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Professionals chart path to fruitful electoral reform

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As the National Assembly reviews the nation’s constitution to facilitate the delivery of good governance in the country, National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies (NILDS) has generated experts/stakeholders’ view on one of the crucial themes listed for consideration, which is strengthening the electoral system and election management in Nigeria.

At a roundtable, one of the series held specifically to help the National Assembly in the ongoing task of constitution review, experts in relevant fields and professions were engaged in dissecting current realities in the nation’s electoral system and election management with a view to exposing shortcomings that have made it quite difficult to achieve free, fair, credible and violence-free elections in the country.

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Participants at the webinar roundtable include Director-General of NILDS, Prof. Abubakar Olanrewaju Sulaiman; Prof. Yahaya Baba, Department of Political Science, Bayero University, Kano; Ebun Adegboruwa (SAN), seasoned legal practitioner and rights activists as well as human rights advocate; Prof. Violet Aigbokhavbo, Faculty of Law, University of Benin; Dr. Otive Igbuzor, Executive Director, African Centre for Leadership, Strategy and Development and Prof. Wahab Egbewole (SAN), seasoned legal practitioner and electoral law expert.

The event was moderated by Prof. Edoba Omoregie, NILDS Acting Director, Legislative Support Services, and coordinated by the institute’s Acting Head, Legal Research Division, Dr. Bethel Uzoma Ihugba.

In his presentation titled “Reinforcing Popular Mandate in the Nigerian Electoral Process”, Prof. Baba stated that modern representative democracies evolved within the context of competitive elections, noting that periodic election at regular intervals, therefore, represents one of the major defining elements of democracy.

According to him, many democracies have collapsed as a result of poorly organised and inefficiently managed elections.

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“Elections that are marred with malpractices including manipulation of the existing laws, rules and regulations lack widespread acceptability and credibility. The outcome of such elections does not reflect the choice of the people, which undermines the underlying philosophy of democratic governance.

“Flawed elections substantially erode political legitimacy, thereby leading to regime breakdown, political chaos and civil wars. Credible elections are thus the cornerstone of democracy.”

To the political scientist, Nigeria’s experience with organising elections has been a mixture of setbacks and success, and the collapse of previous democratic governance has been largely due to failure to conduct credible elections.

“The truncation of the constitution by the military in 1966 is directly linked to chaos that resulted from the 1964 general elections and the violent aftermath of the 1965 regional elections. Similarly, the controversial election of 1983 in western Nigeria was among the major factors cited by the military for the coup of December 1983, which truncated the Second Republic.”

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Baba listed five stages involved in ensuring credible elections in a democracy as the delimitation of the electoral district; voter and civic education; voter registration; voting operations; parties and candidates’ selection as well as vote counting; media and elections; and electoral adjudication.

The don, who argued that these stages are critical to ensuring that the electoral system delivers outcomes that are widely accepted as being fair, free, transparent and credible not only to the voters and contending individuals and parties but also to other stakeholders including the international community, lamented that in Nigeria, the stages are often marred as a result of various challenges, which can be attributable to weak institutions. “Incidentally, in Nigeria, the major institutions of democratic governance are weak, fragile and inefficient in their functioning.”

He stated that to achieve credible elections and sustain the democratic system in Nigeria, there must be deliberate and decisive action by all stakeholders, including electoral bodies, political parties, civil society organisations, media, security agencies, judiciary and the legislature, who must be efficient and diligent in the discharge of their responsibilities.

“The identifiable challenges with all the stages of the electoral process must be tackled headlong,” Prof. Baba said.

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Dr. Igbuzor, who made the second presentation titled “Improving the prospects for free, fair and credible elections in Nigeria through Constitutional Review” noted that elections play a vital role in a democracy, being the primary mechanism by which the principle of popular sovereignty is based.

He identified four conditions to guarantee a free and fair election, namely an independent judiciary to interpret the electoral laws; an honest, competent and non-partisan electoral body to manage elections; a developed system of political parties and general acceptance by the political community of the rules of the electoral game.

Igbuzor said that over the years, scholars had identified electoral standards that contribute to uniformity, reliability, consistency, accuracy and overall professionalism in the conduct of elections.

“These standards include a constitutional provision that provides the foundation for the key elements of electoral framework, including electoral rights and the basic principles of the electoral system.

