Experts list ‘hidden’ electoral offences
LEGAL experts have decried apparent lack of knowledge and information regarding what constitute electoral offences, which, according to them, could undermine the March 28 Presidential and National Assembly elections.
They also argued that, since ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse,’ many Nigerians who lack the requisite knowledge about what constitute such offences might inadvertently be heading to jail or inching close to paying huge fine.
However, while legal luminary, Prof. Itse Sagay, said the electoral system should overlook some of the offences because of inadequate sensitisation of voters, which he blamed on government and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Port Harcourt-based lawyer, Ifedayo Adedipe, said the system would continue to be weakened as long as the law is not allowed to take its full course.
The duo, both Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs), spoke to The Guardian on how the legal instrument binding the conduct of elections in Nigeria should be made effective to strengthen the country’s democracy.
Apart from the fact that inadequate information on these offences could prevent the poll from being conducted with the full legal coverage provided for the exercise, many voters, in the course of exercising their civic responsibilities, may be unwittingly voting their way into jail.
For instance, a seemingly harmless advice from a neighbour to another to vote for a particular candidate, while both of them are on the queue to collect their ballot papers, could earn the ‘adviser’ a jail term; while wearing of a hand-band or vests made in party colours, could also earn the culprit an uncomfortable stay behind bars.
Specifically, the Electoral Act states that an election offence is committed when the legal framework guiding the conduct of the poll is violated; penalties for such violations range from six months to two years imprisonment, while fines range from N100, 000 to N500, 000. Depending on the course of justice, a convicted offender could pay the fine and still serve the prison sentence.
The offences, as stated in the guidelines published by the INEC, focus on preventing continuation of votes canvassing after the official closure of campaigns, 24 hours to election, multiple voting, intimidation or inducement aimed at influencing the choice of a voter, spreading unauthorised information and causing chaos or any act that could tamper with the peace of the voting area.
In the list of offences by the electoral body, any person who has more than one valid voter card is liable, on conviction, to a fine of N100, 000 and/or one year imprisonment. A person, who attempts to impersonate another person — whether living or dead — is liable, upon conviction, to pay N500, 000 or spend one year in jail; the same penalty for a person found to have voted more than once in an election.
The list also includes offences committed by politicians or those canvassing for votes on polls day, who may want to induce voters. And it stated that any person caught giving money to people to vote or refrain from voting for a candidate is liable to a fine of N100, 000 or one year in prison. A person who shouts party slogans or wears any dress or facial decorations identifiable with a particular political party or candidate is liable to a fine of N100, 000 or six months imprisonment or both.
The weight of the law is also hanging on any person who knowingly voted or attempted to vote in a constituency where he did not register. Upon conviction he or she will pay a fine of N100, 000 or go to jail for six months, while a person that snatches or destroys ballot papers/boxes will spend the next 24 months in jail without any option of fine.
And to protect the peace of the voting area and prevent dissemination of false information, the list of offences has it that any person inciting or causing others to incite people to violence will pay a fine of N500, 000 or spend 12 months in prison or both. Anybody that makes unauthoriSed official announcement will get six months in prison and/or pay a N100, 000 fine.
For the protection of the sanctity of the ballot paper and the secrecy of the choice of the voter, the list recommended N100, 000 fine and/or six months imprisonment for anybody that passes information about the candidate a person has voted or intended to vote for in a manner that would expose the choice of the voter.
While it could be argued that many Nigerians are unaware of these offences — because of the low flow of information about them to the public arena — Adedipe said the weakness of the electoral body, as an institution saddled with the conduct of free polls to bring offenders to book, is also culpable.
The Senior Advocate, an expert in post-election litigation, who had handled many election petition tribunal cases, blamed the low awareness of Nigerians about election offences and their penalties on the electoral and judicial systems that have not been able, for many years, to convict any person for an election offence.
According to him, “it is strange that, in a country that has many years of election crises caused mainly by non-adherence to election principles and guidelines, not a single person has been apprehended, tried and convicted for running foul of electoral law.
“When you don’t have any conviction since the country’s Independence in 1960 and having such a history of election violence and aberrations that often threaten the unity and progress of the nation, one is not surprised that politicians still continue to look for ways of cutting corners to deny Nigerians their rights of choosing their preferred candidates.”
Sagay, in his contribution, also blamed the electoral umpire and the government for the lack of information among Nigerians saying: “If I am not a lawyer, I wouldn’t have known these things. Actually there is a serious lapse on the part of INEC and government generally. I will not blame political parties.
“There is not enough voter education because these things are supposed to be highlighted on radio and television to draw attention to them. Because of these serious omissions we are operating on a system where people could only act on impulse.
“What it means is that if a person did not commit big infractions like disturbing the peace, impersonation or multiple voting, the little ones should be overlooked. The person should just be warned. I am saying this because of the lack of education on these offences.”
The INEC, however, declared that it lacked the capacity to prosecute the cases and the commission has requested for the establishment of the Electoral Offences Commission (EOC) to try offenders many of who have the backing of powerful politicians.
INEC Chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega said early this year that the electoral body simply lacks the capacity to commence and sustain prosecution of election offenders, adding that the legal unit of the electoral commission is not a match for the barrage of electoral cases.
Jega disclosed that since his emergence as the Chairman of INEC, about 200 electoral offenders have been tried, a feat, which he said was achieved in Nigeria for the first time.
According to him, “we have a very small legal unit in INEC and at any time that legal unit is overwhelmed with either prosecuting pre- election cases or election tribunal cases or clearly legal work just on issues of election procedures and so on overwhelms our legal unit. And that is why we have done our best to prosecute more than any commission; we still feel that there is need for this electoral offenses commission, in order to drive the prosecution of electoral offences.
“So it is not that we have not done any thing. We have done our best but clearly, our best is not good enough because we are also busy doing other things so this is one area where INEC can be unbundled. Somebody else can be given that kind of responsibility so that they can do it with appreciable result. We have done it but because it is a drop in the ocean people don’t think we have done anything.”