A country’s elections provide an important window into its practice of democracy. With recent developments in electoral dispute resolution, a growing number of Nigerians believe the slow pace of reforms is holding back the journey towards democratic consolidation. Ironically, the issues pertaining to the electoral process have been well-articulated and solutions proffered. But, government has been tardy and sloppy with making changes in the system, writes Deputy Political Editor RAYMOND MORDI

THOUGH the elective principle was introduced into Nigeria in 1922, following the promulgation of the Clifford Constitution by the British colonial masters, the country has not conducted elections in recent times devoid of acrimony, rancour, and controversies. In spite of the repeated attempts to reform the electoral systems, progress has been slow, and orderly transfer of political power still remains a mirage, as the electoral umpire still lacks the capacity to conduct free and fair elections.

Going by the tone of public conversation on the pages of newspapers, on radio and television, as well as social media, Nigerians are unhappy with the slow pace of reforms. Recent developments in electoral dispute resolution, from election petition tribunals to the Supreme Court have brought the need for electoral reforms to the front burner. The aim of introducing the Smart Card Reader prior to the 2015 general elections seems to have been defeated, as politicians are exploiting the absence of a legal backing for the use of the device during elections.

This is one of the fallouts of the recent Supreme Court judgment on the 2019 governorship election in Imo State and the November 16 governorship elections in Kogi and Bayelsa states. Today, the country is divided on the decisions of the Supreme Court, especially on the Imo State governorship tussle. Analysts believe it would have been resolved in a more satisfactory manner if the Smart Card Reader and other reforms had been empowered by law.

The Smart Card Reader introduced prior to the 2015 general elections under the leadership of Prof. Attahiru Jega as chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was hailed as the decisive factor that aided the defeat of the then incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan by President Muhammadu Buhari. But, four years after, politicians appear to have found a way around it. That was the view echoed by the National Commissioner in charge of Publicity and Voter Education, Mr. Festus Okoye, at a meeting to review the Kogi and Bayelsa elections.

Okoye said since the record of the Smart Card Reader did not count as evidence in court during election cases, most politicians decided to ignore it while perpetrating rigging. He said the non-recognition of the Smart Card Reader by the 1999 Constitution (as amended) is a great setback for the commission’s efforts to tackle poll fraud using technology because the lack of legal backing has rendered the device legally impotent. This, he added, has further encouraged politicians not to accord any importance to it.

He added: “We must find a solution to the issue of the Smart Card Reader. The Smart Card Reader has lost its efficacy and vibrancy in relation to the electoral process because the political elite has found a way around it. So, rather than use the Smart Card Reader, they just ignore it because ultimately they know that when they go to the court what it will be saying is that if you want to prove over-voting, we want to see INEC register or result sheet and not the Smart Card Reader. So, as far I am concerned, the Smart Card Reader has become a redundant instrument and inconsequential.”

The slow pace of reforms appears to be holding back the country’s journey towards consolidating its democracy. All the issues pertaining to the country’s electoral process have been well-articulated and solutions proffered, but government has been tardy and sloppy with implementation. Those at the helm of affairs at the centre, both past, and present, have been accused of negligence, lethargy and pursuing selfish interests. Also, members of the legislature have contributed to these missed opportunities. It is obvious that politicians do not have the political will to enact legislation that would tackle the inherent challenges, because bills introduced into the National Assembly are often driven by the interests of the political class.

Nigeria has made some appreciable gains in electoral reforms since the 2007 general elections, when the late President Umaru Yar’Adua admitted that the election that brought him into power was flawed. After acknowledging the shortcomings in the country’s electoral process, he set up a 22-member panel, headed by the late Mohammed Uwais, to examine the electoral process with a view to raising the quality and standard of elections and thereby deepen its democracy.

Some of the salient recommendations of the panel includes independent candidacy, transparent and inclusive system of appointing chairman and members of INEC board, expenditure ceiling and campaign funding, date of elections, duration and nature of election tribunals, among other constitutional amendments proposals.

