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Lawmakers as clogs In electoral reform wheels

By Eno-Abasi Sunday
01 August 2021   |   4:34 am
Since she was elected by the people of Anambra Central Senatorial District to articulate their interest at the Senate, Iyom Uche Ekwunife, never had cause to be put on the spot by her electors.

Joint session of the National Assembly

• Action Reflects Lack Of Readiness For True, Credible Electoral Governance – CISLAC
• NASS Cementing Its Non-listening Status – CDD
• INEC Is Bewildered, Vote Against ETR Must Be Reconsidered – Atsen

Since she was elected by the people of Anambra Central Senatorial District to articulate their interest at the Senate, Iyom Uche Ekwunife, never had cause to be put on the spot by her electors. 
But in the penultimate week, these constituents of hers, had cause to vent their spleen by querying the ranking senator, when they concluded that she was derelict in her duty to the district. 
To date, the Senate session of Thursday, July 15, 2021, during which senators voted on the controversial Electoral Act Amendment draft bill, is still causing ripples across the country. 

Apart from the most contentious clause in the bill – Section 52(3), which pitched the lawmakers, most of whom voted along party lines, against one another, the other content of the bill viewed as satanic verse by stakeholders is the attempt to foist on all political parties, one method of conducting primaries, that is, by direct method only. 
While some communities are querying their senators for declining to cast their votes or absenting themselves from the chambers on such an auspicious occasion, many lovers of credible polls across the country are throwing mud at lawmakers that voted against Section 52(3), which has to do with electronic transmission of the election result. 
In what passes as the first formal query issued to a legislator in the country, the leaders of Obosi Development Union (ODU) in Anambra State, said Ekwunife’s absence at plenary cost them their voice and representation on an all-important bill.
When senators voted for the bill, the Anambra lawmaker was one of the 28 that absented themselves from plenary on that Thursday. This development angered ODU members residents in Abuja to the point that they drafted a query seeking an explanation for her absence from such an important sitting. 

“Please, note that unless a satisfactory explanation is offered, our members, your constituents at large; are inclined to view your action as typical of politicians, who profit, or hope to profit from election result manipulation that has bedevilled our electoral system, and frustrated the desires of the people to elect representatives of their choice as guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution, as amended,” said the letter, which emanated from 54 Lobito Crescent, Wuse 2, Abuja, which houses the Abuja office of ODU.
Signed by Goddy Ikebuaku, and Chimezie Obi, chairman and secretary respectively of ODU, Abuja, the letter continued: “As a representative in the Senate, we expect that when very sensitive and important decisions or voting are taking place, you will not only make yourself available but also use every means possible to lobby your colleagues to support initiatives that will advance the cause of your constituents.
“We observed with dismay from the compilation of the votes and proceedings of senators for the bill on Electronic Transmission of Election Results, that you were absent on Thursday, July 15, 2021, when the draft bill was put to vote on the floor of the Senate chamber, a day that presented an opportunity for history to be made in the electoral process of the Federal Republic of Nigeria – a country bedevilled with various forms of electoral riggings and manipulations.

“We have no doubt that you are aware that the disaffection with the electoral system in Nigeria is intrinsically connected to the lack of integrity and confidence in the election result delivery process.
“The acrimony and violence in our electoral process have led to fatalities, too numerous to mention. Obosi, as a town, has experienced quite a number of fracases that culminated in death during the election result collation process, hence our feeling of disappointment that our voice did not count owing to your absence on that day of the vote,” the query stated.

Conscious of how livid her constituents were with her action, Ekwunife, in her written response said: “I wish to sincerely apologise to all those who feel disappointed that I wasn’t there to cast my vote. I am not someone that would stay or shy away from such an important activity. As a servant of the people, I always try to meet up with every of my constituency engagements to the best of my ability.” 

Insisting that she has in the past advocated for electronic transmission of election results, Ekwunife continued: “Even though some argued that INEC should be allowed to choose or exempt areas where there are poor network coverage, I vehemently argued against such position, which in my opinion would favour some regions against others, knowing full well that the South East is one of the regions in Nigeria that have good network coverage.

