By Taofeeq Alatise
As the NBA election draws closer, the issue it has thrown up remains largely unaddressed. No doubt, the biennial political exercise provides a veritable opportunity for learned men to decide the direction of their professional association by electing leaders of their choice. However, the issue here is not the prospect of lawyers electing their leaders but the process that is put in place to actualise it.
In his bid to fulfil one of his election promises, the Alegeh-led administration intends to conduct this year’s NBA election electronically, using online medium. Indeed, efforts have been made in this regard with the ongoing online pre-accreditation of eligible voters, which is expected to culminate into publication of updated voters’ register. This commendable effort, if logically concluded, is expected to replace the hitherto but now out of tune delegate system, which has come under heightened controversy because what is ordinarily supposed to be a free contest of ideas, now disenfranchises a vast majority of equally qualified voters whose input cannot be brushed aside.
Now, let us revisit the opening statement of this article. The forthcoming election will be done – or at least expected to be done – through online medium. What this means is that eligible voters are expected to visit a dedicated e-voting platform to cast their votes. The implication of this is that the right of a voter to vote is based on his ability to use, or availability of, internet facilities. Expectedly, this laudable initiative has come under intense criticism, with some approaching the Court for judicial pronouncement. Whether genuine or ill-conceived, what is certain is that the well-intended arrangement is likely to leave in its wake a fragmented association, if some issues are not timely addressed. The association of workers in the country, NLC, used to be a very strong and influential organisation until very recently when as a result of bickering arising from a disputed election, the association became factionalised with a negative concomitant effect on its ability to mobilise its members to challenge government policies. This was what played out during the last nationwide strike called by NLC. While a faction of the union was observing the industrial action, the other faction was dining with the government. In the end, the Wabba-led faction had to “call off” the strike in what many considered a face-saving move. This is what a responsive organisation like NBA should avoid. The signs are ominous and there is need for caution.
Many believe – and justifiably so – that the present arrangement, without a fall back plan, is likely to disenfranchise a vast majority of eligible voters who for no fault of theirs are unable to exercise their franchise. It is a believable fact that internet facility in the country is still at its low ebb, and with over one hundred local branches spread across cities and towns in the country, many of them still without or poor internet facility, one is bound to question the legitimacy such an arrangement would likely throw up. Network providers have, of late, come under criticism from subscribers because of poor quality service delivery. On many occasions, making calls from one network to another has become a stressful exercise, making subscribers to feel ill at ease. If this is so, how much more could be said of internet facilities which largely depend on very strong network service to operate optimally. We are in a country where a 3G network takes minutes and sometimes hours to send a short instant “Whatsapp message!”. The concern here is whether any one thought of that lawyer whose branch is in a remote area where internet facilities are a rarity? And this is a lawyer that has been discharging his financial obligations to NBA, both nationally and locally. Clearly, such a lawyer would have been disenfranchised and his only offence would be that he belongs to a branch that the national body refused to factor in their deliberations. How unfair! How unjust! And this is why we feel the leadership of NBA should tread with caution in order to prevent what is seemingly an avoidable crises.
The fear being expressed in some quarters is fairly justified given the considerable uncertainty pervading the present arrangement. The point must be stressed that the new commendable system could rubbish the intention of the planners, thereby creating more problems than it solves. Let it not be that in our haste to embrace technology, we wittingly or unwittingly sacrifice the rights of our members to vote. This should be the ultimate drive. Being an innovation, NBA should not in one fell swoop embrace it without concern for its likely fallout.
The last general election conducted by the country’s electoral body, INEC, has shown that technology, however, imperative it might be, is not a fool-proof science. Card readers are deployed by INEC in order to authenticate voter’s card but in a number of cases it broke down, necessitating the electoral body to resort to the use of ‘incident forms’. Now, this is what is likely to occur when technology is embraced without a ‘Plan B’, especially in its formative stage. The difference between the card reader experience and the NBA online voting exercise as proposed is that as at the moment, there has yet to be a palliative measure to address what could reasonably be a fallout of the online voting.
While we believe that the current litigation is too much of a distraction for NBA, there is need for those aggrieved and the leadership of NBA to consider out-of-court settlement and negotiate for a position that is agreeable to all. We suggest that the national body should work hand in gloves with its local branches to put in place measures that would address genuine concerns of those likely to be disenfranchised because of the issues identified above. We are of the opinion that the national body should consider using the online platform side by side with a manual arrangement.
First, let us have a manual voters register as compiled by the local branches but sanctioned by the the national body. Second, the local branches should conduct the election in each of the branches, with the supervision of the official from National body and if need be, some security agents to ensure a peaceful conduct.
*Alatise writes from University of Ilori