INEC And The Push For Electoral Reforms
THE outpouring of admiration for Nigeria since the largely successful conduct of the 2015 general elections certainly brings the conversation about electoral reforms to the table. Since 2011, Nigeria’s electoral process under the watch of immediate past Chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Attahiru Jega, has seen a paradigm shift.
Unlike the heavily condemned elections of 2007, the elections of 2011 and 2015 passed important credibility tests. In the first place, the electoral umpire made a conscientious attempt to create a level playing field for the political gladiators. In content and character, Professor Jega unlike his predecessor, positioned INEC to wean it of tendencies that created damaging public perception problems.
Before Jega came on board, INEC tended to speak and act like an appendage of the ruling party at the federal level. This undermined confidence in the electoral process. The 2015 general elections were a culmination of years of debates about the need for a credible electoral process in which the votes of the people count.
The introduction of innovative technological tools helped reduce the cases of electoral impunity and guaranteed the sanctity of the vote. Specifically, the use of the Smart Card Readers in 2015 was a watershed, though a section of the political class vehemently opposed it.
Other innovations like the setting up of special centre, close to polling units for the movement of materials ameliorated some of the major logistic issues that have always confronted Nigeria’s elections. However, there is the strong feeling that pulling off the 2015 elections was a miracle, which happened in spite of the weakness of INEC and other institutions supporting the democratic process.
Close watchers of Nigeria’s electoral system have observed that the innovations introduced since 2011 were a result of the determination of the former chairman and his team at INEC to deliver better elections. So working within the constraints and challenges imposed by fundamental institutional deficiencies, INEC since 2011 has managed to deliver credible polls.
The refrain of stakeholders now is that Nigeria’s electoral architecture should no longer depend exclusively on the magic wand of a few committed individuals to deliver credible elections.
At the heart of this discussion is the need to reform the electoral system by building key institutions that would be efficient and free from political interference. Though the current governing party, as the All Progressives Congress (APC) wants to be called, reserved no space for electoral reform in its 20-page manifesto titled, Roadmap To A New Nigeria, the task of reforming the electoral system falls squarely within its purview.
The new governing party has to take lead in mobilising Nigerians to support the push for a comprehensive reform of the electoral process. Having benefited from an electoral process, which succeeded because of the grit and sheer determination of one man and his team, the lot is now the APC’s to ensure that Nigeria’s democracy under its watch gets the required fillip through a comprehensive reform of the necessary institutions.
Good enough, there is no need to reinvent the wheel with respect to electoral reforms. A lot of the spade work had already been done, while a treasure trove of data had been collected through a systematic observation of the electoral process by citizens groups. All of these should be harnessed to drive the reform process.
The first ready resource that comes to mind with respect to reforming the electoral process is the Justice Muhammed Uwais Report of 2008. The report details institutional, legal and administrative reforms that should be carried out to reposition INEC and make the democratic process credible.
According to the Uwais Committee, the independence and impartiality of the country’s election management bodies, that is, INEC, State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs) and other institutions involved in election matters, were questioned by the generality of Nigerians who submitted memoranda and made presentations during the public hearings of the Committee.
The report notes that INEC and SIECs have generally been adjudged as operating as appendages of the ruling party and the executive arms of government. This perception, it noted, stems mainly from the mode of appointment of key officials of the EMBs and their funding, which rest exclusively with the Executive branch of government.
The truism in this assertion came to the fore recently when President Muhammadu Buhari appointed Ms Amina Zakari as Acting Chair of INEC. The PDP reacted angrily to the appointment, accusing the new helmswoman of partisan bias. Perhaps, if the appointment had come from a neutral body, the INEC Acting Chair would not have been on the firing line so soon.
Consequently, in the area of freeing INEC from the interference of the political party holding power at the centre for instance, there is a consensus amongst stakeholders that INEC is still tied to the apron strings of the Federal Government, by extension, the ruling party at the centre.
This would be gleaned from the provision of Section 153 subsection 1(f) of the 1999 Constitution, which lists INEC as a federal executive body. The implication of this provision is that the electoral umpire would continually be dependent on the Federal Government, and by extension the ruling party at the centre. Similarly, there are the issues of appointments of key personnel and Commissioners of INEC.
