Historical perspectives and the rationale for electoral reform
Policy development in civilised societies never occurs in a vacuum. There is always a trigger, which could be one or a combination of factors. These include, but are not restricted to, political, economic, social, technological, environmental, legal factors; force majeure, or indeed, the failure of effective policy execution in of itself.
This article’s focus is the 2023 Nigerian elections within the country’s US-modelled presidential system of government. The presidential and national legislative elections took place on February 25, 2023, whilst the gubernatorial and state legislative elections were held on March 18, 2023.
On the sunny side, the elections symbolise the country’s democratic maturity since the inception of the fourth republic on May 29, 1999. That’s 24 years of unbroken civilian rule to date. Hitherto, the country’s political journey from Independence on October 1, 1960 to May 29, 1999, was bedevilled by successful and unsuccessful, albeit strategically disruptive, military coup d’états. For emphasis, a coup d’état is an unlawful seizure of power, often of a democratically elected government, by a politically rebellious group or military junta, whatever the post hoc ergo propter hoc justification!
The first was the January 15, 1966 led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, Major Adewale Ademoyega and others, which toppled the elected government of then Prime Minister, Sir Tafawa Balewa and replaced him with Major-General Aguiyi Ironsi.
The second was the July 29, 1966 counter-coup, ousting Ironsi, which, ultimately, precipitated the calamitous Nigerian Biafra Civil War from 1967 to 1970 claiming over one million lives! It was catalysed by Lt. Colonel (later General) Murtala Muhammed, Lt. Colonel Joseph Akahan, Major (later General) Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma, Major (later Colonel) Shittu Alao, Captain (later Brigadier) Joseph Nanven Garba et al, and replaced the deposed Aguiyi Ironsi with General Yakubu Gowon. The third was the July 29, 1975, which overthrew the regime of General Gowon, who was replaced by General Murtala Muhammed.
On February 13, 1976, Colonel Buka Suka Dimka led an unsuccessful coup d’état attempt wherein General Muhammad and others were assassinated. General Muhammed was replaced by General Olusegun Obasanjo who eventually handed over to a civilian regime on October 1, 1979, headed by Alhaji Shehu Shagari. That civilian administration lasted just four years!
Yet again, on December 31, 1983, the elected civilian government was toppled and replaced by a military regime headed by Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (Nigeria’s current civilian President). General Buhari was himself ousted in a bloodless coup on August 27, 1985 and replaced by General Ibrahim Babangida who, narrowly survived a bloody coup attempt on April 22, 1990, which implicated several senior military officers at the time including General Mamman Vatsa, Lt Colonel Gideon Orkar, Lt. Colonel Iyorshe, Squadron Leader Martin Luther et al.
General Babangida reigned until August 27, 1993. Before that however, he had abruptly annulled the popular democratic elections of June 12, 1993 which the business mogul, Chief MKO Abiola, was decisively leading nationwide by all credible accounts; plunging the country into perilous political upheaval! The emanating political crisis foisted an “interim national government” on the country, which, for the umpteenth time, was ousted in a coup d’état by Babangida’s close ally, General Sani Abacha on November 17, 1993. The latter’s death on June 8, 1998, facilitated the regime of General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who eventually handed over to a civil regime on May 29, 1999 sprouting the nation’s current fourth democratic republic.
Whether perfectly or imperfectly formed, democracy accords with trends in the civilized world and the universality of humanity’s desire for liberty and self-determinism! Tony Blair, British Prime Minister (1997-2007), espoused similar thoughts too: “anywhere, anytime ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same: freedom, not tyranny; democracy, not tyranny; the rule of law, now the rule of the secret police.”
Warts and all therefore, the democratic dispensation over the last quarter of a century has, nonetheless, afforded citizens a direct say in determining who runs the affairs of the country at the federal, state, local government levels thereby enabling them influence policy direction, to a greater or lesser extent. Likewise, the extant civilian dispensation gives some meaning to accountability, the constitutional law doctrine of separation of powers, widely defined, and the relative independence of the judiciary.
This is to be contrasted with the prior military dictatorships where citizens had precious little influence over the decrees, edicts and special military tribunals, which routinely regulated their lives. Incidentally, some of Nigeria’s current and controversial jurisprudence emanates from the era of military dictatorships. These include the Land Use Decree 1978 and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) (“the Constitution”).
The central criticism of the former is that it concentrates too much power in executive governors (formerly military governors) and that of the latter is that it demeans the federalist philosophy of Nigeria’s constitutional architecture, by imbuing the president (executive head) and the federation with excessive unitary powers at the expense of necessary decentralisation at sub-national tiers of government, that’s states and local governments. The inherent risk of excessive powers is, according to Lord Acton (1834-1902), that because power tends to corrupt, absolutely power tends to corrupt absolutely. So, constitutional devolution needs advancement.
