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REVIEW: Shall we forget about credible elections? Still on the 2018 Electoral Act Amendment Bill that must be killed

Buhari

What manner of elections?

Legislative rerun elections were held in 28 constituencies across 11 States of the Federation on January 25, 2020, based on the 30 out of court-ordered petitions after the 2019 general elections. The elections, unsurprisingly, were not a far cry from the usual theatrics that usually play up in Nigerian elections. Reports have it that the elections were marred by violence, voters’ intimidation, ballot thumb printing, hijack of election materials and an array of other electoral irregularities.

In Cross River State, during the election, an official of the Independent National Electoral Commission, (INEC), was kidnapped by gunmen. They allegedly also carted away election materials: nine Smart Card Readers, 5,616 ballot papers and result sheets including cash and mobile phones. It was learnt that the election officials were majorly National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) members.

The story was not different in Akwa Ibom State where the State’s Chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party, (PDP), and Commissioner for Trade and Investment, Prince Ukpong Akpabio, alleged that he assisted the Police to recover election materials hijacked to the home of a Chieftain of the All Progressives Congress, (APC), in Essien Udim LGA. He also claimed that the INEC ad-hoc staff, including an Electoral Officer were caught thumb printing in the home of the APC Chieftain, whose name he refused to mention.

The Imo PDP, on January 27, 2020, also alleged electoral malpractices. In a statement by the party’s State Publicity Secretary, Damian Opara, the party called on INEC to cancel the election in the State while emphasizing that the exercise was a mockery of democratic principles.

“Consequent upon the charade done yesterday, Saturday, 25/01/2020 in the name of conduct of rerun elections by INEC in Okigwe/Onuimo/Isiala Mbano, Orlu/Orsu/Oru East federal constituencies and Njaba State constituency, all in Imo State, the Peoples Democratic Party Imo State Chapter hereby call on INEC to cancel the elections as the entire exercise was the worst elections ever conducted since the history of elections in Imo State,” he lamented.

Interestingly, the ruling All Progressives Congress is not left out in the lamentations over conduct of sham elections in country. It has separately and at different fora openly accused the electoral commission of undermining the system and processes.

Speaking on the Supreme Court ruling that annulled the the election of Emeka Ihedioha as governor of Imo State, Chairman of APC had said, “Everybody knows that you need one quarter of the votes in at least two third local governments in a state to be declared a winner or governor, but INEC recruit a professor of crook who declared Emeka Ihedeoha of the PDP who scored one third in 12 local governments out of 27, so if the professor go free with his loot another person will try it again.

“That was the mischief that the Supreme Court corrected that they are hiring people to come and make noise. We don’t steal votes, we win votes. So I congratulate the Supreme Court for upholding the constitution of the country.”

The awful outcomes of elections in the country have in several quarters elevated the call for President Muhammadu Buhari to sign the 2018 Electoral Act amendment bill into law. It is believed that signing the bill into law would go far in primarily addressing the diverse recurring commotions that usually play up prior, during and after elections in the country.

A change for the sake of it?

The bill which is famed to reduce the cost of politics, internal democracy, broaden political participation and the conduct of free, fair and credible elections with the assistance of  technological innovations and an electronic database, had been rejected by the President, four times. The last time he declined his assent to the bill – as passed by the then 8th National Assembly led by Bukola Saraki – was on December 7, 2018. The Electoral Act had, previously, been amended in 2004, 2006 and 2010 by the National Assembly.

Saraki, while he and his then colleagues in the Senate had worked on the Electoral Act, he noted: “We started work on this law since 2016 to prevent a situation where it would become part of the election controversies. What we have done with the bill is to raise the level of transparency, credibility and acceptability of our electoral process. We made sure that if the law is assented to and honestly applied by INEC and all those concerned, it will give us an election that will be better than what we had in 2015.”

The bill remains in the cooler. Perhaps, President Buhari considers that those seeking a change are probably driven by selfish or ulterior motives.

All the intrigues

The President’s disposition towards the Electoral Act has not been without excuses. The last time he rejected assenting to the bill, it was because the bill was allegedly jammed with drafting issues, its perceived attempt to change the sequence of elections and its supposed conflict with certain provisions of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).