However, with the untimely death of President Yar’Adua, the lot fell on former President Goodluck Jonathan to implement the recommendations of the panel. Unfortunately, several aspects of the panel’s key recommendations, notably on the appointment of the INEC chairman by the National Judicial Council, were rejected by the government. The panel report suggested that Nigerians wanted a truly independent electoral body that would be appointed and funded in a manner to enhance its non-partisanship.

Nevertheless, the implementation of aspects of the Uwais panel recommendations was regarded as an improvement on the electoral system and processes. Thus, the 2011 general elections that were conducted afterward were widely adjudged free and fair. Nevertheless, the violent protests that erupted in the northern part of the country, following the declaration of the result of the presidential election, claimed more than 800 lives and displaced about 65,000 persons. The development compelled INEC, under the chairmanship of Prof. Attahiru Jega, to come up with ways to make electoral processes more transparent and thereby reflect the wishes of the people.

It evaluated past elections and came up with a project plan that recommended specific activities, timelines to guide the conduct of the next election. The committee worked with the African Union to develop the plan and liaise with development partners where necessary to ensure an inclusive and implementable process. That was how the commission introduced an electronic voters’ register, the Smart Card Reader and a biometric voter’s card containing a microchip with biometrics unique to each registered voter, to authenticate the identity of voters and eliminate multiple voting. It was against this background that INEC conducted the 2015 general elections, which was widely acknowledged as free and fair.

Since then, however, things have gone from bad to worse. Among other irregularities, the 2019 general election recorded the lowest turnout in Nigeria’s 20-year history as a democracy. Only 34.75 per cent of registered voters actually voted during presidential and National Assembly elections, according to data released by INEC. The general decline — especially in the south – has been interpreted as an indication of a decreasing faith in the political establishment and what it can deliver for the people. For instance, Lagos State led the states with the lowest voter turnout, with only 17.25 per cent participation of registered voters (1,089,567), followed by Abia with 18 per cent or 323,291 votes and Rivers with 19.97 per cent (642,165) valid voters. Indeed, the turnout of voters has been on a steady decline since 2003. In 2003, 69 per cent of 61 million eligible voters participated in the presidential elections. The percentage has reduced progressively since then. It went down to 57 in 2007, 54 in 2011, before dropping to 44 per cent in 2015. Voter apathy appears to have set in.

President Muhammadu Buhari who benefitted from Prof. Jega’s technological intervention in 2015 to defeat an incumbent leader appears to be reluctant to introduce reforms. Last November, he declined to assent to the Electoral Act 2018 amendment bill, which was passed by the 8th National Assembly. Buhari’s refusal to sign the bill did not tally with his earlier assurances that he was going to work towards credible elections ahead of the 2019 general elections. The rejected amendments contain landmark provisions that would have fortified the electoral system against the formidable rigging machinery of politicians. One of the amendments was regarded as legal backing for the use of the Smart Card Reader. Another outlaws the use of Incident Forms. The President said the polls were too close for the implementation of the proposals.

Among other things, the bill provides for the electronic transmission of results from the polling units (to compare with the manual record), the serialisation of ballot papers for each polling unit and the announcements of results in the presence of all party agents. Analysts believe the political system is ripe for the above measures. The quest to get the bill signed into law began in March when the National Assembly first passed the amendments. After dithering, the President returned the bill to the parliament unsigned, saying the National Assembly usurped the statutory powers of INEC by reordering the sequence of elections.

After a lot of debate, the lawmakers nevertheless expunged the provision and sent it back to the President. He refused to sign it once again. He said the document contained some typographical errors. Again, the lawmakers rectified the errors and presented it for the President’s assent, but he returned it unsigned once again, claiming that there were issues with cross-referencing in the bill. The legislators reviewed it and produced another document and presented it for the fourth time. This time, he said the election was too close and that signing it into law might complicate the work of INEC.

Early in his first term (in 2016), the President had inaugurated an electoral reform panel headed by a former Senate President Ken Nnamani. From the outset, the Nnamani panel which was made up of mostly politicians was considered a waste of time, money and other resources, because the Mohammed Uwais panel had already reviewed the electoral laws and came up with recommendations that are still largely unimplemented. The Nnamani panel submitted its report in May 2017, but to date, it is still gathering dust on the shelves.

