AFRICA

What the early release of INEC’s timetable means for Nigeria’s 2019 elections

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If Nigerians ever expected a surprise from their electoral umpire, it was definitely not the release of timetable for an election that is over 23 months away. At least not in a country where the rush has always been the case.

But in March, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) released a timetable for the country’s 2019 general elections. The commission fixed February 16 and March 2, 2019, as election days. INEC said the early release is to afford all concerned adequate preparation.

While releasing timetable 23 months before election may offer no surprise in a developed democracy like the US where election dates are known four years ahead, it is definitely an issue in a developing democracy like Nigeria.

Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999 after over 30 years of military dictatorship. But no conducted elections had been without accusations of rigging and criticism over perceived lack of preparedness by INEC.

A case in point was the 2015 presidential and national assembly elections earlier scheduled for February 14, 2015. But a week to the polls, the commission shifted the elections to March 28, citing security reasons.  Outcry from over 40 percent of Nigerians not having collected their Permanent Voter’s Cards (PVCs, the voting yardstick), was also a necessary factor in shifting the polls.

Days following the release, the media was filled with reactions. This is understandable because in the past, except for the 2015 general elections, during which former President Goodluck Jonathan allowed the commission to operate almost independent of executive interference, INEC could hardly be said to have acted outside of executive bidding and wishes of the ruling party. This keeps suspicions on the rise each time INEC takes a major decision.

While many hail INEC and offer support, members of the opposition, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), believe the release is an “unnecessary haste” and a way to favour the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC).

“It is curious that an electoral commission that is yet to be properly constituted and has before it many unfinished matters including voter education and enlightenment, had to rush the date for 2019 general election in full disregard of the rules guiding it,” said PDP’s former acting chairman, Uche Secondus.

However, if INEC maintains sincerity, it may well be a step towards righting many wrongs. That itself will be a plus for President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, who is himself considered the biggest beneficiary of democratic fairness in Nigeria.

Buhari defeated incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan in the keenly contested 2015 presidential election. Amid pressure and calls for the former president to sack former INEC boss, Professor Attahiru Jega, and use INEC to his favour, Mr Jonathan repeatedly vowed free and fair elections, going on to concede defeat while votes were still being counted.

Fallouts

On a fair-play scenario, the early release of the timetable suggests some positive additions to Nigeria’s fledgling democracy.

Over 7.8 million eligible Nigerians were disenfranchised during the 2015 elections as they could not meet up with the short duration for PVC collection. This means apart from giving room for all concerned to be fully prepared, complaints of disenfranchisement are expected to be solved ahead of 2019. INEC has already commenced voter registration and PVC distribution.

Going forward, following suspicions over perceived bias by INEC, violence and litigation almost always occur after election results are announced. But this time, the commission may be signalling to local and foreign observers that the present Professor Yakubu Mahmood-led INEC is ready to conduct great elections come 2019.

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