2023: Violence against INEC threatens polls

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WITH just over three months to the 2023 general elections, attacks on the offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission, floods, litigation and general insecurity across the country have raised fears of a possible subversion of the polls. In the latest direct assault on the electoral umpire, hoodlums attacked and set fire to its offices in Ogun and Osun states, destroying physical structures, equipment and permanent voter cards. Amid other security challenges and the desperation of politicians and their hirelings, the President, Major General Buhari (retd.), and the security agencies must take extraordinary measures to ensure hitch-free polling.

Unfolding events are foreboding, prompting an emergency meeting of the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security in Abuja last week.  Attendees included the INEC Chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, the National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno, the Inspector-General of Police, Usman Baba, and the directors-general of the State Security Service and the National Intelligence Agency. 

The arsonists who on November 10 torched INEC’s office in Abeokuta, Ogun State, also destroyed 65,699 PVCs. INEC said the simultaneous attack and arson in Ede, Osun State, damaged part of the building and destroyed 904 ballot boxes, 29 voting cubicles, 30 megaphones, 57 election bags, and eight electric power generators.

These are obviously not coincidences; rather, they suggest a possible conspiracy by yet-to-be-identified persons bent on derailing or discrediting the 2023 elections. This is a major challenge for the security agencies; they should bring their professional ingenuity to bear, identify the perpetrators and their sponsors and bring them to justice. More urgently, they must protect INEC and its personnel and prevent further attacks.

Threats to INEC are not new. In the three years to May 2021, the agency disclosed that it lost 99,836 smart card readers in 42 separate attacks on its offices and staff nationwide. It said between 2019 and 2021, its offices in 14 states were attacked. The attacks featured 18 incidents of arson, 20 of vandalism and three where the assailants first vandalised structures and equipment, then torched the premises.  

In the South-Eastern states, criminals claiming to be agitating for self-determination have staged series of attacks on INEC offices and staff, including murdering voter registration officers, policemen and soldiers. A few months ago, gunmen abducted an INEC official in Anambra State whose mutilated corpse was found several days later. INEC officials have fled for their lives from the region.

These are however not the only threats to the 2023 polls. Yakubu told a parliamentary panel that the recent flooding across the country also swept away 20 INEC offices. He said the 2020 EndSARS protests hijacked by hoodlums, insurgency in the North, and the ‘unknown gunmen’/terrorist activities in the South-East resulted in 1,105 ballot boxes, 694 voting cubicles and 13 utility vehicles destroyed. 

Monguno also disclosed that in the last month, at least 52 violent attacks were recorded in 22 states. The governors of Kaduna, Katsina, Niger, and Zamfara have separately confirmed that terrorists control some local government areas in their respective states. Boko Haram and ISWAP Islamic terrorists rule pockets of territory in the North-Eastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. In the Lake Chad area, the Nigerian state has lost control of territory to non-state actors.

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In the North-West, bandits/kidnappers have replaced state authorities in many remote communities. In the South-East, the ‘unknown gunmen’ have for months imposed and violently enforced weekly daytime curfews. The combined efforts of the region’s state governments and massive deployment of troops by the Federal Government have not stopped them. The prevailing insecurity across the country therefore casts doubt on the ability of state officials to conduct elections everywhere without first dislodging the insurgents. The government needs to erase such doubts and sustain confidence in the viability of the electoral system. 

The security agencies have to exhibit greater efficiency than they have hitherto demonstrated.  Primary responsibility of protecting INEC and its personnel lies with the     Nigeria Police. Baba must go beyond the pledge to investigate and the arrests he claimed to have made following the Ogun and Osun attacks. He has to deploy the full might of the police intelligence and investigation capability. The masterminds and agents of the killers have to be found and neutralised quickly.

 Monguno and the military have to do better; in the run-up to the 2015 elections, insurgents threatened polling only in the North-East – Borno, Yobe and Adamawa – and were neutralised. Today on Buhari’s watch, bandits and terrorists constitute a potent threat to elections in many states of the North. He has to flush them out.

Experience elsewhere indicates that successful elections can be held even amid insurgencies. A report by Bridgewater Review recalled that with UN assistance, Iraq held three successful national elections in 2005 despite insurgent threats, with voter turnout of between 58 per cent and 76 per cent. It cited a mix of massive security sweeps, effective voter education, and trust in the integrity of the electoral empire as success factors. Nigeria should emulate this template.

Apart from insecurity, a deluge of ongoing court cases to decide contestants is also concerning.  Yakubu deplored the over 600 court cases arising from the recent party primaries and nomination of candidates for the 2023 elections. The slow justice system in Nigeria means that some cases will not be concluded in good time before polling opens in February. This affects INEC’s ability to print and distribute accurate ballot papers ahead of the commencement of voting.

Yakubu recalled how one political party served it about 70 court processes in a single day seeking to compel it to accept the nomination or substitution of its candidates long after the deadline had elapsed. Ballot papers already printed may have to be destroyed and replaced. The irresponsibility and desperation of politicians exact a heavy price on the country.

 INEC should not be deterred; it should urgently request additional funding to replace its losses. Buhari and the security agencies should act quickly and decisively to make the country safe.