Committee should adopt Justice Uwais report, says Nsirimovu
The chairman, Niger Delta Civil Society Coalition and deputy national coordinator, Independent Election Monitoring Group, Mr. Anyakwee Nsirimovu, told KELVIN EBIRI that failure to implement recommendations of the Justice Mohammed Uwais committee on electoral reform is partly responsible for challenges the country is grappling with electorally.
What is your assessment on conduct of elections by INEC, particularly in Kogi and Rivers States?
To have a clear grasp of what the elections were like, under this government, you have to take them one by one, including the circumstances that led to their inconclusiveness.
If you take, for instance, Rivers State, you had an electoral environment that was not suitable for a free, fair and credible election. One of those factors was violence. Then you had intimidation, which resulted from that violence. And you had, at the end of the day, an inconclusive election. The Kogi election that was not concluded was because one of the candidates died.
Under this government, INEC has done what it needed to do by appointing a chairman. INEC has had problems of logistics. Frankly, the problem with INEC was not funding, but electoral environment. Talking from an observer’s point of view, no matter how prepared you are for an election, if the voters and political parties are not willing to behave themselves and comply with the electoral law, there is nothing an independent institution can do about it. If the people are always wiling and ready to corrupt the electoral process, it will be difficult to say that INEC was not prepared for these elections.
But there are areas of concern. And I think that is why the government is talking of reviewing the situation through the new committee it has put in place.
Is a new committee necessary when past committee recommendations have never been implemented?
The Justice Uwais committee that the late President Umaru Yar’Adua put in place produced a comprehensive report that if implemented would have taken us very far. The fact that such report was not fully implemented is disheartening. There was, as usual, this idea of ‘pick and chose’ from the report by the National Assembly. And that has affected elections.
The issues raised in that report were not holistically taken. And that is the reason if you remove the human factor, in terms of the legal framework, some of those things that were not taken are responsible for the kinds of problem we have had. Take, for instance, the issue of violence or the candidates. What do you do with those who commit crime during elections? The Uwais committee recommended a tribunal to speedily try those who engage in criminal activities during elections. From 1999 till date, how many people have been charged to court, as a result of their violent activities during elections?
I think the whole essence of this new committee should be recognition of the fact that there are loopholes and they need to be blocked. Thereafter, it should deal with the human factors, which some people say are inevitable.
The Uwais committee dealt with the issue of timing, candidate, tribunal, and control of INEC officials, for instance, the case of the former Resident Electoral Commissioner in Rivers State. People complained after the 2015 elections, but her position remained intact. And under the present law, there is nothing INEC can do to remove her because the President appointed her.
If you look at the issue of card reader during cases in the tribunals and even at the Supreme Court, people argued that it is not in the electoral law, but merely an INEC regulation. And that is something to which so much money has been invested.
Most of these issues were dealt with in the Uwais committee report, unless this new committee wants to look for something new entirely. But I think they are going to go back to the Uwais committee report, review it, and bring out things that have not been touched.
The Uwais committee was very creative. It provided that after election, there should be a time frame when tribunals could decide cases before anybody assumes office as governor. That would have helped to solve such situation where you sit in Government House, control the resources of the state, and use the same to fight for your power base. There are so many things in that report that require looking into.
What are the reforms needed to strengthen the electoral system?
Take violence, for instance. It is important we clear the issue because a lot of things happen during elections that people get away with. This issue of inducement of voters, the Electoral Act forbids it. You don’t go to a polling unit after campaign to share money. But the law is not specific on what police should do.
The law has to be clear on what should be done to those who engage in such activities. It is not all about arresting and dumping them in police cells. Most of these people, when you arrest them, after the election, they are allowed to walk away because INEC does not have the resources to prosecute them.
So, there is need for a separate election offences tribunal that will quickly handle these cases, and those who deserve jail time should be jailed. We need election offences tribunal to punish bad behaviour, violence, inducement, and so on. The tribunal should also deal with the use of campaign finances and its illicit use, to avoid a repetition of the ‘Dasukigate’ experience.
The same thing applies to those who engage in violence. For instance, you have an election that is fraught with violence, yet an electoral officer provides a result. When you go to court, the court will ask the person who is asserting that the election was not free and fair to prove his case. That is a problem. It is a serious problem that should be looked into.
Should INEC, for instance, be defending itself in court when it should be the one to say this election is free or fair? Should INEC be in court with the person accused of subverting the electoral process? All these areas need to be looked into, and some creative ways found around them, because if INEC goes to court, it will want to defend the winning candidate. But if INEC is left out, and the two candidates fight it out, INEC will be willing to provide information independently.
The present arrangement is such that INEC finds it difficult to provide information that will indict it, as an institution. You have to be clear on the issue of the card reader. Is it part of the electoral law or just an INEC regulation? If it is part of INEC’s regulations, then make it part of the law because we are going electronic, so you don’t leave opportunity for people to manoeuvre.
You also have the issue of diaspora voting. How would they vote legitimately? Is it through electronic means or some other way? You know that when you change some of these things, you also have to touch the constitution; else it will not hold water. For a governor who wins an election, there should be a time frame, if the election is being contested at a tribunal before he is sworn in. I think that that will help to curtail bad behaviour during elections. Otherwise, when people who are declared winners are sworn in and their election are being contested, a lot of problems are created for their opponents.
Then, there is also the need to unbundle INEC. For instance, the whole issue of voter education – should INEC be doing that or should it be something for civil society organisations or the National Orientation Agency? We think INEC has a lot in its hands presently and it should be unbundled, so that running an election will be easier for it. We also need to address the role of security personnel.
What should be done about inducement of voters and violence during polls?
It will be extremely difficult to legislate on these issues. Certain things are implied. Inducement is something I don’t think you can legislate on, unless you define inducement as an aspect of violence. Anything that is in breach of the Electoral Act should be punished. Over time, inducement has gone unpunished. People are not supposed to do that. It is like continuing your campaign at the polling unit. People have not been punished for killing people during elections. If people are dealt with accordingly, others will learn. It is not all bad behaviours that you can deal with through criminal punishment, but rather through civic education or voter education.
INEC needs to do what it is supposed to at the right time. Sometimes, you have to also examine things that cause violence, like late arrival of election materials at polling units. Then, you also have to examine the character of those who run the affair of INEC, such as the resident electoral commissioners and how they are chosen. Do we have an INEC chairman that has control over commissioners and can punish them or discipline them or is rather forced to leave them to the whims of the President who appoints both the chairman and the commissioners? Without the intervention of the President, nothing can happen. A President can take advantage of his powers to control the electoral commissioners to the detriment of democracy.