“I stated that if ATM, PoS, Internet banking, and other electronic transactions are obtainable nationwide, I do not see why the electronic transfer of election results cannot be equally achieved nationwide.

“I argued with respect to the situation where card readers were used in the South East in the last general elections, while manual voting was allowed in some other parts of the country, which significantly affected the voting strength of the region in the previous elections,” she explained, adding that, even though she considers “the recent complaints by some constituents as germane, it is important to state that my absence at the time of voting was never deliberate.
“The deliberation on the electoral act, which was supposed to come up on Wednesday was moved to Thursday, and was expected to stretch to Monday, July 19, for voting, however during the plenary on Thursday after some of us had travelled, senators present extended plenary hours to vote on the electronic transmission to conclude it the same day, instead of continuing on Monday, which was why the Senate plenary lasted till 9 p.m.

“However, due to my already fixed engagements in my senatorial district, where I was scheduled to commission some projects, including a 3-bedroom bungalow we built for a less-privileged woman in Isu-Aniocha, as well as a block of classrooms at Community Secondary School, Ukpo, and perimeter fence project in the school, amongst other engagements, I had to travel to Anambra to meet up, while hoping to join my colleagues on Monday for the voting. Unfortunately, it was not stretched to Monday as Senate adjourned for annual recess.”

Before her constituents came for her, former Aviation minister and the PDP senator representing Anambra North Senatorial District, Ms. Stella Oduah, made public reasons why she did not participate in the “division” in the Senate on Thursday when lawmakers voted on the Election Amendment Bill.
Oduah, a member of the Senate committees on INEC and the Petroleum Industry Bill, who walked out of the chamber when voting was about to commence, said she refused to take part in the headcount vote “because she can not be seen as rejecting the resolution that her committee had agreed on.”
In a statement, Oduah said: “We took time to arrive at that decision at the committee meeting, and coming to plenary to reject it will be unjust. That was why I walked out.
“In as much as the number is a very significant decider in parliament, we should also take decisions having a future projection and nation development in mind,” she added.

Need To Digitise Electoral Process
LONG before now, public-spirited individuals, civil society organisations, and sundry stakeholders had expressed deep concern over the recurring electoral fraud that threatened the country’s democracy since the return of that form of government in 1999.

That explained why many gave the INEC a pat on the back when it made public, its intention to embrace technology in the conduct of elections as the step would enhance the electoral process and the legitimacy of government. 
As a way of matching words with action, the electoral commission, which holds the largest biometric database in-country, late last year, said it had begun the search of a voting technology supplier in its bid to realise the dream of digitisation of the entire electoral process, including biometric identity verification. Among other things, INEC currently uses biometric technology for the registration of new voters, while accreditation of registered voters is done via Smart Card Reader (SCR). 
At a ceremony where about 40 companies that provide electronic voting machines jostled to prove their capacity, INEC Chairman, Prof. Yakubu Mahmood, explained that the firms had been invited to prove their capacity and show whether they would be able to meet the body’s specifications. 
In recounting steps so far taken to incorporate digital technology in the electoral process, Yakubu said: “Most significantly, the commission now uploads polling unit level results in real-time on election day to a portal for public view. These are significant innovations that have deepened the transparency and credibility of elections and the electoral process in Nigeria.” 

Insisting that a lot has been done by INEC to facilitate the easy nomination of candidates for elective offices by political parties, in addition to the accreditation of observers and the media, he said: “Let me reassure Nigerians that the commission is committed to expediting the process leading to the deployment of electronic voting machines (EVMs) in elections in earnest.” the INEC head affirmed. 

