Credible Voices for Nigerian Democracy
The Role of Nigerian Civil Society in the 2019 General Elections — by Olufunke Baruwa
During the 2019 general elections, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) supported by USAID provided civic engagement, domestic observation, and conflict mitigation. They proved to be a solid pillar upon whom Nigerians could rely as credible voices to hold government accountable to democratic promises and principles.
The CSOs brought together the highest number of domestic election monitors Nigeria has ever seen since the country’s return to civilian rule two decades ago. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) accredited 120 domestic CSOs and 36 foreign observer groups, who fielded more than 7,300 observers overall.
As the election process unfolded, these groups joined together to mobilize citizens to go to the polls, advocate for adherence to democratic concepts and ideas, and candidly report on the process through real-time observations shared on social media and other platforms.
Several innovative approaches to election observation and reporting by CSOs defined the 2019 elections. These included: scaling up of the ‘Situation Room’ to provide pre-election analysis and to track the elections in real-time as they evolved; establishment of a ‘Gender and Election Watch’ and a ‘Content Aggregation System for Elections’ that compiled real-time data during the polls; and forming a loose coalition that deployed thousands of citizen observers, and collected and analyzed all kinds of information on actions of voters, security personnel, election officials and candidates.
Through long-time partners such as the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI), USAID supported leading civil society NGOs, among them YIAGA Africa, which conducted a critical national Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT) to avouch the legitimacy of the official election results for the public.
Ahead of Election Day, YIAGA Africa deployed more than 3,000 observers to all of the country’s 774 local government areas and conducted the crucial PVT during both the presidential and National Assembly elections. Well before the polls, YIAGA Africa fielded long-term observers to assess the pre-election environment and anticipate issues likely to arise on Election Day and afterward.
To collate the PVT, observer teams fed random samples of more than 1,500 polling units across every local government area into its ‘Watching the Vote’ National Data Center for a “quick count” tabulation. The international gold standard for citizen observation of elections, the quick count independently measured the quality of the Election Day processes and results, validating INEC’s announced results.
“Without USAID support, these initiatives wouldn’t have achieved the goal of building a national movement,” said Cynthia Mbamalu, program manager for YIAGA Africa. “Citizens had a better understanding of the elections and the electoral process than ever before.”
Ahead of the elections, USAID supported the CSO-led #NotTooYoungToRun campaign that led to a historic constitutional amendment that reduced the age requirement to run for many public offices, inspiring hundreds of youth to stand as candidates at the national, state and local levels.
Likewise, the Inclusive Friends Association (IFA) gave thousands of persons with disabilities a chance to vote through the ‘Access Nigeria’ campaign, which led INEC to develop materials for visually and hearing-impaired voters. The internally displaced — another extremely vulnerable group –received voter education and mobilization programs in several states as well.
“Access Nigeria and INEC made history,” said Grace Jerry, executive director of IFA. “The level of assistance provided for voters with visual impairments was unprecedented.”
Other groups helped voters understand the electoral environment and engage the public in that dialogue. The Situation Room provided analysis of new amendments to the Electoral Act, while the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center compiled and provided regular updates of regulatory changes that could affect the polls, all contributing to improved ability for the public to assess the quality of the process. The Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund advocated for the full participation of women both as voters and candidates while the Yar’adua Centre provided incident reports nationwide on voters, election officials and security personnel.
A key concern ahead of the elections was the potential for violence. A study of all 36 states by the CLEEN Foundation, an NGO that promotes safety, security, and justice, identified the major drivers of electoral violence, and identified “hot spots” across the country and established early warning and conflict mitigation networks that reported instances of political violence, especially in the restive northeast and middle belt regions.
To help curb electoral violence before it started, support for the #Vote Not Fight peace promotion campaign, led by entertainer and activist Innocent “2Baba” Idibia and ‘Stop Violence Against Women in Politics’ led by actress Stephanie Okereke Linus that promoted non-violent and positive youth engagement , peaceful participation the elections, and engagement of women throughout the process.
Inevitable setbacks notwithstanding, the network of Nigerian CSOs proved that it is an essential player in Nigeria’s journey toward a stronger democracy even as the final state elections mark the end of the 2019 cycle. By applying pressure for political reform and expanding the scope of citizen participation in the political process, their presence goes a long way to increase transparency and accountability in government.
By actively supporting the processes and institutions of political and electoral reforms and by expanding the inclusiveness in the electoral process, CSOs ensured a greater degree of integrity for the 2019 general elections. Their success bodes well for stronger, independent civil society engagement in future Nigerian elections.