We commend the Senate for its thoughtfulness in trying to amend the 2010 Electoral Act. We are especially gratified that it is doing so in good time and not 24 hours to the 2019 elections, as has been our habit on such matters. Part of the usefulness of the amendments at this time is that it permits ample time for not only the House of Representatives, but Nigerians in general, to reflect on the law and offer workable ideas to improve our elections, thereby improving the quality of governance and the advancement of democracy.
One of the high points of the amendments has been the formal codification of the use of electronic devices in our elections. This has finally put to rest the nagging doubts about the electronic card reader introduced during the 2015 elections. Section 52(2) enjoins the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to “adopt electronic voting in all elections,” but it was also reasonable in stating that INEC could adopt “any other method of voting as may be determined by the commission from time to time.” It thus leaves INEC the discretion of other methods whenever electronic voting may be impracticable in an election.
Electronic devices are to be used not just to accredit and authenticate but to also verify and confirm the true identity of voters. They would also help facilitate the transmission of results from the polling stations to the collating centres in an “encrypted and secure manner to prevent hacking.” The hope is that this would not only reduce mischief but also reduce the tedium and interval between polling and the release of results. Optimists also think it will make ballot-box snatching obsolete.
We think that with the early passage of the amendments, INEC now has enough advance notice and warning about the electronic devices. In 2015, the card-reader tested the patience and forbearance of millions of voters, including the then president, Goodluck Jonathan, when it failed to work after repeated attempts. The devices must be supplied well in advance and thoroughly tested before the polling day. There must be no hitches whatsoever because hitches undermine the confidence of the voter in the credibility of the final outcome.
The new amendment in S.36 (3a, b and c) takes care of a situation in which a candidate in an election dies before the result of the election is announced, as happened with Governor Abubakar Audu in Kogi State. The amendment stipulates that “if after the commencement of polling and before the announcement of the final result and the declaration of a winner, a nominated candidate dies, the commission shall after being satisfied of the fact of the death, suspend elections for a period not exceeding 21 days.” The affected party would then conduct fresh primaries and submit a new candidate to INEC.
An important amendment, Section 19 “compels INEC to display a copy of the voters’ register for each local government, Area Council or Ward at every registration area and on its official website.” The display and accessibility of the voters’ register have been contentious in previous elections, and the best guarantee of maximum participation in an election is to make sure the voter knows where to go on polling day rather than searching for hours the location where his or her name appears in the voters’ register.
The new amendment prescribes a five-year prison sentence or N5 million fine, or both, for officials of INEC who are discovered to be members of a political party. The bill also limits the powers of the courts to stop the conduct of political parties’ primaries. It also reduced the powers of the president and the governors by stripping them of the powers of control of party primaries by removing political appointees as party delegates. It also placed limits on how much the political parties can charge members for nomination forms. Aspirants for councillorship positions would not be charged more than N150,000; local government chairmen, N250,000; House of Assembly, N500,000; House of Representatives, N1,000,000; Senate, 2,000,000; Governor, N5,000,000; President, N10,000,000. These charges underscore the overwhelming influence of money in Nigerian politics. The Senate seems to believe it has reduced the charges to the barest minimum, which is a reflection of how rich political office holders have become and why incumbents tend to do everything, including resorting to violence, to remain in office.
We do not see any new ideas on how to curb electoral crimes like bribery, thuggery and sundry violence. We urge Nigerians to reflect on the amendments and advance their ideas on how to make our democracy work better. The fact that hundreds of INEC officers allegedly received billions of naira bribes and are now facing criminal charges should make every lover of democracy know that it is not yet Uhuru for democracy in Nigeria.