As INEC attempts to steer the country away from recurring electoral fraud via digitisation of the entire electoral process, many groups and individuals have been urging it to expedite action, maintaining that a country’s election justifies the type of democracy that it practices. 
One of such groups is Centre for Democratic Development (CDD), which last December, called for the digitaisation of an inclusive electoral system, adding that a country’s election remains its most important event, simply because it “justifies” democracy.
The organisation, which noted that electoral procedures and processes should be inclusive and take into account, Nigerians’ expectations, concerns and ensure people-centered legislation, explained that “if our electoral system is truly digitised, it will cut down remarkably, the votes that go to INEC, thereby increasing resources that can be channelled to education and healthcare development, which are on the near verge of collapse. 
In a statement signed by its director, Idayat Hassan, it added: “Today’s recession is hitting hard on all sectors of the economy yet INEC continues to spend the country’s fortune on the conduct of elections. 

“Considering Nigeria yearns for an electoral system that is transparent, credible, free and fair and above all, meet the expectation of citizens, the law governing the electoral architecture must be spotless from electoral malfeasants, which currently characterise the system.” 

Why Deployment Of Technology In Election Management Remains Unpopular
WHEN the opportunity came for the Electoral Act to be tinkered with, many reposed immense confidence in parliament to do the bidding of the electorate, by paving way for the adoption of the new system.
In addition to this, on several occasions, the electoral umpire had pledged its determination to improve the level of transparency in the conduct of elections, especially in the process of releasing results. 
And using last year’s Edo gubernatorial election as a baseline, INEC earned plaudits for making considerable efforts to ensure that election results are at the fingertips of Nigerians, and all those interested in the nation’s democratic process. 
Just before that poll, the commission announced the introduction of the INEC Result Viewing (IreV) portal, which ensured that Nigerians viewed results from various polling units in real-time.
The introduction of the Zip and Z-file for capturing polling units Form EC8A was remarkable. The Z-file, a tablet with a camera was used after the poll had been concluded and ballot papers sorted. Once the result is entered into the sheet, the Z-file was used to take a picture of the result sheet (Form EC8A), which was thereafter transmitted to the INEC portal for everyone to view the polling unit result live.
In a nutshell, the result-viewing platform was properly deployed and successfully deterred the ability to falsify, or change results. It was also a conscious effort to ensure that things work well. It also recorded a commendable level of improvement on transparency and accountability, two salient ingredients that must accompany the release of election results to the people.

But for some strange reasons, many Nigerians believe that the Presidency even though it routinely declares support for improved electoral laws, appears to be insincere regarding the deployment of technology in election management. Many lawmakers are also seen in this light by the public, especially after the passage of the amended electoral act, where a total of 52 senators, including the Chairman, Committee on INEC, Kabiru Gaya, voted against the position of the committee.
Senators were made to vote one after the other during the clause-by-clause consideration of the bill sequel to a point of order raised by the Senate Minority Leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe, who cited order 73 of the Senate Standing Rule challenging the ruling of the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, who ruled in favour that Section 52(3) of the bill be amended to read “the commission may consider electronic transmission provided the national network coverage is adjudged to be adequate, and secure by the Nigerian Communications Commission and approved by the National Assembly.”
That proposal was at crossroads with the initial one, which read, “the commission may transmit results of elections by electronic means where and when practicable.”
Like Abaribe, Senator Bassey Albert (PDP), who represents Akwa Ibom North East, also kicked against the proposal to water down the electronic transmission of election results, stressing that the initial one made by the committee should be retained.
Judging from the hues and cries that have trailed the conditional electronic transmission of election results endorsed by the Senate, Nigerians are in support of technology in the electoral process as it will ultimately lead to a win-win situation for all, the politicians inclusive since results management has always been shrouded in secrecy and a major source of discord during polls.

Lawmakers’ Attitude, A Disincentive To Electoral Reform, Credible Polls
BESIDES the barrage of criticisms and condemnation heaped on the 52 senators that voted against the electronic transmission of election results and the 28 that elected to excuse themselves from the voting process, a handful of senators equally deplore the antics of their colleagues. 
Peeved by the conduct of the 52 senators, Oduah, who walked out on the exercise, called on her colleagues to take decisions having a future projection and the nation development in mind. 
The INEC director of publicity and voter education, Nick Dazang, while speaking during a programme on African Independent Television (AIT), also told the lawmakers to act like statesmen, while also pointing out that the position of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) on poor network coverage was not tenable, as all network providers in the country had assured of 100 per cent coverage for electronic transmission of results.
“I am convinced that if INEC was given the chance to appear before the National Assembly alongside NCC, the commission would have told the distinguished senators and honourable members that all the network providers in Nigeria have assured INEC that network coverage is 100 percent across the country.
“I also want NASS members to think like statesmen. They should think about the future, not about the next election. Let us always look at the bigger picture. It pains INEC that beneficiaries of transparent elections are at the forefront of working to weaken the commission by asking INEC to share its powers with other agencies or take permission from another agency before performing its statutory functions guaranteed by the constitution of Nigeria. 

