Nigeria polls a step back for security and electoral reform


In 2007 Nigeria had its first democratic transition since military rule ended in 1999. But that election was so flawed that the then newly elected president Umar Yar’adua admitted the need for electoral reform and set the process in motion. His successor Goodluck Jonathan then oversaw operational changes that minimized rigging and improved the electoral process in the 2011 and 2015 election cycles, such that the opposition defeated the incumbent in the 2015 presidential election—for the first time in the country’s history. The expectation was that this progress would be sustained in the 2019 polls through legislative and institutional reforms. However, that has demonstrably not happened. 

Situation Report

On 23 March Nigeria will rerun elections in five out of 27 states where violence and manipulation forced the electoral commission to suspend the process halfway or declare it inconclusive. The polls affected are mostly in states[1]where the opposition was in the lead or more popular. 

Across the country, government security forces watched as polls were disrupted by thugs intimidating voters and destroying ballots in areas of opposition strength. There were many reports about INEC facilities being set ablaze before and after the polls, all targeting ballot delivery and collation in areas where the opposition had more popular support. Observers such as those in the EU mission also reported being restricted from observing collation at some centers in a way that undermined transparency. 

In Rivers state for instance, the electoral commission explained that its staff had been taken hostage and that voting materials had been seized or destroyed when soldiers and thugs invaded its facilities. “In addition, the safety of our staff appears to be in jeopardy all over the state,” it said. 

In Kano, results for 43 out of 44 districts had been announced and the opposition was leading. According to the local press, police later arrested the state deputy governor of the ruling party and others for attempting to unlawfully access the collation center at the 44th district. The opposition eventually won that poll in Kano, but the poll was declared inconclusive on grounds that canceled votes exceeded the opposition’s winning margin. 

Similar events occurred during the presidential election held on 23 February, with more questions about voter turnout and the results released. For instance, the turnout recorded in war-torn Borno state, President Muhammadu Buhari’s stronghold, was 43%, while the turnout recorded in southeast Abia, opposition stronghold, was only 20%. In the latter state, Buhari managed to score more than six times more votes this year than he did in 2015, even though the recorded turnout actually fell from 32% in 2015 to 20% this year. 


The ruling APC has won 60 of 109 senate seats—even ousting the current senate president Bukola Saraki —and is on course to expand its majority in the new parliament. Controlling parliament means an opportunity for the legislature and the executive arm of government to harmonize objectives and mend fences that hampered government efficiency in Buhari’s first term. However, there’s little proof that this will translate to key reforms for the political or economic system. For instance, in 2018 the president declined assent to an oil bill that would have restructured the state oil firm and the regulatory system, suggesting reluctance to reform.  

The governorship elections have not all been concluded, but results so far signify that the regional balance of power will remain mostly unchanged such that PDP will maintain its hold in the south-south while APC will continue to run the southwest.

A pattern has clearly emerged in the last four years in Nigeria's electoral system. One local paper reports[2]now that INEC has held 195 polls in the last four years, and 68 of them have either been suspended or inconclusive. That's more than one-third of the polls.

Politicians appear to have worked out that they can get the commission to suspend or rerun polls in areas of opposition strength by disrupting the collation process and manipulating the number of canceled votes due to violence. For example, in Bauchi state this year, INEC found in one district that the canceled votes were recorded to be 25,330 but were actually only 2,533. The extra zero added to the original figure inflated the number of canceled votes, raising the number above the winning margin, thereby forcing the commission to declare a rerun.

Given this loophole in the electoral system, politicians will increasingly try to outdo opponents by gaining physical control of voting areas and disrupting the collation process in future. This will raise security risk for businesses around election time and discourage voters concerned about their personal safety and disillusioned with the system. With voters having been undermined this way, elected officials will increasingly answer to the influential individuals who help them win power, and not the electorate. 

Consequently going forward, there is more pressure to shift focus from delivering public services that will improve the business environment, to oiling the political machinery by which polls are won in the country.

[1]Adamawa, Benue, Kano, Plateau, Sokoto.


Nana Ampofo