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Thoughts on improving Nigeria’s elections

This past election strengthened the argument for electoral reform. As we prepare for a new National Assembly to take charge, we must begin early to call for improvements in our electoral process.

An official of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) attends to a voter in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, on March 9, 2019, as voting has started to elect governors and lawmakers in 29 of the nation’s 36 states two weeks after presidential and national assembly elections in which Buhari was elected for a second term. Nigerians are going to the polls for the second time in a fortnight for governorship and state assembly elections, against a backdrop of tensions and fears of violence. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP

This past election strengthened the argument for electoral reform. As we prepare for a new National Assembly to take charge, we must begin early to call for improvements in our electoral process. There were many issues that came up as a result of the election that demand urgent attention, but this op-ed will cover just a few of that address transparency and could help bolster public trust.

For one thing, using technology better is key. The amendment that the President declined in August 2018 has a new section 25A allows for electronic archiving of election results. Card readers vastly limit the possibility of cooked numbers, as the number of votes cannot exceed the number of voters logged during accreditation. These are all good ideas, but they require a robust data management system alongside to make them more usable and protect voters’ information. There is currently no law, for example, governing what any government agency, INEC aside, does with Nigerians’ personal data. Government is also not officially mandated to share what happens with our information if any corruption of their vast databases is corrupted. This is true in the case of Bank Verification Numbers as it is for the data collected from Nigerians by telecommunications companies during registration.

The dangers posed by shoddy data management are real. In October 2018, Arik’s database was hacked and over 600,000 customers’ email addresses, last and first four digits of ATM cards, business names, country of origin of purchase was leaked. A big part of how people come in contact with scammers is because our information is leaked in ways we often do not know. Improving visibility on these issues will be key to improve Nigerian government service delivery where the elections are concerned. Before mandatory use of card readers can be written into the Electoral Act, we must ensure that Nigerians’ data is protected.

Any amendment of the Electoral Act must also seek to address the sharp increase in cancelled votes and work towards reducing that number. In 2019, we recorded 1,084,358 cancelled votes across 1175 polling units in 18 States, compared to 844,519 were rejected out of the 29,432,083 votes cast in 2015. The cancellations was sometimes the result of sharp practices that saw the number of votes cast higher than the number of accredited voters, but it was often the result of violence meted out against ordinary Nigerians that claimed many lives across the country. A lot of the people directly in harm’s way are youth service corps members, many of whom were not adequately taken care of during the unplanned-for period where the elections were postponed. The welfare and safety of ordinary Nigerians must be ensured during the electoral process, and there is a need to work closely with security officials to address this, but INEC must also affirm its responsibilities to all individuals working all across Nigeria for the success of the elections, taking into account all possible scenarios.

As we seek to address the voting process, we must also address the need to reduce the number of parties. There were 91 parties on the ballot this past election, 23 more parties in 2019 than it did 2015, meaning less space on the paper and an increased likelihood for people to make mistakes in the thumb-printing. Only 5 of the 91 parties went on to win at least one legislative seat. If INEC needs more reasons to reduce the number of political parties, surely this is a good one.

The electoral amendment the president refused to assent to also includes a new section 87, which seeks to address primaries held by political parties. However, Nigeria has long since had regulations on campaign finance that have never been followed. Campaign finance aside, it is even more important that INEC helps ensure that political parties hold primaries and that INEC act on its right to nullify a candidacy if such is not granted. INEC can and should do more to use its powers and enforce these measures to help improve transparency in our political parties because parties will not do it themselves and prospective candidates can only really put up with whatever their party throws their way. It is arguably easier to control whether primaries are held or not than whether or not a political party bigwig spent an obscene amount to get elected.

The preparation for 2023 national elections must begin now, with all public sector and civil society stakeholders holding INEC, the National Assembly and the Presidency to account. This past election was not an improvement on the previous ones, but the best time to prepare for the next elections is years, not months, before you have one.

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