‘We need to amend electoral act to discourage election violence’
Electoral violence has become one of the major factors threatening the growth of democracy in Nigeria. Aside from the resultant destruction of lives and property, it is largely responsible for cases of inconclusive elections in recent times. In fact, on account of the fear of violence, in addition to other factors, the police advised the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to postpone the Edo State gubernatorial election scheduled to hold September 10. Even though the electoral umpire argued that the cost of demobilising is far more higher than mobilising for the polls, few hours to the election, it acquiesced to the position of security agencies and shifted the election by two weeks. In an interview with Bridget Chiedu Onochie, Head of Chambers, Dureke Law Firm and President, Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), Uche Wisdom Dureke, identified causes of electoral violence and proffered ways out of the situation.
Baring his mind about the issue of electoral violence in Nigeria, Dureke said from his experience there are two dimensions to the vice in the country.
He said: “Having interacted with people, having been involved in election monitoring and having handled election petitions at the governorship level, I see two strands of electoral violence in Nigeria. The first strand is the one I call in my own terms, premeditated election violence. Premeditated electoral violence is a strategy by parties, candidates and supporters to win election, often by scaring people. So, in a place they are not so strong, they decide to cause violence in that place so that election will be cancelled. Even if you call for a repeat election, the interest might not be like the first time. The other strand is the spontaneous electoral violence.
Often, it is a response by constituents. If for instance, Ward A is a stronghold of a particular party and they compromised the votings there, while electoral officers are fighting to ensure that there is free and fair election in Ward B, which is a stronghold of another party, you may see a spontaneous reaction and people will ask why there should be free and fair election in Ward B when it was compromised in Ward A. Before you know it, there will be violence in that place.
“So, violence happens as a result of electorates trying to defend their mandate and in some cases, some people trying to corrupt the process. Definitely, people in that place will try to resist and oppose them and before you know what is happening, the situation escalates into violence. But the dominant and most recurrent is the one I called the premeditated electoral violence because somebody who goes out of his house with guns into the election basically meant to cause violence.”
Talking about how to forestall electoral violence, having identified the causes, Dureke said the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has a great role to play in achieving that purpose.
He said: “We must hold INEC responsible. If INEC over time had established itself as a neutral umpire, if it was established as an institution that matches its words with action, I believe that by now, electoral violence in this country would decrease and increase at the level it is. If INEC is transparent and accountable in the process of election, sincerely, people would be discouraged from electoral violence. Why are people still engaged in electoral violence? It is because at the end of the day, you find out that the people involved still manage to clinch to victory. One can say, ‘why do you accuse INEC or have you forgotten the electoral regime’? Because under our law, if for instance I contest an election and lose, go to court with allegations of electoral violence, I would be expected to prove it beyond reasonable doubt.
“Two, I am expected to show that, that violence was executed by the candidate, and we know that these are herculean tasks to prove. It was like a biblical statement of the head of cow passing through the eye of a niddle. In that circumstance, the issue of electoral violence has continued because there seems to be no answer to the issue. We need to look at our electoral act. How can we tinker with it so that it becomes an instrument that will discourage electoral violence? In this circumstance, I will not blame the court, not because I am a lawyer but because the court is meant to interpret the law and it does so according to the law. So, it is now a matter of a proactive legislation. In trying to address the issue by the experience we have gathered over the years, INEC itself must be on top of its game in the conduct of elections. For instance, the issue of shortage of electoral materials has become a perennial one and at the end of the day, you do not get plausible explanation from INEC why it is so. Most of the time, the electorates are provoked and this can escalate violence in the time of election.
“So, we need to start looking at some of the institutional issues. We also need to look at our strategy of policing during election. Our policing system must not be bias, it must not be discreminatory. During elections, security agencies usually say there would be no movement except for observers and others on essential duties, but most of the time, the orders are not obeyed. You find political chieftains moving around within their constituencies with Police, Soldiers, Civil Defence as well as their private bodyguards. These are the election riggers. If the no movement order is enforced to the later, it will not be easy for people to move. People will be apprehensive of being apprehended. So, we need to look at all these critically and start apportioning blames to where they are. If you are privileged to monitor elections where there are violence, you will always find people talking about electoral injustice.
“We also need to ask ourselves how far we have gone with prosecuting those arrested. What usually happens is that if one is involved in an electoral violence and was apprehended, if the party the person worked for happens to win the election, the person will not be charged to court and when he is charged to court, the case will not continue because the party, now in power, will utilise its position to influence the persons freedom. As long as alleged perpetrators of electoral violence are not investigated, prosecuted and convicted, there may be no end to the trend.”
On what has been done with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) report on post 2011 violence in the North, he explained that the report was reportedly forwarded to the office of the attorney general of the federation for his action. He added that the onus on whether to progress with prosecution lies in the hand of the AGF.
“Yes. It was reported that the NHRC may forward the report of investigation to the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) for prosecution. Well, fears that the AGF might not prosecute those accused of violence in Northern Nigeria might not be unjustified or naive. It is borne out of the way we do things in this country. These are some of the challenges we are facing. In terms of what NHRC has done, it was commendable but there are bound to be some challenges. For somebody to be charged to court and prosecuted, there must be an investigation and investigation in this country is carried out by the Police. We have not gotten to a level of hiring private investigators. So, I don’t know what NHRC has done. I have my doubt because those mentioned may not have been given opportunity of fair hearing. In this regard, you cannot prosecute them. I suspect that there are some issues around that which we need to address,” he declared.
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