Election cancellation or postponement by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is nothing new.
In 2011, the election was postponed by three months. In 2015, the election was moved by six weeks; in 2019, it was postponed by a week at 3 am on the day of the election. If recent trends continue, Nigeria’s 2023 general elections will likely get postponed, despite INEC's previous assurances of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Nigerian general elections being postponed are almost as consistent as a contest being determined by the Supreme Court—it helps kick the can down the road ahead of what is always a very contentious and divisive outcome. However, the challenges around administering what is expected to be a very keenly-contested election in 2023 is likely to add to the strain, and likely uproar, if INEC makes a similar announcement this time around.
What is the legal justification behind postponing an election?
Section 24 of the Electoral Act covers the conduct and postponement of an election in the case of an emergency, and several instances are cited in the act. Subsection (2) covers the usual precedent of postponing the election before it starts if there are natural disasters, emergencies, or credible information that there will be ‘a serious breach of peace’ likely to occur. INEC may postpone the election and determine when best will be applicable to subsequently conduct the election.
However, subsection (3) gives the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) the legal backing for the potential disruption of the election process after it has started. In this case, INEC may postpone the election either generally or in specific constituencies and appoint another date to continue the process. Regardless of the rationale, Subsection (6) does place INEC’s decision to postpone the election under the jurisdiction of a court or tribunal.
Who are the key stakeholders in such a decision?
Primarily, INEC is the only body authorised to administer and postpone an election. The decision can come weeks before or even during the election if INEC has the required verifiable proof to justify its decision. However, other parts of government are required for such an action to proceed.
Firstly, the act clarifies that any activity threatening the peaceful conduct of the polls can be considered to justify postponement. It means that the input and advice of security agencies will be critical in making such a decision. In previous elections, notably in 2011 and 2015, security officials issued statements supporting INEC’s decision to postpone the contest. The opaque and expectedly secretive nature of intelligence means that such guarantees and backing are not usually up for debate and are often followed through.
Recent attacks on electoral facilities across the country, with INEC highlighting 50 incidents in the last four years, could be used as reasoning if not managed sooner. The security architecture in the country is wide and also fairly complicated. While more established structures, such as the police, armed forces and intelligence agencies, are fairly centralised and under the control of the federal administration, state governments have recently commissioned militia groups to preserve peace in contentious times.
Regional outfits such as Amotekun in the South-West and Ebubeagu in the South-East do not fall under federal structures. As a result, they might not be incorporated into the intelligence structure that INEC relies on and interacts with. It might lead to some back and forth if security is cited.
The next major group is the judiciary, and this is because Section 24(6) states that INEC’s decision to delay the election can be contested at a court or tribunal of competent jurisdiction. It further states that should this occur, INEC’s decision to suspend will be delayed until there is a decision. The scope for conflicting judgments is wide, and the judiciary will likely move such a decision upwards to ensure a ruling that is without question.
However, that leads to confusion till a process can be quickly carried out. For example, if INEC was to make such a postponement announcement on the morning of the election, a candidate could get a court to hear the case. There could be confusion since INEC would have to proceed with the election till it got a favourable judgment. This also takes on a different scenario if the judgement went against the postponement and INEC sought to postpone it again when the elections start – the capacity for back-and-forth and destabilisation would be immense.
Politicians and parties
Expectedly, politicians and parties would be key stakeholders since they would be informed and requested to manage their supporters to avoid any clashes. In 2015, then-candidate Muhammadu Buhari was very critical of INEC after they announced their decision to postpone the election. The optics of the decision, with an incumbent president seeking re-election, was very bad and could have led to some clashes if Buhari had lost the election.
Finally, the wider government apparatus would be key due to the different agencies and institutions' roles in the election process. For example, the Central Bank helps secure sensitive election materials. At the same time, the Air Force is often charged with airlifting and transporting many of these items to different parts of the country.
Taxpayer-funded media institutions will be responsible for ensuring mass dissemination and proactive engagement to counter any misinformation or disinformation campaigns, while diplomatic missions will be at pains to reassure allies about the need to postpone. Essentially, it becomes a wide effort to actively and effectively manage such an action.
Why has the INEC postponed elections in the past?
To understand what could potentially cause a postponement in 2023, we can look back to previous announcements by INEC. In 2019, INEC Chair Mahmoud Yakubu cited the lack of consistency in plans across the different states. He cited the impact of attacks against INEC facilities which affected necessary materials for the elections, adverse weather affecting the transportation of materials across the country and the narrow window to comply with court cases compelling INEC to include candidates on ballot papers after being initially removed.
In 2015, INEC cited the failure to effectively distribute permanent voter cards (PVCs) and security concerns related to Boko Haram attacks in the Northeast. The analysis then was expectedly split, with some alluding to a more sinister political undertone to the decision since the incumbent president was then on the ballot. In 2011, the election was postponed by three months to overhaul the voter register and ensure it could avoid multiple voting and rigging.
Election cancellation by INEC due to insecurity challenges
The well-documented cause for PVC collection should avert this situation in 2023, although attacks against INEC facilities and ongoing insecurity challenges are still prevalent and have increased recently. There have been seven attacks on INEC facilities in the last four months. While the commission has not actively sought to use this to downplay expectations, the implication of such incidents on staff morale, voter turnout and even lost materials can’t be understated.
Due to the rising insecurity threats, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has already expressed concerns over the forthcoming 2023 general elections. This suggests there will most likely be a postponement, especially if the level of insecurity across the country continues.
If the elections are postponed, when next could they take place?
Section 132 (2) mandates INEC to hold the election not later than thirty days before the expiration of the term of office. As that is 29 May, technically, INEC could hold the election as late as 29 April. However, other procedures in place, such as allowing for tribunal cases, will play a part in INEC conducting the elections. Furthermore, INEC will also conduct governorship and state house of assembly elections and provide an allowance for the potential conduct of a secondary or run-off election. This means that it is likely that any election postponement from the original 25 February date will likely be within a week or month to avoid overly destabilising expected post-election activities.
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