The President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, in trying to calm frayed nerves in the wake of the widely condemned action of some lawmakers explained: “When the majority of senators voted against immediate application or deployment of electronic transmission of results from the polling units, to the ward, to the local government, states and federal, they didn’t say they do not believe in electronic transmission (of election results). All of us in the Senate, 109 of us, believe that at one point, our electoral process must deploy electronic transmission so that it eases and enhances the electoral process and give it more credibility and integrity. But you see, when you have not reached that stage where you could deploy the electronic transmission from every part of the country, then you have to be very careful. And no matter what anybody may say, you cannot have about 50 per cent of Nigerian voters not participating, or not getting their votes counted in elections and say it doesn’t matter, that we have to start the electronic transmission. 
“We know the evils of not transmitting results electronically but compare the evils of electronically transmitting just half of the electoral votes from Nigerians and say you have elected a president with 50 per cent only. Nobody said don’t use electronic transmission at all. You use it when we reach there… There is no way any National Assembly, not even this Ninth National Assembly will deny INEC the use of electronic transmission as part of our electoral process when we are ready for it.” 
Both Miss Hassan and the Executive Director Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, beg to disagree with Lawan that the evils of not transmitting results electronically now are nothing compared to electing a president with only 50 per cent of votes cast.

Indeed, while Rafsanjani believes that lawmakers failed to make the best use of the opportunity presented by the bill’s amendment, Hassan insists that legislators failed to place a premium on citizens’ priorities.
Asked whether he thinks that lawmakers made the best use of the opportunity to deploy widespread technology in our electoral process to facilitate credible polls, Rafsanjani said: “Not really! It is no more news that there was a major division in the upper chamber over an amendment to clause 52(3) of the 2021 Electoral Act Amendment Bill. While the House of Representatives had given its approval to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to go ahead when it deems it fit to use electronic transmission, the Senate’s position said otherwise when it voted to cede the power to determine the use of electronic transmission of results in an election to the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC), while the National Assembly must subsequently give its approval.
“It is disturbing that the Senate plans to cede the power of a constituted and independent institution like INEC to NCC, and the National Assembly. When we are fully aware that the president determines the appointment and mandate of the NCC, including that of the minister that supervises the commission. This, in effect, may undermine the power and independence of INEC to conduct elections using the electronic system.
“Even though the Presidency declares support for improved electoral laws, some Nigerians believe that it is insincere regarding the deployment of technology in election management. Many lawmakers are also seen in this light by the public, especially after the vexatious Electoral Act Amendment. 

Asked to hazard a guess as to what could be responsible for this? The CISLAC boss said: “We must recall that in 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari refused to sign it into law after arguing that it would disrupt the conduct of the 2019 elections. The recent amendment presented the Presidency and the National Assembly enough opportunity to win the public trust by reconsidering the bill for a possible electronic voting system in the coming 2023 general elections. However, the resultant uncomplimentary exchange of words among the senators, especially during the presentation of Clause 52(3) of the bill, exposed the other side of most Senators to the public. 
“Also, amendment of the clause to empower the NCC and National Assembly to determine the application of electronic voting and transmission of result during elections, as against the earlier provision, which empowered INEC to decide on electronic voting and transmission of election result at elections, further revealed a lack of readiness for true and credible electoral governance in Nigeria. This was largely motivated by personal interest but fear of the unknown.  
Because INEC was not allowed to brief lawmakers after the NCC did on network coverage of the country, many still believe that majority of the lawmakers were, perhaps influenced by the position of the NCC to vote against electronic transmission. But Rafsanjani is full of regrets that only the NCC was given the chance to brief the legislators. “All well-meaning Nigerians would have expected INEC to be invited to, as well, brief lawmakers on the matter. We know certainly that if the House of Representatives concurs, and the bill is assented to by the president, INEC will automatically lose its power to solely determine whether election results are transmitted electronically. Before this, INEC and Nigerians still had the chance to accelerate critical stakeholders’ advocacy and present their position before the Legislative Committee that will be constituted to harmonise the bill or demand that the president disregard assent to the bill.

