An electoral officer tries to use biometric tablet to record facial recognition of a voter at a polling station during the Anambra State governorship election at Isuofia, Aguata district in southeast Nigeria, on November 6, 2021. – Voters in the restive southeastern Nigerian state of Anambra go to the polls on November 6, 2021, amid a massive police deployment, in a key test of electoral credibility ahead of a presidential race less than 18 months away. More than 30,000 police have been deployed to Anambra, the heart of a region where an outlawed separatist movement has been blamed for a string of attacks on police and election offices. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)
During one of my many discussions of Igbo politics with Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu, one of those people I look up to a lot, he said something poignant. He said, “Cheta, you speak of these things like you are expecting an ideal. You cannot have an impact among your people until you accept them as what they are, not as what you want them to be. That way you can begin to work from a realistic position.”
That statement has stuck with me for a long time, and the events of Thursday, 9 June, in which a lot of Igbo traders from the Alaba International Market got attacked by thugs when they went to register for their PVCs brought Mr Mba-Uzoukwu’s statement into sharp perspective.
Back in May 2019, I had, on behalf of SBM Intelligence and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, presented a report to a conference on violence during that year’s general elections. Present at the conference were representatives from INEC, the army, the police, civil defence and a host of other actors in the election and security matrix. Among other things, the report showed that pretty much every incident of violence perpetrated by state actors during the 2019 elections occurred in opposition strongholds. A roundabout way of talking about voter suppression. The report was adopted, and INEC promised to do better.
What happened in the Alaba/Ojo area was reminiscent of thugs attacking polling units in parts of Ijesha and Okota in Lagos during the last elections, plainly to prevent these areas, from turning out large numbers of votes against the ruling APC. These areas also happen to be dominated by ethnic Igbos, as is the Alaba area, so it is not a stretch to say that the voter suppression is targeted at Igbos, especially when you consider that Igbo people are “unreliable” when it comes to voting, according to the wife of the APC presidential candidate, and a potential First Lady of Nigeria from next year, Senator Remi Tinubu.
The Alaba/Ojo attack, from a strategy viewpoint then, was simply a case of moving the voter suppression from the election day, when there would be a lot of attention, to the ostensibly quieter period of registration. Like most brilliant strategic choices, it is morally wrong. But that is besides the point, we are not here to discuss morals but to fight for the soul of a country, and that is what so many commentators appear to have missed.
In the past few weeks, a lot of young people have expressed a lot of disgust at the delegate system and the amounts of money in our electoral system. So many of these people have vowed to get involved in the political process. Many began to take a keen interest after the Lekki Massacre. What they miss, is that this thing is a marathon, and not a sprint. Their adversaries have been plotting for the 2023 elections since 2019. It’s that simple.
INEC has been struggling with the voter registration process, and we have had a lot of complaints about poor network, staff not turning up on time but closing early, cards not being delivered, and specific to South-East Nigeria these days, INEC offices being attacked by “unknown gunmen”. All of these are open loopholes that unscrupulous members of Nigeria’s political class can exploit to prevent “undesirables” from voting, and exploit those loopholes they will regardless of how many appeals to morality we make.
This is where accepting the system and working with it as is in order to change it comes into play. Too many people who complained about yesterday’s shenanigans were plainly expecting the police, a police force which is clearly an entrepreneurial organisation, to intervene on behalf of people who cannot pay it. That’s unrealistic if I want to be polite. The police are more likely to find a way to stand aside and let the thugs do what they want to do, because that’s where the money is. I don’t even want to start on the naivete displayed in announcing the closure of Alaba Market on a single day specifically for voter registration, and thus alerting would-be adversaries as to your moves, and giving them a chance to plan to disrupt you.
Given that we’re unlikely to change our emotional approach to things, here’s what is likely to happen: many of the Alaba boys will go back to their shops and will not engage the process any further. Many young and/or middle class and/or Igbo people will cry foul from the sidelines, but will continue with their traditional voter apathy. Many others will leave the country (I can’t blame them). Ultimately, we, the chattering classes, will not take part in the patient, plodding work that is required to engage the democratic process. Then on 10 June 2026, we will be back here again shouting about disenfranchisement and voter suppression.
From an Igbo point of view, this is a perfect allegory to the strategy that has been employed by pro-Biafra groups in their quest for self determination since 1999. A lot of shouting and emotional blackmail has gone into pro-Biafra agitation, but hardly any patient work to engage with any process anywhere. No one was seriously working within policy circles in Washington, London or New York, not even when the opportunity was there during the period that the Americans had a white supremacist in the White House who was beholden to the evangelical community.
This is the brutal fact: the world does not reward emotion. If it did, the Palestinians would have had their country a long time ago. The world rewards emotion only when that emotion is used as a tool to complement preparedness. The Jews, starting from Theodor Herzl in the 19th century, built their Zionist movement on the principles of patiently building their strength in the Holy Land, buying lands in Ottoman Syria until they reached a critical mass. Then the tragic events of the Holocaust happened and met them prepared to start a state. I daresay that had they not been ready in the British Palestinian Mandate in 1947, we would not have a State of Israel today.
In simple terms, opportunity meets preparedness, and it starts with getting ready to work within the system we have, not the one we’d like it to be. Thugs are going to attack your polling unit on election day? Make sure everyone in the polling unit comes out early, in large enough numbers, and ready to document. There simply aren’t enough thugs to go round. The thugs will withdraw and find another way.
The thugs note that you are prepared, so have found another way, and are attacking voter registration drives? That’s fine. INEC has a continuous voter registration process. Ensure that over the course of four years, people are constantly registering, and you have people constantly following developments with the law guiding the process, and security arrangements. And for God’s sake, don’t announce one big day of voter registration. Have you ever heard Stacey Abrams in the US announcing the day she wants to get Black people to go out en masse and register? She recognises that her American system wants to do as much as possible to disenfranchise her people, so she works around and within it as it is, not crying that it is not ideal.
Finally, one thing I have noticed in many INEC programmes that I have attended: the politicians are always present, the “good guys” are never in large enough numbers. Are we then truly prepared to upend the Nigerian political system?
My answer is no. So anything we see, we should take.
Nwanze is a partner at SBM Intelligence
This post was originally published on June 11, 2022.