process remained flawed, both from a political standpoint and from the standpoint of the integrity of the results. The International Crisis Group gave the 2011 contest a mixed verdict (.pdf).

Now eyes turn toward 2015, the date of the next national elections. Prof. Jega’s presentation focused on the positive trend lines that he sees concerning the integrity of the 2015 contest, particularly with regard to logistical preparations and the role of technology. A series of “re-run” gubernatorial elections in 2011 and 2012, where states held new elections after courts overturned earlier results, has given INEC chances to improve its performance and test new techniques. INEC is planning to minimize problems in 2015 by registering voters over a longer time span and using new technologies, for example machines to read voter cards.

Prof. Jega’s emphasis on technology really struck me. Technology can offer a way out of difficult problems. For example, registering voters in an electronic database and recording biometric information can held reduce fraud. Yet a faith in technology can prove risky. One young man in the audience asked how card-reading machines would function if polling sites lost power (to which Prof. Jega replied that the machines’ battery life extends up to twelve or fourteen hours, longer than voting hours), raising the issue of how technological innovation might be vulnerable to infrastructural deficiencies. Or to outright thuggery, which was the young man’s next question – he asked about thugs stealing ballot boxes from polling stations. One answer to this, stated earlier in the presentation, is that the new forms for recording results bear special markings and features that will allow INEC officials to detect fraudulent forms, while other documents bear serial numbers, etc. One’s expectations for the integrity of the 2015 elections, then, must be partly tied to one’s expectations concerning the capacity of technological innovation to address Nigeria’s other challenges.

There is much to say about the politics of 2015, by which I mean the potential contestants and their struggles. INEC does not have much control over this, a point Prof. Jega acknowledged. For example, INEC does not run political parties’ primary elections. I think I, too, will leave the discussion of these political issues for another time. Suffice it to say that 2015 could be a tense election year, and so it is important to watch INEC’s preparations as it works to ensure that Nigeria is ready to run a logistically sound, free and fair election.

Dr. Attahiru Jega, the Symbolic Face of Nigeria’s Elections

Dr. Attahiru Jega, chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), was born in 1957 in Kebbi State. In 1984 he obtained a Ph.D. in Political Science from Northwestern University, and afterwards occupied a variety of academic positions in Nigeria, most recently the vice-chancellorship at Bayero University Kano. Jega stepped into his current role with INEC last spring, and has become the main symbol of Nigeria’s elections. As with any symbol, people struggle to define what the symbol means.

In the context of Nigeria’s delayed elections, blaming or defending Jega has become a symbolic contest over the integrity of the elections themselves. For example, Northern Muslim elites I spoke with in Kano last summer frequently told me that Jega was their bellwhether for the legitimacy of the vote: if Jega resigned, they would know the elections were flawed; if he stayed, they would know the process was clean. Jega has also served to personify the work of Nigerian electoral reform for onlookers overseas: US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson recently called Jega “a person of integrity,” linking Jega’s personal reputation with the outcome of the entire electoral process.

Attaching such expectations and meanings to Jega’s actions magnifies the pressure he is under as an individual. Maggie Fick summarizes Jega’s predicament following the electoral delay:

Jega now finds himself between a rock and a hard place — if he resigns in the coming weeks (as was suggested by the Nigerian Human Rights Commission), he would be making a statement about the attempts of the political elite to discreetly undermine him, but he would forfeit the chance to attempt broader reforms within the electoral commission after the vote. Either way, the elections are coming, and it is clear that the consequences of the 2011 vote will not be inconsequential. Nigeria is a giant on the African continent: It is a diplomatic leader in regional crises from Libya to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, most recently, the Ivory Coast. And, as Africa’s largest oil and gas producer, it’s the undeniable economic motor of the region. The outcome of these elections will set the tone for a whopping 27 votes set to take place on the continent this year. No wonder the International Crisis Group recently warned that if Nigeria’s elections do not “reverse the degeneration of the franchise since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999,” the impact ill be felt locally and internationally.

There is a lot riding on these elections.