The 1999 Constitution makes appointment of the INEC Chairman the prerogative of the President, while the National Assembly confirms such appointment. In essence, this constitutional provision means that the President, a politician with partisan interests, would be the one to pick the head of the electoral body and the Commissioners who would work with him or her.
In most cases, an appointee would want to pander to the whims of the person who was gracious enough to give the appointment. To solve this problem, the Uwais Committee recommended a process in which the National Judicial Council would advertise for the position of INEC Chairman.
From the pool of applications received from the public, a shortlist of three would then be sent to the Council of States for one to be picked and forwarded to the Senate for confirmation.
The Uwais Report also canvassed the establishment of an autonomous and constitutionally recognised Electoral Offences Commission to investigate all electoral frauds and related offences, coordinate the enforcement of the provisions of the Act and prosecutes all electoral offences.
The Electoral Offences Commission is the deterrence mechanism required to put electoral crimes at bay. One of the biggest threats to Nigeria’s democracy is the unchallenged spate of electoral impunity. The Commission, if created, will free INEC of the burden of prosecuting electoral offences.
If such a body is in place, INEC would not have to bother about the thousands of electoral offenders that have gone unpunished since the advent of this democratic dispensation in 1999. Offenders who were engaged in election related brigandage, bare faced rigging, the falsification of results, and all forms of violence during elections have been walking free due to the absence of a specialized body to take up their cases.
INEC, which is tasked with organising the coming Kogi and Bayelsa elections of November and December is too stretched to think about bringing electoral criminals to book. Similarly, the debate around reforming INEC has harped on the need to unbundle INEC in a way to end the current nebulous arrangement in which the Commission is virtually charged with everything remotely connected to the democratic process.
In this regard, there is the valid suggestion that Political Parties Registration and Monitoring Commission be set up to put an eye on the political parties. At the moment, INEC is so stretched that it has no time to monitor the political parties. And to think that the political parties routinely engage in breaches of campaign finance thresholds, makes the push for a separate body for the registration and oversighting of parties compelling.
Other components required to free INEC and have it concentrate on elections are: Constituency Delineation Commission with institutional representation from INEC, National Population Commission, National Boundary Commission, Office of the Surveyor-General of the Federation, National Bureau of Statistics and National Identity Management Commission.
A strong case was also made in the Uwais Report for a Centre for Democratic Studies to undertake broad civic and political education for legislators, political office holders, security agencies, politicians, political parties and the general public. On the other hand, the electoral reform effort in Nigeria would stand to benefit a lot from the data distilled from the observation efforts of civic groups.
An example is the Quick Count data from the observation effort put in place by the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), Nigeria’s foremost election observation and civic education coalition. Using the innovative methodology known as Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT), the group collected data that spotlighted significant issues in the process.
For instance, Quick Count data for the 2015 Presidential poll found that party agents for the main contending political parties APC and PDP were sighted in 93 and 94 percent of polling units respectively. For the political parties, this data is important because it speaks to the ability of the political parties to put an eye on the electoral process. For the APC, which won a historic victory in the election, it significantly had party agents at 81 and 85 percent of polling units in the South East and South South.
This is a huge improvement when compared with 2011 when the then opposition Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) had no presence in terms of polling agents in polling units of the South East and South South. The extrapolation to be made is that if a party has none of its agents in a party area where elections took place, it is impossible for it to make factual claims about the process there.
Similarly, Quick Count observers reported the presence of security personnel in 88 per cent of polling units. Compared to 2011, there was a regression in 2015 as Quick Count data for 2011 showed that there were security personnel in 94 per cent of polling units.
The data further shows that at 88 per cent of polling units, card readers were present and ready for use. At 11 per cent of polling units however, card readers were present, but did not function. Quick Count data similarly showed that observers reported that at 24 per cent of polling units, people were accredited even though the Card Reader could not complete the two-step verification process.
All of these numbers provide insights about several aspects of the electoral reform that point in the direction of reforms. Like a vehicle driven on a long and rough journey, INEC after the exertions of 2015 needs to be serviced. Again, President Muhammadu Buhari would have to get started by providing a roadmap on how he intends to reform the electoral process through an amendment of the constitution and the Electoral Act.
Electoral reform is a crucial task on the President’s list because the electoral process is the platform from which the nation’s leaders are recruited. Being a beneficiary of a free and fair electoral process, Nigerians now expect President Buhari to provide the leadership needed to consolidate on the gains of the 2011 to 2015 period.