“Of course, INEC was disappointed by the legislators’ position and outcome of the bill. That is why INEC should be given equal opportunity and fair hearing to present its position on the bill. Besides, ceding INEC’s power to NCC and the National Assembly is a major blow to electoral governance in Nigeria, given the provisions of Sections 78 and 160 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria,” he said.
In her considered opinion, Hassan, who is CDD’s West Africa boss concludes that the National Assembly currently falls short in the eyes of Nigerians and the international community. Anybody privy to the dangerous and opaque system of manual collection, which even poses risks to the lives of election workers, including the security itself, is sad. It is an opportunity to build trust with Nigerians, but unfortunately, the National Assembly has again cemented the notion of being a non-listening one. 
Some Nigerians feel that the Presidency, like some lawmakers, may not have been favourably disposed to the electronic transmission of election results. And Hassan believes that such feeling is not entirely out of place given what played out ahead of the 2019 general election when Buhari declined assent to the Act.

According to her: “Regarding the Presidency, you may recollect that the same amendment was not signed into law ahead of the 2019 elections. While the president cited the ECOWAS Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance as providing a six-month minimum timeframe for an amendment to come into being ahead of any election. But the word on the street was that the amendment was not signed because of the possibility of interference during the transmission of results. So, it’s not unusual for people to feel that way, as there is no assurance that it will not be vetoed.”
While giving legislators thumbs down for failing to write their name in gold, the CDD West Africa boss refused to align with views that the lawmakers would have probably been won over if INEC had been allowed to state its case after the NCC briefed the lawmakers on network coverage of the country.
“I’m afraid I have to disagree that the legislators were influenced by the presentation of NCC. Instead, I will argue that the regulator hearkened to their calls. In the first instance, INEC has been transmitting results even at the pilot phase. They have used the result viewing platforms, which entails that results are uploaded onto the portal directly from polling units. If they recorded successes with this, what stops them from doing the same with the transmission? And again, it’s unfortunate that this process is viewed in the light of an electoral cycle. It is entirely wrong; laws should be made for the future; it saves cost, time, and judicial review to improve the process. The introduction of such a clause into the amendment bill does not mean it must be implemented during the 2023 elections. There are processes to put in place, but then, you don’t legislate away the independence of INEC by imposing other governmental bodies on it. 

Voting Against Electronic Transfer Of Election Result Self-serving, Not In National Interest
THE trio of Hassan, Rafsanjani and the Chairman of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) Abuja Branch, Mr. Bulus Atsen believe that voting against electronic transmission of results by the lawmakers at this time was not for altruistic reasons, as many of them would want the country to believe.
Indeed, while they believe that the lawmakers chose to protect their interest when it clashed with national interest, Atsen noted that putting personal interest above national interest, and the lack of confidence in the electoral system explains why most Nigerians have political apathy.
Hassan, in summarising the conduct of the “offending” lawmakers said that in the course of amending the act, they “failed to place a premium on citizens priorities; Nigerians from all walks of life have called for the digitisation of the electoral process as globally, technology is being infused into the electoral process to increase trust and reduce costs. 
Rafsanjani, on his part added: “Unfortunately, our elected officials chose to pander to their interests, which is political survival at the expense of national interest. In Nigeria, the electoral amendment process is a captured process that legislators use to their political advantage, and not the public interest. The deployment of more technology leads to the jettisoning of the manual, chaotic and archaic process being used to skew electoral outcomes. We are all aware of how the card reader brought sanity into the electoral process.” 

