Nigerian Elections Lack Level Playing Field



It was an uneasy calm in Osogbo, the Osun State Capital on Friday July 15, 2022 – the eve of this year’s Osun state governorship election. Although electioneering campaigns for the contest had ended, the day was quite eventful with several state actors, especially INEC officials, law enforcement agents, the media, election monitors and observers busy putting finishing touches to their different assignments to achieve a smooth election process. The uneasy calm had to do with the orientation of Nigerian politicians which always makes a contest bitter and tense – a development that may be hard to reverse as every politician searches for and exploits every opportunity to not play the game by its rules. For this reason, the absence of a level playing field for elections in Nigeria appears to have come to stay with silent but grave consequences.

Despite the development, the Abdulsalam Abubakar-led National Peace Committee was on ground to ensure that all the candidates signed the peace accord. Of course not everyone signed as some were represented while others wore a casual countenance that tended to render the assignment a casual ceremony. The convener, Bishop Hassan Kukah, who was himself on ground appeared to have suspected that perhaps some people were seeing it as a ritual in spite of its positive potentials. It is however difficult to imagine how Lasun Yussuf, the candidate of the Labour Party LP who was one of those absent would have seen the ceremony differently when he was attacked by unknown gun men late at night a few days earlier. Yussuf, a former deputy speaker of the House of Representatives was still nursing fears from unending threats to his life as at the point of the signing of the peace accord because all he had heard was a statement credited to police spokesperson, Yemisi Opelola that the police had launched an attack on the yet to be identified gun men

A second and more pressing reason for Yussuf’s absence was that he was more bothered about the possibility of holding his mega rally because his opposition party had been allegedly denied the use of public space for their event. He reportedly managed to secure somewhere that day, so he could not abandon his party’s presidential candidate who had come for the rally to go and sign a peace rally with a troubled mind. He could not have relied on the state to protect him when the same state was unwilling to give him just a chance to explain his manifesto to the voters. Yussuf was not alone, there were other complainants. As the PDP candidate, Ademola Adeleke argued, even his personal appeal to the state governor to grant him approval to use such public locations as the Osogbo stadium or the Freedom Park to hold his own mega rally was rejected. What this suggests is that issues such as lack of level-playing field ought to be resolved before peace accords.

It is hard to understand why Nigeria’s ruling political parties always operate as if all public agencies and institutions belong to them simply because they formed the government of the day. In other words, the issue on ground is not about Governor Gboyega Oyetola. All ruling parties are guilty of it making it impossible to have a level-playing field for all the players in a contest. It is also not a new phenomenon. Indeed, to trace the origin could take the rest of this article. A few examples would suffice. In January 2019, the Ekiti state government denied the presidential candidate of the PDP, Atiku Abubakar the use of the Oluyemi kayode Stadium, Ado Ekiti for his campaigns for the 2019 elections. The reason given was that the facilities in the stadium were due for repairs, adding that an alternative venue – the State Pavilion that was reportedly built to host such political rallies, conferences and campaigns was offered to his local organizers. All the PDP could do was to plead with its members to rally round the candidate wherever they found a space.

In the same state, Ekiti, the PDP had been similarly petty some five years earlier when as the ruling party at the federal level they stopped opposition governors from entering Ekiti to give support to their party’s candidate in the state. According to the then APC National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the helicopter that was to ferry the then Edo Governor, Adams Oshiomhole from Benin to Ado-Ekiti was refused permission to take off from the Benin Airport. Another plane carrying Governor Amaechi of Rivers actually landed in Akure but his convoy was stopped at the border between Ondo and Ekiti States and ordered to return. At about the same time, the convoys of the Ministers of Defence and Police Affairs who belonged to the PDP came and were allowed to pass. The purpose was to starve the opposition party of important personalities that the people of Ekiti would love to meet.

The 2018 case of the former Kano Governor, Musa Kwankwaso was perhaps more disgusting. Kwankwaso was one of the earliest aspirants to publicly disclose his intention to contest the 2019 presidential elections. He had arranged to use the Eagle Square for his formal declaration. His Campaign Organisation, made all the necessary arrangements including the payment of N2.2million to the facility manager of the venue more than a week to the event. Exactly 24 hours to the take-off of the declaration, the managers reversed themselves and informed the aspirant that he could no longer use the facility. On further enquiry the aspirant was informed that he needed to first produce a police permit. As usual, the management of the facility suddenly assumed strict autonomy as the ruling party including the federal Capital Territory Administration explained that no one interferes in the business of the facility management. Neither the public nor those who themselves denied responsibility for the manipulation believed the story. The ruling party merely wanted to put some hurdles on Kwankwaso’s way.

Traditional rulers in all parts of Nigeria are regarded as the royal fathers of all, who are expected to be neutral in matters of elections where more than one of their children are engaged in a political contest. Increasingly, the Kings are becoming more and more partisan, supporting one child against the others. In the current Osun governorship election, the obas in the state are behind the governor. Just before voting day, the traditional rulers under the aegis of Network of Kings from Osun Country Side (NKOCS), unanimously endorsed the candidature of Governor Adegboyega Oyetola in their words “as the most qualified among the contestants.” They claimed that they “cannot do without this government continuing for the next four years because we know the salt it has put in our soup.” If those who should be neutral jump into the arena on behalf of one candidate, can such an election be said to have been held on a level-playing field?

The kings are lucky that the governor attracted them through the stomach infrastructure of salt in the soup. My colleagues in the media are not that fortunate. More often than not, they are coerced and threatened with job loss to discard their traditional role of balance and objectivity in the coverage of elections. Even the private media is no longer more difficult to contain. It is either their professionals are arrested for treason across the Niger or in more sophisticated areas of the Southwest, officials are asked to find fault with their locations etc. That was precisely what the former governor of Oyo state did to talented broadcaster, Yinka Ayefele by demolishing his radio station in Ibadan one early Sunday morning for an imaginary building infraction. At the federal level, the current trend is that many heads of the public media are ill-advisedly sourced directly from the campaign office of the ruling party. History has shown that opposition parties who are bitter about the trend would whenever they get into power inherit, the retrogressive trait of repressing the press so as to have an upper hand in an election which democrats in other climes recognize as the politics of equality.

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