Sanitizing the Electoral Process in Nigeria (2)

by Uche Ohia

One conclusion that can be drawn from the large turnouts and enthusiastic presentations at the public sittings of the Electoral Review Committee (ERC) held across the federation over the last few weeks is that Nigerians are totally fed up with elections that are manipulated and outcomes that are at variance with the wishes of the people. The prevailing anxiety for a transparent electoral process is buoyed by widespread appreciation of the multifarious problems that engender electoral malfeasance: presenter after presenter catalogued the maladies in the electoral process and, with astonishing consistency, pointed out the way forward.

The topical issues about which the most strident and repeated calls were made by state governments, political parties, professional bodies, traditional institutions, religious groups, trade unions, security agencies, NGOs, and individuals that appeared at the various venues of the ERC sittings included the issue of the autonomy of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) and the appointment of it’s helmsman. Many presenters harped, quite rightly, on the need to take the institution saddled with the responsibility for the conduct of the election away from the influence of the executive arm of government. To do this, the general opinion was that the funding of INEC should be charged direct to the consolidated revenue fund. This would release the commission from the whims and caprices of an executive arm of government that is at all material times an interested party in electoral combats.

An amendment of the laws with provisions for INEC to be headed by a retired justice of the Supreme Court, for membership of the commission to be reserved for non-partisan persons of impeccable integrity, for independent candidates to be recognized, to peg political parties to a minimum of two or a maximum of five and for the adoption of “Option A4” (modified open/secret ballot system) were also widely canvassed. While, some argued that delimiting the number of political parties would constitute an infringement of constitutional rights of citizens, many averred that a great percentage of the political parties in Nigeria exist in name only – and are virtually kept alive not by any membership commitments but by the largess which the unnecessary fiscal grant by the federal and state governments to political parties constitutes.

Another issue of widespread concern was the interminable duration of election petitions. While petitions linger, impostors occupy public offices – and eventually use it to legitimize their position. Worse still, the statutory provisions for uniform conduct of particular elections contained in S. 48 of the Electoral Act 2006 and S. 180(2) (b) of the 1999 CFRN have been blasted because by virtue of the landmark decision of the Supreme Court in Peter Obi v INEC, the tenure of Governors who were sworn in the aftermath of elections nullified or ordered by the Court of Appeal will now end at varying times. Elections thereto cannot, therefore, be held “at the same time and place in the federation”. The way out, for many, is to ensure that general elections are conducted three to six months before the prescribed date of swearing in so that all election petitions and appeals can be disposed of before the swearing in of elected persons. And any person howsoever elected after the swearing in date should be considered to be serving out the term as if they were sworn in on the prescribed swearing in date.

Concerning the so-called State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs), the general opinion was that these contraptions be scrapped and legislated out of existence having failed to meet the vision behind their establishment. The SIECs were found to be vulnerable to manipulation by the appointing authority – the Governor and the ruling party in their various states. To restore the integrity of the electoral process at the grassroots levels, the consensus was that the duties of SIECs be reverted to INEC which, not being under the apron strings of state authorities, is better placed to provide a level playing field for all candidates.

The absence of internal democracy in the political parties was also placed on the chopping block. In particular, the predilection to “consensus candidates” was seen as an abbreviation the democratic process which facilitated the imposition of candidates and the subordination of the will of the people to the wishes of those who control the party. Given the provisions of S. 133(a) and 179(a) of the 1999 CFRN, which stipulate that even when one candidate emerges for the office of President or Governor prior to an election, the popularity of such candidate must be determined through the ballot box, the general view was that the only acceptable “consensus” should be the consensus of the ballot box.

Of course, some of the problems identified as hamstringing the electoral process and some of the recommendations made at the ERC sittings will require constitutional amendments to implement. But it must be clear that in matters of elections, the process is as important – if not more important – than the outcome. If, therefore, it becomes necessary to amend the constitution in order to ensure that the desire of the people to have sustainable democracy is realized, public expectation will be that the members of the National Assembly see that the requisite amendments are made expeditiously. After all, the reason why they are in congress in the first place is to effectuate the wishes of the people.

As the ERC begins to sieve the grains from the inevitable chaff in the myriad presentations which it has received, there is reasonable apprehension in the polity: Nigeria has a poor record of utilizing the recommendations of panels or committees which are set up to investigate one national malady or the other. The presidency is generally regarded as a burial ground where painstakingly written reports the pages of which hold the proactive solutions to national challenges are allowed to gather dust. This fate must not befall the report of the ERC. The countdown to the 2011 election has already begun. If there is any legacy that the Yar’Adua administration can leave for the nation, it is to adopt whatever measures and institute whatever framework that is necessary to ensure that in 2011 and all subsequent elections, the wishes of the people prevail.

All said, how much any electoral reform in Nigeria will succeed will depend on how far the attitude of the people can also be reformed to see the ballot box as the ultimate arbiter in electoral matters. It will also, to a great extent, depend on how far the members of the national assembly will be prepared to go in order to put a statutory restraint on the illogical activities of the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission which has transformed public office in Nigeria into a lotto that guarantees instant wealth.

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