And that’s the sore point about this troubled democracy. Elections should not be about smart politicians but a reliable and dependable process. Once the process is rigged and the weaker stakeholders are coerced to accept whatever is declared by a compromised umpire, the system will surely pay for the deficit. The infractions are too many and they’re just piling up for judgment day, if politicians refuse to renew their minds and reform the system.
First, former President Goodluck Jonathan raised the issue of off-season elections as practiced in the country as an aberration and not the standard in any civilized democratic system. Since leaving office, the man has witnessed elections in other African countries and elsewhere, and his experience should be of use at home. He was concerned that if the resort to the judiciary to reorder voters’ choices and impose winners is not restrained, a time would come when even the presidential election would fall into off-season.
For instance, if there is a court-ordered deadlock requiring a re-run, recounting or outright displacement from office, the swearing-in of the eventual winner could happen off-cycle, thus rendering the previous May 29 ceremony null, void and waste of resources.
His words: “It is very odd, it’s not a global best practice. A country can elect its people at different times, like the American election and in some countries. They may not elect everybody at the same time but the only time they go on to conduct elections, they elect everybody that is supposed to be elected.
“If we continue with this trend of off-season elections based on the interpretation by a judicial officer, it will come to a time when the presidential election in Nigeria may be conducted off-season.”
President Jonathan illustrated with the 2007 presidential election, won by Umaru Yar’Adua and himself, which was challenged at the tribunal. At the Supreme Court, seven justices heard the appeal of the opposition, out of whom three voted for annulment and four upheld the ruling of the presidential election tribunal.
Jonathan added: “If one of them (judges) had crossed over, by now, the presidential election would have been off-season.”
And that’s the plain truth. But maybe we have to thank the Supreme Court of today for refusing to be revolutionary. Because of their careful, shall we say conservative nature, we’re having all justices act in concert over matters that should ordinarily stimulate rigorous jurisprudential discourse and dissent.
The judiciary has now taken a central place in the electoral system and future reforms of the processes should appraise whether it is the judiciary or the Nigerian voters that should be the ultimate decider of how winners emerge at elections. It becomes a bit of a problem when the judiciary is entrenched in the belief that other opinions don’t matter, irrespective of how evidence-based such are.
Currently, eight states are trapped in the web of off-cycle elections. They are Anambra, Bayelsa, Kogi, Edo, Ondo, Ekiti, Osun and Imo. It all began in 2006 when Peter Obi, who contested the 2003 governorship election, was sworn into office after a protracted legal tussle, to displace Chris Ngige of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who had been fraudulently installed by a handful of kingmakers.
Obi was of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). The rest states have followed same trend as tribunals overruled faulty elections and sacked purported winners. There could be some addition as the tribunals deliver judgment in some critical states. Pray they are not teleguided by forces and interests outside what’s lawful and noble.
Off-cycle elections have thus become home-grown and serve as a breather for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The umpire thinks holding general elections in 36 states, alongside the Presidential and National Assembly elections is a yoke. It has now settled for off-cycle elections as a tradition, to which it looks forward with glee and no sense of guilt. There is now one governorship election every year, with huge financial consequences.
In terms of expenditures, off-cycle elections are now a burden to an ailing economy. The sum that purportedly went into the three off-cycle elections, N18billion as reported, could be put to better use. The three elections could have been accommodated in the budget for the 2023 general elections.
INEC told Nigerians that it prepared for the possibility of a run-off in the presidential election, meaning that it stored enough materials, which could have been deployed to Kogi, Imo and Bayelsa. In the event that there was no run-off or re-run, it then meant that excess ballot materials are lying waste in INEC facilities. And because they were tailor-made for specific use, they could not be deployed elsewhere. It’s more frustrating that the details of disbursements at INEC are never unbundled for citizens to critique.
The shortcut to reducing the baggage of off-cycle elections had been proposed in the report submitted by the Justice Uwais-led Electoral Reform Committee (ERC). It recommended that all election disputes should be put to rest before swearing in of actual winners.
If the National Assembly partners INEC to adjust the sequence of election activities, as suggested by Jonathan, tribunals could have adequate legroom to discharge petitions promptly before May 29.
Time allotted for election activities is one full year, beginning with publication of notice of election in February, terminating in elections in February/March of the following year. In between, parties are expected to conduct primaries between April and early June. One month is enough for any serious party to hold primaries and have candidates ready for election.
Unfortunately, parties are reluctant to comply with deadlines because they lack discipline and deft organisation. They take advantage of INEC’s weakness to enforce own rules as it yields to pressures engineered by big parties, but marketed by small parties. It was the coalition of smaller and idle parties called IPAC that pushed for extension of the deadline set for primaries after the window closed on June 3, 2022. The APC failed to comply with the deadline because it could not put its house in order.
Adjustments could also be made to the time allotted for submission of relevant forms by candidates. One week can take care of that since it is done online. Publication of details of candidates (EC9) by INEC can be done within one week. The luxury of time given to parties to withdraw and replace candidates is needless and wasteful. Candidates that win primaries should be allowed to run for elections. That window for replacement is fraudulent and that is where parties invent fraud, the most bizarre of which was the placeholder anomaly.
The implication is that between June 9 and September 20, parties continue to delete and add names of persons who did not contest primaries. There is still another dubious window left open by INEC, which is the publication of final list of ‘nominated’ candidates, which lingers till October 4 for Governorship and State Assembly, and September 28 for Presidential and National Assembly.
Clearly, nothing serious and intelligent happens between the period between primaries in early June and the final presentation of candidates by INEC in October, apart from allowing parties to manipulate their candidates’ lists.
It is this wasted space that is misused to cause a lot of chaos in the list submitted to INEC and the reason many pre-election cases are allowed to overwhelm the courts. That cannot be allowed in a serious country. INEC has got to be precise and prudent in the over-indulgence it permits in the name of election timetable.
The law has to be amended to cut down waste, reduce needless pre-election petitions and allow tribunals reasonable time for very minimal interventions within one election year. That cannot be rocket science.
Campaign period is also too long, from October to December/January. There are really no serious campaigns, just avenues to globetrot and buy delegates. Instead of going round states, serious parties can make geo-political appearances, while governors, national and states assembly candidates comb the states. At the end of the day, whatever monies expended on campaigns have to be largely recovered from public purse, from where they were pilfered in the first place.
Adjusting the tedious timetable will help INEC gain a firm hold on its activities and cut to size parties’ capacity for mischief. That can cut election litigation by far more than half. It begins with the umpire refusing to bend the rules and insisting that parties adhere strictly to outcomes of their primaries.
One area that INEC can improve upon is the judicious use of its power of review before rushing to declare winners. In the Imo, Kogi and Bayelsa off-cycle elections, just as in the presidential election of February, INEC appeared to be in a colluding haste to announce winners rather than attend exhaustively to genuine complaints from field agents.
Rather than leave parties and candidates with the rude and unkind rebuke to ‘go to courts’, where they’re likely to face more unsmiling referees, the election umpire can be sufficiently thorough, such that those who lose are seen to lose fairly.
The desperation in Kogi and Imo was unprecedented. Bayelsa’s seemed mild. Nothing to applaud, plain dysfunctionality!