Key stakeholders, on Tuesday, renewed their call for the unbundling of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), suggesting a review and the stripping-off of the president’s power to appoint the chairman, national commissioner as well as Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) for the commission.
The stakeholders also called for the establishment of the Electoral Offences Commission and recommended stiffer penalties for electoral offenders without the option of fines to serve as deterrent.
This call was made on Tuesday in Abuja at the Citizens’ Town Hall on Electoral Reforms organised by the National Assembly Joint Committee on Electoral Reforms in conjunction with Yiaga Africa.
President of the Senate, Godswill Akpabio, said the event was targeted at addressing a crucial matter, which the leadership of the National Assembly considered very weighty and must be addressed for the democratic journey of the country to positively move forward.
At the same time, a former Chairman of INEC, Prof. Attahiru Jega said the reform was necessary to proscribe the habit of cross-carpeting, by politicians.
In the same breath, the Inspector General of Police, Kayode Egbetokun, who said free, fair and credible elections were the bedrock of democracy, recommended that the Electoral Act should be amended and that the police should be given the power to arrest and prosecute electoral offenders.
Akpabio, who was represented by his Chief of Staff, Sylvester Okonkwo, noted that as representatives of the people, citizen engagement at all levels was crucial to the democratic process, adding that the 10th National Assembly intended to place engagements and inclusiveness as a priority.
His words: “For the electoral process, we are committed not only to go along with the people on the call for reforms to the electoral legal framework, but at the same time, protect the independence of the Independent National Electoral Commission and also restore the trust of our people in the electoral process and we cannot in any way truly achieve this objective in isolation.
“All stakeholders, most of whom are represented here, must be doggedly involved in this. Therefore, my appeal to all of you and those that are not here, but are actors in this process is, let us do this together and change the fortunes of our democratic process for the good of our country. For history, we record every move that we make in moving this country forward.”
The Senate President explained that the committees in the Senate and House of Representatives had approached this process in a way that would be most beneficial, especially in terms of completing this process, within a reasonable timeframe.
He assured the people that the leadership of the National Assembly would give all the support to the committees in achieving its objectives.
The Inspector General of Police, Kayode Egbetokun, who said free, fair and credible elections were the bedrock of democracy, recommended that the Electoral Act should be amended and that the police should be given the power to arrest and prosecute electoral offenders.
His words: “The first is on the issue of arrest at polling units. Section 5(1) of Electoral Act 2022 empowers the police to make arrests when an electoral offence is committed at the polling unit, subject to the directive of the electoral officer. It is our humble submission that the police should be at liberty to make arrests of suspects/electoral offenders, who commit or are found to be committing electronic offenses in their presence.
“Now the issue of getting an Electoral Officer to instruct the police to carry out arrests has been a very controversial matter. Recently, we had a situation where the man who was to give the directive was the suspect. So, how do you expect the police to handle that kind of situation?
“The second aspect is on the issue of prosecution of electoral offenders. By virtue of Section 146(1&2) of the Electoral Act of 2022, prosecution of all electoral offences is to be carried out by the Legal officers of the Independent National Electoral Commission. This means that the police only make arrests when necessary, investigate and hand over to the commission for prosecution.”
Egbetokun pointed out that the prosecutory powers should also be extended to the police, who make arrests and carry out investigations, adding that electoral offences would be more successfully prosecuted.
According to him, “That will give us the ability to keep up on the successful prosecution of those cases, because in most cases, the police are left in the dark as to which of the offenders have been successfully prosecuted.”
Egbetokun further said that there was need for police personnel to carry arms on election day, adding that the era of posting security personnel for assignment without being armed was outdated, especially considering the fact that the society has become highly militarised.
According to him, in most cases, armed thugs would invade the polling unit, and everybody would scamper to safety, including the security personnel because they lack the capacity to even defend themselves before defending the electorate and other people.
The police boss stressed that there was a need to impose stiffer punishment on electoral offenders, saying the punishment for electoral offences as containers in the Electoral Act cannot serve as a deterrent to electoral offenders.
Jega, who argued that it was necessary to proscribe cross-carpeting, stated that, “If we want to improve our politics, deepen our democracy, and improve electoral integrity, it is necessary to prescribe cross-carpeting by politicians from one party to another.
