The ruckus over the recent decision of the national assembly to interfere with and stop INEC from using e-transmission of election results in 2023 may have died down but its implications for free, fair, and credible elections must remain a national concern. In my column, “Why making INEC strong matters” (The Guardian, December 25, 2020), I decried the systematic weakening of the electoral umpire through some clearly asinine amendments in the electoral act 2010. I recall some of the points made therein here with fresh arguments.
The Electoral Reform Committee set up by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, and chaired by former CJN, Justice Muhammadu Uwais, was the first major attempt at comprehensive electoral reforms by a civilian administration. It noted in its report that “An effective regime of electoral laws is vital to the integrity of any democratic system. One of the key challenges facing the electoral process in Nigeria is the need to develop a comprehensive legal framework that guarantees the independence and integrity of the electoral process, promotes consistency and equality in electoral management …”
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The main objectives of the legal framework are to enhance the independence of the electoral umpire to strengthen its hands in conducting free and fair elections whose integrity is above board. The executive and the legislative branches of government seem collectively tardy in appreciating and respecting this very elementary fact and insist on letting our problems with our elections cast a dark shadow on modern efforts to distance the country from them. I know that our politicians are terrified by laws; yet they make them. An electoral legal framework would not necessarily make INEC’s work easier, but it would help to make it run smoothly on the guard rails of the law.
Too many things are simply not right with our electoral system. Too many problems beset it. The top cancer in the system is famously called rigging by which the people’s choices are egregiously denied them and their will subverted at the polls. We have been battling this cancer in the system since independence. The bad guys win each election season. We cannot honestly grow our democracy with our feet tied to the millstone absent of a credible electoral legal framework. Still, the politicians would rather see a confused system with loopholes they can exploit to satisfy their hunger for power.
According to INEC chairman, Mahmoud Yakubu, the commission wants some amendments to the constitution and the electoral act to provide it with the necessary legal framework. The commission wants to amend sections 68, 109 and 117 to curb the frequency of bye-elections. Under this proposed reform, if a legislator resigns or is too ill to perform his legislative duties, he would automatically be replaced by the candidate of the party who came second in the elections. Thus, there would be no by-election. Rather too neat for the politicians.
According to Chief Festus Okoye, INEC national commissioner for information and voter education, “the commission proposes further alteration to section 285 of the constitution to make it possible for all pre-elections disputes to be concluded before the conduct of elections. This can be achieved by making it possible for the court of first instance to conclude all pre-election matters within a period of 60 days rather than 180 days while the court of appeal can hear and deliver its judgement within a period of 30 days rather than 60 days.”
The Uwais committee similarly recommended that all election disputes, pre-and post, be resolved before the winners take office. It said that “Nigeria’s electoral process needs to be sanitized by making INEC more independent and autonomous of the executive (and) by ensuring that all election disputes are concluded before any elected officials are sworn-in.” Our politicians would rather not.
The commission is, according to Okoye, “canvassing the creation of an electoral offences commission and tribunal…” The Uwais committee recommended it too. The national assembly passed a bill recently approving the setting up of the commission and the tribunal but independent of INEC. It means the commission has been stripped of the power to arrest and prosecute election offenders. This is an unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle in the path of the successful conduct of elections. The power should be given to INEC because it alone knows who has offended the system. For the commission to apprehend offenders and then hand them over to a neutral body for prosecution mocks and weakens the law.
The Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 21 recently passed into law by the lawmakers gave the thumbs down to the electronic transmission of election results. In the current system election results are physically transported from polling booths to collection centres and thence INEC headquarters. The rest of the world has moved on from this ancient system in favour of e-transmission, which is faster, safer, and less prone to manipulation of the results. The risks of continuing with the current system are so obvious that I need not dwell on them here.
The commission has sufficiently prepared itself for this anticipated welcome change. A joint committee of the commission worked with telecoms and gave the thumbs up to the capacity of the commission to execute e-transmission of election results fully and satisfactorily. The commission says it obtained “GPS coordinates of 176,846 polling units for seamless results’ uploading.”
I thought all of us would be on the same page with the commission on this. I was wrong. The national assembly is remarkably not on the same page with INEC. Using the same primitive argument that has bedevilled our progress as a modern nation, the national assembly cynically and without empirical evidence to support its position, persuaded itself that the commission was not ready for e-transmission of election results.
This is a major setback for both the commission and the country. Our movement on this front has once more been hobbled by men and women who ought to be progressive thinkers in growing our democracy. E-transmission is not a new invention by INEC. The commission borrowed it from other countries where it is successfully used and has enhanced the integrity of their elections. The silly argument that this country is simply not ready for anything new and progressive must grate on the nerves of true compatriots who know that this country is far more advanced in its thinking than its political leaders are prepared to allow. To think of our country as a permanent toddler is to admit of a country rapidly moving backwards.
INEC has systematically been stripped of its powers by the law-markers who prefer to see a weak and weakened electoral umpire serving the rich and the strong at the expense of those with good brains but holes in their pockets. The challenge, therefore, should be the restoration of all the powers of the commission taken away from it, including the power to qualify and disqualify aspirants, to make it a strong and respectable institution as the primary custodian of our electoral process and the conduct of our elections. It is obvious the politicians would not let this happen. An INEC on a short leash is their preferred electoral umpire. They have repeatedly used the battered electoral act 2010 to achieve their objectives.
INEC was not set up to please our politicians and do their bidding. The word, “independent” in its name reflects our collective desire to have an electoral umpire beholden neither to the executive nor the legislative branches of government. The lawmakers would do well to respect this and commit to an unfettered electoral umpire.