The Independent National Electoral Commission has recently announced its plans to conduct 78 re-run elections across the country, pursuant to judicial decisions ordering it to do so. The reason for the fresh conduct of these elections is that the previous elections and the results failed the test of electoral integrity. In some instances, there were no elections in large numbers of polling units. At some points, there was over-voting or the rightful candidates were shut out of participating in the elections, among many other reasons. In simple terms, the process was manipulated and tainted in some significant manner.
These manipulations, we must quickly add, were not perpetrated by some aliens or foreigners who stood to lose nothing from the negative effect of the manipulation. In every location where the electoral process was tainted, there was a high dose of local contents in the corruption that played out. It therefore calls to question the democratic credentials of Nigerians. Do our people truly appreciate democracy and its philosophy as a government by freely-chosen representatives of the people?
Let us face it; our electoral system is in trouble, big trouble. We have a defective system. And the defect is not just about the election management. It is about the whole gamut of elections from electioneering and pre-election to the election and post-election periods. It is also about the participation and conduct in the entire process by different persons and institutions. It covers the electorate, the political parties and politicians, the electoral management bodies, the security agencies, other state agencies like those in charge of information, orientation and mobilisation. The problem also includes the civil society such as the religious institutions, traditional/cultural institutions, non-governmental organisations, media and ordinary/regular citizens doing things in their respective locations and on the social media.
Having participated in various activities linked to elections and having been conversant over the years in the way we conduct public affairs, as far as governance and elections go, I can fairly say that our elections reflect who we are. We are largely self-seeking, self-centred, myopic, clannish, sentimental and manipulative. Because of all the above and more, an election, which is a normal routine in a democracy becomes unduly complicated, contentious and potentially a cause for the breakdown of law and order and even the collapse of a state. That explains why in the build up to elections in Nigeria, we always have wars and rumours of wars to worry about.
It is similarly for the above reasons and more that many elections in Nigeria do not end until the last court has ruled on it. If that be the case, we can as well assume that the Nigerian judiciary remains the ultimate “electoral college”. All other processes in the name of elections are mere preliminaries. And the panel of the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court, depending on the elections, waits to cast the final ballot.
In 2007, when the justices of the Supreme Court gave the landmark decision of “electing” Chibuike Amaechi as governor of Rivers State, I was not too comfortable with that and stated my reservations about the judgment in different commentaries. Their Lordships held that Amaechi ought to be the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party in the governorship election and even though his name was not on the ballot, the teeming voters in Rivers State who voted for the PDP with a usurper candidate, were deemed to have voted for the “invisible” (and invincible) Amaechi. Although the parliament eventually amended the relevant legislation that makes the Amaechi Case no longer the law, by the collective conduct of different stakeholders, Nigeria seems to have brought back the judiciary as the final electoral college. Thus, in some cases, the judiciary has ordered a different person to be sworn in, in place of the person earlier declared elected by INEC after election. But in many of the cases, it ordered fresh elections. That is where the 78 cases above fall into.
While I agree that the judiciary is the final say on disputes of a legal nature, like electoral disputes, I think the incessant resort to that as a default setting in electoral matters robs us of the beauty of allowing citizens to independently choose their leaders. But then, we cannot expect the judiciary to stand aloof while citizens manipulate and corrupt a system. That is why we must go back to doing all that is needful to ensure credibility in the electoral process.
As we have seen of late, one way to credibility is ensuring that every interested person and party is allowed a fair opportunity to compete or to vote. The many cases of manipulation of the party primaries have come to haunt or electoral process, leading to the cancellation or reversal of many elections. Sometimes the political party that manipulated one of its own out of the process loses by being denied a chance to field another candidate in the re-run election.
It is equally important to increase civic education that would make citizens see the link between credible elections and future accountability by government officials to them. Our religious and traditional/cultural leaders should know better than pander to persons of their similar affiliations and support them to corrupt the electoral system, or aid and abet such corruption. Such civic education should focus on letting citizens know that election is just a routine civic activity and particularly for the local elections, the contending candidates are their kin.
It just doesn’t sound reasonable when we sometimes hear of the level of violence and dislocation of communal living simply because two members of the same community or even family are fighting over political position. In many such instances, even the elders of the community take sides, apparently on the basis of which interest has ‘bought’ them over. Still talking about electoral violence, consider the level of violence that characterised the recent governorship election in Bayelsa State. That occasioned deaths and destruction of property which cannot be reversed or even completely compensated after the event. Yet the perpetrators of the violence were young people from the same state.
We also need to see cases of persons made to account for acts of fraud and violence even where such is hinged on election issues. This is because fraud is fraud and violence is violence and booth being crimes, should be treated as such. The fact that they were carried out in the prosecution of political interest cannot be an excuse or reason to escape liability. In stating the above, one is not oblivious of the fact that even some agents of the state, including INEC staff, are complicit in the election-related crimes. They too must be made to account.
In the build up to the last general elections, it was thought that the use of the card reader was going to be the game-changer as it was meant to be able to eliminate falsification of numbers of votes. But apparently our politicians were smarter, manipulating every loophole, legal and operational. The recent judgments from the Supreme Court indicate that the decision to use the card readers was mere administrative and could not trump the resort to number of registered voters in determining the number that actually voted. The recurring incidents of the ineffectiveness of the card reader to work optimally have not also helped matters. Going forward, the electoral body needs to take every step to ensure a higher degree of effectiveness of the card reader for the purpose it was designed for. It is assuring that there has been an improvement in this usage in the recent elections.
Finally, the legislature should immediately move to amend the Electoral Act to give legal teeth to the use of the card reader, that being the future of more credible elections. It should further amend the Constitution to take care of some of the lacunae being seen of recent, like the issue thrown up in Kogi where a candidate set to win the election died just before the conclusion of the election, thus giving room for several discordant interpretations. It is imperative for the legislature to proceed with these amendments early enough to ensure a thorough job rather than end up with a hurried legislation with more lacunae as we have witnessed in the past.
(Published on February 1, 2016 in The Punch Newspapers http://www.punchng.com/the-judiciary-as-the-new-electoral-college/)