Three major bills designed to facilitate our elections were tabled and passed by the 8th National Assembly, but failed to win the assent of President Muhammadu Buhari. Some of them were presented to the President more than once, some more than thrice. The President found reasons to decline. In one instance, he said it was due to poor drafting. In another, he felt the legislation was too close to the 2019 election and might confuse the electorate. Many Nigerians understood the President’s viewpoint; many more were confounded. When several misfortunes beset the 2019 elections, many Nigerians reflected that the chickens have come home to roost.
The damning reports by many important election observers were testimonies that the 2019 election was in the words of Mr. Clement Nwankwo, “a relapse” when compared to 2015. The President was re-elected, but many misgivings followed that verdict, some of it blamed on his unwillingness to assent to the Constitutional Alteration Bill (2018), Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill (2018) and the Electoral Offences Commission (2018). The bills which apparently died at the end of the 8th National Assembly should be resuscitated.
It was, therefore, reassuring when last week the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, appealed to the National Assembly to enact the Electoral Offences Commission. His most immediate concern was, of course, the unacceptably high level of violence recorded in the November 16 gubernatorial elections in Kogi and Bayelsa states. Mahmood said it was time to take decisive action against electoral offenders. Speaking at the Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room Stakeholders Forum in Abuja, Yakubu said INEC was in full support of legislation to punish electoral offenders who got away with too many grave offences. He was represented at the Forum by Mr. Festus Okoye, INEC’s national commissioner, who noted that setting up the commission would break the cycle of impunity related to electoral offences. INEC, he said, had made it clear that it lacked the capacity and the wherewithal to prosecute electoral offenders.
Therefore, we appeal to the National Assembly to give the country a comprehensive legislation to make our democracy more practical and more transparent as well as peaceful. We re-echo the appeal of many Nigerians that such legislation should embrace the recommendations contained in the Justice Mohammed Uwais report of 2008, the Sheikh Muhammadu Lemo panel of inquiry on electoral violence of 2011, and the Nnamani Panel (2018).
One of the main points of disagreement, especially with the Executive Branch has been the manner of the appointment of the head of the electoral umpire. The Uwais panel had looked through international best practices and recommended a competitive recruitment of the INEC chairman, not an umpire appointed by the Executive Branch to whom he is bound to owe a fealty, or so it seems to the general populace and external observers. Given our background as a land where corruption thrives, we think that time has come for the Executive to be honest to Nigerians and let our independent electoral commission be chaired by a truly independently appointed official, not one appointed through the good offices of the Presidency. The example of South Africa is there for all to see. It has worked well in that country and we think it will work here as well.
The INEC’s list of offences that are common during elections should be closely studied and legislation designed to stamp them out when enacted. Issues like multiple voting and underage registrations have surfaced several times. Video footage of under-aged voters have outraged some observers and cast doubts on the reliability of electoral officials to do a thorough job. Breach of peace is one issue the police are expected to take care of.
It has been sorely disappointing when such incidents occur in the polling stations under the nose of the police. The publication of fake results has been rare but must be discouraged all the same. Disruption of the electoral process is almost always the handiwork of hired thugs and militias. This is a major area of concern which any new legislation must attempt to curb if not stamp out. Destruction of electoral materials is often the assignment of thugs. It merits exemplary punishment.
Ballot box snatching is executed also by hired thugs when they sense their sponsors are losing at particular polling units. These are grave offences. Ballot box stuffing and vote-padding are clearly acts to sabotage the democratic process and should be punished. The harassment of electoral officers is an attempt to subvert the election. If democracy must be a way of life for Nigerians, we must make a thorough arrangement to facilitate elections and make them free, fair, and peaceful.