A public hearing on the National Electoral Offences Commission (Establishment) Bill 2021 is scheduled to hold tomorrow, Wednesday, May 28, 2021, at the National Assembly complex in Abuja. Sections 12 to 32 of the bill capture offences and penalties in the proposed law including those dealing with voters’ cards, election officials, impersonation, undue influence, bribery, election expenses, the pervasion of electoral justice, disturbing public peace, damaging of character, obstructing votes counting or other acts inhibiting electoral due process. Sponsored by Senator Abubakar Kyari and co-sponsored by Senator Ovie Omo-Agege and Senator Kabiru Gaya, the bill is intended to unburden the responsibility of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Over the years, efforts by INEC to prosecute electoral offenders fell below the expectations of many Nigerians. The electoral body’s consistent complaint is that of having so many cases to handle. This, to some extent, explains the unceasing perpetration of electoral offences each time general elections are held in the country. This is because past offenders were neither prosecuted nor punished; an impetus that perhaps prompted the introduction of the bill for an Act to establish the National Electoral Offences Commission at the National Assembly.
Section 13 of the bill recommends, on conviction, a prison term not exceeding 15 years for any person who “forges or fraudulently defaces or fraudulently destroys any document for the purpose of nomination for an elective office, or delivers to the Independent National Electoral Commission or a State Electoral Commission any document for the purpose of nomination for an elective office knowing it to be forged;” or “forges or counterfeits or fraudulently defaces or fraudulently destroys any electoral document or the official perforation, stamp or mark on any electoral document issued by the Independent National Electoral Commission or a State Electoral Commission.”
A person shall on conviction, under section 15 of the bill, be liable to imprisonment of at least ten years when he “wilfully prevents a citizen from voting at the polling station at which he knows or has reasonable cause to believe such person is entitled to vote;” or who “wilfully rejects or refuses to count any ballot paper, which he knows or has reasonable cause to believe is validly cast for any candidate in accordance with the provisions to such written law…”.
While some analysts support the establishment of an electoral offences commission, others do not. It’s the view of the latter group that while it may be necessary as a deterring mechanism to criminalise electoral offences, the creation of a special commission to try electoral offences amounts to wasting the meagre resources available to the government. The Orosanya-led panel report on the rationalisation of federal agencies had since established that there are too many commissions in the country, which was why it recommended a reduction in their number. Besides increasing the burden of overhead cost, no benefits really accrued when commissions were created in the past to address specific challenges.
Commenting on the establishment of the Commission, a constitutional lawyer, Professor Auwalu Yadudu, said “It is one court too many. If we mean business, there are sufficient extant legal provisions in our statute books to effectively deal with electoral offences;” adding that “I have my serious reservations if another court structure will make much, if any, difference.”
It is our belief that the problem of managing electoral malpractices in Nigeria is not due to the absence of legislation. Neither is it with INEC as the agency empowered to prosecute offenders. It is, rather, more with the administration of justice. It would thus be a misguided response to seek a solution to every criminal or corrupt tendency from the creation of a commission. The police have the capacity to diligently prosecute electoral offenders if they work closely with INEC. With an independent and impartial judiciary, there should be no need for a national electoral offences commission. All we need is for existing structures to do their work effectively.