Nigerians Have Voted, Will Political Leaders Listen?
March 30, 2015
Reporting from the ground in Nigeria, Jennifer Cooke discusses the successes and the challenges of Nigeria’s hotly contested presidential elections. As an international observer, she reviews the performance and conduct of the election commission, the security services, and civil society, prior to the announcement of final results.
On Saturday, Nigerians voted in the hardest fought and most closely contested national elections in the country’s history. With initial results trickling in, the presidential race remains far too close to call. Reports are circulating, as yet unconfirmed, of interference in the multiple layers of collation and counting. Election day itself proved remarkably peaceful. The real stars of Nigeria’s electoral process so far have been the Nigerian voters, who despite a number of challenges and delays, remained patient, calm, and determined to have a voice in the leadership and governance of their country. As results are collated and the country awaits the announcement of the final tally, the big question is whether the Nigerian government and political elite will in turn respect the will of the voters and the rule of law. If they do, the 2015 elections will be an important step forward in Nigeria’s political history and democratic consolidation. If they fail, these elections will mark an unfortunate fall backwards that will deepen political divides and undermine national efforts to tackle the country’s big challenges and capitalize on its many opportunities.
The political climate in the run-up to the elections was tense and acrimonious, as both the incumbent Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the lead opposition party All Progressives Congress (APC), backed by competing opinion polls, predicted victory. The Nigerian rumor and conspiracy mill was (and remains) in full swing, fuelled by social media and an often politicized news media. Leading party figures and their supporters hurled mutual insults and accusations, and alarmingly, religion became a more prominent wedge issue that party stalwarts on both sides showed little compunction in exploiting.
But despite an acrimonious and polarized election campaign and long delays in the accreditation and polling process, election day itself proved generally peaceful, and the vote, according to international and domestic observer groups, was conducted in a largely transparent manner.
Technical problems and long delays in the two-part accreditation and voting process made for a long and arduous day for both voters and polling staff. Although polls were due to open at 8:00 a.m., in many cases poll staff did not arrive with materials until well after that. Most said they had difficulty finding transportation from the ward centers, where they slept the previous night alongside the polling material. Once open, problems with the recently introduced electronic voter card readers delayed the start of accreditation as late as noon. Voters in Edo State, where I was an observer for the National Democratic Institute, waited for up to ten hours in parched school yards and stifling street-side polling units to vote and to watch the ballots publicly sorted and tallied. In a polling center in the Edo State capital Benin City, voting had not begun at 4:30 p.m., as polling units in the center awaited results forms from electoral commission officials. Big crowds generated sometimes heated arguments about their position in queue, but in almost every case we observed, the elderly and pregnant women were allowed to go to the front of the line, most often with a wooden bench or plastic chair provided for them. Through the day, Nigerian voters endured these challenges with patience, calm, and determination to see the democratic process through and to ensure that they have a say in their country’s leadership.
The dedication of polling unit staff was another standout, and expressed a pride and a sense of personal responsibility in their role. “It is not easy today, but I’m doing it for Nigeria’s future” said a young poll worker as he turned to instruct an elderly woman on how to fold her ballot papers after voting. Under tremendous pressure from voters because of delays and card reader malfunctions, and lacking clear or consistent updates or instructions from electoral commission officials, poll workers showed stamina, patience, and initiative in dealing with crowd management and technical glitches. In the unit where I observed the ballot count, the final results forms were filled out in a hot, cramped, school room, lit only by the cell phone of the unit’s presiding officer, a determined and poised young woman from the National Youth Service Corps. One of my fellow observers saw a young “Youth-Corper” collapse in the heat while accrediting voters, only to return to the table after taking a brief moment to recover.
Police and civil security forces, often maligned in western media, performed admirably in those units that I and many of my fellow observers witnessed. Arms were not allowed within polling unit precincts, and officers around the polls kept a generally low profile, stepping in as required to help manage large queues, move benches and chairs, and diffuse the occasional disputes that arose with professionalism and calm.
Civil society groups played a critical role in preparing the electorate for the new and complex voting process, calling out political candidates and their supporters who engaged in hate speech, and providing observers and monitors during election day itself. CSIS has hosted representatives from many of these groups during the past year. Organizations and coalitions such the Transition Monitoring Group, the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, and Enough is Enough Nigeria used sophisticated observation methodologies to keep an unofficial tally of voting down to the level of individual polling unit and cleverly used social media to keep Nigerians and the wider world up to date on the progress of the vote and flag incidents of concern.
There is much to cheer in these elections—most notably the many Nigerian individuals, whether citizens, security personnel, civil society, and, yes, government officials—who are committed to seeing the 2015 elections and the consolidation of Nigeria’s democracy succeed. Uncertain as yet is whether the country’s political contenders will answer with commensurate commitment or a slap in the face.
Jennifer Cooke is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.