John O. Ifediora*

At 2:30AM on February 16 few hours before polling stations were scheduled to open, Mr. Mahmood Yakubu, chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), announced to Nigerians reasonably expected to be asleep at that hour that the presidential election they had expended time, effort and unrecoverable resources on had been postponed. The reasons he adduced, ‘logistical and operational concerns,’ were no more convincing to him than the millions who woke up to the news that morning. By this singular act the chairman remained faithful to Nigeria’s international reputation, and its electoral antecedents that include postponed elections in 2007, 2011, and 2015.

Nigeria’s electoral commission and its chairman had over three years to prepare for, and execute a reasonably credible election. It had unrestrained access to budgeted resources to accomplish its goals but chose instead to sustain a historical precedent of postponed or cancelled elections that overtly informed Nigerians that their civil right to determine who governs their affairs in an ostensibly democratic nation-state does not matter. Such pattern of official misbehavior has salient and grave consequences to the psyche of the governed and their shared presumptive belief of ownership rights to their nation; it also disabuses them of the notion that Nigerians, as a polity, have a common future where no religious groups, ethnic groups or individuals may claim superior rights over others. But all these beg the question of why Nigerians should be continuously subjected to unscripted comedy of errors and absurdities that are clearly anachronistic to present realities of democratic principles of governance. The answer is uniquely Nigerian.

Since the late 1980s when the Nigerian military was convinced to remain in their barracks, succeeding civilian administrations have used their wits and borrowed ones to hold on to power as long as their limited abilities and marginal performance would allow them. A popular means to this end is rigged elections executed through fraudulent ballots, intimidation of voters at the polls, changing election results, and voter suppression. But as Nigerians became more sensitized to the empowering nature of casting votes, further enhanced by increasing contingents of foreign election observers, and advances in technology that minimized electoral fraud and voter suppression, postponement of elections became fashionable. It afforded the incumbent administration a certain flexibility to perfect a ‘winning strategy’ calculated to frustrate and minimize the number of foreign election observers, suppress voter turnout by imposing higher opportunity cost on voters who must return to their place of registration in order to vote, and generally induce voter apathy.

This act of official recklessness is simple enough, but yet an open secret with dire consequences if taken to its logical conclusion. For one, the opposition candidate and his supporters are not as uninformed as the incumbent administration usually assumes. If the incumbent succeeds in ‘winning’ the election after a postponement, it would be virtually impossible to convince an already suspicious electorate, and an informed opposition candidate that the election was free and fair. In this unfortunate outcome, the country would be subjected to a myriad of unpleasant possibilities that would make it impossible for the incumbent to govern. If, however, the opposition candidate wins, the assumption of a rigged election against him would no longer matter; it may actually make him more appealing to the electorate as a conquering hero.

Given the sour mood of the electorate each time a postponement occurs, coupled with the strength and determination of a well-financed opposition candidate, the incumbent invariably loses regardless of the outcome. If he ‘wins’ he loses by not being able to govern, if he loses the election he goes home, and the country moves on. The default outcome in this case is the election of the opposition candidate. The 2015 postponement under President Goodluck Jonathan was calculated to defeat the then opposition candidate, Mr. Buhari. The tense atmosphere that enveloped the nation before the election convinced the incumbent that an expeditious concession after the election would not only be the right thing to do but the only thing to do if the nation was to be spared further agony. He made a peaceful exit. This is democracy in action, albeit the Nigerian way; it is also self-defeating.

*Director, and Editor-in-Chief, CASADE.