Pressure on Jega has increased – and the contest over his symbolic meaning has intensified – with recent calls from civil society groups and some opposition parties for his resignation. As rumors multiply, allegations are circulating that “powerful Nigerians” such as former President Olusegun Obasanjo have been maneuvering behind the scenes to oust Jega. Reports say that Jega nearly resigned during a “tempestuous meeting” on Saturday that pitted the INEC chairman against security officials who supposedly demanded – and were denied – a greater role in managing the elections.

Whatever the truth of such rumors, and whatever the content of Saturday’s meeting, the stories about Jega emphasize how he has become the focal point of competing claims about what is going on with the elections. The dominant view seems to portray Jega as the champion of the people against the machinations of elites, but counter-narratives are working to discredit Jega as weak, incompetent, or partisan.

The rumors and accusations have prompted public commentary by leaders from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), including President Goodluck Jonathan. Former military leader and current presidential candidate General Muhammadu Buhari‘s spokesman has charged that Jonathan, the PDP, and pro-PDP agents within INEC “deliberately engineered the delay and non availability of the critical materials as an act of sabotage to discredit Jega,” and alleged that Jonathan was pressuring Jega to resign. In response, Jonathan has publicly proclaimed continued support for Jega. I would guess that Jonathan understands well that if Jega leaves now, it will not only damage the credibility of the elections, but also Jonathan’s reputation.

Nigerians will return to the polls Saturday. The world will be watching. And many people, inside and outside Nigeria, will be watching Jega – pinning hopes on him, scrutinizing his words and deeds, and pointing to him as a symbol of what is right or wrong with the elections, and with Nigeria. I do not envy him that position. Whatever happens now, I compliment him for having shown considerable grace under considerable pressure.

Nigeria’s Delayed Elections: Details and Reactions

On Saturday, as Nigeria’s three-week electoral process was launching, the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) dismayed domestic and international onlookers by postponing the elections, first for forty-eight hours and now for a full week. The original schedule, available along with other details on the elections, is here. The new schedule is as follows:

  • Saturday, April 9, Senate and House of Representatives Elections;
  • Saturday, April 16, Presidential Elections;
  • Tuesday, April 26, State House of Assembly and Governorship Elections.

Reactions to the delay have typically been negative, but there is some variance in how news outlets have explained the delay and envisioned its consequences. While some remain in “wait-and-see” mode, others feel this incident confirms fears of an electoral “fiasco” in Nigeria.

Regarding the causes of the delay, the official explanation concerns logistical problems with the delivery of voting materials from abroad. But the BBC emphasizes growing suspicion among Nigerian voters regarding potential interference by the ruling party: “The BBC’s Caroline Duffield in Lagos says the country’s political culture of vote-rigging and violence has made it difficult for people to accept the official explanations for the delay. She says many voters – and some politicians – think political interference caused Saturday’s chaos.”

Nigeria’s Vanguard blames the delay on infighting among INEC officials. Punch, meanwhile, depicts pressure from political parties on INEC as a decisive factor in the decision to postpone the vote.

Regarding the consequences of the delay, many people are watching to see what happens next before they pronounce the process a failure, even members of opposition camps like the campaign of General Muhammadu Buhari. 234 Next pulls no punches in saying, “On the face of it, this was a massive failure and a national embarrassment.” But their editorial also notes that INEC, in the person of its chairman Dr. Attahiru Jega, “still enjoys a goodwill that he can exploit towards restoring the public confidence.” 234 Next adds, “The next one week is absolutely crucial. The margin for error is now completely obliterated. The expectations are heightened and the world is now paying even closer attention.”

Some say the outlook has already turned grim. Reuters quotes a young Nigerian who said Saturday, “Nigeria has not changed and today we have seen that.” Maggie Fick, at the Christian Science Monitor, concludes, “The cards remain stacked against a vote free of intimidation and violence.” And This Day, while continuing to urge Nigerians to vote and take the process seriously, writes that the postponement has “cast a shadow  on the entire general election” (permanent link unavailable).

For its part, INEC has apologized and is now working to get the vote back on track. We’ll soon see whether this delay was a temporary setback or a harbinger of major problems to come.

