Election Stakeholders have expressed concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on upcoming elections and the extent to which decisions to hold or postpone elections are in tandem with legal frameworks on electoral governance. This is crucial because such decisions can strengthen or undermine the sustainable management of COVID-19 and its attendant contradictions. Governance of the pandemic must not in any way endanger constitutionalism, rule of law, and overall wellbeing of citizens.

 It is against this background that Yiaga Africa organized a webinar on 6 April 2020 to explore how best the country could respond to the COVID-19 pandemic vis-à-vis Nigerian elections. The webinar drew participants from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), academia, development partners, and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). The webinar provided an opportunity for stakeholders to reflect on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on elections and devise mechanisms for averting any constitutional crisis that  could impact on the conduct of the Edo and Ondo gubernatorial elections in the months of September and October 2020, and that may be prompted by the pandemic and government’s response.

Specifically, participants identified a lot of issues for consideration that can help in deciding whether to postpone the coming elections or not. In his opening remark, Dr. Hussaini Abdu, Yiaga Africa’s Board Chair said, it was important for Yiaga Africa and election stakeholders to see the nexus between COVID-19 and elections, and to reflect on how it will impact on electoral activities going forward.

According to Dr. Abdu, the world needs to start planning for post-pandemic just as it planned for post-second world war by designing economic recovery frameworks and systems that can lead to a quicker recovery from this pandemic. He said financing elections will become a huge challenge. “Nigerians are already asking questions on how much is being spent on elections and the next couple of elections in the country will be affected terribly”, he said.

He further warned that the economic implication of the COVID-19 pandemic will see pockets of conflicts which can also impact on elections as the current lockdown is not allowing some of the stakeholders that are involved in response service to act while the government is not doing much to deal with these issues. “What happens post-pandemic should occupy minds, elections will play a very important role because people are questioning the economic framework that has governed the world in the last 40 years, people are calling for radical reforms”.

Another key speaker at the webinar, Professor Okechukwu Ibeanu, also shared his thoughts on how Covid-19 impacts the Elections and the role of stakeholders moving forward. Prof Ibeano cautioned that it will be a huge mistake to focus on the impact of COVID19 on the election without considering its impact on the democratic process generally. He said it is becoming apparent that unconstitutional powers are being assumed by government executives and administration in the name of fighting the pandemic leading to the increase in human rights abuses across the board which impacts democracy.

On how the pandemic has impacted elections, he said across Africa, several elections that have been postponed due to the pandemic. “In Nigeria, 4 senatorial elections have been postponed in Bayelsa, Imo and Plateau States as well as all local council elections across the country”, he said. According to him, it is not just about the longer-term impact but the likelihood of more postponement of elections in the future either because of the logistical issues arising from the aftermath of the crisis or just because governments do not want to hold elections.

“The cost of postponed elections and other elections for that matter; in the aftermath of this especially if countries like Nigeria takes a major economic hit from this, the cost of money will rise, the dollar will rise, the cost of imports will become very high and the initial projections that the Nigeria 2023 general elections will be a 250,000 billion naira election will fail if the country take a major hit from the pandemic”, he further warned.

Speaking from a legal perspective, Dr. Sam Amadi decried that the legal management of the crisis has been poor in terms of a clear legal framework. He warned that cynical leaders could destroy elections in the guise of dealing with the pandemic and more to this is the creeping authoritarianism which is almost intertwined with the management of pandemic.

“Nigerians are complaining about the illegality of some of the policies or interventions such as constraining movements and shutting down activities around the issues of democracy. We are going to see increasing crippling authoritarianism in which leaders will be compelled to govern without recourse to the law which will further erode democratic qualities of governance”, he said.

Director of Programs Yiaga Africa, Cynthia Mbamalu called on the electoral commission to review its guidelines for the conduct of elections, leveraging on technology and taking the pandemic into cognizance. She said INEC must redesign its activities in collaboration with health sector experts.

Also speaking at  the event, Democracy and Accountability Coordinator of  the Nigerian office for Open Society Initiative of West Africa (OSIWA), Catherine Angai said the conversation is critical, timely, and important as it will feed into what OSIWA will discuss with the heads of the West Africa electoral commissions. She said stakeholders must be practical and pragmatic within the given context, looking at what has happened in other places and taking into consideration some of the health requirements to hold elections within this circumstance.

Funke Baruwa, a good governance advocate, urged INEC to develop a strategy for engaging the elections, saying the commission must have an interim plan for upcoming elections during this pandemic. According to her, there is already the negative narrative that the government is using the pandemic to delay the democratic process and the commission needs to change the narrative.

Other contributors to the webinar include Journalist, Seun Okinbaloye who said, ahead of the Edo and Ondo Elections, Nigeria needs to start thinking about digitizing elections and using technology as a lot will no longer be the same after the pandemic.

COVID-19 offers opportunities for redressing noticeable contradictions in Nigeria’s governance architecture generally and the electoral processes. The Webinar on COVID – 19 and  the future of Nigerian Elections has established solid foundations for the provision of social services, which includes revamping grassroots governance, improving trust/confidence in the electoral processes and outcomes, addressing the usually high costs of elections, promoting sustainable electoral reform to consolidate democracy.

This requires adapting lessons from comparative international experiences, sustainable electoral reform in key areas such as the adoption of e-registration and e-voting, deeper collaboration between INEC, CSOs and other stakeholders, improve the quality of voter education, rethink federal-state relations with greater emphasis on consultation, cooperation, and collaboration, etc. All these must be done within a human rights perspective to governance and development.