By Lasisi Olagunju
The 2023 presidential election in Nigeria is not the worst in human history. That dubious reputation belongs in Liberia where, in 1927, the then President Charles D.B. King scored 234,000 votes out of a total of 15,000 registered voters. The victor was also kind enough to give his opponent 9,000 votes as a mark of fairness and justice. That uncommon feat is naturally in the Guinness Book of World Records. We in Nigeria have not reached that enviable height. We will get there one day, soon. But we had a presidential election last Saturday in which the person who was declared winner got voted in by less than 10 percent of the total registered voters and even less than four percent of the nation’s population.
The world is not pleased with our ways, and we could read it clearly in how the global press described what we did with ourselves last week. The Economist said a “chaotically organized vote and messy count” gave Nigeria a new president. The Financial Times said in an editorial comment that our presidential election was “deeply flawed” and the winner “a wealthy political fixer.” The Guardian of U.K. described the winner as “an immensely wealthy veteran powerbroker trailed by corruption allegations which he denies.” The New York Times described him as “a divisive figure in Nigerian politics.” Robert Rotberg, founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s programme on intrastate conflict, wrote an opinion for Canada’s influential Globe and Mail; its headline: “Bola Tinubu’s election is another triumph for Nigeria’s corrupt old guard.” The Times of London was the most disrespectful. It used this very bad phrase: “a wealthy kleptocratic ‘godfather’ of politics” to describe the person who will replace our very clean Buhari on May 29, 2023. As bad as those characterizations are, they are not as damaging as the Financial Times’ revelation that it personally “witnessed armed men remove a presidential ballot box in Surulere, Lagos” on Election Day.
The CNN last Friday played back a part of Bola Tinubu’s acceptance speech where he described what he got as “a serious mandate.” A CNN anchor then asked if it “was really a mandate” with less than 10 percent of the registered voters behind it. He must be wondering what kind of people are these? The CNN and that anchor were not the only ones bemused by our electoral culture, our elections and their outcomes. One of Germany’s largest newspapers, Sueddeutsche Zietung, had unflattering words for the winner; it also queried the legitimacy of a mandate that was spurned by 90 per cent of the voting population. Aljazeera ran a special report on how the election was disrupted in Lagos last Saturday. The headline is: ‘How violence robs Nigerians of their votes.’ The Washington Post quoted Matthew Page, associate fellow with Chatham House’s Africa Program, as accusing INEC of making both deliberate and unintentional mistakes: “They raised the hopes about the election and its transparency, and then they dashed them. When the opposition says the process was broken, it’s hard to argue with them.” Foreign election observers from the US International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) summed up their opinion of the election as falling “well short of Nigerian citizens’ legitimate and reasonable expectations.” I have spent the past five days reading informed commentaries and listening to credible voices. I have not seen, read or heard a single positive review of the election in any credible media in any country of the world. I have been around long enough to conclude that Tinubu’s 2023 mandate is rivaled in content, texture and review probably only by Shehu Shagari’s Verdict ’83 mandate.
I think we should look at the figures. We have just held an election in which the declared winner polled 8,794,726 votes from a total 24,965,218 votes cast. Check the figures again; what they say is that 16,491,890 out of 24,965,218 who were on record as having voted last Saturday rejected the man who was declared winner. One international news organization looked at the figures and said “democracy failed here.” That is one of the ironies of multiparty democracy. The more strong parties you have, the more they will likely brawl, push and shove like hungry lions, and share the votes available. Unless we change our laws and impose stricter conditions on what a candidate must score to win our top job, a day will come when someone will be elected the president of Africa’s most populous country with less than one million votes. It is not funny. Ninety-three million, four hundred and sixty-nine thousand and eight (93,469,008) Nigerians registered to vote; 87,209,007 people collected voter cards to participate in the election; but, on Election Day, only 25,286,616 persons, according to INEC, came out to vote. Then, INEC told us 24,965,218 persons actually voted.
There are other figures we should examine. INEC said total votes cast was 24,965,218; total valid votes was 24,025,940 while rejected votes totaled 939,278. INEC subtracted total valid votes (24,025,940) from total votes cast (24,965,218), and got a total rejected votes tally of 939,278. I have no problem with that addition and subtraction. The problem I have is with INEC’s figure of 25,286,616 accredited voters and the gap between that figure and total votes cast of 24,965,218. By INEC’s rules and regulations, accreditation and voting took place simultaneously. That means it would be strange for a person not to vote after leaving his/her house for the polling station, joining the queue and being accredited and given ballot papers. Between the figures of total accredited voters and total votes cast, we have a difference of 321,398 persons who went through the rigours of accreditation but who INEC said did not vote. What happened to them and where did they go? Were they abducted by bandits or given sleeping pills that knocked them out of voting? INEC offered no explanation. Could they be the persons we saw in videos being chased out of polling units by the goons and thugs of the gods of power? Or, could they be persons who actually voted but had their ballot papers snatched and destroyed and burnt by enforcers of imperial ambitions? Who were these 321,398 persons who disappeared from the polling booths after accreditation and could their number be higher than what was announced? The electoral commission has no answers to those questions. It is also silent on the thousands of ballot papers torn and burnt by thugs in Lagos, Kogi, Kano, Rivers and in other places where mayhem cast the deciding votes last Saturday. Can INEC submit the booklets and stubs of ballot papers used in the presidential election for independent inspection for us to have an idea of the number of used ballots that did not make it into the ballot box?
