A lot of water has passed under the bridge after the February 25th 2023 Presidential Elections. There is therefore the temptation to take a plunge in and indulge. But I will not be taking that plunge. First of, one of the reasons why we applied to INEC to be part of the election process is to observe not monitor the voting process. I agree that there’s a very thin line between ‘observing’ an election and ‘monitoring’ one. Secondly, part of the reason for being here is to contribute to development as objectively as possible. Therefore, judging from the many conspiracy theories and data flying around, a diving into that river of the aftermath of the February 25th 2023 elections would indicate that we are an interested party.
On the 24th of February 2023, I was at the shopping malls of the CITEC Estate, Mbora, in the FCT. The elections were just a few hours away, and I need a snack or two for the next day’s participation as an election observer. But I ran into a huge crowd of shoppers: one look around indicated that nearly everyone was shopping for items as foods and drinks – whiskey, beer, burgers, bread, eggs, and the like. I decided to try the second mall, and the story was the same. As a matter of fact, I was to hear one of the attendants say that that they didn’t have this kind of customers on Christmas or New Year’s eve.
Now, you must know something about the CITEC Estate in Abuja. If you are not middle class and unable to afford a house from 20million naira and above, you are unlikely to live there as a residence. You would most probably be guest, a relation to one of the residents or a support staff of the estate. What this means is that under normal circumstances, most residents in this semi-comfortable environment are unlikely to be leaving their havens to queue up in the Abuja sun to fulfil what the common people call ‘civic responsibility’. As I queued to pay for the few items I had bought, I picked up the assumption that these people were going to be sitting in front of their television sets on the day of the election and pass time.
Going by this what has turned out to be a non sequitur, I arrived the polling station around 8:30am on the 25th of February, 2023. The crowd I met there shocked me: I was to learn that voters had turned up as early as 5:00am and were already making their own arrangements: they were giving out numbers, organizing for water and food, and setting up their own information dissemination centre. I looked around, and it was easy to see that the cars that were parked all around the polling station were not driven there by drivers or houseboys going on errands. As soon as they parked their cars, they would go to their boots and bring out either foldable chairs or regular plastic chairs. I saw some with mats and pillows. The younger ones came with mobile sound systems, card games and, in no time, a barbecue stand had been erected.
INEC came late – and this helped to build the swelter of humanity that showed up at that polling station and their sense of anticipation. In those very different faces, you would see a certain resemblance of a common purpose and resolve. I almost did not get it: why were these seeming high class, people you could describe as the bourgeoisie of Nigeria, thronging the polling station when they could be relaxing in their homes? Were they also affected by the cash swap issues, the intractable matters with fuel scarcity and the unbearable cost of living in Nigeria?
INEC eventually showed up around 10:30am. There were very many issues but the CITEC people appeared to take them in their stride: the presiding officer was unable to communicate, they improvised and helped communicate. The INEC people ran out of ink, and in the twinkle of an eye, biros and ink showed up from nowhere. The INEC people and the police were unable to control the teeming crowd, but these CITEC people had answers for that too – one of them was there doing all she could – shouting, pushing and whipping everyone back on the queues.
As the voting took place at the three polling booths, I cornered most who had voted: why were they this eager? ‘This vote gave me a sense of fulfilment’, the one said. ‘I feel important at this opportunity to decide on the future of this country’, another said to me. But across board, many told me that they were tired of the present system of things and want something different.
But why were some leaving after casting their votes? Shouldn’t they at least linger on awhile to know the outcome of their votes? What if someone interferes to truncate the process. ‘Well sir, I am 62 years old, and have participated in every election in this country. I have done my bit, and I think it’s the responsibility of these younger ones to wait behind and do the watching…I need to go home and rest’, one of the voters said.
By 630pm on that day of the Presidential Elections at the CITEC Estate in Abuja, only half the voters had voted. Feeling a bit tired from moving from one polling booth to the next, I went to the home of my guest where I stayed to be able to observe this election just to rest a bit. Just after I got there, NEPA struck just after it began to rain. I learnt that there were usually no rains in February in Abuja. At that point, I thought that well, this is it, the voting would come to an end with the rains and the blackout. But whosai? I returned to the polling booths out of curiosity to find the large crowd intact. Nobody left. Apparently because voters at polling booth 042 started early and were better organised, they finished early, and votes were counted before the rains and the darkness descended on us. Not so at booths 043 and 047. At polling booth 043, I found out that INEC staff were under a canopy, and a generator powered the twin floodlights at the badminton field. I was also to find out that the voters had made a human ring around the INEC staff and there was going to be a showdown.
‘What’s the problem?’, I asked one of the voters. ‘See, oga, these INEC people want to take us for a ride. Many of us were here since 5am. At some point they told us that they were hungry, and we arranged food for them, and allowed them take break. After the rains began to fall, we hired this canopy for them, brought a power generator fueled it so that they can continue to accredit us to vote’.
‘So what’s the problem now?
‘They say they have run out of ballot papers for the presidential election. We believe this is a big fat lie, and we told them so. Why would they run out of only the presidential ballot papers? Why na?
A little inquiry I made indicated that the INEC people were suffering from fatigue – they had done a lot of standing throughout the day. I cannot say that they didn’t anticipate the huge crowd of voters because their records would have given them a hint at the expected number of voters. They had already packed their gear to leave even before the last person had voted.
Mindful of my role as an observer, I resolved not to get involved. As a matter of fact, I didn’t wear my INEC observer ID mostly because of security reasons. In an interview he granted Arise tv news after the elections, Jonathan Rosen of the Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, on 2nd March 2023 said that he had documented 14 cases where journalists were detained, harassed, or attacked during the 2023 presidential election. ‘Evidence shows this harassments and attacks were common in Bayelsa, Lagos, Abuja with the most prevalent in Bauchi where journalists have been detained till this point’, Rosen, Senior Researcher, CPJ said.
At the end though, voters and INEC officials reached some kind of compromise. I was unable to get the exact terms of that compromise but the very last remaining voter cast his/her vote. When the sorting and counting of votes began, it was about 11:00pm. It was impossible for me to stay there till the end. However, it was clear that these voters, from this elite environ already made up their minds about Nigeria and spoke with one voice. Results declared have indicated that.
And so, this is a rendering of my observation of the February 25th 2023 Presidential election at the CITEC Estate in Abuja. Never since the election in June 1993 have I seen Nigerians throng a polling station in a determination to cast their votes. Was the election free? I believe so. Was it fair? That would be a difficult question to answer. Shakespeare’s Macbeth says that sometimes what is seen to be fair can be foul, and what is seen to be foul can be fair. Was the election credible? Yes, it was to a point. The sorting and counting was done in full view of those who were there and results declared in the presence of the party agents. What tarnished the credibility of the elections was the inability/refusal of INEC officials to upload the results into the Bimodal Voter Verification Server/System, BIVAS. After the elections, I spoke with certain election petition lawyers as soon as it became clear the BIVAS was becoming the Achilles heel of the election. They told me that the uploading of polling results onto the BIVAS is not what the BIVAS was for. The function of the BIVAS is for voter verification only, and not for some electronic transmission of election results to be viewed and verified in real time.
All of that said, INEC must put its act together in the areas of logistics and voter education, voter enlightenment and proper communication of their plans. Its inability to do so gave the impression that there was a hand somewhere doing everything it can to appear aloof, but deftly directed the outcome of the elections on behalf of a preferred candidate.
Join the discussion