Electoral Act: Unheeded groundwork for credible poll

Twenty-two years after Nigeria’s return to presidential democracy, politicians have continued to play tricks with the country’s Electoral Act. Even with several attempts to retool the crucial implement for credible polls, only in 2010, 11 years into the nascent democracy could a review, albeit imperfect alteration, sail through.

Overtime, Nigerians saw how elections came and went as hollow rituals, reflecting, not the will of the electorate, but the desire of the political godfathers and electoral merchants. Violence, voter intimidation, electoral heist of all shades, defalcation and manipulation of poll outcomes became the shameful order of the day and feature of Nigeria’s electoral processes.

It was worse in 2007. That was good eight years after the country rejoined the path of participatory democracy. The main beneficiary of the flawed 2007 general election, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, confessed that the election that brought him to the Presidency did not meet the acceptable minimum standards.

As a corollary, the then President set up the retired Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais Electoral Reform Committee, which made far reaching recommendations on how to improve and sanitize the country’s electoral system.

Going by superficial and seeming rubberstamp judicial pronouncements that certified faulty elections, the Uwais Committee suggested ways of restoring confidence in Electoral Petition Tribunals. The learned jurist and his team were of the firm belief that resolving disputes arising from election irregularities would help to restore public confidence and thereby enhance the survival of Nigeria’s democracy.

Working in cahoots with desperate politicians, lawyers made sure that they burdened petitioners not only with the onus of proof, but also the task of proving substantial non-compliance with the Electoral Act. Knowing that this loophole helps the electoral umpire to violate extant procedures, the Uwais panel recommended that the burden of proof, or what the lawyers call the doctrine of substantial compliance, should be on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

This lacuna has been the easily available exit pathway for perpetrators of electoral treachery, because by laying two crucial evidential burdens on a petitioner, the violators are allowed massive freedom to celebrate their ignoble conquest. Imagine where a candidate in an election has to prove, not only irregularities and non-compliance with the electoral law, but also that the irregularities and non-compliance affected the results of the election ‘substantially’.

That onus is akin to asking the petitioner to provide the horns of a dog. Side by side with restoring confidence in post-election resolution of complaints is the need to modernize the voting and collation process. The Uwais committee did not lose sight of its significance to the redemption of Nigeria’s electoral system.

However, the committee maintained that addressing INEC’s inefficiency would go a long way to ameliorating such other infringements in the system. By virtue of paragraph 15, Part 1 of the Third Schedule of Nigeria’s 1999 Constituton, as amended, INEC is empowered to conduct elections, undertake voters registration, regulate and monitor political parties.

The Electoral umpire has been complaining of institutional bottlenecks, conflicting legal frameworks as well as poor logistic and necessary manpower to deliver on its wide mandate. Corruption and use of adhoc staff have also impeded the effectiveness of INEC.

The judiciary has however come to the rescue following the recent conviction of a don for electoral offences during the 2019 general election in Akwa Ibom State.
However, last Friday’s Apex Court ruling on INEC’s power to deregulate political parties, came as watershed in the ongoing efforts at reforming Nigeria’s electoral system. The judicial pronouncement, which would strengthen INEC’s hands in improving political parties’ performance, now puts greater stress on the need for a new Electoral Act that closes other legal gaps.

In the judgment delivered by Justice Adamu Jauro, the Supreme Court, asserted that the deregistration of National Unity Party (NUP), one of the 74 parties deregistered last year, was done in line with the laws and compliance with the extant provisions of the Constitution and Electoral Act.

INEC chairman had, while explaining the rationale for pruning down the number of functional political parties, said the action was to pave way for a concise preparation for the next general election cycle in 2023. As such, having trimmed down the number of political parties to participate in future elections, INEC could now concentrate on other pressing issues, especially the review of the Electoral Act.

This is where the buck passes to the National Assembly. Although the Ninth NASS stated that its focus would be on early passage of the Electoral Act and the Petroleum Industry Bill, the federal legislature has been vacillating in tinkering with the amended Electoral Act, which President Buhari withhold assent two years ago.

The Eighth NASS led by Dr. Bukola Saraki had dabbled into sequence of elections and electronic transfer of outcome of balloting, but the President, citing nearness to the 2019 poll, withhold assent, just as INEC kicked against the lawmakers’ decision to set the sequence of elections.

It is obvious that political considerations particularly search for adventitious advantages preoccupy lawmakers’ whenever the issue of producing a foolproof Electoral Act arises. For instance, although the Ninth National Assembly, through the Deputy President of Senate, signaled an early intention to perfect the 2019 Electoral Act, lethargy set in.

The Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2019, sponsored by Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, struggled to pass through Second Reading and stalled. Prior to the blankness, the bill provided for electronic voting. Section 52(2) of the bill stipulated: “The commission may adopt electronic voting or any other method of voting in any election it conducts as it may deem fit.”

Omo-Agege’s bill also sought to compel INEC to operate an electronic database through which all results in an election should be transmitted, stipulating that data of accredited voters must be transmitted by card readers to the central database upon the conclusion of the accreditation of voters.

There was also another effort by the Ninth NASS to lift the veil on the Electoral Act. Senator Ajibola Basiru (Osun Central) had, in “Electoral Act (amendment) bill, 2021, explored the possibility of amending the 1999 Constitution, so as to compel the use of card readers during elections.

So far, with barely two years to the 2023 general elections, the National Assembly has engaged in motions without movement in the pursuit of the crucial implement for credible elections. Could it be the lawmakers are waiting for the election to draw closer so as to embark on another rushed exercise?

There are no doubt different perspectives to the challenges of getting the Electoral Act ready. Whether the lawmakers are waiting for the body language of the Presidency or they are bogged down by the interparty intrigues within the National Assembly, Nigerians are worried by the absence of an updated Electoral Act.

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