According to the magazine, most of the leading civic groups currently active in the country trace their origins to the years under military dictatorship between 1984 and 1999. They started out as critics of abuse of power, violations of human rights, corruption and general oppression liberally dispensed by those who had violently usurped the sovereign will of the citizens.
From criticism, these voices logically evolved into a pro-democracy movement, organizing street marches, rallies and campaigns to demand an end to military rule. When eventually the military conceded and set a date in 1999 to return to the barracks, the pro-democracy groups quickly evolved into watchdogs observing the transition and electoral process to ensure that the tenets of democracy were respected.
The first broad platform to emerge for this purpose was the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG). In that first incarnation, its primary role was to monitor the electoral process, note breaches or malpractices and declaim on them.
However, as these cases of electoral brigandage only became worse and more brazen with successive election cycles in 2003 and 200, it became obvious to civil society activists that the situation called for more than mere condemnation, it also required engagement.
Things kind of peaked in 2007, when some of the worst outrages in the violation of the peoples’ will was recorded nationwide. President Umaru Yar’Adua, who was elected in 2007, in the face of railings against the malpractices by observers and the general public, acknowledged that he had gained from electoral criminality and pledged to clean up the process. That expression of the political will to reform was easily the most important victory achieved through the efforts of civil society election monitors who roused the outrage of the general public.
While Yar’Adua went ahead to set up the Justice Uwais Electoral Reform Committee, which included representatives of civil society, many activists were at the same time coming to the conclusion that bringing about change in entrenched electoral misbehaviours required more than mere criticism.
It called for practical steps toward educating members of the public about their political rights, the power of the vote and the importance of their participation.
With Yar’Adua’s death in 2010, Goodluck Jonathan succeeded him, inheriting the reform pledge as well. One of the first moves made by Jonathan that year was to announce Professor Attahiru Jega, a respected academic who led university teachers in their struggle for improvements in education during military rule, as chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). It was a decision widely applauded and one Jonathan said he made without ever having met Jega before.
Just about the same time, drawing from their experience of and lessons from the 2007 elections, prominent civic and rights groups came together to form the Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room. As the 2011 elections loomed, the idea was to create a platform to address problems and issues arising from the elections as they happened, instead of waiting to write a post-election review and observer reports.
It was a novel idea that required sending out thousands of observers into the field on election day, armed with their smartphones and notebooks. They observed the conduct of elections starting from preparations through distribution of materials to actual voting, collation and announcement of results. The field officers filed their reports into a central system where a team of volunteers, analysts and experts receiving them analyzed and alerted relevant people and institutions for intervention where necessary.
“It was a period of widespread public distrust in the Nigerian electoral system,” notes a report titled INEC and its Technical Advisory Group 2010-2019: Achievements, Outcomes and Lessons, published by the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre in 2019. “The big challenge was how to conduct free, fair, peaceful and credible elections in a multi-ethnic country of about 200 million people of different religious persuasions, stretched out over a wide territory interspersed with difficult terrain and hampered by poor infrastructure. A daunting challenge in normal times made worse by political corruption.”
Part of Jega’s response to this situation was the creation of the Technical Advisory Group (TAG), with membership drawn from civil society groups and academia. The group subsequently advised on the entire electoral process, first starting with the 2011 elections and leading on to the ground-breaking vote in 2015. The most important feature of TAG, perhaps, is that it served as a backchannel through which INEC could remain in touch with situations on the ground and make the best judgment calls required.
At its weekly meetings and periodic retreats under Jega, TAG looked at all issues that could have a bearing on the elections, issuing reviews and advisories. Between 2010 and 2015 alone, some 230 recommendations were made to INEC, and another 100 more between 2015 and 2019. Over a 10-year period, more than 330 recommendations were made.
Of course, it has now gone into historical records that 2015 was the first time in Nigeria’s history that an opposition party defeated a ruling party at the ballot, leading to a peaceful transfer of power from President Jonathan to President Muhammadu Buhari. For allowing the electoral umpire a free hand even to his own detriment, Jonathan became a hero of Nigeria’s democracy.
Fortunately, TAG didn’t end with Jega’s tenure. His successor Professor Mahmood Yakubu retained the group for a brief period. Even with fewer meetings and retreats, it played the same role under Yakubu ahead of the 2019 elections.
Despite the success of 2015, one enduring problem remained: how to ensure the integrity of the vote, to make sure that every legitimate ballot cast counted. Over the years it’s been common for unscrupulous politicians and compromised electoral officials to alter figures of votes cast to favour some particular candidates. This practice was cited by many voters as the prime reason for apathy and the low turnout in Nigerian elections. Most people usually conclude that the votes don’t count.
Ahead of the 2019 elections, the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre began a process of engagement with lawmakers aimed at further improving Nigeria’s electoral laws with new measures that would ensure that all legitimate votes counted. Among the key solutions identified are the biometric registration of voters and the electronic transmission of results. While various forms of biometric identification had been applied since 2011, there was a reluctance to adopt electronic transmission of results.
Following considerable engagement and a series of workshops and public hearings on how to improve the electoral process, lawmakers passed an electoral act amendment bill ahead of the 2019 elections mandating electronic transmission of results from the polling centres to central collation points. However, hopes for a better election were dashed when Buhari declined to sign the bill into law, four times. For many Nigerians, it suggested he was diffident about his electoral chances and wanted to leave the manoeuvring room.
With Buhari ostensibly out of the contest in 2023, the effort at incorporating electronic transmission of results resumed with PLAC being one of the organization’s at the forefront of the advocacy with the National Assembly. The November 6, 2021, Anambra state elections, where the use of electronic transmission of results produced widely acceptable results, gave the idea a boost. Most lawmakers were now convinced of the validity of the argument that the integrity of the vote was the key to the survival of Nigeria’s democracy.
Once again, a new electoral bill approving electronic transmission of results has been approved by both chambers of the National Assembly and the document is now before the president for his signature. If he signs, it will be an important victory for democracy and a reward for years of hard work and advocacy by civil society groups. If he declines, it will be a signal to return to the trenches.