Sometime today, barring any cataclysm, the Independent National Electoral Commission will announce the results of last Saturday’s elections, and declare winners. I shall resist the temptation to comment on the possible outcome. Instead, I would like to look at the journey that took us to yesterday, and draw out important trends and lessons that can help improve our electoral process.

First is the emergency approach to things. Why do we treat elections like they’re a surprise? Since 1999, we have held elections every four years without fail. And yet when they show up at our doorsteps, we act like we weren’t expecting them. I find it rather preposterous that the two main political parties did not hold their presidential and governorship primaries until December, less than three months to the elections. INEC has also been guilty, in the way it consistently shows up unprepared on Election Day. Now, we know that had elections been held on February 14, they would have been a monumental disaster. Even with a six-week postponement, we barely avoided a logistical disaster. Nigerians deserve better from their politicians and from the electoral commission.

Second is this concept of elections as warfare. Because I had a special pass from INEC, I was able to move around across Lagos, to monitor the elections in a number of places. It’s always surreal driving through a city like Lagos – home to 16 million restless souls – and wondering where they’ve all vanished, and why battle-ready soldiers have taken over the landscape. To much of the rest of the world, that idea of shutting down a country just because of elections is a puzzling, if not preposterous one. In Europe and America, people could easily forget an election was taking place: people get their ballot papers posted to them in advance, fill it at their leisure, and on Election Day stop by a polling booth on the way to or fro work to vote. And then, everyone waits for the results to be tallied. Meanwhile, life goes on normally; schools, offices, shops, all remain open.

Not so in Nigeria. We close everything down and then empty the police and army barracks. Think of the economic cost of this kind of shutdown. Has anyone tried to calculate just how much we as a country lost on Saturday, and will lose on April 11? Think about the millions of dollars poured into the advertising blitz by the ruling party in the six weeks between postponement and the elections? Money that could have gone into providing infrastructure and services to Nigerians. If you looked at the election spending, you couldn’t have guessed that Nigeria was “broke”. (I’m guessing the flip side of this cost argument is this: A lot of that spending – whether as advertising, or direct cash disbursements to political support groups – would have ended up boosting the local economy).

Think of what we must have lost as a country in February, when, because of elections the hospitality industry could not cash in on Valentine’s Day. Think of the fact that no one could fix any events for February 14 and 28, and that those who fixed for March 28 and April 11 have now had to reschedule. Think of all of the business and investment decisions that will not be made until after May 29, because everyone is nervous about the outcome of the elections. I can’t wait for the day when voting will no longer require curfews and emptied barracks in this country.

My third point has to do with technology. Look at how far we’ve come from 2007, when the ballot papers weren’t even serially numbered (an anomaly which opened up the process for unlimited rigging), to 2011 when the first technology-enabled election monitoring and reporting tools emerged, to 2015 when we used biometric verification for the first time ever. Clearly, technology is increasingly playing an important role as an enabler of transparent democratic processes in Nigeria. Politicians also, during this cycle, paid more attention to polling and data-driven campaigning, than ever before, and we’ve seen political parties and civil society organisations set up sophisticated “situation rooms” to monitor and track the elections and collate results and incident reports.

It hasn’t been totally smooth sailing, of course. The card reader machines worked well in some areas, but caused great frustration and disappointment in others, especially to President Goodluck Jonathan and his wife in his Otuoke polling unit. Some of the problems had to do with the equipment (defective, or improperly configured equipment), others related to handling and usage. Notwithstanding, my view is that an election with biometric verification – even with all their failings – trumps one without. We need to break the grip of rigging on our psyche as a people; politicians have become so obsessed with manipulating elections that the only thing that can deter them is technology that always stays a step ahead of the nefarious intent of the political class.

Hopefully, the card readers are now here to stay, and we can learn useful lessons from using them this election cycle. And this takes me back to the first point, about our penchant for treating elections as emergency scenarios. After this election season, INEC ought to immediately activate its planning mechanisms for the phase of elections; it should look at where the card readers failed, and immediately start working to ensure they perform much more reliably in future.

Still on INEC, we need to urgently reconsider the way the commission is funded. A commission cannot be truly independent if it has to depend on the whims of government for funding. We need to find a way to guarantee its access to funding. Under no circumstances should INEC be clamouring for money a few months, or even weeks, to the elections.

Also, INEC has again and again demonstrated an inability to understand that it is more than anything else a logistics company. Its duty is to prepare high quality election materials and deliver them where they are needed in the quickest and most efficient way possible. INEC needs to fundamentally rethink its structure and operations. While it is important to have a leadership that demonstrates integrity and can stand up to the pressures of politicians, it is equally important to build an organisation that is competent at managing all the elements of a complex and time-sensitive electoral process.

Nigerians are slowly learning this democracy business, it seems. From what we’ve seen – the heated debates on social media, the attempts at polling and data gathering, the voters staying up all night to cast their ballots in Lagos, the displaced persons turning out en-masse to vote in Maiduguri – there is a sense that Nigerians are getting more conscious of the need to get involved in the political processes that throw up their leaders.

In my opinion democracy is a “skill” that can only be mastered through constant practice. There’s still plenty for us to learn, especially about decorum, about conducting our politics without bitterness, about responsible campaign spending, and, very importantly, about educating and empowering citizens to make informed choices, unmoved by the temptations of stomach infrastructure.

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