Observers say the time for electoral reform is now. During a conference in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), to review the outcome of the 2019 elections, participants decried the fact that elections in the country were becoming increasingly marred by violence and intimidation, with the role of the security agencies becoming more contentious. The roundtable was held in the wake of the publication of the reports on the election by two international observation missions.

Clement Nwankwo, the convener of the Civil Society Situation Room, the co-organiser of the roundtable, said after 20 years of gradual improvement of the electoral process since the return to civil rule in 1999, the last general elections was “a step backward”.

Chris Fomunyoh, the Africa Director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), expressed disappointment with the turn of events. He said: “We have to be frank: the 2019 elections were a disappointment for most Nigerians.”

Hannah Roberts, the EU deputy chief observer said: “The elections became increasingly marred by violence and intimidation, with the role of the security agencies becoming more contentious as the process progressed. This damaged the integrity of the electoral process and may deter future participation.”

Read Also: Lawmakers to get INEC’s electoral reforms proposal

Monday Onyekachi Ubani, a legal practitioner, believes one of the issues that must be addressed in the next attempt to reform the Electoral Act is that of shifting the burden of proof of compliance of an election to the law or otherwise from the petitioner to INEC. He said: “Let INEC officials come forward and prove that the election they conducted is on order. We need to shift that burden to INEC, rather than placing it on the petitioner. We should lessen the burden on the petitioner because of the limited time allowed by the law for the petitioner to prove his case. The idea of asking the petitioner to call all the polling units agents to come and testify is not the very best, because he doesn’t have the time to do that.”

Ubani, a former Vice President of Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), also wants the Electoral Act amended in such a way to have an electoral umpire that is truly independent, unbiased and working for Nigeria. His words: “It is during elections that you will find that INEC is clearly biased. Most of the results declared does did not reflect the wishes of the people. So, we still need to deal with the legitimacy of INEC in conducting elections.

“We have to find a way of getting an INEC that is unbiased. This has to do with the manner of appointments of the Chairman and the state Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs); most of them are politicians dressed in the garb of an umpire. They dance to the tune of one political party or the other, particularly the one that pays the highest price. I saw it clearly in my state, Abia, during the last general elections. RECs all over the country clearly have alignments with one party or the other, contrary to the position of the Electoral Act.

The legal practitioner is also of the view that there should be an amendment to ensure that electronic voting is recognized in the Electoral Act and that people who commit electoral offenses are punished to deter others.

He also called for the reduction of the remuneration of elected and appointed officials. His words: “Most importantly, we must address the issue of the pecks of office of our elected and appointed officials; if we don’t do that, we will not have free and fair elections until Jesus comes. As long as it is not addressed and people become billionaires the moment they win an election, people would want to get there at all costs. That’s why in all these developed economies, you don’t see any killing, you don’t see any war and you see elections being fiercely contested in court because people just go to express their mandate and nobody shows desperation.

“The moment we don’t address this, people are ready to kill and manipulate the process to get there. Under normal circumstances, it is people that have succeeded in their chosen fields of endeavor that ought to aspire for elective positions; not what we have at the moment when 4-1-9 people and other criminal elements are the ones pushing to get there. They are doing it purposely for the sake of their tummy, not for service.”

Elder statesman and Second Republic politician, Alhaji Tanko Yakasai is also in support of an amendment of the constitution and the Electoral Act to accommodate things that will advance our democracy and the development of the society. His words: “We should know that the constitution and the Electoral Act are man-made. They have been amended several times before now, but that cannot be the end; we need to amend them whenever necessary.

“For example, information communication technology (ICT) is very critical in all spheres of human endeavour and is now used virtually in all that we do. Therefore, you cannot close your door against something universally practiced. So, we should amend the Electoral Act to allow for the use of electronic voting machines and any other thing that would enable us to take advantage of ICT. We should open our doors to it in such a way that it can be used not only during elections but be tendered as evidence in court and so many other areas where ICT is required.”

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