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The electoral offences commission debate

By Editorial Board
08 September 2022   |   4:10 am
Against the necessity for a credible electoral process, juxtaposed with conducts undermining due process in the country’s democracy as witnessed over the past years, the debate over the need or otherwise of an electoral offences commission is healthy.

National Commissioner, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu

Against the necessity for a credible electoral process, juxtaposed with conducts undermining due process in the country’s democracy as witnessed over the past years, the debate over the need or otherwise of an electoral offences commission is healthy. While everyone agrees that those threatening democratic principles by their conduct deserve to be thoroughly sanctioned, the question arises on whether the sanctioning should be done through the creation of an electoral offences commission; or through the existing channel that has so far proved ineffective. The answer lies somewhere between the extremes; but it is important that while solving one problem, another one is not inadvertently created.

In any democratic setting, a credible electoral process plays a critical role in peaceful power transitions and political stability. Put differently, free and fair elections are the foundation of a democratic society. Conversely, when the legitimacy of elections is corrupted, democracy is threatened. Accordingly, the ruling class should reflect the actual free expression of the will of the people at all material times.

Paradoxically, the democratic journey of Nigeria, which started on a somewhat roller coaster motion, has nosedived into an abyss of uncertainty. This is partly due to the political disruptions caused by the military juntas, but chiefly as a result of the country’s compromised electoral framework. As Hon. Ahmed Idris Wase rightly remarked: “Electoral crimes lead to low quality, corrupt and violent political leadership. Election riggers and offenders take control of governments against the democratic will of the electorate. Electoral offences are self-inflicted injuries to be avoided at all cost.”

As the country heads to the polls in 2023, the National Assembly has considered it expedient to tighten the identified electoral loose ends. Recently, the House of Representatives organised a one-day public hearing on a bill to establish the National Electoral Offences Commission which will be saddled with the responsibility of investigating and prosecuting electoral offenders.

Aligning with this proposal, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) via its Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, stated that “the reform of our electoral process cannot be completed without effective sanctions against violators of our laws.” He further stated that INEC, which is presently in charge of electoral crimes, is handicapped as it cannot arrest offenders or conduct an investigation that will lead to a successful prosecution of especially the high-profile offenders. He added that the bill is revised to include the establishment of an Electoral Offences Tribunal for accelerated hearing of election-related crimes.

Expressing a different opinion, the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) dismissed the need for an Electoral Offence Commission. This is predicated on the fact that elections are held once in four years as well as the negligible number of re-run elections in between. Additionally, the offences contained in the bill are already criminalised by extant laws such as the Electoral Act, 2022, the Penal and Criminal Codes, the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related Offences Act, 2000, and the Economic and Financial Crimes (Establishment) Act, 2004.

Commendably, the proposal of the Green Chamber is germane given the link between a credible election and political stability. The consequences of a tainted electoral process in a nascent democratic clime like Nigeria are far-reaching and fatal. The violence, bloodshed, loss of lives and destruction of property witnessed in past elections corroborate this assertion. Nevertheless, the fundamental question is whether the creation of an electoral crime agency is indeed necessary.

The argument of the EFCC is persuasive. Firstly, it is patently clear the subject matter of the bill is already covered by several federal legislations. Therefore, establishing the proposed commission will amount to a needless and wasteful duplication of agencies. It is further posited that passing the said bill into law without conferring the proposed commission with the exclusive power to handle election offences will create unhealthy competition among the relevant law enforcement agencies.

Undoubtedly, the proposed Electoral Offences Commission/Tribunal will further bloat the cost of governance. The country is so financially emasculated that it cannot unilaterally shoulder its internal financial obligations without external intervention. The high cost of governance has been largely attributed to the proliferation of overlapping agencies. That has necessitated the sustained campaign for cost-cutting measures in governance across the board by abolishing and merging several government agencies and parastatals, as recommended by the Steve Oronsaye-led Presidential Committee on Restructuring and Rationalisation of Federal Government Parastatals.

Besides, the inefficiency of the extant institutions as alluded to by the EFCC is symptomatic of the nation’s weak institutional system. To believe that the proposed Commission/Tribunal will be immune from the country’s systemic failure is akin to a delusion of grandeur; for it has sadly become a norm for Nigerian crime fighters to be indicted for the exact same crime they were enlisted to fight.

More worrisome is the meddlesome tendencies of the political class in our criminal justice administration. Instances where suspects or convicted persons are left off the hook on “orders from above” are abundant. Also, it is common knowledge that our political elites are responsible for the country’s electoral integrity deficiency. Sadly, Nigerian political parties are mere special purpose vehicles without any sense of national duty. Consequently, it is safe to infer that until the country’s political system is thoroughly sanitised, the proposed Commission/Tribunal will be vulnerable to the same affliction as the existing institutions.

Comparatively, there is no democratic clime anywhere in the world that has a special agency solely for investigating and prosecuting electoral offences. For instance, in the United States of America, electoral crimes are under the purview of the Election Crimes Branch of the Public Integrity Section in the Department of Justice.

Nonetheless, he who wears the shoe knows where it pinches. Since INEC has highlighted its constraints, it will be illogical to still maintain the status quo. However, the existing framework should be strengthened to achieve maximum output. The scope of the extant laws should be expanded to include pre-electoral offences such as financial inducement of party delegates, rigging of primaries, fraudulent fundraising schemes, fraudulent diversion of publicly raised funds, bullying, harassment and intimidation of the electorate to vote or not to vote in a certain way, among other vices.

Also, the trials of electoral offences should be made time-bound. It is further recommended that an Electoral Offences Department, comprising of experienced officers with proven integrity and impeccable character, be created in either the Nigeria Police Force or the Ministry of Justice to synergise with the INEC in investigating and prosecuting electoral crimes rather than establishing a full-fledged National Electoral Offences Commission, with its attendant bureaucratic red tapism.