Plus, the subsistence of thriving multiparty democracy in the country today should not be taken for granted either. After all, this phenomenon was absent in the heady Hobbesian days of the military interregnums where human rights were routinely trampled upon, freedom of expression was the exception rather than the norm; where activists, journalists, lawyers were regularly jailed, tortured in custody or worse, extra-judicially killed!
Counter-balancing that, the sustenance of democracy since 1999 has fallen short of expectations in many respects if the direct evidence of the 2023 elections is utilised as a proxy. Although the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had four years since the last national elections in 2019 and a budgetary allocation exceeding N304 billion, to embed an effective strategy and its successful execution, the elections were undermined when it mattered most, by reputationally damaging technological glitches.
Regarding the live-wire issue of the posting of election results, for instance, the law is clear. Section 68 of the Electoral Act 2022 establishes that the “Commission shall cause to be posted on its noticeboard and website, a notice showing the candidates at the election and their scores and the person declared as elected or returned at the election.” This statutory requirement was not met and the Commission admitted as much when it claimed that the challenges associated with the deployment of “election technology” were “unforeseen”. The inescapable inferential admission of underperformance is therefore clear.
Local news organisations reported cases of violence, voter suppression and voter intimidation. Echoing those views, the British High Commission in the country, affirmed that it witnessed and received credible reports from other observer missions and civil society organisations, of vote buying and voter intimidation, the destruction and hijacking of election materials, and the general disruption of the process in numerous states including Lagos, Enugu, and Rivers.
UK think-tank, Chatham House, reports that although Nigerians weathered rainstorms, recurrent fuel crisis and a punishing cash-crunch, nevertheless, “thousands of voters were disenfranchised, and multiple irregularities as well as intimidation and violence have been noted by election observers.” Ditto, the European Union’s Election Observers’ Mission (EU-EOM), affirmed in its second interim report of March 20, 2023, that the Nigerian 2023 elections recorded 21 fatalities which were the culmination of recurrent incidents of thuggery, coercion, at various polling centres nationwide. Tis come to this?
All that said, winning candidates have, in the main, been presented with their Certificates of Return by INEC, via section 72 (1) of the Electoral Act 2022. It establishes that a sealed CoR at an election in a prescribed form shall be issued within 14 days to every candidate who has been returned by the returning officer in an election; except where the Court of Appeal, or the Supreme Court being the final Appellate Court in any election petition, as the case may be, nullifies any candidate’s CoR.
Already, some candidates/juristic persons dissatisfied with the outcome of the 2023 elections have exercised their statutory right to seek redress at various Courts and Tribunals pursuant to section 133 (1) of the Electoral Act 2022 and section 36 of the Constitution. The minutiae of those arguments are sub-judice and therefore outside the scope of this article.
Notwithstanding, the country needs much more effective, resilient, robust, and secure electoral systems to inspire confidence amongst the voting public, citizens and the international community. The more these are embedded, the greater the degree of democratic legitimacy of winning candidates. Of course, there is no such thing as an impeccable electoral system. Even so, it is envisaged that these practical recommendations would go a long way reinforcing the integrity of the electoral system:
i Amendment of the Electoral Act 2022 to afford prospective voters the right to vote electronically. The advantages are straightforward. It is safer and eliminates the challenges of voter intimidation, suppression and violence. Nigeria already operates unique personal identification codes for instance, national insurance numbers and bank verification codes. Integrating these into the INEC’s artificial intelligence algorithms is not insuperable. After all, the technology, which underpins digital banking used by millions of Nigerians today, is not too dissimilar. Besides, it would save taxpayers millions of naira by eliminating added logistical and related overheads. It just demands the political will and imaginative thinking.
ii Information and Communication Technology (ICT)suppliers must have verifiable track records of delivering and deploying secure, efficient and effective electoral technology in countries with relatively comparable demographics and socio-political dynamics to Nigeria.
iii The temptation to deploy electoral technology nationwide on a big bang basis should be resisted. Rather, pilots should be undertaken first on an incremental basis, with real-time evaluation, applying lessons learned to inform decisions on national roll out whilst building effective project management capacity.
iv Milestone payments will incentivise electoral technology suppliers to sharpen their performance and ensure their products are fit for purpose. In other words, poor performance will attract tough contractual penalties.
v Apply lessons learned from countries where electoral technology has been and continues to be successfully deployed and utilised. Australia, Estonia, France and Switzerland could offer useful models if applied with reasonable modifications to local circumstances.
The commitment to drive these ideas forward calls for demonstrable political will, imagination and tenacity, which is summed up in a word: leadership. It’s no surprise therefore when the 33rd President of the United States, Harry Truman, affirmed that “in periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skilful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”
Ojumu is the Principal Partner at Balliol Myers LP, a firm of legal practitioners and strategy consultants in Lagos, Nigeria.