Tomorrow’s gubernatorial election in Anambra State is an important litmus test for Nigeria’s democracy. Specifically, the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) Movement has made a public declaration that it would not allow the election take place. In recent months, there has been an intensification of the agitations of IPOB backed by a brutal enforcement of repeated sit-at-home-orders as part of the campaign to get their leader, Nnamdi Kanu released from detention. This has led to a deterioration of the security situation in Anambra and across the Southeast resulting from the eruption of recurring and brazen attacks undertaken by supposedly “unknown” assailants. These attacks have targeted state institutions, in particular, the Police, the Nigerian Correctional Service, and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), resulting in several casualties as well as the destruction of state properties and equipment. The IPOB threat of preventing the organisation of the election is a credible one. What is at stake is the people’s franchise.
The Nigerian State has responded by massive deployment of security operatives in the State to protect voters and the electoral process. It is in this context that the holding of an election which should ordinarily represent the celebration of the people’s democratic mandate and an opportunity to determine the course of political events in their state has, for many, become an uncertain and anxiety-ridden affair. INEC, media organizations, and political parties have all been affected by the situation, with the sit-at-home orders and sudden outbreaks of violence impacting on voter education, political campaigns, media sensitization efforts, and other elements of the electioneering process. Furthermore, IPOB’s declaration that it will enforce another sit-at-home order, locking down the entire region before and after the election has only added to the prevailing apprehension.
Thanks to the heavy security presence, particularly in Awka, the state capital, it is very likely that elections are held in some form. However, the risk of clashes between state security agents and non-state armed groups as well as the threat of armed attacks on polling stations will remain elevated, particularly in more rural LGAs in the state where security deployments have been relatively scantier. While the extraordinary deployment of police and security agents to the state will likely maintain some modicum of stability, the intimidating security presence has also added to the overall sense of unrest.
The fear is that there is an increased likelihood of an even higher level of voter apathy than has typically been witnessed in Anambra elections. Already, there has been so much sordid drama around the elections. The nomination process suffered considerably from forum shopping by candidates buy judges to remove nominated candidates and replace them with others. The Supreme Court had to intervene to stop the embarrassing intrigues and corruption the judiciary was being dragged into. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, the courts had to pick the flagbearers of all the major parties exposing the weaknesses of internal party democracy. Anambra is a State where low voter-turnout has traditionally plagued the electoral process, the peculiar circumstances of this election have only deepening uncertainty about the extent to which voters will feel secure enough to leave their homes to cast a ballot.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has however affirmed its determination to hold the election despite the fact that it has been a direct and significant victim of attacks and arson to its offices. One good thing INEC has done is the creation of over a thousand new polling units in Anambra State which has literally brought democracy closer to home for a larger number of people, ensuring easier access for more voters and potentially reducing both the security risk and the length of queues on election day. Also worthy of note has been INEC’s increasing introduction of online processes in its preparations for elections — including online registration for voters, journalists, and elections observers. The introduction of the Bi-Modal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS), which makes use of both fingerprints and facial recognition to verify the identity of voters will likewise serve to improve the credibility of election results. However, the perennial obstacles affecting voter education, as well as the peculiar challenges of this election have limited the extent to which citizens have been made aware of this innovation.
At this point, all stakeholders need to amplify their appeals for peaceful conduct in the hours leading up to, during, and after the polls. Anambra State deserves to choose their leaders and those who want to deny the people their mandate are certainly not interested in the welfare of the people. There can be no progress without peace. Ultimately, the task of ensuring that a peaceable and credible election takes place rests on the shoulders of Anambra voters. While remaining vigilant and keeping safe, the electorate must resist the temptation of intimidation and threats to their hard-fought democratic franchise.
We recall that in 2007, Andy Uba had been illegally installed, by a complicit INEC at that time, as governor of Anambra state until the Supreme Court ruled that Peter Obi had not finished his tenure. Andy Uba had become extremely powerful because he was special assistant, domestic affairs to former President Obasanjo. Before Andy, Anambra was “owned” by his brother, Chris Uba. Chris had publicly declared after the 2003 general elections that, “I am the greatest godfather in Nigeria because this is the first time an individual single-handedly put in position every politician in the state” (Punch, 16th August 2003). This effusion of self-satisfaction signalled the eclipse of Emeka Offor, the previous “owner” and godfather of Anambra who in 1999 had determined the governor of the state and about 60% of the state legislature. He was powerful enough to be able to organise the abduction and forced resignation of Governor Chris Ngige, using three hundred policemen under an Assistant Inspector General of Police. He got the State House of Assembly to accept the resignation the same day and got the Deputy Governor to be declared the new Governor. It was too brazen to endure and the edifice crumpled. The time has come for the State to move completely away from the politics of godfatherism. Citizens of Anambra must rise to the occasion and take over their state and create a political system in which voters, rather than godfathers determine who rules, how and for whose benefit.
The Nigerian State has an important to play in this regard. The security operatives deployed for the elections must respect human rights and standard rules of engagement and secure voters as well as INEC staff and infrastructure. INEC and its officials should ensure timely deployment and the commencement of polling in good time, as well as the diligent accounting of votes. The success of the election requires voters come out and exercise their franchise. Best of luck to the people.