By Omoniyi Salaudeen
This is a stock-taking session for both the government and individuals. At the level of the government, one of the issues that have dominated national discourse is the desire to enhance the efficiency and credibility of electoral process through enactment of relevant laws that would empower the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to do its job to the satisfaction of all.
In the run up to the 2019 general elections, the National Assembly had presented an Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2018 to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent, but he refused to append his signature, noting that the bill would usurp the constitutional powers of the INEC to decide on election matters, including fixing the dates and the order of the arrangement.
In a letter addressed to the National Assembly on December 6, 2018, the President had expressed concern that passing a new electoral bill too close to the 2019 general election would create uncertainty about the applicable legislation to govern the process.
The letter reads in part: “Pursuant to Section 58 (4) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), I hereby convey to the Senate, my decision on 6th December 2018 to decline Presidential Assent to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2018 recently passed by the National Assembly.
“I am declining assent to the Bill principally because I am concerned that passing a new electoral bill this far into the electoral process for the 2019 general elections, which commenced under the 2015 Electoral Act, could create some uncertainty about the applicable legislation to govern the process.
“Any real or apparent change to the rules this close to the election may provide an opportunity for disruption and confusion in respect of which law governs the electoral process.
“This leads me to believe that it is in the best interest of the country and our democracy for the National Assembly to specifically state in the Bill that the Electoral Act will come into effect and be applicable to elections commencing after the 2019 General Elections.”
Now that the next general election is barely some two years away, political actors are united in their renewed advocacy for collaborative effort between the legislature and the executive to create the necessary enabling laws.
Going by the timetable already released by the INEC, the presidential election is expected to hold on February 18, 2023. This, in effect, means that the umpire has a two-year time lag to make adequate preparation for voters’ education, the proposed migration from manual to electronic voting, importation of machines, ad hoc staff training, and other logistic matters.
According to the Chairman of the Commission, Prof Yakubu Mahmood, the Anambra State governorship election holding this year may be used as a litmus test for the planned migration from manual to electronic voting system. While defending its budget before the National Assembly, the erudite professor said: “We are determined that we are going to deploy electronic voting machines, electronic balloting machines very soon in our elections, possibly beginning with the Anambra governorship election next year.”
As part the aggressive drive to transform the process, Yakubu had in September 2020 disclosed that 40 manufacturers of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) from different parts of the globe had been invited to practically demonstrate the viability of the voting machines. No official statement has been made on the outcome of the exhibition.
However, with the renewed commitment to the transparency of the process, many stakeholders are optimistic that the initiative would not only enhance the credibility of the electoral process, but also mark a radical departure from the past experience characterized by underage voting, ballot stuffing and snatching.
Already, the comparative success recorded in the recent Edo and Ondo states elections has given a boost to the public confidence in the electoral process through direct transmission of results from the polling units to collation centres at the ward and local government levels.
Mahood, who was apparently enthusiastic about the ongoing reform agenda, assured that the country’s elections would get better with electronic voting, urging the National Assembly to do the needful.
His words: “We have clearly demonstrated in recent elections that elections are getting better and they will continue to get better.
“This time around, working with the National Assembly, we’ll ensure a speedy passage of the amendment bill and once it is assented to, it will help us enormously in confronting the challenges ahead.
“Preparations for 2023 general elections have proceeded in earnest. We need certainty and therefore the electoral legal framework is fundamental, without which we cannot formulate our regulations and guidelines. Without our regulations and guidelines, we cannot conclude work on the manual for the training of ad-hoc staff for the elections.”
A former Chairman of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Lagos State, Tunji Shelle, appraising the performance of the INEC in the recent Edo and Ondo states elections, expressed optimism that migration to electronic voting would enhance the credibility of the process.
He said: “INEC has started well so far by transmitting results direct from polling units to collation centres at the ward and local government levels. The next level is to intensify effort to ensure that card readers work efficiently. If results are transmitted direct from polling units, I assure you, everybody will be happy whether he or she loses or wins.
“I think INEC has done well, despite the fact that the last general election was not well managed in most places especially in the North. Rigging, thump printing and underage voting were all over the place. The returning officers were compromised to a very large extent. For example, in Rivers State, if not that the governor fought his own battle; the result would have been upturned.”
While urging the National Assembly to ensure a speedy passage of the amended electoral bill to give legal backing to the proposed electronic voting, he added: “I am happy INEC chairman has been reappointed. He is a complete gentleman. INEC has done its own bit, but the law is yet to be passed. Now, they want to go electronic as much as possible. The current electoral act does not support electronic voting. This has to be done as soon as possible for the job of INEC to be easy; otherwise, we will go back to the cycle of rigging and maladministration of electoral process.
So, I want the National Assembly to do its own part and I want the president too to append his signature to the electoral laws that has been prepared. That is the only thing that can save us. INEC is ready to upgrade its job by introducing electronic voting.
“I know there would be hitches here and there. Those people in the North will give us excuse that they can’t understand the process. They have to be taught. Let the education start from now.”
Similarly, a former governor of Ekiti State, Mr Segun Oni, also joined his voice to the advocacy, stressing the need for the National Assembly to expedite action on the passage and implementation of the new reform bill.
His words: “I am aware that there is a new electoral reform bill before the National Assembly. The first thing they (lawmakers) should do is to get it passed and then present it to the president for his assent. Already, they have conducted public hearing on the bill. So, the next stage is to ensure proper implementation of the amended act. If they do that, there will be a lot of improvement.
“We are not likely to get perfect. As you can see, even the United States of America, the so-called democracy brand, has shown the imperfection in its system. We should be prepared to solve our own problems in our own way. But let us implement the reformed electoral act first and ensure that the recommendations are followed to the letter.
“I believe that if we can transmit results electronically straight from the polling units to collation centres, it will save a lot of embarrassment. The object of the new electoral act is to see that people’s votes count. Once we ensure that the polling units get their pride of place, elections will be better.”
But for Ebenezer Babatope, a former Minister of Transport and erstwhile member of the BoT of the PDP, INEC must first of all address its credibility deficit for the new electoral reform bill to achieve its set objectives.
“INEC should be concerned with winning the support and confidence of the people by ensuring that the next election is free, fair and credible. Because of our past experiences, there is a general belief that INEC can do anything to scuttle the will of the people. So, the first step towards rebuilding public confidence is for the umpire to resolve its own image problem because nobody believes INEC can conduct credible election,” he said.
According to him, the applause being given to the electoral body for the successful conduct of Edo and Ondo governorship elections may not be enough to guarantee the sustainability of the process unless the proposed plan to migrate from manual to electronic voting is backed by the willingness to turn a new leaf.
“Ondo State election was not in any way credible. The Edo State election was credible because the people were very clear in their minds as to the choice of candidate they wanted to govern them. But the Ondo election was fraught with electoral fraud and electoral malpractices. Let the INEC convince the Nigerian people that it is prepared to conduct free, fair and credible elections. If the INEC makes up its mind to give the people of Nigeria credible election, electronic voting will dictate the pattern. But for as long as we have an unwilling passenger at the back of the vehicle, we will be wasting our time,” he posited.
Meanwhile, the National Secretary of the rulung All Progressives Congress (APC) Caretaker/Extraordinary Convention Planning Committee (CECPC), Senator John Akpan Udoedehe, has said that “electoral reform is a core plank of the programmes of the APC-led administration and a legacy that Mr. President has promised to bequeath to Nigerians.”
Beyond rhetoric, people are looking forward to expeditious passage of the new reform bill to give the INEC enough time to prepare and test run the workability of electronic voting system before the 2023 general elections.