John Dewey, an American philosopher of the 20th century, argued that “we do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience”. At the core of this statement is the critical role of reflection in the learning process. When we reflect and analyse past experiences, we gain insights, identify lessons learned from our mistakes, and integrate these insights into our lives to make better decisions in the future. In line with this sentiment, the call for electoral reforms is usually high after every election cycle. It has become a priority public commentary issue because of its linkage to the sustainability of democracy and quality of governance. Civil society, opposition politicians and international multilateral organisations are usually at the forefront. The 2023 election is no exception. The 2023 elections were held under what was considered one of the most responsive and innovative electoral acts since 1999, but it turned out to be one of the most contentious. The degree of contention signals that the quality of election management may have plummeted from our 2015 experience.
Penultimate week, Yiaga Africa, in collaboration with the National Assembly, organised a Town Hall on Electoral Reforms in Abuja. The most critical challenge I see as we embark on the journey of another electoral reform is, given the level of political corruption prevalent in our system, how do we get the average enlightened citizen to believe that the pursuit of electoral reform is worth his time and that democracy has any value beyond periodic election for which he is not sure his vote will count? Sadly, we have attempted four electoral reforms or electoral acts from 2007 to 2022, but the quality of our elections is yet to keep pace . Why did these electoral reforms not deliver? The reason is plausible. Like everything else in Nigeria, there is a wide gap between laws and the implementation of laws. We fail woefully at implementing laws put in place to make our elections free and fair. It is as if politicians and legal practitioners actively look for loopholes to either circumvent the law or outrightly disregard it to achieve their electoral desire – which often is to win at all costs.
After an extensive review of the last election, notes shared with me by the former election umpire, Prof. Attahiru Jega and the brilliant suggestions made at the Yiaga Africa event, i have identified urgent issues to focus on as we march towards 2024/25 electoral reforms. We need to rethink our entire electoral process to make it fit for purpose. We must identify loopholes and block them altogether. The lacuna in the electoral process is our penchant towards making rules that, at face value, make sense but may not align with our current reality based on technology or our prevailing political attitude. This mismatch leads to unenforceable rules that open itself to judicial interpretation. I will articulate some of these issues thematically below.
The first is relating to the use of technology in elections. We must remove the ambiguity evident in Section 64 of the EA22 and make electronic transmission of results mandatory from the next general elections in 2027, including uploading polling-unit level results and result sheets used at different levels, and invest in the technology . This was a sticking point in the last election and created many legitimacy issues when handled poorly.
The second relates to political parties and their candidates. The new Act should stipulate sanctions for failure to submit a register of party members not later than 30 days before the date of party primaries, congresses, or conventions concerning Section 77 (3), which the political parties have observed in the breach in the 2023 elections without penalty. It should proscribe cross-carpeting not only for members of the National Assembly but also for elected executives, governors, and Chairmen of LGAs. And empower INEC to prepare for elections to fill the vacancy once it has evidence of the Act of cross-carpeting. The provision that INEC can only fill such vacancies if they have been declared vacant by the Speakers (NA and SHAs) and Senate Presidents is unrealistic as, in practice, they have failed to report such vacancies, as ‘decampees’ invariably become members of their (Assembly leaders’) parties.
Besides, instead of Sections 86 and 87, which place all the responsibility of monitoring party finances with INEC, given the prevailing tendency of parties and candidates to violate campaign finance limits, this responsibility should either be handled by a newly created agency (in the context of unbundling INEC) or given to an Inter-Agency Committee consisting of INEC, Security, and anti-corruption agencies. Although Sections 31 and 33 specify conditions regulating withdrawal of candidature and substitution, there is a need to place stringent requirements for candidate withdrawal and replacement to prevent abuse of this provision.
The third is related to electoral dispute resolution and Judicial adjudication. Notwithstanding, provisions of Section 29(5), which allows aspirants who participated in primaries to pursue pre-election litigation, there is a need for the legislation to allow even candidates outside the political parties, as well as tax-paying citizens, to file suits against candidates who provide false information to INEC regarding their candidature. Although Sections 132(8) and (9) have given timelines within which the Tribunals and courts of appellate jurisdiction should deliver verdicts, there is a need, particularly concerning elected executive positions, to ensure that all cases are resolved, and judgments made before the date of swearing-in other as found in Kenya and other African countries .
The fourth relates to voters register and the voting process. INEC must enhance the quality of the voter register/voter registration process. And the increasing phenomenon of vote buying and vote selling needs to be explicitly proscribed, with stiff penalties provided. Section 121, which deals with bribery and conspiracy, is insufficient to decisively deal with this phenomenon, which is destructive to the integrity of the elections. Accordingly, as recommended by the Justice Uwais Electoral Reform Committee, the current statutory responsibility of INEC regarding the prosecution of electoral offenders should go to an ‘Election Offences Commission’. To accelerate the trial and punishment of offenders and address the impunity with which such offences are committed.
The fifth is related to the Institutional Independence and Effectiveness of INEC. We need to rethink the process of nominating and empanelling INEC. The National Assembly should amend both the constitution and the electoral Act to review the process of appointments into INEC, specifically to divest the power from the appointment of Chairman and National Commissioners from Mr President, to free the commission from the damaging negative perception of “he who pays the piper dictates the tune” and professionalise lower-level administrative appointments, including headship of state offices of INEC. In this regard, the appointment of Resident Electoral Commissioners should be divested from the president and given to the Commission at INEC, with powers to hire and fire. Also, INEC needs to be unbundled to improve its efficiency and effectiveness in the preparation and conduct of elections, while an independent body should also take the registration and monitoring of the activities of political parties.
Electoral reforms are essential for maintaining and improving the health of a democracy, ensuring that it remains responsive, representative, and accountable to its citizens’ diverse needs and interests. It plays a crucial role in strengthening and enhancing the functioning of democracy by promoting inclusivity, transparency and accountability, electoral integrity, and legitimacy. Given the importance of electoral reforms to democracy and the quality of governance, we must take it seriously this time. Our democracy is a work in progress; we must do our best to make it functional. Though tortious and painstaking, these extensive reviews are needed to keep reshaping our democracy.
As imperfect as our electoral Acts have been, they would have provided better elections if they had been adequately implemented. The bane of our electoral system is our penchant towards subverting the laws, sometimes with great impunity, and our total disregard for the rule of law. As we think about improving the Electoral Act to serve our electoral needs, we must reflect on implementing the Act’s contents effectively. I also call for an attitude change among our politicians who are ingenious in coming up with ways to undermine the Electoral Act to their advantage. The Machiavellian approach to politics will continue to impede our electoral process no matter how perfect our electoral Act is. It is time for real change.