By Nick Dazang
It is inevitable that the cost of conducting the 2023 General Elections, put at N305 billion, will elicit deep concern by the media and civil society. Thus far, not less than two newspapers, the Daily Trust and the Guardian, have expressed profound worry over what they perceive as the high cost of conducting elections. They wondered if the existing high cost of elections could be sustained. By the Daily Trust’s reckoning, INEC could not have expended less than N1.24 trillion in conducting elections in the past 10 years. The vocal Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) has referred to the 2023 election budget as “humongous”.
In expressing their disquiet, the media and civil society must be mirroring the concern and frustrations of the larger Nigerian society. From N112.9 billion in 2011, INEC expended N242 billion in 2019. It is now asking for N305 billion to conduct the 2023 general elections. This is quite a quantum leap.
Given the dwindling revenues accruing to the federal government, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, most Nigerians would argue that this amount could be deployed to other areas of desperate need such as the education, health and transport sectors or security.
It must rankle that these elections come with challenges in their aftermath. They are seldom wholesome at the end of the day. Neither do they translate into outright delivery of good governance or a substantial improvement in the weal of Nigerians.
In spite of these failings, elections are crucial and indispensable precursors to democracy. And to be fair, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), and indeed other Election Management Bodies(EMBs) in the West African sub region, have been stiff worried over the rising cost of elections. Consequently, they have challenged themselves as to how to substantially reduce these costs in order not to be seen as cogs in the wheel of development in their respective countries.
As far back as 2009, the Economic Community of West African States(ECOWAS), with the support of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation had commissioned a study on the comparative cost of elections in West Africa. Entitled: “Electoral Commissions in West Africa – A Comparative Study” by Mathias Hounkpe and Ismailia Madior Fall. The project was reviewed in 2011. One of the significant insights provided by the study is the correlation between the lack of a solid legal framework and the high cost of elections.
Arising from this, Benin Republic, which has a dilatory legal framework, had the highest cost of election(as at 2011) while Burkina Faso had the least. Some four years ago, INEC’s Professor Mahmood Yakubu who chaired the ECOWAS Network of Electoral Commissions (ECONEC), had expressed concern that resources needed to develop infrastructure in Third World countries were being channeled to fund elections.
As a follow up to these deep concerns, Election Management Bodies(EMBs) in the West African sub region, and indeed the African continent, began in earnest to share experiences and to offer technical assistance to each other in their areas of strength.
If INEC has demonstrated an abiding concern for the rising cost of elections, it has over time, guided by the Procurement Act, taken frugal measures to prune down its costs. But for us to understand why the costs keep going up, we need to appreciate the nuts and bolts of these elections.
First of all, the number of political parties keep increasing. From some three political parties in 1999, we had a record 73 in 2019. Now we have 17 and another set of over 100 associations have applied for registration. Also, INEC has introduced a number of technological innovations, which have proved to be game changers and enhanced the transparency of elections.
They range from the DDCMs to the Permanent Voter Card(PVC) to the Smart Card Reader(SCR) to the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System(BVAS) etc. Though these innovations are inspired by our peculiar needs and designed by INEC engineers, they are manufactured abroad. And they certainly cost money.
Secondly, an exponential increase in the number of political parties increases the quantity of election materials such as ballot papers, results sheets, cubicles and ballot boxes. These are either printed or manufactured abroad. These sensitive materials, particularly the ballot papers and results sheets, are usually color-coded, they bear water marks and other security features at par with the requirements for printing currencies.
Third, and related to the aforementioned, these sensitive materials are procured in dollars. During the conduct of the 2015 General Elections the Naira exchanged at 119 to the dollar. Today it exchanges at N570 and counting. As the naira plummets against the dollar, so do we have an inverse increase in cost.
