Published in  
March 20, 2023

Nigeria: How to Rig an Election

The recent elections in Nigeria, conducted over anxious weeks of pain and chaos, suggest that one doesn't need complicated plots and technologies to rig an election. All you need is a people thoroughly jaded - and white paint. Lots of it.

This morning, from the aggrieved quarters of the Twitterverse, a Nigerian man - sullen and stoic - tore up his Nigerian passport into inchoate pieces of unmentionable grief. His reasons? "I can no longer associate myself with Nigeria after it has conducted one of the worst elections in history."

His ritual of dissociation hit home: only the night before, last night, I had thought of doing the very same thing, and went as far as disclosing this seditious intention over the phone to a Kenyan colleague. For most Nigerians, shredding one's passport is not an option - since having one is a mark of luxury.

There's a lesson here, one that has slowly alchemized through weeks of red-eyed frustration over the explosions, killings, and chaos that unfolded during what was supposed to be the fairest election season in Nigeria's troubled history: to successfully rig elections, one doesn't need the complicated apparatus of international espionage; one doesn't need the collusion of multi-billion dollar media houses and conspiracy theories. You don't need Russians or Ukrainians, geniuses with software engineering degrees, or super spies hanging from ropes dropped into laser-threaded rooms. You don't need a theme song; you don't need a story; you don't need a plot. You hardly even need a plan. Apparently, all you need is a hundred million dollars and then a little more than that. With that, you can buy yourself a truckload of Tipp-Ex correction kits and a whole lot of moral persuasion.

The Nigerian elections were rigged. There's no doubt about that. Even the ones who stand to benefit from the rigging aren't denying it. They just know how to look away, or say: well, we weren't the first to do that!

There are numerous videos of various electoral officers literally changing the results in open rooms; there are videos of close associates of the ruling party, armed and threatening, warning citizens to stay away from the polling booths if they intend to vote for any other party but "APC". Thugs ran into stations and snatched voting materials as police officers watched. In many other instances, the police officers came to do the snatching themselves. Cut out the middleman, you know. One chief of police, trying to explain why little children were voting in the North, dived into the mysteries of Darwinian evolution and genetic theory: "There's no way to tell if they are really children or not."

In Lagos, a macabre tribalism sprouted from the heat of the ruling party's stunning loss (despite rigging) of the state to the insurgent movement of 'Obidients', led by Labour Party's Peter Obi. Walls and ramparts were constructed overnight; a shibboleth ordained at the gates: if you were not Yoruba or Yoruba enough, if you were Igbo, you could not vote. The logic at the heart of this new apartheid? "Lagos belongs to the Yorubas and must not be lost to the Igbos." Inflamed by this curious myth of the "True Lagosian" that only seemed to matter now on the eve of disruptive elections, those who hurled stones and set fire to Igbo markets could not stop to see that the divisions weaponized by millions of dollars really had nothing to do with identity or ethnic affiliations. They could not see that they were fighting a proxy mini-war on behalf of drug lords and Tipp-Ex merchants. Every day, we did business together, married each other, went to church and mosque together, grew hungry together, ate together, cried together, and hurled curses at the government from the trenches of ordinary life. Together. Igbos. Yorubas. And all the worlds between. All of a sudden, we are now forced to believe that the reasons why we haven't lived well, or eaten well, or prospered well, is because we are different from one another? The reason why Lagos remains largely uninhabitable for most of its people is because some of us prefer 'yellow garri' to 'garri Ijebu'?

Ultimately, Nigeria's INEC - cartoonishly villainous in its brazen determination to alter the election results in service of a closeted octogenarian with cavernous pockets and without a verifiable history - plunged the knife deeper than even Julius Caesar's assailants would have found appropriate. The electoral laws prescribed a process that meant polling booths had to upload results straight from their localities to a central server using a glorified capture system called BVAS. The process seemed to work for all the cadres except the one that 'mattered': the presidential vote. Suddenly, someone somewhere (perhaps Tom Cruise) pulled the plug on the 300 billion naira internet service purchased by the government. Mahmood Yakubu, the professorial curator of the electoral process, looked away. It didn't matter that INEC had contravened its own stipulations, broken its own promises, and sidestepped its own laws. It didn't matter that Nigerian proto-citizens had taken photographs of the published results, camping out till the wee hours of the morning to ensure their votes counted. None of that mattered. All that really mattered were the Tipp-Ex kits waiting to be deployed and the millions of untraceable dollars that had allegedly lined the pockets of the umpires. How else to explain their stunning imperviousness to the moral outrage that erupted when the result sheets that trickled into the collation centres showed signs of uneven tampering, compromising the entire ritual?

Despite all that, following the prestigious traditions of rushed tribunals and hushed judgments delivered in the wee hours of the morning, INEC declared Bola Tinubu the winner of the presidential elections. At 4am in the morning. There was no sigh of relief. No cries of "at last!" No jubilation on the streets. Just an impaling sense of the funded inevitable, the same crushing sense of power that has jaded most Nigerians, dragging them into a carceral cynicism that mocks heartfelt insurgencies like Peter Obi's and shrugs the shoulders when even the most in-your-face theft of hopes plays out in full view.

The Nigerian state has achieved what its more sophisticated counterparts in this Westphalian order have been unable to. You don't need all those algorithms and Hollywoodized plots to rig elections. You don't need all that jazz. You just need people thoroughly jaded, with some explaining their dullness in terms of a cloudy theory of progressive reformism - a kind of "things will get better eventually" confession that curiously permits the catalytic seizure of lives such as was performed by the APC. You need white paint to blot out the lamentations and cries for justice. And you need money. Lots of it.

That's how you buy yourself victory. That's how you shock two hundred million people to stupor. That's how you suddenly earn the right to call for peace, to gaslight the competition as agitators of that peace, and then hope to ride into the sunset.

The thing with victory, however, is that it doesn't always behave the way you want it to. It's like a pet, a reptilian pet you've purchased at the pet store. Despite its designation as a pet, despite the cuddly names you've given it, some hidden imperatives are astir behind its scaly exterior, behind its name tag. One day, when you are not watching - or perhaps as you watch - something ancient and primordial will metastasize, sprouting from the sleeping excrescence of larger matters. And you will pray to bemused gods for a victory less than the one you've already purchased. Something will give way. This victory won't last.

The Nigerian man tore his passport on screen. His eyes were dark and foreboding, his face expressionless except in the moments when traces of a frightening anger surfaced, stealing his features as he struggled to bend the hard, latex-saturated covers of the booklet to his fury. "Yeah, I can feel the frustration," my Kenyan colleague said, when I sent her the footage. She would later tell me Kenyans were also poised at the edge of an all-out protest against the government.

"I guess tearing is an option for those who have alternatives," she continued.

"Exactly the point. What do those on the streets tear up?" I wrote back to her.

Moments later, her reply ignited my phone:

"Their flesh."

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