Momentum Grows for Delaying Nigerian Elections [Updated]

Last week Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) recommended delaying Nigeria’s presidential elections (currently scheduled for January 22nd). This week the proposal attracted some support from Nigeria’s lawmakers:

Changing the timetable means changing Nigeria’s constitution and this year’s electoral act.  So the power to make those changes rests with the National Assembly.  [INEC Chairman Attahiru] Jega thanked lawmakers for considering the commission’s request and assured them that it is not frivolous.  “There is no point spending so much money going through a process, which in the end may turn out not to be satisfactory in terms of its credibility,” he said.

Parliamentary changes to the electoral act require the approval of President Goodluck Jonathan.  Attorney General Mohammed Adoke says the Jonathan administration understands the need for delay.  “The fundamental objective of this government is to have a free, fair and credible election at the end of the day,” said Adoke.  “I have listened to the proposal and proposition of the INEC chairman.  Our position as the government is that we will do everything possible to support and ensure that we have a free, fair and credible election.”

Jega wants a three-month postponement. Delaying the election would allow greater time for planning and preparation, but would reduce time for solving problems between the election and the inauguration (Jega has said the date of the inauguration, currently scheduled for May, should not change). After the 2007 elections a number of defeated candidates launched lawsuits, and the same might happen this time. The idea of a delay also makes some elites uneasy:

Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives Bayero Nafada is the co-chairman of the National Assembly’s Constitutional Review Committee.  He said, “Nigerians are watching.  We pray that at the end of our deliberation, we will be able to come out with an acceptable procedure and timetable for the conduct of the general election come 2011.”

Nafada said lawmakers continue to support the electoral commission, but want to make sure that the timetable presented this time is one that will work.  “We pray that this time around, this will be the last request that will come from any quarters regarding this election because it will not continue that way.  If there is any further [delay], God forbid, I think it will become a crisis,” he said.

If the National Assembly moves on this, President Jonathan will have a big decision to make – and one that Nigerians and others will scrutinize, given that Jonathan is himself a candidate. Attorney General Adoke’s statement reads to me as noncommital, but I wonder if the administration could deny the recommendations of both INEC and the legislators without igniting strong outcry.

[UPDATE]: Guess it’s as good as done now:

An official with Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has welcomed President Goodluck Jonathan’s letter to lawmakers asking for a delay in scheduled January elections.

Nick Dazan, INEC’s assistant director of public affairs, told VOA the election postponement will enable the electoral body to organize an “excellent” election.

[...]

In the letter, President Jonathan is quoted as saying, “I shall propose an amendment of the relevant laws … which would enable (INEC) to conduct general elections between now and the end of April 2011. It is my hope that the distinguished Senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria will consider and pass the amendment in your usual expeditious manner.”

Possible Delay in Nigerian Elections

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) of Nigeria just concluded a two-day retreat with Resident Electoral Commissioners, and the statement INEC released at the conclusion of the meeting mentions a possible delay in the national elections currently scheduled for January 22:

Having examined the Commission’s detailed Action Plan for the voter registration and elections, the Retreat noted that the time line for the implementation of this Plan is very tight. Consequently, the Commission shall endeavour to engage all the relevant stakeholders with a view to exploring all legal avenues for extension of time to enable the Commission to deliver on the aspirations of Nigerians for a credible voters’ register and free, fair and credible elections. Should this happen, May 29 2011 must remain sacrosanct.

The statement has elicited a good deal of comment already.

INEC is playing a very important role in the process. Anecdotally, a number of elites in Kano told me of their tremendous respect for Professor Attahiru Jega, formerly Vice Chancellor of Bayero University Kano, who took the helm of the Commission this summer. Jega’s reputation for personal integrity has thus far extended to the Commission, and some said to me that so long as Jega remains on the Commission they will have faith that the electoral process has also stayed clean. From what I have seen, Jega is treating the government sternly, insisting at every juncture that the elections have proper time and financing. We’ll see if the date gets moved – potentially it will be, as it was only set some two weeks ago.