Credible polls and renewed calls for electoral offences commission
After the historic 2015 elections, the Nigerian electoral space brimmed with optimism. In the euphoric outbursts that followed the unprecedented triumph of the political opposition, the loud conclusion was that the vote of the Nigerian people would from then on be taken seriously by a previously complacent political elite. Analysts in their numbers enthused that the 2015 polls had raised the bar; it was therefore implied that the electoral architecture would surely evolve to ensure subsequent polls meet the minimum international standards for credible elections.
While the optimism was sparked by the spontaneity generated by the outcome of the 2015 polls, many commentators failed to create the nexus between the success of the elections and the exertions that had been made in the years before. As with many things Nigerian, there was no attempt to contextualise the achievement of 2015 within template of the over one decade old conversations, to ensure the votes of the Nigerian people count. As it was, the view was promoted that the monument of 2015 came about like a big bang. No reference was made to previous struggles or even the price that was paid to arrive at the 2015 moment. It was therefore not surprising that euphoric commentary in the post-2015 dispensation did no nuanced observation to show that the firmament of ideas that shaped the 2015 elections benefited from the intellectual and political struggles that had been earlier waged to uphold the sanctity of the votes.
Similarly, the electoral umpire got entangled in the web of incomplete narratives on the electoral process. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was also caught in the bubble of the high praise for the work it did during the 2015 polls. It was such that the commission made no reference to the struggles of the past, neither did it envisage the threats ahead in order to prepare adequately for them. As an institution, the post-2015 INEC moved on with the impression that the adversaries of credible elections in Nigeria, had been put out of business for good. It did not reckon that there could be a push back by forces within the political space, which would never be enthusiastic about the move to entrench a culture of credible elections in the Nigerian democratic space. INEC was not alone; other actors engaging the electoral process carried on with the impression that the Nigerian polity had arrived at a point of unanimity with respect to the subject of credible polls.
That bubble of unrealistic suppositions was shattered in no time. A familiar past of intrigues and confusion reared its head in Kogi State during the November 21, 2015. When the electoral umpire was confronted with knotty issues relating to its guidelines in Kogi State, what followed was a state election that turned out to be inconclusive. The rerun scheduled for December 5, 2015 was marred by several issues. The Kogi experience gave further warning of what was to come when pockets of violence, including the torching of an INEC office in Dekina Local Government Area tainted the process. These danger signals were not given the required attention. In Bayelsa too, another inconclusive electoral process stared the nation in the face.
The inconclusiveness in Bayelsa was largely caused by the political actors, who sponsored violence to undermine the electoral process. In Rivers too, the rerun elections there for a handful of Senatorial seats also turned out to be inconclusive due to the chronic insecurity in the space. Having encountered these challenges, the commentators who crowed over 2015 are suddenly realising that the deep issues would not simply go away because one national election was deemed successful. There is therefore a scramble now to apprehend the challenges in the electoral space. Subjects like the Uwais Committee Report, which seemed to have been forgotten in the post 2015 euphoria, are now returning to the debate. There is now an urgency about taking firm grip of the electoral process, especially after the point was made recently by the INEC Chair, Professor Mahmood Yakubu that the commission could not guarantee conclusive polls in 2019.
Expectedly, that has jolted key actors in civil society to pick up the gauntlet from where it was dropped before the 2015 polls. The urgency of electoral reforms, which led to the setting up of the Justice Mohammed Uwais Panel has returned. The key recommendations of the panel, which had for some time been in the cooler, are now providing a rallying point for proponents of reforms. Only last week, the new Chair of the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), Dr. Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi resurrected the push for the creation of an Electoral Offences Commission to deal with the growing impunity in the political process. The TMG helmswoman called on INEC not to take a defeatist posture with respect to the problems in the system. Dr. Akiyode-Afolabi stressed that TMG, a coalition of 400 civic groups in Nigeria was prepared to engage the issues in the electoral process with the goal of achieving credible polls. Similarly, civic groups on the platform of the Alliance for Credible Elections (ACE) are resuming discussions on the factors responsible for inconclusive polls, and how to ensure they are isolated and addressed.
Squarely, the bulk of the problems leading to the disruption, and the related inconclusiveness of the electoral process, are caused by the legendary desperation of the political actors. A separate body to try actors within the polity, who have run foul of the electoral laws of the land, is much favoured by active citizens. The debate has tended to point at the incapacity of INEC, and the heavy burden of responsibility it has already, in the form of organising elections across the country. The suggestion therefore is for another legal entity to take up the responsibility of prosecuting electoral offenders.
This challenge has been taken up by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which recently compiled a list of electoral offenders. The list is expected to be forwarded to the Attorney General and Minister of Justice after a review by the commission, for possible prosecution of the offenders. This move has also attracted criticism from those who believe that being a political appointee, the nation’s chief law officer would not discharge that duty in a manner that is fair and free from partisan considerations. It has also been argued that the fact that the list of electoral offenders dates back to 2007 means that the bulk of evidence needed to undertake successful prosecution, would have been lost.
All of these excuses tend to point to the fact that key drivers of the system want to play safe and not open the Pandora box of who the sanctity of the vote has been serially assaulted in Nigeria. A more pragmatic approach will be to go ahead with the process of prosecution of those documented to have committed electoral offences. The process of prosecution does not have to be an inch perfect one, but it will surely send a clear message of deterrence to those preparing to foist an inconclusive process on Nigerians come 2019. The other lesson in the resumed debate for credible and conclusive polls for promoters of democracy is the fact that there are still many adversaries of democracy at work. Therefore, utmost vigilance, and a ceaseless engagement of the key issues of the process, remain the price to pay for fair, credible and conclusive polls.