It is not difficult to know that the reason Nigeria has had unending electoral offences, is because the nation’s political leaders gain from the trend. Electoral offences are not happening only because we are a large underdeveloped nation that does not prioritize how an electoral body manages a credible contest; they always happen because the trend is part of Nigeria’s political culture. The fact that our political parties are also always unable to organize hitch-free internal party primaries confirms the point. For example, because the parties know that the outcome of a free and fair primaries may be unpredictable, party officials often change the rules midway or announce fake results for contests that did not hold so that their wealthiest or preferred aspirants can gain the upper hand. It is for this reason that local government elections which politicians control are always a sham. In other words, free and fair elections to the average Nigerian politician is merely a slogan.
It is however simplistic to imagine that politicians act alone; what usually happens is that they have collaborators in other segments of the elite class. Within the electoral body, many well-placed officials are always willing to collude with politicians by leaking sensitive information to them or helping certain candidates to suppress the votes of their opponents. The security and law enforcement agents generally serve as rigging tools for politicians. That is why ballot snatching is seamlessly done in the presence of security personnel. In the last few years, no other institution has helped to rig elections more than the Judiciary. This happens not only in the election tribunals but through the ladder to the Supreme Court. During the last general election, it was our apex court that single-handedly ‘elected’ one governorship candidate by allocating to him more votes than voters. On its part, the government of the day supports the trend by appointing card carrying members of the ruling party into the electoral body which the constitution says should be made up of non-partisan impartial umpire of the election process. What else is the mission of such politicians within the electoral body?
Whether the trend of political rascality, undue influence by government and powerful forces such as traditional institutions which are at the heart of unending electoral malpractices will soon end, is hard to fathom. First, the trend has been there from origin. On December 12, 1959, acid and other corrosive substances were poured into ballot boxes to distort the results of the election that was held to usher Nigeria into independence. In the Federal House of Representatives’ elections of 1964, more than half of the candidates of the ruling party were returned unopposed following the disappearance of electoral officers after receiving the nomination papers of only the official candidates. During the 1983 elections, incumbent state governors announced their own re-election even before the Electoral Commission could conclude the collation of votes cast at the election. In 1993, the June 12 elections acclaimed internationally as Nigeria’s best election was annulled by the military.
In the 1999 election which restored democracy after years of military interventions, former US President Jimmy Carter who led international observers revealed that “there was disparity between the number of voters observed at the polling stations and the final results.” As for the 2007 election, the report of the Election Observation Delegation of the International Republican Institute (IRI) stated that the conduct did not “measure up to those observed by the members in other countries whether in Africa, Asia, Europe or the Western Hemisphere.” Even the main beneficiary of the event – the late President Umaru Yar’ Adua agreed at his swearing-in as President, that the election was flawed. Painfully, electoral malpractices which are the main causes of failed elections that have led to massive riots and killings in 1965, 1983 and 2011 in Nigeria are yet to be addressed till today. If so, what is the way forward?
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First, we must unbundle our current electoral commission which is mandated to do more than election management. If Nigeria is ready to learn how to get societal institutions to perform the functions for which they were set up, then one of the areas to be taken from INEC is public enlightenment and voter education. That function would be better handled by the National Orientation Agency (NOA) and other organs of mass communication such as the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria along with other public media organs as well as political parties. While the information to be publicized may be determined by INEC, she has no communication organ of her own to ensure effective publicity. Therefore, to continue to hold her responsible for public enlightenment does not only overburden her, the mobilization of Nigerians to register, collect PVCs and vote as well as publicizing how to vote well, so as to avoid spoilt ballot would be fitful.
Second, we need to establish a strong institutional framework such an Electoral Offences Commission to combat the hydra headed monster of election malpractices. This is because as observed by INEC chairman Yakubu Mahmood, “although the commission is empowered by the Electoral Act to prosecute electoral offences, it lacks the power and resources to make arrests and thoroughly investigate electoral offences.” Another evidence that INEC is simply not in a position to pursue and prosecute electoral criminals was presented by the Chairman of the Senate Committee on INEC, Kabiru Gaya, who disclosed that the commission was not able to prosecute even one per cent of the 870,000 electoral offenders recorded in the 2015 general elections. Gaya imagines that because there was no deterrence in 2015, the number of offenders jumped further up in 2019. We agree with him that it will be worse going forward if nothing is done now.
Many media organs, political analysts and public commentators have continued to call for the establishment of Nigeria’s election offences commission. In 2018, for instance, Vanguard Newspapers supported the idea because it considered rigging as the mother of all other maladies in a democracy. According to the paper, ‘once a mandate is obtained through fraudulent or criminal acts, it lacks legitimacy.’ Quoting Victor Hugo (1948 –1994) who says “nothing beats an idea whose time has come”, prolific writer, Joseph Omorotionmwan pleaded from Canada that the time for election offences commission in Nigeria was yesterday. Some 3 months earlier, another national newspaper ‘Leadership’ supported the same call because of its finding that electoral offences remained a major threat to credible, free and fair elections. The paper expressed sadness that electoral offences including vote buying and ballot box snatching among others were being committed with impunity for the simple reason that the law was blind to them.
If electoral offences commission would see the light of day, Nigerians must note that the National Assembly will not pass the relevant bill because they belong to the elite class that gets inspiration from election rigging. Many of them have never really represented the people meaning that in a free and fair contest they cannot win. As a result, they are always hesitant to pass bills that can stop rigging. The way out therefore is for Nigerians to push them to act by accepting the reality that the era of appealing to them to do the needful which they will never do has passed. We must thus campaign against our current legislators who have refused to pass the bill despite calls from all and sundry for an end to failed elections. Here, we need to recall the heroic struggle of the people to get the Electoral Act amended to allow for the electronic transmission of election results. It appears it is time to adopt the same approach.
Unfortunately, the federal government has been passive about election offences. Although the numerous committees set up to examine the subject – Uwais Committee (2009), Lemu Committee (2011) and the Nnamani Committee (2017) all called for the establishment of an election offences commission in Nigeria, nothing has been done. Public opinion must be galvanized to get the government to act. Nigerians must themselves monitor the process of the 2023 election to ensure that BVAS, our new joker, is used everywhere.
* Prof. Iredia, a former DG of NTA is now a Professor of Media Law & Ethics.