By Uge Timipanipre
Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, Nigeria is expected to conduct two off-cycle state governorship elections this year. The first response typically to elections in disaster situations is postponement. According to the International Foundation of Electoral Foundations (IFES), more than 47 countries have already postponed elections. However, the electoral response to COVID-19 is more than simple postponement of elections. For example, there is a limit to election postponement in Nigeria. Section 178 (2) of the Constitution and section 25 (8) of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) provides that election into office of state governor shall hold no later than 30 days before the expiration of the term of office of the last holder of the office. Since the present tenure of the state governors expires on November 11, 2020, and February 23, 2021, for Edo and Ondo respectively, it means the latest these elections can be postponed is October 13, 2020, and January 25, 2021, for Edo and Ondo states respectively.
For now, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has temporarily suspended participation in political party conventions or primaries and quarterly meetings with key stakeholders and closed its office nationwide. It has also announced to review the situation on May 7 for possible resumption. In support of the fight against COVID 19, the Commission has announced the deployment of about 140 vehicles and drivers to FCT, Lagos, Kano, Rivers, Oyo and Osun states to support the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in contact tracing. The Commission is also collaborating with the NCC to use the voter register to send periodic messages to citizens. We pray that the COVID 19 is contained on time to allow INEC prepare and conduct the elections.
Secondly, the COVID 19 pandemic is an international emergency. Lessons from China’s new imported cases of infection informs us that no country can be free of the virus until all countries are free. Within the country, from the index case first announced in Lagos, now 33 states and the FCT are now battling the infection. It is not expected therefore, that COVID 19 will completely be eliminated in the country before these two elections. Besides, declaring a country free of COVID-19 can only be done by the World Health Organization (WHO) following certain guidelines that cannot be manipulated by any country. However, whether Nigeria is free of COVID-19 or not, or the Edo and Ondo elections are held as scheduled or on a later date, electoral activities will definitely change. Political parties may now rely more on virtual communication and outreach strategies than the usual campaign tours and rallies. More media engagements, phone calls and text messages and social media will take the place of political gatherings. However, I think this period offers an opportunity for political parties to attract voters by providing information on COVID-19 and giving palliatives. It is important to prepare for elections while we continue to support our health workers on the frontline to end the pandemic.
Thirdly, The fear of infection and high cost of activities may limit civil society organizations (CSOs) participation, in terms of voter and civic education, advocacy for peaceful elections and citizen’s observation. Voter turnout is likely to drop and voter inducement increased. This is because many will be skeptical of coming out to vote and even suspect the government if it announces the country is free of the virus close to the elctions. The more citizens withdraw from the polling units the more political actors will take advantage to manipulate the process through the Nigerian traditional methods of rigging elections – violence and change of results at collation centers. Especially in this period of disruption to livelihood caused by the stay at home regulations, voters who come out may not resist an offer from political parties for inducement. Political parties, however, will be pushed to increase efforts in voter inducement especially as large crowd campaigns are not likely to happen. The greater risk is that if effective steps are not taken, the elections may futher spread the virus.
There are other emerging concerns for conducting these two elections. We have seen increased misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories. Political parties and their campaign organizations need to provide consistent, regular and precise information to overcome disinformation. The credibility of elections will be greatly affected including voter registration. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) may issue new guidelines to restrict election activities such as open party conventions and primaries, rallies and tours of political parties and meetings of large crowds and the conduct of the elections. INEC may not also be able to directly monitor party primaries. The safety of the Commission’s staff and other election workers is more important and should be prioritised. Beyond these worries, the Commission must come up with new ideas on recruitment of ad-hoc staff to conduct the elections if the lock down continues. The Commission needs some time to recruit and train ad-hoc workers before deployment for the elections. As long as schools remain closed and the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) members continue to stay at home, these elections will remain a challenge. The easy way probably is to leverage on the existing relationship with the NYSC to ask corps members serving in these states to go back, but this route must not be taken just to conduct elections.
To overcome these concerns, INEC needs to communicate with political parties, voters, CSOs and electoral stakeholders early. Some measures could include disinfecting all the Polling units, compulsory use of hand gloves and face masks, maintaining physical distancing rules at queues, observers procuring their jackets, providing water and soap at polling units, regulate large political gatherings and use of shared items like the ink for thumb printing and other areas to ensure that COVID-19 transmission is not fostered through elections. Observers and other election workers from COVID 19 infected states should not also be allowed to participate in the process.
It is important to interrogate progress made so far by NCDC and federal and state ministries of health in ending COVID-19. There is no available data on progress made on testing by states, we only know that Nigeria has conducted more than 12,000 tests, while South Africa, Ghana and Egypt with smaller population sizes have so far tested more than 114,711, 60,916 and 55,000 persons respectively. We must call on the government to increase testing in every state with particular attention to Edo and Ondo, and the epic centres – Lagos, Abuja and Kano states and continue to provide comprehensive updates. We need to also know the number of tests being conducted in these states. While it was disturbing that for the slow rate of discoveries in Edo, the number is now growing significantly with improved testing in the state with a testing centre. Considering that COVID 19 is highly contagious and many people without travel history now contact it with evidence from Bayelsa and Yobe states, more creative measures must be put in place for early detection and containment of the virus in Edo and Ondo ahead of the elections. This requires effective testing and contact tracing.
For the sake of the elections, the NCDC must pay close attention to Edo state. A good way of prioritizing Edo and Ondo is increased testing facilities in these two states and support other states with increasing number of cases to have testing centers and also facilite increased testing capabilities. This is because no state is safe until all 36 states and the FCT are safe. More testing is required because evidence from Kano and Lagos that the more you test the more you discover new cases. Government should provide opportunities for testing at every health provider to conduct testing based on the criteria provided. This is to prevent wrong diagnosis of COVID 19 patients in the health care facilities and spreading the disease to medical workers and their patients. Government should also provide in these states full COVID 19 protective gear for all healthcare workers on duty including non covid 19 healh care centres to prevent continuous spread of the disease as observed recently across the states. The implication is that the government must provide more funding to ensure more people are tested in their localities. We must call the government to account even in this period to ensure we have quality elections.
And finally, the government should decentralise sample collection to the 18 LGAs in Edo and Ondo as recently adopted by the Lagos state government. The number of positive cases in Lagos has increased significantly since they adopted a door to door case identification strategy and the creation of sampling centres at the Local Government Areas (LGA). I also think the NCDC should review its testing protocol. At this stage of community transmission and the understanding that 80% of cases are mild and may not show symptoms, travel history and symptoms may no longer be relevant as criteria for testing. Every hospital case should first be tested for COVID 19. This requires more testing kits, personal protective wears and laboratories. Government should learn from other African countries like Senegal that are using local resources to make these available. Additionally, the federal government should effectively supervise the work of the state ministries of health to provide adequate and correct information on the number of people being tested. Federal and state governments should also increase sensitization efforts through traditional channels such as various associations in the informal sector, traditional institutions, churches and mosques and community radios. It is time to go beyound radio, televion and social media to meet the people where they are. Finally, I like to express my condolences to the nation of Guinea Republic on the demise of her Independent National Electoral Commission chair, Mamadou Salif kebe from COVID 19.Last modified: June 21, 2021