Atsen, in his submission, stressed that: “Voting against electronic transmission of results is not in tandem with the expectations of the generality of Nigerians. That was purely a political and self-serving decision. That votes against electronic transmission of results will not bring about transparency in the process, it will not bring about credibility, it will only perpetuate a culture of impunity and electoral malpractice. INEC has worked hard to ensure that Nigeria has a credible electoral process among which is legislation empowering it to transmit election results, using electronic means. So, you can appreciate INEC’s displeasure with the sudden turnaround and the new position taken by a majority of the lawmakers. I believe INEC was accurate when it described the actions of the lawmakers as not being statesmanlike as they do not reflect, or advance the interest of Nigeria in any way. Any action that can undermine the collective decision of Nigerians can be validly described as unpatriotic. I would like to use this opportunity to urge lawmakers to reconsider the vote against ETR, it is a dangerous position.
“One of the reasons why most Nigerians have political apathy is due to lack of confidence in the electoral system. The electoral system is weak and susceptible to manipulations by politicians and their agents. At every election, Nigerians have cogent and verifiable reasons to believe that the elections were manipulated. It is sad the way citizens invest valuable time and money; sacrifice their business opportunities to queue up all day to vote, only for few individuals at various collation points to override the process and circumvent the collective will of Nigerians. Such action can be conveniently described as coups d’état,” he said.

Atsen, who faulted the claims by some lawmakers that the country was not yet ripe for electronic transmission of the election result, recalled efforts so far made by INEC to redeem the troubled electoral system thus: “Since 2018, INEC has made it abundantly clear that it can transmit election results electronically, but it was incapacitated by the absence of a legislative backbone. You would recall that that was one of the grounds that Atiku Abubakar, and the PDP challenged the 2019 presidential election. Immediately after the case was settled at the Supreme Court, the INEC Chairman, Yakubu Mahmud, made a case for electronic transmission of results because Nigerians were yearning for a seamless and credible electoral process where their votes would count. And we all know that electronic transmission of results will go a long way in boosting the confidence of citizens in the process. This is why most Nigerians were taken aback when the National Assembly voted against the electronic transmission of results in the Electoral Amendment Bill 2020. That was a betrayal of trust and confidence. The reasons given by some of the lawmakers who voted against electronic transmission of results were way beneath their intellectual statuses. The fact that they had to explain the reasons for voting against it clearly shows that they did not represent the interests of their constituents.”

On why talks about credible electoral reforms are largely rhetorical, Atsen said: “Politicians generally are used to telling Nigerians what they think Nigerians want to hear. This may be the reason the presidency would promise one thing and progress in the opposite direction. If you remember the position of the President Goodluck Jonathan-led administration and the PDP regarding the use of card readers in 2015, you will appreciate why the ruling party is averse to the deployment of technology in the electoral process. Technology gives the system credibility to a large extent, and it would seem like some people who have benefitted from the weak electoral system would not want it to be strengthened to serve democratic purposes. It is quite strange how lawmakers depend largely on technology for their daily living but reject the same for election purposes.

Asked to hazard whether the agitation for electronic transmission of election results would end the way things were panning out, Atsen said: “Nigerians and INEC should not relent in advocating for credible electoral reforms, which will reflect the yearnings of majority of Nigerians. As several commentators have maintained, President Muhammadu Buhari must not give assent to the bill when it is forwarded to him by the National Assembly. The bill can be sent back to the National Assembly by the president who is enjoined to deny assent to the bill as constituted. Unfortunately, this will occasion avoidable delays and may end up not affecting the needed amendments before the 2023 elections. There is, therefore, the need for sustained advocacy by all stakeholders in the electoral process to ensure that both the president and the legislature amend the Electoral Act in a way and manner that will engender electoral integrity.

“By way of closing remark, I will urge President Buhari to deny his presidential assent when the bill is sent to him. The bill should be sent back to the National Assembly to do the needful. The lawmakers are representing Nigerians, they were voted by Nigerians and must make laws that will protect Nigerians and not their fleeting political aspirations. State powers are too precious to be used in this manner.”