ELECTION PETITIONS: NEED FOR COMPREHENSIVE REFORMS

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Process, not outcomes, is what engenders satisfaction and acceptability of elections. Elections are important to democracy, as they are the processes through which the people choose their leaders.

Elections have always been contentious in Nigeria right from independence. They led to the collapse of the First Republic and indirectly contributed to the Civil War in the sense that the crisis generated by the 1964 General Election, including ‘Operation Wetie’, laid the foundation for the first military coup and ultimately, the war.

Elections are seamlessly organised in many countries. There are basic principles and practices deployed by such countries to ensure free, fair and credible elections and Nigeria can be part of these success stories.

The number of election petitions generated in the 2019 General Elections was unprecedented and showed a significant increase over the past elections. Up to 1200 pre-election and election cases reflect irregularities, election disputes, and brazen acts of impunity by political parties to the point that party primaries in two states (Zamfara and Rivers) were nullified by the Supreme Court. What this shows is that more and more contestants were dissatisfied with the election processes and outcomes than before. This being the case, it also means that the nation’s electoral system is not improving despite huge expenditures on elections.

The reports of the international observers on the conduct of the 2019 General Election conclusively showed that there were many irregularities during the elections, despite the fact that a whopping sum of N247bn was committed to it.

Their reports indicted both the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and security agencies for not being professional enough during the exercise and for other actions that undermined democracy and the sanctity of the ballot box. There were widespread violence, intimidations and monetization of the processes. Several lives were lost during the exercise. A major conclusion from the conduct of the elections is that the country’s democracy, despite having lasted some 20 years in the current dispensation, is simply not maturing. Ironically those stunting its growth appear to be the same group of persons entrusted with the responsibility to protect it.

The News Chronicle wishes to draw attention to key reforms that have now become imperative if elections in Nigeria would capture the very essence of democracy and usher in truly democratic governance in Nigeria.

A major starting point will be to change the pattern of the recruitment process to a system-driven approach, which will greatly dilute and remove presidential influence in the appointment of the key personnel of INEC. Under this approach, positions to be filled, including the Chairman of INEC,  will be openly advertised and competitively bided for, with an internationally respected company engaged to oversee the recruitment process. South Africa, Chile and Mexico are some of the countries that follow the prescribed competition in appointments.

Another area of reform is on the need for electronic voting. The desperation to get into elective offices has continued to fuel the do-or-die politics being practiced in contemporary Nigeria. Most politicians have no second business address, and are not in politics for service. Their desperation for power and lucre is a major reason for the anarchic character of our politics and the attendant manipulation and rigging of elections, very often at   collation centres. Electronic voting, transmission and collation of results will reduce the propensity for election rigging and result manipulation at the collation centres. There is the need for real time synergy between voting, counting of votes and collation of the results.

Electronic voting, collation and transmission of results were provided for in the National Assembly – appropriated budget for INEC and there is evidence that the Commission trained their staff same. Though the Commission said it could not embark on electronic voting, collation and transmission of results due to legal constraints, the Commission does not actually require any laws to bring electronic voting, transmission and collation of results into existence since section 160(2) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) gives INEC the powers to make its own regulations.

Another area of reforms is the need to change the subsisting Electoral Act, which removes the onus of proving proper conduct of election from INEC to a litigant. This is wrong. INEC must take responsibility for the election it conducts, and should be required by law to prove that the election it conducted was free and fair, and complied with extant laws. Transferring this responsibility to candidates is abdicating responsibility. INEC should also be empowered to take full charge of the management of party primaries, including deciding who is qualified to run for election. Aspirants who fail to meet the minimum requirements set out in the election guidelines should be disqualified by INEC – though such individuals should have the right to seek remedy for their disqualification in court.

Finally, there is the need to create an Electoral Crimes Commission, which should be saddled with the responsibility of dealing with electoral offences. . The acts of impunity and crimes committed in elections have generally gone unpunished and this has made perpetrators to return the next election circle with greater impunity. Though this recommendation may mean creating yet another bureaucracy, if it helps in deterring election crimes, it will be worth it.

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