Except there is a last-minute change, the amended version of the Electoral Act which the National Assembly is poised to pass in the coming days gives tremendous power to electoral officers and less power to the Independent National Electoral Commission even if the former erred in its judgement.
Analysts have said this provision plays into the hands of politicians who have perfected the art of claiming electoral victories either by hook or crook, a euphemism that defines how the nation’s politicians use corruption, force and violence to snatch victory at the polls, a concern INEC has rallied to address by liaising with the National Assembly through its recommendations to amend the electoral act.
However, despite several recommendations by the commission seeking powers to be able to withhold the certificates of return for candidates declared election winners under duress or due to corruption, the National Assembly has finished paperwork to reject the request, PREMIUM TIMES has learnt.
The passage of the amended law is one many Nigerians are looking forward to with the hope that it would address the electoral malpractices which are often rife, and all eyes would be on federal lawmakers this week as they brace up to pass the bill.
The Electoral Bill 2021, which aims to repeal the Electoral Act 2010, is seen as a watershed in the nation’s nascent democractic lifespan. Much to the consternation of a delightful nation, a copy of the final bill obtained by PREMIUM TIMES shows that certain provisions in the bill have been manipulated and is at odds with the version which represents INEC’s and citizens’ demands.
A striking example is the removal of INEC’s power to review results declared under duress or in contravention of electoral laws and guidelines as contained in section 65 of the proposed legislation reviewed by this newspaper.
This has elicited heavy pushback by many Nigerians, including some lawmakers themselves, as well as civil societies.
“INEC should be empowered to review results declared under duress so as to reduce the level of electoral malpractices that have become so common in our country,” a coalition of women’s groups said in a statement Sunday. “If the mainstream political parties and candidates are prevented from manipulating election results, smaller parties and women candidates will stand a better chance at winning elections.”
Likewise, the chairman of the People’s Redemption Party (PRP), Falalu Bello, in a statement on Monday, also condemned the provision of the new law saying it would embolden corrupt politicians to buy off returning officers, unchecked.
“If this section is left as currently is, politicians in future elections would very likely be even more brazen in either buying off Returning Officers or literally ‘putting guns to their heads’ to get them to declare fraudulent results while INEC watches helplessly, as was the… case in Imo State,” the statement read.
Returning officers as pawns
In 2019, while announcing the results for Imo West (Orlu) senatorial district elections, the returning officer for the district, Izuchukwu Ibeabuchi, a professor at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO), told journalists that he was “detained at the centre for days” and coerced by the supporters of Roachas Okorocha to declare the result in favour of Mr Okorocha.
“I have been held hostage here for days so I’m trying to ease off and take my life home back to my children and for the sake of that I am calling these results under duress,” Mr Ibeabuchi said.
Convinced by the account of its official, INEC withheld the certificate of return presented to Mr Okorocha. Displeased, the former Imo State governor pressed charges against the commission.
In the end, an Abuja court ruled against INEC, saying that the electoral body had no such powers to withhold the certificate of return.
In the bid to prevent such a situation in future elections, INEC asked the National Assembly to grant it such powers in the amended electoral act, because the “declarations and returns must be made voluntarily and not through duress and other unwholesome practices.”
Also in 2019, after INEC discovered that some of its ad-hoc staff colluded with politicians to frustrate the last presidential and National Assembly elections, the commission sacked all its trained collation and returning officers and replaced them with fresh hands a fortnight later.
Meanwhile, a High Court in Akwa-Ibom State sentenced Peter Ogban, a professor of soil science at the University of Calabar who served as the returning officer during the 2019 senatorial election in Akwa Ibom North-West District, to three years in prison and fined N100,000, for election fraud.
He was convicted of fraudulently manipulating election results, publishing and announcing false results at two local government areas – Oruk Anam (where some 5,000 fake votes were added to the votes of the All Progressives Congress) and Etim Ekpo.
Mr Ogban who is now appealing the verdict had previously told the court how the results of the election were falsified to give the All Progressives Congress (APC) an unfair advantage over its main rival, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Before he was eventually sacked by a court order, Godswill Akpabio, now the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, was the APC candidate declared the winner in the election. He was seeking a return to the Senate after he defected from the PDP.
Unwilling National Assembly
Despite these cases of infractions, the National Assembly would not budge to give the INEC headquarters the powers to checkmate unscrupulous officials and politicians.
By failing to give credence to INEC’s recommendations despite clear evidence of its importance, some observers have said that the federal lawmakers are unwilling to let go of their propensity to compromise electoral processes by disarming politicians from interfering with the electoral process.
Although House Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila has denied the accusation, the public perceives the decision as ill-intended by federal lawmakers whom some see as corrupt due to the litany of high profile indictments and scandals that have sprung out from the two chambers over the years.
More than this, many members of the public, according to a survey published by the Centre for Democracy and Development, with respondents picked from six selected states from each geopolitical zones and in the FCT, also nurse fears that INEC’s ad-hoc officials on the field have the proclivity to manipulate election results to suit the ruling party.
In response to the observation, “ I feel INEC staff gave undue advantage(s) to agents of the ruling party during the 2019 presidential elections,” 59 per cent said “No,” the highest of whom were respondents from Lagos State (74 per cent) and lowest from Enugu State (44 per cent).
Also, in response to the proposition, “INEC staff gave undue advantage(s) to agents of the ruling party during the 2019 governorship elections,” about 60 per cent of the respondents answered in the negative (“No”). The highest negative answer (73 per cent) was from Bauchi State, while and the lowest negative answer (48 per cent) was from Enugu State.
This means that while the majority trusted the conduct of election officials at the state and presidential elections, at least two in every five Nigerians did not have such trust.
“That fear, even if less than what was found out in the report, could be doused by not giving absolute powers to the returning officers as contained in the bill before the National Assembly,” the director of CDD, Idayat Hassan, said.
The fact that the ad-hoc returning officers, mostly professors from higher institutions, could have allegiance with local politicians and ruling powers make them susceptible to unscrupulous acts, Mrs Hassan noted.
“Except their powers to checkmate them lies with the highest authority in INEC, then whatever the National Assembly passes as the electoral act is flawed,” she added.
(This report is a collaboration between Premium Times and the Centre for Democracy and Development to help improve the integrity of elections in Nigeria).
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