Since the end of the Cold War, democratic elections have become almost a universal trend. Yet in many countries where elections are held, freedom and democracy are actually in retreat. Intended as mechanisms for the peaceful arbitration of political rivalries, they rather often become flashpoints for political violence.
At the core of these paradoxes are elections without integrity. All too often, elections serve merely to give autocratic regimes a coating of legitimacy. But fundamentally, elections without integrity cannot provide the winners with legitimacy, the losers with security and the public with confidence in their leaders and institutions.
Nigeria mirrors some of these positives as well as contradictions. Here, this universal trend represents something of a mixed bag as the evolution of a progressive, democratic state unfolds. Often understated, it can no longer be logically denied that a key character cast of the nation’s Fourth Democratic Republic is retired Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, now at the mid-point of concluding his second and final term as president.
Buhari, a strict disciplinarian who served as military head of state from 1983 to 1985, was elected president in the March 28, 2015 presidential election when he defeated the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan – a first in the nation’s history.
An important dimension in President Buhari’s political trajectory was that he ran three previous times for the nation’s presidency – 2003, 2007 and 2011 – and lost. In April 19 2003, he ran against President Olusegun Obasanjo (PDP) on the platform of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), scoring 12,710,022 of votes cast (32%) and lost out to Obasanjo who won with over 11 million votes (61%).
In April 21 2007, Buhari, on the platform of Congress for Progressives Change (CPC) ran against Umaru Yar’Adua (PDP) and garnered 6,638,065 votes (18%) against Yar’Adua’s 24,638,063 votes (69%). But there was considerable controversy associated with it.
The 2007 elections severely dented Nigeria’s democratic credentials due to the national and international condemnation they elicited. However, on a positive note, the elections led to a great deal of soul-searching among the Nigerian leadership. The president at the time, Umaru Yar’Adua, publicly acknowledged that the election that brought him to office was fundamentally flawed.
He therefore set up the Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) to suggest measures that could improve the conduct of elections, restore electoral integrity, and strengthen democracy in Nigeria. Some of the ERC’s recommendations were reviewed and adopted as amendments to the Constitution and Electoral Act.
In 2011, Buhari ran against President Jonathan on the platform of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), scoring 12,214, 853 of votes cast and lost out to Jonathan (PDP) who won with 22,495,187 votes.
Then in December 2014, Buhari emerged as the nominee of the All Progressives Congress (APC) for the 2015 general election. Buhari won the election, defeating incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. This was the first time in the history of Nigeria that an incumbent president lost a general election. He was sworn in on 29 May 2015. In February 2019, Buhari was re-elected, defeating his closest rival, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar by over 3 million votes.
More specifically, on March 28 2015, Buhari defeated Jonathan, scoring 15.4million votes against PDP (Jonathan’s) 12.8million votes. He was returned for a second presidential term by the Nigerian electorate by scoring 15,191,847 votes (55.6%) against Atiku Abubakar (PDP) 11,262,978 votes (41.2%).
It is noteworthy that though Buhari ran his previous presidential contests on relatively not very popular platforms, he scored considerable votes – an indisputable indication of his popularity. It also speaks to the quality and vision of the man. Despite any warts and pimples, these cannot be denied in fairness to the Katsina-born soldier-politician.
Going forward, against the background of President Buhari’s impending exit, having been elected to the office of president twice and being ineligible for re-election in 2023, the emerging consensus is that history’s verdict on his contributions to the nation’s troubled history and coveted stability will largely derive from how well he midwifes the 2023 presidential election.
General elections will be held in Nigeria on February 23 2023, to elect the President, Vice President, House of Representatives and Senate. The winners of the election will be inaugurated on 29 May 2023, the former date for Democracy Day.
It is in this connection that historians often unearth the incomparable June 12 1993 presidential election, widely believed to have been won by Chief MKO Abiola but wantonly truncated by the then military president, General Ibrahim Babangida. The fact that Chief Abiola won the June 12 election running on a unique Moslem-Moslem ticket with Babagana Kingibe, was an unprecedented feat in Nigeria.
Here, the poser emerges: can President Buhari midwife a presidential election comparable in its transparency and objectivity, to the June 12 presidential poll which now occupies a special place in the nation’s history? An indication of how Buhari himself perceives this historic democratic landmark can perhaps be best appreciated from his “canonization” – so to speak – of that date in the nation’s history. Buhari proclaimed June 12 as the nation’s new Democracy Day.
But beyond the pomp, ceremony and celebratory song and dance is the poser again, will he be able to midwife a 2023 presidential poll that will be adjudged to be as free as June 12, 1993 presidential poll? Can he deploy his brand of astute politics, imaginative engagement strategy, and often imperious panache, defining features which enabled him to ascend the presidential throne, in midwifing a reasonably flawless 2023 elections?
The election will take place amid devastating levels of insecurity, a deteriorating economic situation compounded by the impact of COVID-19, increased poverty levels and a growing discontentment within large sections of the populace. Currently, many electoral assets of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) are being destroyed by shadowy crisis entrepreneurs in parts of Southern Nigeria.
This scenario is hardly helped by hordes of grasping politicians jostling for survivalist space and a diminishing tribe of notable statesmen in disorderly retreat with poverty and ignorance and secession-focused activism gnawing at the innards of the nation.
In effect, President Buhari’s several decades spent in top-level national service are on the spot on this particular score. The emerging consensus is that despite the situation leading up to the 2023 presidential poll as well as other related elections, President Buhari can still deliver a transparent polling exercise.
He needs to prioritise focus on the core institutions and policies that can ensure that the 2023 elections are held and to the best standards. In this connection, INEC, security agencies, a more empathetic engagement with aggrieved stakeholders, incepting quick-win economic interventions to ease the pressure on youth population and holding an improved conversation with Nigerians, among other measures are good jump-off points.
In Buhari’s words: “June 12, 1993, was the day when Nigerians in millions expressed their democratic will in what was undisputedly the freest, fairest and most peaceful election since our independence. The fact that the outcome of that election was not upheld by the then military government does not distract from the democratic credentials of that process.”
With this deep appreciation of what transpired on that historic date, Buhari simply has his job cut out for him. No free and fair election can be held in an atmosphere of insecurity. None can understand this better than a battle-hardened General.
Tracking back, the evolution of electoral democracy in Nigeria has been protracted and difficult. Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, the country has organised nine general elections and numerous regional/state/local elections. Of these elections, the 1979, 1993, and 1999 polls were conducted by military regimes to allow for transition to civil rule, while the other elections were conducted by incumbent civilian regimes to consolidate democratic rule.
Elections organised by incumbent civilian regimes have been the most problematic. With the exception of the 2011 and 2015 elections, these elections have been characterised by attempts by the ruling parties to contrive and monopolise the electoral space and deliberately steer the process in their favour.
This pattern was reflected in the “simulated” landslide victories recorded by the ruling parties in the 1964, 1983, 2003, and 2007 elections.
The challenge before President Buhari then is to ensure that the 2023 presidential poll will be a genuine gift to Nigeria – through its demonstrable transparency and fairness – just like June 12 1993 election was. And this is because elections without integrity cannot provide the winners with legitimacy, the losers with security and the public with confidence in their leaders and institutions.
Achi, is former editor, special publications, and member of editorial board of LEADERSHIP Newspapers. ([email protected])

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