Mahmood Yakubu’s INEC has always had problems with presidential election figures. Shortly before the 2019 elections, his INEC announced that it had 84,004,084 voters in its register. On Election Day, it wrote 82,344,107 as our total registered voters. I wrote a column on this that time and asked: What happened to the balance of 1,659,977 voters? Just as we have seen with last Saturday’s election, there was a crude disparity between accredited voters (29,364,209) and total votes cast (28,614,190) – a difference of 750,019. That was four years ago. There was no explanation for the gaps; there will never be.
It was not only figures that suffered in last Saturday’s election. You’ve probably wondered why INEC did not properly train its officials, especially in the handling of BVAS machines. INEC actually trained its ad hoc officials in the use of its technology. It was Nigeria that happened to those trained; many of them were not used. Honest people in INEC’s bureaucracy will be wondering what happened to that election. They will be asking questions on why their efforts of four years went up in flames as if they were all incompetent fools. I sympathise with them. What did they know about election-day replacement of trained personnel with strangers who received no training from INEC? A professor at the University of Ibadan told me he was selected as the returning officer for a local government in Oyo State. He got to his place of assignment on Saturday but was told he had been replaced with someone else. He was asked to go and return votes in a ward in the local government. The professor politely turned down the insult and went back home. I know two ladies in Osun State who were trained as presiding officers. They got to their supposed duty posts on Saturday to discover that some characters in INEC had replaced their names with persons who never attended any training session. The five-year-old son of one of the ladies told me: “Big daddy, they gave my mummy’s money to another person.” What money? His mum said the training allowance she was supposed to collect from INEC was given to someone else who also took her place as a presiding officer. I was told that infractions such as those were so common across the states such that only a miracle would have delivered a successful election. This should explain the lack of skill you saw in INEC’s ad hoc officials where you voted last Saturday.
Nigeria is a sick and deeply divided country. It has always been divided along the lines of ethnicity and religion. But, this election has introduced a third: generational divide. I gasped seeing children of everybody – especially of APC and PDP leaders and party operatives in the South-West – as they openly rebelled against their parents by going for the Labour Party. They found Nigeria very tiring and thought that the third-force choice they made would solve the existential challenge they face daily as Nigerians. They are better than we, their parents, who suffered and whined and grumbled from infancy to retirement. We heard and merely danced to Bob Marley’s question: “Are you satisfied with the life you are living?” Our children listened to a remix of that same song and they answered last Saturday with a resounding No. They are questioning and querying everything about Nigeria and its old order. But they were equally wrong with their thought that an election conducted by Nigeria as presently constituted would solve any problem. They should be wiser now. Nigeria’s present setup cannot give anyone good governance no matter who is elected president. It is a systemic curse.
For Tinubu, the man who may be president on May 29, 2023, I have a few words. I do not know what music he loves. If he has not heard, then he should hear what Odolaye Aremu, the highly regarded bard from Ilorin, told a similar man of ambition: “Oun t’o lóó dà lo dà yìí o (what you said you would become, you have now become).” What else after this win? Bola Tinubu should read the story of Claudius Tacitus Augustus, emperor of Rome (275-276 AD). Unlike Tinubu who demanded the crown as an old-age entitlement, Tacitus was offered the emperor’s seat unanimously by the Roman Senate but the 75-year-old senator thought he was too old to function and strongly rejected the offer, pleading: “Observe with greater care my advanced age which you are now sending out from the shade of the chamber into the cold and the heat.” But the Senate insisted on the choice and countered: “it is the head that does the ruling and not the feet. It is your mind and not your body that we are choosing.” They said they did not want the immature “whose hand a schoolmaster must guide for the signing of his name” and who would be induced “by sweetmeats or toys or other such childish delights” to sell the state. Old man Tacitus Augustus finally took the office and ruled as an excellent emperor. He was not greedy; he was not covetous. He was compassionate. He did not take from the state; the wealth he had, he turned over to the state. History says “he gave orders that his house should be destroyed and a public bath erected on the site at his own expense.” But fate overtook him too speedily in the sixth month of his reign and he fell to what historians said was either a murderous plot or a disease. He was mourned and venerated and a marble statue stood in his golden memory at a holy site.
Tinubu, when sworn in, has four years to rebuild this house using the original building plan. He has four years to prove that despite his celebrated moral warts, he would be earnest and dignified in power. Otherwise, he will be remembered as another Nero, a debauched fiddler in power.