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“There is also the electoral law that guides the conduct of elections, including the powers of the electoral management bodies and other stakeholders.

“The election administration must demonstrate respect for the law; be non-partisan and neutral; transparent; accurate, professional and competent and must be designed to serve the voters.

“The electoral system should guarantee political inclusiveness, representation, the regularity of elections and fairness in the organisation of electoral units.

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“The delimitation of electoral units should be done in such a way as to achieve the objective of equal weight to each vote to the greatest degree possible to ensure effective representation.

“The legal framework should ensure that all eligible citizens are guaranteed the right to universal and equal suffrage as well as the right to contest elections without any discrimination.

“The electoral management bodies are established and operate in a manner that ensures the independent and impartial administration of elections,” Igbuzor stated.

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According to him, for elections to be credible in Nigeria, all the stakeholders and the electorates must all play their part.

To this end, INEC must live up to its vision, mission and principles, and have a sound management system and institutional capacity to carry out its mandate; political parties must perform their function of political education and recruitment and comply with the Electoral Act and INEC rules; media must refrain from selective reporting or reporting out of context, exaggeration or outright falsehood; security agencies must be guided by and conform to appropriate principles, rules, code of ethics and laws governing police duties, especially in relation to crowd control and the use of force and firearms, while the citizens must organise themselves into groups and undertake measures to protect their votes.

In discussing the paper, Adegboruwa identified the major problem with Nigeria as the constitution itself, which he observed gives too much credence and power to the President.

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He argued that the power of the President to appoint the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and resident electoral commissioners for the states is an aberration.
The lawyer maintained that electronic voting must be adopted in Nigeria as evidence of her seriousness on the issue of free, fair and credible elections.

On the powers of INEC over political parties, Adegboruwa noted that the electoral body has not been able to discharge its functions in regulating political parties. “INEC appears weak in sanctioning political parties, in terms of making them comply with their own constitutions, financial procedures and regulations.”

On allegation of undue interference of the courts in determining who wins at elections, Adegboruwa advised that matters relating to wrongful disqualification of candidates, amongst others, should be decided before the actual conduct of the elections.

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Another discussant, Prof. Aigbokhaevbo, agreed that a strong legal framework is vital for a strong electoral process, but maintained that the issue of credible elections in Nigeria transcends constitutional alterations.

She noted that a major component of the entire process are the citizens, who must show interest and have a say in their governance and how elections are conducted.

Aigbokhaevbo, who stressed the need for attitudinal change by all stakeholders, cited the #EndSARS protest as an example of how the people can rise, agitate and be heard.

To her, the high level of apathy that is prevalent during elections shows that Nigerians are unconcerned as to how they are governed or who governs them.

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“At the moment very little value is attached to the voter card, which is the means by which voters exercise their franchise. This is because vote buying has become the order of the day. This new trend seems to have replaced the snatching of ballot boxes. Vote-buying must be dealt with and perpetrators prosecuted. No election can be flawless but substantial compliance must be attained,” she said.

In his response, the professor of Law, Wahab Egbewole (SAN), fully endorsed all the submissions that were made by the presenters.

He noted that the walk towards achieving free, fair and credible elections in Nigeria is a work in progress. “The problem is not necessarily the law but the attitude of all stakeholders.”

In his view, there can be no single amendment of the electoral laws that can take care of all nation’s political challenges, but a change in the attitude of all the stakeholders involved.

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“The absence of internal democracy in Nigeria’s political parties remains a major impediment to credible elections. Courts have no business determining winners of elections. They must be consistent in their handling of electoral disputes.

“INEC’s capacity must be improved, especially in the area of registration of voters, which must be continuous. Violators of electoral laws must be exposed,” he said.

In the end, the roundtable recommended, among others, that:
• a constitutional framework be provide for electronic voting in Nigeria.
• registration of voters is made continuous, seamless and easy.
• to effectively investigate, prosecute and punish vote-buying and other electoral malfeasance, a different, independent body should be established to undertake prosecution of electoral offences, instead of INEC, which is currently saddled with the task but has proven unable to engage in the effective prosecution of electoral offences despite their prevalence.

• to avoid undue interference by the court in determining elections, especially the rightful candidates, matters relating to qualifications and disqualifications of candidates, amongst other pre-election matters, should be decided before the actual conduct of elections.

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