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Governor’s race in Ekiti points to problems in national Nigerian poll

There are widespread concerns in Nigeria about vote buying and intimidation. IIP Photo Archive

With less than 200 days to Nigeria’s next general election - scheduled for February 16, 2019 - there are apprehensions about how vote buying, violence and the deployment of security agents could affect the 2019 polls. Concerns about the fairness of the national poll have been heightened by events surrounding the election of the governor in Ekiti State in southwestern Nigeria.

The by-elections in Bauchi, Katsina and Kogi states have raised similar concerns with the opposition People’s Democratic Party alleging that the elections were neither free nor fair, and insisting that they were marred by violence, snatching of ballot boxes, and vote-buying.

These elections raised two central problems within Nigerian electoral politics - vote buying, and the deployment of the police and military to intimidate opponents and their supporters.

These two factors featured prominently in the Ekiti state poll. The election was won by the ruling party candidate Kayode Fayemi who ran against the incumbent deputy governor Olusola Kolapo Olubunmi.

That election was significant because it was said to prove that the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) is still popular among Nigerians in the southwest of the country. Of the six states in the southwest, only Ekiti was controlled by the People’s Democratic Party. As things stand, the entire southwest is now an All Progressives Congress zone.

The Ekiti state election victory was therefore a big win for the ruling party. This is particularly true because of President Muhammadu Buhari’s dwindling popularity. The president’s approval rating is at 40%, which marks a 17 percentage point decline from the 57% rating recorded in the 2017. This is part of the reason why the party went all out to ensure a win in Ekiti.

The final outcome of the gubernatorial election, however, still hangs in the balance - the opposition party has rejected the result and challenged it at the election tribunal.

Even election observers say that the election fell short of global best practices. Nonetheless, the ruling party’s win in Ekiti has been seen as a harbinger of what’s to come in Nigeria’s 2019 general election.

Intimidation by security agents

The Ekiti election showed the government pulling out all the stops when it comes to the deployment of the country’s police force.

The police headquarters deployed 30,000 policemen – out of total of 370 000 in the whole country – two helicopters, 250 patrol vehicles, and 10 armoured personnel carriers, to man the election in Ekiti, which has a population of just 2.3 million.

The police were used to harass opposition with Ayodele Fayose – who is the outgoing incumbent governor – allegedly being slapped and teargassed. Election observers condemned the absence of campaign security, which the government should have provided, and the violence which injured opposition party supporters.

The events in Ekiti showed that Nigeria’s security organs are more loyal to the government in power than they are to the country and its citizens.

The levels of police presence – and the use of violence – are not unprecedented even by Nigerian standards. What it points to is the possibility that a similar pattern will be repeated in the national poll. Although it may be difficult for the government to muster the same levels of police presence across the whole of Nigeria.

But there’s a strong possibility that security agents will be deployed in states where president Buhari’s chances are slim. This would affect voter turnout as people may fear violence.

Cash for votes

Another trend that was in evidence in the Ekiti election was vote buying.

This isn’t unique to Nigeria and has been reported in country’s across Africa including Kenya and South Africa. The practice has diluted Africa’s fledgling democracies for years.

The prepaid vote buying strategy was adopted by both the ruling party and the opposition. For this strategy, state residents were paid to vote for either the ruling party or the opposition. The outgoing governor was reported to have wired N3,000 naira (USD$8) into civil servants and pensioners’ accounts days before the election to buy their allegiance.

This appears to be a very small amount of money. But more than half of the Nigerian population lives below the poverty line. On top of this, government workers in the state haven’t been paid for 10 months. Pensioners are also owed money.

The result is that many are struggling to survive on meagre resources, so much so that come election time, voters cards become a commodity which are sold for as little as 500 naira (USD$1).

In some cases, political operatives employed a postpaid strategy. For this strategy voters would take photographs of their ballot papers using their mobile phones, and then show them to their party agents who would then give them cash for their “yes” vote.

Poverty curse

Despite the vote-buying and the massive security presence in Ekiti the federal government described the victory as an endorsement of Buhari’s performance.

But the evidence suggests otherwise. Unless poor Nigerians understand the power of the ballot this mockery of voters by political merchants will be front and centre during the 2019 election.

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