“I think this is very important and I think the reason why it does not seem to be appealing to our legislators to do that is because the challenges they face in the primaries force many of them to move to other parties where they think they will find a platform to contest and when they cross-carpet. They move most cases in the legislatures to the ruling parties, but it undermines the fundamental essence of democracy.”
Jega, who agreed that it was important to unbundle INEC, added that the commission was saddled with too much responsibility, which was affecting other core responsibilities of the commission.
“I strongly support the recommendation that the appointment of the Chairman, the National Commissioners and the Resident Electoral Commissioners should be reviewed. I think the conventional method in which the president nominates and invariably what the president nominates does not go through rigorous screening and is basically supported by the legislature, I think we have to avoid this.
“We need a transparent process. We need to ensure there is full screening, in particular, we need to ensure the legal provision about non-partisanship, about integrity of the people nominated are actually taken seriously.
“We need to review how people stand to contest the presidential election. Maybe we can even extend it to governorship elections. I think Nigeria is one of the few countries whereby anybody can form a political party and run for presidential election, which creates very serious problems in terms of logistics of the preparation, wastefulness in regard to the resources deployed for elections.
“I think we need to create a fresh hurdle, a political party cannot field their candidate for president until they meet a certain fresh hurdle. This is done in many other countries, and we need to begin to pay attention to that.”
The Commandant General of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), Abubakar Ahmed Audi, said the need for the Electoral Act to be made to accommodate the electoral participation of all security officers could not be ignored.
He stressed the ability of the security personnel to be accommodated to vote during national civic duties would not only enfranchise a large populace involved in security matters, but it would give more recognition to the electoral process.
Audi added that the independence of INEC could be further achieved by making a chairperson salary to be on consolidated salary, stressing that such would make the INEC chairman to be insulated from the ignoble influences.
He was of the opinion that the electoral reform should also include the provision of independent candidates into the Nigeria electoral law, saying it would go a long way to invoke a robust electoral process for the nation at all levels of government.
He said while the 2022 Electoral Act had largely rested the crimes of ballot box snatching, it had, however, been replaced by avoidable incidents of unstamped ballot papers, whose material effect could not be ignored.
He noted that there was a need to criminalise the presence of unstamped ballot papers in any polling units, so that the electoral officers in such PU should face termination of appointment and also jail terms of 10 years without any option of fines.
Speaking, also, the Executive Director, Fix Politics, Anthony Ubani, said there was virtually nothing anyone could say about electoral reform that was not contained in the Uwais report.
“So, it begs the question why administration after administration seems to ignore that report? Why are we so interested in reinventing the wheel, when the wheel has been invented? Why do we continue to have this conversation when we have a document that we can pick up or see what is new, what we can add to it based on the time difference, and what we can take away from it and move forward.
“So let me say that we stand on the principles that have already been established in the Uwais report. Having said that, let me also make the point about Nigerians in the diaspora. It is very difficult for us to claim to be the most important democracy in the continent. And yet, we do not have legal frameworks that allow citizens in the diaspora to vote.”
Ubani noted that the judiciary as it was called, remained the last hope of the poor man, but it appeared that the narrative was beginning to change in Nigeria.
“We need to be very careful because the poor man, as we like to call them in Nigeria, are beginning to see the judiciary as a place where their hopes are destroyed.
“Now, if that narrative is not changed and addressed very quickly, we will be in very serious trouble. The case in question of what is happening in Kano, what is happening in Plateau? What is happening in so many states is becoming a problem,” he said.
Prof. Edoba Omoregie, contended that, “The courts are adjudicatory bodies, without appropriate adjudicatory tools to judicially review the nomination process of political parties, which is inherently a political process. It is, therefore, imperative to allow politicians to learn to play their political games without the urge to resort to the courts at the slightest provocation.
“In any event, political parties are actually non-public entities, which are not created by law but only accorded recognition by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to field candidates for elections after being registered. Why then should the legislature be so keen on legislating every aspect of the internal management of political parties including how they relate with each other internally?”
The leader of the Civil Society groups and the Executive Director of YIAGA Africa, Samson Itodo, said the only way to ensure electoral justice in Nigeria was by unbundling INEC as the commission at the moment was over-burdened.
He also called for the establishment of the election offences tribunal and removing of the appointment of INEC national chairman and national commissioners and Resident Electoral Commissioners from the presidency.
Chuks Okocha and Adedayo Akinwale in Abuja