Given its fundamental importance, both to the integrity of Nigeria’s constitutional democracy and sustenance of political stability, persistent discourse on recalibration of the nation’s electoral governance laws, or put more commonly – electoral reforms – can never become hackneyed.
Though reformation of the nation’s electoral system is not really a new sing-song, its necessity has been significantly accentuated by unseemly developments since the Fourth Republic was birthed in 1999. The fact that the majority of poll results since Nigeria returned to civil rule 21 years ago cannot be said to have reflected the wishes of the majority makes electoral governance reforms imperative.
This imperative applies equally both to the upstream arena which addresses legislative modifications and the downstream which focuses on judicial interpretation of the laws. This is because what may seem a ventilation of their private grievances or pursuit of personal aggrandisement by disputants actually transcends electoral disputes which are not mere civil claims. The disputes and claims possess a deeper significance that either validates or rubbishes the nation’s claims to genuine democracy.
Observable deficits in the nation’s electoral dispute resolution templates, from the election petitions tribunals to the Supreme Court, have brought to the fore the need for electoral reforms in Nigeria.
Puzzlingly, the nation has wittingly or unwittingly scuttled several important opportunities for legislative election governance modifications. These flow from selfishness, carelessness and laziness of previous and current presidents. The parliament may also have contributed to these scenarios. The CONCLAVE recalls that the Umaru Yar’Adua administration’s Justice Muhammadu Uwais Committee delivered far-reaching recommendations for electoral reforms.
From the committee’s sage experts and President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s uncommon admission that the election that gave him power was manipulated, it was thought that, in terms of the laws and policies, the committee’s recommendations would have been taken seriously and implemented to the letter.
This was not to be. The administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, which succeeded the late Yar’Adua’s did not follow up on the reforms and that glaring opportunity for comprehensive reform was rubbished.
We recall that prior to the 2015 elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission led by Professor Attahiru Jega introduced the card reader for voter accreditation. This would have aided modification of the manual processes, which had been vulnerable to exploitation manifested in inflation of votes. But the card reader was a policy interposition of INEC not founded on the 1999 Constitution, Electoral Act or any other relevant law.
Hence, in many decided electoral disputes, the Supreme Court upheld the supremacy of the manual voter register backed by the Electoral Act against the innovative smart-card reader, which was merely a policy intervention of INEC. The apex court further held that the parliament should make specific exclusive provisions on the use of the card reader as well as being explicit on the implications and consequences of the failure to use the smart card reader.
Not surprisingly, many Nigerians were peeved at the decisions of the Supreme Court on the card reader. Some Nigerians even accused the apex court of aiding and abetting poll manipulation.
From what had played out previously, especially from the Supreme Court rulings, it was thought the National Assembly and President Muhammadu Buhari himself will speedily amend the Electoral Act to constitutionalise usage of the smart card reader. Again, this was not to be. While NASS kept faith and brought the Electoral Act amendment bill to President Buhari for his assent on four occasions, these efforts curiously were frustrated for fallacious reasons.
Buhari declined assent to the first presentation delivered over a year to the elections and raised some issues. We recall that NASS addressed and returned the amended Bill for his assent. Again, Buhari raised some more issues for the second and third times, which NASS still addressed and returned to the president.
At the fourth return of the amended electoral bill, Buhari, for want of a credible excuse, proclaimed that the time was too short for the bill to be used as a law to guide the 2019 elections. The key point cannot be missed here that President Buhari undermined the amendment of the Electoral Act to constitutionalise the card reader as an operative instrument to curb election rigging.
Notwithstanding that INEC has fixed Saturday, September 19, 2020 as the date for the governorship election in Edo State and Saturday, October 10, 2020 for Ondo State, the country is clearly back to square one – electorally speaking.
The CONCLAVE believes that there would clearly have been less anxiety and potential for crisis if the card reader and other reforms had been empowered by law – especially as we go into elections in Edo and Ondo states.
The CONCLAVE also strongly believes that democracy is brutally discredited when the votes do not count. As a consequence, citizens are bound to lose faith and even question the worth of democratic institutions. An environment of mass poverty, unemployment and backwardness hardly helps this scenario.
Looking ahead, the downstream reforms start with the imperative of reconsidering the goal of electoral adjudication and the ultimate goal should be to ensure that the votes count which tallies with the idea of substantial justice.
The nature of election petitions should not serve as an excuse for depriving the electorate of their choice, deploying undue technicalities that serve no useful purpose. The judiciary must determine civil rights and obligations on the basis of the law and justice and not on some abstract technicalities that do not conform to substantial justice. This is a sacred constitutional mandate.
Beyond his recent promise to bequeath a free and credible electoral process on or before the expiration of his tenure, Buhari must give substance to that. He should send an executive bill to the National Assembly and this bill should include inter alia – card reader reforms, definitive central server, access to information by all Nigerians as soon as votes are concluded at the polling units, campaign finance reforms and provisions to change the jurisprudential basis of the current adjudication system to mirror substantial justice than technicalities, et cetera. He needn’t wait for NASS.
Again, the nation needn’t wait – as she is wont – until a few months to the elections in 2023. The staggered governorship elections offer a good window to test-run the anticipated reforms so that they can be tweaked accordingly ahead of the 2023 presidential election.