It was a big relief when President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2022 into law last week. For almost a decade Nigerians have been clamouring for a serious and far reaching amendment of the Election document that will transform our elections from a feast of jiggery pokery to a sumptuous feast of free, fair and credible elections. We all have been at it: patriotic politicians, civil society chiefs, lawyers, journalists and freelance activists have all been involved in getting both the National Assembly and the Executive to bend their stiff necks and give Nigeria a document that can reasonably lead to elections that can bring respect to those who conduct it, those who contest in them and those who stand in fair or foul weather to mess up their fingers in a voting process that they find no trust in.
President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua had set up an eminent committee of public spirited persons led by Justice Mohammed Uwais to look at our election processes and recommend how we could panel-beat the process to a winning and credible procedure. Uwais and his team produced a comprehensive and credible document that should, if implemented, have helped Nigeria to reach the goal of free, fair and credible elections. That document did not benefit from any meaningful attention because our politicians in both the Legislature and the Executive did not want to do away with the abracadabra that has accompanied every election in Nigeria since independence. Last year we thought that we would be out of the woods when the National Assembly submitted what looked like a document that could transform our elections for the better. The President dithered, equivocated and prevaricated for several weeks before he issued a statement stating why he could not sign the document. Patriotic Nigerians who want credible elections that are free from mago mago and wuru wuru were inconsolable but unfazed. They went back into the trenches urging the National Assembly to do its duty by tinkering with the so-called objectionable parts of the document so that the President will run short of excuses for withholding his approval. The Friday signing by the President came amidst another round of waiting and speculating but mercifully he put his signature on the document. He did so not without reservations. In particular he disagreed with section 84 (12). That section states that: “No political appointee at any level shall be voting delegate or be voted for at the convention or congress of any political party for the purpose of the nomination of candidates for any election.” He contended that that section constitutes a “disenfranchisement of serving political office holders from voting or being voted for at conventions or congresses of any political party for the purpose of the nomination of candidates for any election in cases where it holds earlier than 30 days to the national election.” He urged the National Assembly to delete section 84 (12) from the document. However, he expressed optimism that the bill will improve transparency and effectiveness of the election process and will reduce to the barest minimum incidences of acrimony arising from dissatisfied candidates and political parties. Buhari deserves to be congratulated for signing the document despite pressure from his political appointees. We agree with the President that the substance of the bill is both reformative and progressive. The beauty in section 84 (12) is that it is likely to curtail the powers of incumbents such as presidents and governors in the matter of selecting pliant delegates to vote or be voted for at conventions or congresses. I do not expect the National Assembly to delete that section because it seeks to create a level playing field for everybody. Political appointees who become automatic delegates because of their political appointments have unmerited advantage over other party members in the delegate selection process. That is discriminatory. If they want to vote or be voted for they know what to do: resign their political appointments. Holding down these appointments and getting automatic delegate status is a double advantage which the other party members do not enjoy.
There are some salient aspects of the Act that ought to receive our attention. By the Act the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is authorised to review results of elections declared under duress. In the past thugs have been known to ask election officials, at gun point, to change, and sign the results. This issue has featured in some election petition cases. In this type of scenario the election official is between the rock and the hard place. He or she either obeys the thugs or he or she loses his or her life. With this provision an election official can meekly obey the thugs because he or she has a legally backed position to ask for a review of the fake result.
Another aspect of the Act that should engage our attention is the section on the limit of financial contributions by individuals to parties. This regulation has been in existence for a long time but it is obeyed more in the breach than in the observance. At fund raising functions you can hear an individual stating that the money he is donating to the party is from him and his 100 or 150 friends. He drops the money on the table but not the names of his so-called friends because those friends do not exist. He alone is the big financier. With this gambit he has beaten the law. It has never been easy to locate donors of campaign funding because these are largely undocumented in Nigeria. Some donors make their contributions in hard currency. But more importantly those who make donations do not ask for and are never given payment receipts. This makes it difficult to follow the money.
Another section of the Act that is worthy of note is the section that deals with “campaign season.” The season is legally expected to start 150 days to the Election Day and end 24 hours before the election. But what is campaign season and when does it actually start? At present several politicians and their followers are putting all kinds of partisan political messages in the public space. Some politicians are visiting opinion leaders and traditional rulers in the process of what has come to be known as “consultation.” Some of them are getting endorsements from various support groups set up by them or their associates. It is therefore important for INEC to spell out clearly what constitutes “campaign season.” The other component of that provision is that campaigns are expected to end 24 hours before the election. In the past there have been controversies about partisan advertisements that have appeared in the media on election day. Those advertisements were placed by associates of politicians who wish to do them a last minute favour without knowing that such a favour can bring trouble. We have also had a case or two where politicians claim that adverts placed on election day were inserted by their political opponents so as to cause problems for them. INEC will do well to spell out guidelines for these possible contentions areas for the benefit of candidates, voters and parties. Section 50 of the Act gives INEC the legal backing for electronic transmission of election results. This is a revolutionary step that can transform positively our election management because election results have been tampered with in many cases either at the polling or collation centres. This section is very vital for authentic election results. That is why there has been a contentious debate on the twin issues of electronic voting and electronic transmission of results for several years now in our parliament and in the media. In the recent past, our Communications Commission was dragged into the debate by interested parties eventhough INEC had stated that it is capable of transmitting election results electronically if approved. Now INEC has been given the legal backing for it. It is then left to the election management body to prove that it can do the job in a manner that is transparent and credible. Expert election riggers may soon be out of job but I would advise INEC to watch out for our smart technology experts.
We seem at this point to be on the highway to elections that will generally be free, fair and credible but this is no time to drop our guards. I am almost certain that creative election riggers are already examining the nuts and bolts of this Act to find what gaping holes may be available for them to burrow into and commit havoc. INEC may wish to use the forthcoming Ekiti governorship election to try out the provisions of the new Act so that by the time we get to the 2023 elections that dress rehearsal in Ekiti will place us in good stead.
With this Act in the kitty it is satisfying to say that our tenacity in the pursuit of a more transparent election model has paid off. Finally.