Media-induced anxiety over 2023 polls, By Bolaji Adebiyi

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Media reports on the possibility of postponing or cancelling the 2023 general election earlier in the week agitated many quarters. Abdullahi Zuru, chairman of the Board of Electoral Institute, a parastatal of the Independent National Electoral Commission, was reported to have quoted his boss, Mahmood Yakubu, the chair of INEC, to have suggested that rising insecurity across the country, if unchecked, might truncate the polls. 

“If the insecurity is not monitored and dealt with decisively, it could ultimately culminate in the cancellation and/or postponement of elections in sufficient constituencies to hinder the declaration of elections results and precipitate a constitutional crisis. This must not be allowed to happen and shall not be allowed to happen,” Yakubu had stated in an address to the validation of election security training resources in Abuja on Monday. 

Looking closely at the quote that most of the mainstream media used as the peg of their headlines, it should not be difficult to conclude that the editors were unduly alarmist in their treatment of the report. The electoral agency’s boss had said nothing new other than reiterate the need for the security agencies to double their efforts at securing the upcoming election. 

The reports no doubt highlight the need for the media to be more alive to its responsibility to strive at accurate reporting of events leading to the polls and leave the interpretation of the facts to the reading public. A more deliberate and sober interpretation of Yakubu’s statement would have led to no other conclusion than that he expressed concerns about the rising insecurity in the polity but made it clear that the elections would hold as scheduled. 

It is important though that in a rare swiftness, Lai Mohammed, the minister of Information and Culture, assuaged many anxious nerves when on Tuesday he made it clear that the federal government was not contemplating the shifting of the polls kicking off on 25 February. “The position of the federal government remains that 2023 elections will be held as planned,” he said, pointing out, “Nothing has happened to change that position. We are aware that INEC is working with the security agencies to ensure that the elections are successfully held across the country.” 

On Wednesday Yakubu, whose address was the source of the anxiety, was on hand to reaffirm the sanctity of the elections. “The commission is not contemplating any adjustment to the election timetable, let alone the postponement of the general elections,” he said at the presentation of the register of voters to the 18 political parties vying for positions in the forthcoming polls. 

The fact of the matter is that editors need to familiarise themselves with the relevant provisions of the 1999 Constitution as altered, the Electoral Act 2022 and INEC regulations and guidelines. If they had done that, they would have been less exuberant in the casting of the headlines that created anxiety over the sanctity of the elections. 

The only condition for the postponement of the general elections is if the country is at war. This is stated in Section 135 (3) of the constitution. Other than that, INEC could only countermand an election based on certain conditions provided in the Electoral Act, including violence and overvoting. But for that to happen the election must have been held first. 

Whilst there is a general sense of insecurity across the country, it ought to have been clear to the editors that the challenge is not as widespread and of such magnitude to warrant the postponement of the polls. The INEC boss made this clear when he referred to the principle of substantiality, explaining that should insecurity become pervasive in substantial constituencies it would affect the declaration of results. Now, even in the North-west, the North-east and the South-east where insecurity is more pronounced, how many states of those regions are enveloped by violent crises as to substantially lead to the cancellation of the general elections in the affected states, talk less of the entire country? 

Besides, viewed against the level of preparations by INEC, would it have been logical to deduce contemplation of elections postponement or cancellation by the electoral body? Certainly no! On 26 February 2022, the electoral agency rolled out 14 steps it would take to consummate the elections. As of Tuesday when these headlines hit the news waves, INEC had implemented 10 steps and was to unveil the 11th, presentation of the register of voters, on Wednesday. So, there has been a diligent prosecution of its strategic programmes. 

However, INEC’s concerns about the insecurity situation on the ground particularly as it affects its operations and staff are real and were worth pointing attention to. For instance, since the general elections in 2019, the agency has suffered 41 attacks on its offices with the South-east alone recording 13 incidences. Even though this might look insignificant considering the vast network of over 774 offices, it, nevertheless, needs to be assured of the safety of its staff and equipment. But that is precisely why a security mechanism, Inter-agency Consultative Committee on Election Security, which created a platform for the INEC and security agencies to interact and strategize on how to secure the elections, was put in place. 

The other security issue that is less talked about though is the vitriolic language of the leading candidates and their official spokespersons, who rather than confine themselves to debating the substantive issues of the comatose economy, the drift towards strife, endemic insecurity and corruption, have focused more on personalities and vulgar abuse, which the law actually frowns at. Certainly, the media needs to call attention to this because of its potential to inflame passion and incite violent reactions in the polity. 

Adebiyi, the managing editor of THISDAY Newspapers, writes from bolaji.adebiyi@thisdaylive.com

Source: First published in THISDAY Newspapers

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