Fourth, in the course of conducting general elections, the Commission deploys staff – ad hoc and permanent- beyond the total number of all the armies in the West African sub region. With existing 176,846 Polling Units (PUs) across the country, it requires, going by the template used in the 2019 elections, four ad hoc staff per Polling Unit. This comes to: 707,384. This is not to add Collation Officers, Returning Officers, Supervisory Officers etc. It will require at least two security agents to man each of these PUs. This comes to 353,692 . Additionally, you will have security agents stationed at the ward level and at state boundaries providing Outer Security Cordon. These staff and security agents have to be trained, fed, transported and paid duty allowances.
Fifth, out of 8,809 Wards or Registration Area Centres (RACs) across the country, a number of Super RACs (a cluster of RACs) are usually created to facilitate the massing of staff and security agents who would at first light on Election Day, fan out to the respective PUs and set up for early opening of polls. At these Super RACs, apart from election materials, mattresses, mats, water (through GEPEE Tanks) and electricity(using generators) are provided by the Commission.
Sixth, other costs include air freighting sensitive materials from their various destinations abroad to our international airports and thence to our local airports for distribution to the vaults of the central bank in the states. Some of these materials are transported to challenging terrains requiring the logistics support of the Air Force and the Navy. Other costs relate to voter education and publicity; litigations arising from the elections; or court-ordered elections, arising from lack of internal democracy in the parties where candidates are foisted rough shod.
It is ineluctable from the foregoing that the cost of elections, in which INEC provides nearly everything, must be huge, if not “humongous” as it is being alleged. But how do we, going forward, cut down on these costs and sustain our democracy project?
First, the way to go is that our political parties must comport themselves responsibly by respecting the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999 as amended) the Electoral Act, their party constitutions and their manifestoes in following due process during the conduct of primaries. Once candidates forwarded to INEC are products of valid primaries, there will not be court-ordered elections in the aftermath of general elections, thereby saving billions of Naira.
Second, the law must be amended such that not all registered parties can contest elections. Only parties which meet certain benchmarks or cross certain thresholds set by law should be on the ballot. This will substantially reduce the quantity of election materials and drastically bring down costs.
Third, some of the amendments being canvassed by the Commission and civil society such as electronic transmission of results, will cut down on manual collation of results, remove at least three layers of collation(at Ward, Local Government Area and State for presidential election) and associated costs and risks. This is why the bill must be robustly supported, passed and timeously assented to by the President.
Fourth, the federal government, should as a matter of urgency and in the national interest, put the Nigeria Security Printing and Minting Company(NSPMC) in fine fettle by equipping it with state-o- the-art machines. That way, sensitive election materials can be printed locally, hard currency can be saved, more Nigerians will be employed and the perennial logistics nightmare INEC faces can be history.
Fifth, INEC must continue to improve on its reverse logistics and retrieval of election materials. Valuables such as GEPEE Tanks, generators, mats, mattresses etc should be retrieved and safeguarded for subsequent elections.
Sixth, Nigerians, and all stakeholders in the electoral process, should be educated to understand that INEC equipment and properties are investments from their tax and they owe an obligation and duty to protect and safeguard them.
Seventh, our politics should be service-driven and not lucre-driven. Premium should henceforth be laid on making political office financially unattractive. A situation where politics gives the highest return on investment fosters desperation which results in violence and which in turn sullies and diminishes the quality of our elections. Violence increases costs since INEC has to repeat elections at PUs where there are disruptions.
Eighth, INEC must, as a policy, continue to be upfront with information concerning virtually all its activities so that it can elicit desired sympathy and support from critical stakeholders such as the media and civil society. The Commission cannot assume that because its intentions are altruistic or high minded, it will automatically get the buy-in of stakeholders.
Ultimately, the cost of elections will come down if there is trust between stakeholders and INEC. Trust has to be earned by INEC by dint of transparency, impartiality, fairness and conducting excellent elections. Once elections are consistently adjudged to be superlative, they will become routine and we do not, in that context, need to emboss our “sensitive” materials with expensive security features or color-code them. The ball is in INEC’s court.
Dazang is the immediate past Director of Media and Public Enlightenment of INEC