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‘Vote buying has been part of Nigeria’s polling process’

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Abiola

Dr. Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, chairperson, Transition Monitoring Group  (TMG) and founding director, Women Advocate Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), speaks with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, on vote-buying and other electoral issues ahead of the 2019 election

With Ekiti State as a case study, with the sale of votes, when did it become a norm to brazenly buy votes at election polls?
Vote buying has been a part of the country’s electoral politics for a while; its dimension is what is changing. You will agree with me that one of the challenges of our electoral politics has been the role money and other incentives play in the choice of candidates at both the party nomination phase and voting in elections. In the recent past, party leaders have been compensated to see to the emergence of certain candidates while community leaders, gate keepers and in some instances religious and thought leaders have been at the fore of negotiating electoral choices for communities based on the incentives offered by candidates.

The above practices have been encouraged by the ability of politicians to undermine the polling process, and their determination to exploit the vulnerability of the people and the tacit approval of communities based on the bargains that have been made by communities and local politicians and sometimes by polling officials further compromise the system. This was also possible because of the largely manual systems that were susceptible to manipulation. However, with the technological improvement in the electoral process including in the registration of voters, accreditation, voting and compilation of results, it is becoming increasingly difficult for politicians to manipulate the process and, therefore, the need to seek alternative means of influencing the outcome of elections. The Ekiti election was apparently a market place and is just a progression and trajectory in the desperation of politicians to influence the outcome of elections by all means necessary.

This is one of the reasons why the turf has shifted to vote-buying where politicians are sure their investment amounts to votes rather than promises on the part of community leaders and local political actors. As said earlier, vote-buying is not a new phenomenon but the dimension it has taken is a function of the desperation of politicians to continuously find way of manipulating the system. After the 2007 elections, far-reaching reforms have taken place in the electoral process and vote-buying is a response to these changes.  We have seen this rise as a phenomenon after the 2015 elections where the staggered elections have seen INEC try out its new technologies. The biggest challenge is that with each of these elections the brazenness and impunity of the buying is on the rise and this is the main challenge as we move towards 2019 elections. It doesn’t portend well for our democracy and elections, as an expression of peoples will. You will agree with me that in the face of debilitating poverty and governance, voters see this as their own opportunity to get a slice of the cake. As we build up to 2019, this is one challenge that we all have to bring to the table and have a conversation about; the election managers, political parties and actors, non-state actors and the citizens must sit together and define a path to dealing with this menace.

While stressing the importance of getting PVCs, where do we draw the line with PVC serving as a ticket for ‘stomach infrastructure’?
In the past, voters did not need proper identification to be used in rigging elections. This was arranged by politicians and their cohorts. Now the rule of the game has changed and rigging elections can only be actualised by voting. This is what is driving the new turf of rigging contestation to the value of the conscience of the voter armed with his/her PVC; This in itself also points in the direction of where actions should be targeted towards dealing with this trend; a political consciousness of the voter, his appreciation of the elections in the broader scheme of development in society and the power he/she yields with a PVC in determining the outcome of elections and governance in general

Voters must be encouraged to get their PVCs, it still holds the key to getting citizens to participate in the electoral process and the opportunity elections present for the people to evaluate leadership, interrogate development agenda and effect change where necessary in an electoral democracy. The challenge, however, is what they do with the PVC and as I said earlier this must be hinged on appreciation of the power of the vote.

What will be the pathway for us as a nation for future elections especially as the 2019 elections approach?
As I mentioned earlier, it’s about each and every one coming together to take a stand against this ugly monster that is posing a threat to our democracy. The issue of vote buying has political, economic, social and legal implication. Political in the sense that the government of the day must have the will to address the problem. There is a need to urgently pass the electoral offences commission law to sanction offenders and empower security agencies to arrest the offender. In fact, there should be laws that can suspend or remove any political party engaged in such atrocities. Without a strict law and ability to prosecute, the impunity will not stop. That addresses both political and legal point of view. On the economic aspect, there is great poverty in the land and people are finding it more difficult to survive and can do anything to put food on the table. Ekiti stomach infrastructure (2014) to ‘see and buy’ voter practice in 2018, show the extent to which the society has lost the ability to resist temptation from the crooked politicians.

It shows desperation of our political class and the irresponsibility of the leading political parties. The sociology of this is that we cannot blame only the giver; the buyer is complicit in this system of vote-buying. One would have thought that the communities or the people would rather use their state of poverty to demand accountability through their votes; the reverse is however, the case. Thus, a new phase of voter engagement needs to be undertaken, the rules and its application against vote-buying must be strengthened and ways to ensure compliance of already existing provisions must be sought by INEC and security agencies. We must translate votes to accountability tools; the Civil Society Organisations (CSO) and other honest stakeholders must work on orientation of the people in this regard.

Furthermore, the secrecy of the ballot must be guaranteed because this is one loophole that is being exploited by the political parties and their agents where they are able to verify the choice made by voters. INEC should be thinking hard on how it intends to set up polling booths and ballot boxes to stem this tide. If I cannot as a politician authenticate your choice, then it will be a folly to pay a voter on his mere admission that he/she has voted for me.

The implication of this trend for inclusion presents one of the biggest drawbacks we should be worried about. Vote-buying has just raised the cost of elections in the country and if you are a keen observer of our electoral process and read the extensive research that has gone into factors that undermine the inclusion of vulnerable groups including women, young people and persons with disabilities in our electoral politics, you would agree with me that money is one. With this trend I doubt if the recently signed age reduction bill will make any difference for young people who want to contest public office without adequate resources. We have made a lot of gains in mobilising women’s participation in politics as well as support for contesting elections but this will be greatly undermined while the work we have done towards PWDs taking active part in electoral politics will come to null if we do not arrest the vote-buying menace.

Our elections must serve the democratic principle of inclusion in all its phases; the desperation of politicians should not be allowed to undermine this, Nigeria is dire need of all hands on deck to deal with the myriads of problems we face as a country. No one should be left out in this effort but with vote-buying we are about to close the door to an all-inclusive national development path.

Should the National Assembly make it a constitutional matter or make a law to arrest and prosecute culprits?
The electoral act provides for sanctions for electoral offences which vote buying of which is one, but look at elections in the country since the return to democracy. How many people have been prosecuted for election offences? What this tells me is that we should be interested in systems, structures, processes and actions that can stem this tide from a more practical perspective rather than legal provisions alone. As I said earlier, beyond the existing laws in the criminal code, penal code and the electoral act, there is a need for an electoral offences tribunal or commission to focus partly on ensuring that all forms of electoral violence are adjudicated upon and effectively treated. This call has been made since the Uwais committee on electoral reform, to Lemu committee, the 2014 National Conference and several CSO’s including the Transition Monitoring Group and Election Situation Room have followed up on the call but the political class is reluctant to take this step. I know that the likely challenge of the law is how to determine that vote is being bought when the payments are made secretly in the precinct of the polling unit; smart politicians and lawyers will technically undermine prosecution of such cases, but good law first. We must insist that the law is passed before 2019. Beyond the law, we would do well to use practical approaches to deal with the menace before it occurs and as I said earlier one way of doing that is how INEC structures its polling units among others.

What is the way forward for us as a nation?
We must collectively take action on this; nip it in the bud while still possible. With the host of challenges facing us a country we can’t afford a new problem on a national scale such as vote-buying in the general election and take corruption to a new height and erode accountability and people’s power which we need at this point to set our country on the path to greatness.


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