Saraki, on December 11, 2019, read the President’s rejection letter to the Senate wherein he explained why he refused to assent to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2018, passed by the National Assembly. Buhari had said,  “Pursuant to Section 58 (4) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of  Nigeria 1999 (as amended), I hereby convey to the Senate, my decision on 6th December 2018 to decline Presidential Assent to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2018 recently passed by the National Assembly. I am declining assent to the Bill principally because I am concerned that passing a new electoral bill far into the electoral process for the 2019 general elections, which commenced under the 2015 Electoral Act, could create some uncertainty about the applicable legislation to govern the process. Any real or apparent change to the rules this close to the election may provide an opportunity for disruption and confusion in respect of which law governs the electoral process,”

Putting it in its clearest term, he meant that the 2019 general elections was too close to change the rules that govern the electoral process as the change could likely leave election officials and voters confused.

If the striking reason why the President refused assenting to the bill was because of the closeness of the 2019 general elections, questions are now being raised as to why the bill has failed to receive the President’s attention. The queries have been heightened by the unsavory experience of the Kogi and Bayelsa States governorship elections. The intentions of the President and the ruling party on the bill are still firmly shrouded in secrecy.

Inside the (doomed?) Electoral Bill

The calls for the President to assent to the bill chiefly stems from the reforms it would yield to the nation’s electoral system. The reforms are meant to make better how the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) conducts elections and to address the varied avoidable squabbles that normally form part of cases at various tribunals across the federation in the event of a candidate losing an election. Here are the provisions of the Electoral Act:

  1. The bill provides that the Presiding Officer shall use a Smart Card Reader (SCR) or any other technological device that may be prescribed by the INEC for accreditation of voters, to verify, confirm or authenticate the particulars of the voter in a manner prescribed by the Commission.
  2. The bill states that where during the collation of results, there is a dispute regarding a collated result or the result of an election from any polling unit, the Collation Officer or Returning Officer shall use inter alia, the SCR or any other technological device used for accreditation of voters in each polling unit where the election is disputed for the purpose of obtaining accreditation data direct from the SCR or technology device.
  3. In addressing a situation where a candidate died after polls began but before the result was declared, the bill empowered the INEC to suspend elections for a maximum period of 21 days provided the deceased candidate was leading at the election.
  4. The bill also required that the INEC should compile, maintain and update a National Electronic Register of Election Results including the electronic transmission of votes and the prohibition of arbitrary fees by the setting of maximum fees for all elective offices.

The e-voting mirage

Signing the Electoral Act would have seen a non-repetition of the many flaws and shortcomings of the 2015 general elections in the 2019 general elections. As the President appears to have pushed the bill aside, we might be headed to another sham of an election come 2023, and keep running in circles.

More so, one of the provisions of the bill which specifies the electronic transmission of votes brings to fore the recent calls for electronic voting – which means that the entire registration, accreditation, vote counting, collation and announcement chain would be done electronically. It is assumed that with the introduction of electronic voting, and with the signing of the bill, they will serve as a panacea to the many electoral woes that have been witnessed in the country.

The issue of electronic voting, on the one hand, may have received cold reception as some analysts have averred that since the Federal Government has failed to sign the bill, introducing electronic voting would only be a dream. Besides the government appears to have ggone into a defensive mode claiming that the country is bereft of the needed infrastructure to upgrade to electronic voting coupled with the very slim chances of those in rural areas having access to it.

On the other hand, however, it has been argued in several quarters that electronic voting would drastically curb the manipulation in our electoral system and reduce the stupendous amount of money the INEC uses to conduct elections. Also, it is thought that since most Nigerians already on certain data bases such as Bank Verification Number (BVN) and engage in online money transfer, electronic voting should not be a thing of much stress.

Why the President must act now

Signing the electoral bill would help improve our electoral process and strengthen our democracy. The excessive electoral litigations littered in various courts across the federation would lessen if the bill is signed.

Politicians are already talking tough about the 2023 general elections. If the bill is not signed before then, there is a possibility that we would even experience more awful electoral flaws. People are already exhibiting a high level of apathy towards voting. In the rerun elections, such was predominant in Kaduna, Sokoto and Imo States. And this has much bearing on the irregularities that do show up during and after elections.

Assenting to the Electoral bill would not just bring back life to our electoral process, it would serve as the President’s resolve to conduct a free and fair election come 2023.

By John Chukwu…

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