By Yaya Ademola
Electoral Acts are the laws which regulate the conduct of our electoral process. Breaches of these provisions attract penalties which may be a fine or a term of imprisonment or both.
The yearnings for electoral reform in Nigeria dates back to the post-1922 elections, the first held in Nigeria. Did you know that before our Flag Independence in October 1, 1960, our Colonial Masters left us stringent Electoral Act in 1958, stipulating that any political party found guilty of electoral offences be banned from electoral contest for 5 years? Did you know that after the Oyinbo left, our own 1962 Electoral Act made provision for Election Petition but watered down the 5 years ban for guilty parties to mere fine? Did you know that as it was in the past, so it is today as the 2002 Electoral Acts make vote buying a criminal offence with only an option of fine not exceeding Two Hundred Thousand Naira only (N200,000)? Did you know that our elections, especially the 2007, were so poorly conducted that they could not meet any established standard to the extent that the beneficiary of the lopsided elections, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, admitted it and consequently set up a powerful Electoral Reform Committee headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria between 1995 and 2006, Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais?
The 22-member Uwais Electoral Reform Committee was peopled by highly intellectual and erudite elites from the Academic, Civil Society Organisations, Professional Groups and Public Service. The Committee, in its reports submitted in December 2008, recommended the following amongst others:
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was made to be genuinely independent. As against its composition by the Executives, the National Judicial Council (NJC) would constitute it and its funding will be a first line charge on the Consolidated Revenue of the Federation. Electoral Petition would have a time limit. No elected person would assume office until the case against him/her in tribunal is disposed-off. Amendment of the Constitution for the appointment of a single date for Presidential and Gubernatorial elections which should be held six months before the expiration of the current holders of the offices. There is provision for Independent Candidature on a condition of Constituency-based nomination by verifiable signatures of 10 registered voters in each Ward in the Constituency. The 297-page reports contain rich recommendations that would guarantee lasting democratic institutions and culture.
To demonstrate its seriousness about reforming and cleaning up our rotten electoral system, the Committee provides a draft bill for an Act to amend the 1999 Constitution, to amend 2006 Electoral Act and another bill for an Act to create Electoral Offences Commission.
Unfortunately, sickness and eventual death did not allow President Yar’Adua to implement Uwais Panel Recommendations. His successor, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, did not consider the reports. Instead, he set up a National Conference on 17 March, 2014 to look into credibility of our elections amongst numerous other things. After 5 months deliberations, the 500 Nigerian delegates submitted a 10,335-page Report which the President promised to implement. However, he lost 2015 Presidential Elections to General Muhammadu Buhari, marking the first time in the history of Nigeria that an incumbent President lost re-election and conceded defeat. Hence, he could not implement the recommendations.
Introduction of Smart Card Reader Machine and Permanent Voters Card for the conduct of the 2015 General Elections by Professor Attahiru Jega-led INEC made fundamental departure to our sick electoral system and largely made the Buhari victory possible. Don’t forget that Attahiru Jega, a former Vice Chancellor of Bayero University, Kano, was a member of Justice Uwais Commission and introduction of Electronic Voting was one of its recommendations.
Although President Buhari is a beneficiary of Jega improvised electoral reformation, he is yet to publicly express his views on the electoral system. So, we have been in this election game for so long. It seems to me that our ruling elite are at peace with lopsided electoral system that leaves room for massive fraud and rigging. They have even devised vote buying and use of excessive force to have their way during election as witnessed in the last gubernatorial election in Kogi State. They love to hate credible, free and fair election. Partisan politics seems to have made the main stakeholders – the executive and Legislative arm of Government – to be undermining efficient electoral law and weakening political institutions. Otherwise, what does it take to have a full blown electronic voting where there will not be ballot boxes to break and ballot papers to stuff into boxes? Use of thugs to disrupt elections will be eliminated and there will be no need to deploy army to Polling Areas.
With electronic voting, there will be no need for movement restrictions. A voter can vote anywhere for a particular candidate and party at any voting machine point that will automatically reflect and sum up. It will be so simplified for any illiterate to operate. It will also be bye-bye to over-voting and voided votes. After all, they do transaction on Automated Teller Machine (ATM) across the country. In fact, a lot of electoral logistics will not be required. Complete electronic voting may have its own limitations but it would solve a lot of our peculiar problems. It will make votes count. There will be no need for so many thousand Electoral Officers. No need for Collation Centres. Election results will be automatically knowable, transmitted and broadcast in real time! It will rebuild confidence in the electoral system. It will make voters to be kings and earn respects from, and true considerations and mobilisation of all contestants as their influence and manipulation will be drastically reduced, if not eliminated. Elections will then increasingly be issue-based, and holding the elected accountable increasingly possible. It will reduce conflicts over electoral outcomes and consequently reduce litigations and attendant diversions especially of the incumbents seeking re-election to governance.
The most disturbing trend in electoral manipulation today, which undermines the very essence of election, is vote buying, as witnessed in elections since Ekiti State Gubernatorial Election till the just concluded Edo State Governorship Election. Electronic voting is a major key to largely solving that problem, along with massive education and voters’ enlightenment campaigns. The first step towards genuine democracy and good governance is to ensure that the choices of the people, right or wrong, prevail; resolving every other challenge will then follow. With the patent reluctance of the political elite to go the way of complete electronic voting despite the clear availability of the technology, it is up to citizens, especially within all their popular organisations and interest groups, to advocate and strongly exert pressure for its achievement as soon as possible.