Organising free, fair and transparent elections in Nigeria has been a huge challenge. This is on account of the history of elections in Nigeria and the degeneration of the credibility of elections after every election.
Elections in Nigeria have been characterized by unlawful disqualifications of candidates, electoral malpractices manifesting in rigging, snatching of ballot boxes, thuggery, violence, declaration of false results, exclusion of lawful votes from counting, falsification and forgery of result sheets, corrupt practices, over voting, under age voting and multiple voting.
This is the environment and the atmosphere for the operations of the new Board of the Independent National Electoral Commission. For the Board and the Chair to promise the Nigerian people free, fair and transparent elections tantamount to taking a huge risk taking into consideration the history of elections and the attendant desperation and brazen disregard for rules and regulations by the political elite. It is also a risky venture as some Nigerians have disengaged from the electoral process on account of the chicanery and fraud associated with the organisation and conduct of elections in Nigeria.
Nigerians are looking for an electoral messiah to clean up the electoral process and return Nigeria to the path of sanity. They are looking for persons that have the knowledge, the courage, the presence of mind and magic wand to give elections in Nigeria some respectability.
But given the short time between the appointment of the new Chairman and National Commissioners, it is possible for them to perform magic and organise credible elections in Nigeria?
I am disposed to the fact that with a clear vision and program the new National Commissioners can make a difference in the 2011 elections. But at the same time, it will be foolhardy and political naiveté to expect them to solve the multifarious problems and challenges of the electoral process between now and the 2011 elections.
It is therefore more strategic to compartmentalize achievable objectives and deliverables before, during and after the 2011 elections. The first compartment must contain short term, immediate, realizable, practical, populist and radical targets aimed at the 2011 elections. The second must aim at repositioning the Independent National Electoral Commission after the 2011 elections and ahead of the 2015 general elections.
On the short term, the Commission must work on, review and clean up the two sets of time tables already released to the Nigerian people by the Independent National Electoral Commission. The first time table targets and presumes that the 2011 elections will take place in April 2011 while the second anticipates the amended Constitution and presumes that the 2011 elections will take place in January 2011. However, given the time available to the Independent National Electoral Commission, it is more rational and reasonable to impress on the National Assembly the wisdom in inserting into the amended Constitution a transitional provision making it possible for the Constitution to come into force after the 2011 elections.
For the 2011 elections, there must be a clear and unambiguous legal and constitutional framework for the conduct of the elections. Election legislation should ordinarily be enacted sufficiently far in advance of an election date to give all actors sufficient time to acquire familiarity with it and not to give the members of the National Assembly and the major parties an unfair advantage. Such legislation must be available to the general public in simple language and in other languages that they understand. Late release of the legal and constitutional framework guiding an election amounts to legal and constitutional ambush that may lead to confusion and shoddy preparations for elections.
Furthermore, at present, Nigeria does not have a credible voter’s register and most Nigerians believe that the existing voter’s register cannot be the foundation for credible elections. A credible voter’s register must be comprehensive, inclusive, accurate and up to date. The processes of registration must be fully transparent and facilitate the registration of qualified voters and prevent the registration of non-eligible voters. It must make sure that illiterate voters are not excluded from the register.
Hence if the 2011 elections will take place in late December or January 2010 in accordance with the provisions of sections 132 and 178 of the harmonised Constitution the implication is that the Electoral Management Body has up to August 29, 2010 and or October 4th 2010 to conclude the registration of voters in accordance with section 10(5) of the existing Electoral Act, 2006. If the elections will take place in March or April 2011, then action must be concluded on the voters register on or before 1st day of December 2010 or 1st day of January 2011.
It is in the interest of Nigerian democracy and the electoral process for the National Assembly to amend sections 10(5) and section 21 of the Electoral Act, 2006 to reduce the time frame for voters’ registration and integration of the voters register from 120 days to 60 day and from 60 days to 30 days respectively.
The new Chairman of INEC and the new National Commissioners must also do a quick audit of the existing register and the technology available to the Commission for the registration of voters. Given the time available, it may be feasible and possible to carry out a manual voters register for the 2011 elections having amended the Electoral Act, 2006 to reduce the period for voters’ registration and the integration of the voters register.
The flag off of the registration of voters and or clean up and update of the existing register must be accompanied and complemented with massive voter education program. This is needed to advise people to register and inform them of the impact of non-registration to their political participation. This will be accompanied with information relating to the breakdown of the number of registrants for a particular unit to not more than 500 voters and the clear identification of the registration and or polling unit of each registrant and each voter.
The submission of the list of candidates and the substitution of candidates within the legally prescribed period are also tricky issues the Commission must deal with. This is because by the provisions of section 34 of the Electoral Act, 2006 a party substituting a candidate must inform the Independent National Electoral Commission in writing not later than 60 days to the election of its decision and must also give cogent and verifiable reasons for the substitution.
The Electoral Management Body must release the list of nominated candidates immediately on the close of the date for the said submission. In the case of substitution, all the National Commissioners, the Director of Legal Services and a few of the legal consultants available to the Electoral Management Body must decide on whether a political party intending to substitute a candidate has provided cogent and verifiable reasons for substitution. The process of arriving at this decision must be transparent.
Coterminous to this is the publication of the List of Candidates and their affidavits in the different constituencies of the candidates as provided in section 32 of the Electoral Act, 2006. This is very important as the voters and the major stakeholders will be availed the opportunity to stop candidates that have lied about their past and are not eligible to contest elections.
The Electoral Management Body must also involve the critical stakeholders in the electoral process in the design of ballot papers and ballot boxes. By the provisions of sections 65 and 108 of the harmonised Constitution, independent candidates may contest all the elections in the electoral calendar. This means that their names and maybe logo must appear on the ballot papers. With close to 60 political parties and new independent candidates, the design of the ballot paper will be a huge challenge.
The Electoral Management Body should order for transparent ballot boxes for the 2011 elections. Transparent ballot boxes are better and give better protection to the electoral processes. Section 44 of the Electoral Act, 2006 provides for suitable boxes and not the Leather bags used for the conduct of the 2007 Elections.
The process of recruitment of Presiding Officers must be open and transparent. “A Presiding Officer in an election is like Managing Director or a Chief Executive of a Company. Without his presence an election is faulty”. The bulk of the Presiding Officers must be drawn from Secondary and Primary School Teachers while the National Youth Service Corp should still provide the bulk of Poll Clerks. The Independent National Electoral Commissions must be availed of the photographs and data of each Presiding Officer and Poll Clerk and the particular polling station assigned to them. Supervisors must verify on a random basis the data provided as some Presiding Officers simply hand over their tags and materials to their brothers, sisters and friends that never attended any training.
Elections are a time sensitive project where delay can be fatal and may lead to breakdown of law and order. Presently private commercial buses are hired by INEC for the transportation of election materials and personnel. Some of these transporters have their own agenda, affiliations and biases and compromise the movement of personnel and materials on Election Day. It is better to enter into a cooperative arrangement and agreement with military and para-military organisations and other agencies of government with a large fleet of vehicles for the transportation of these materials and personnel. Private transporters should only be used to complement these other efforts.
INEC must also take interest in the training and welfare of Police Officers on electoral duty. Some Police Officers have in the past held election materials and officer’s hostage on account of their allowances. Some abandon their duty posts in search of food or become victims to the machinations of some politicians who cook and move around polling units with good food on Election Day.
It is also not right to site voting centres in churches, houses and palaces of traditional rulers and in people’s houses or in places that are very vulnerable and difficult for the security agencies to provide security. The Independent National Electoral Commissions should carry out a comprehensive audit of the polling units and move those in inappropriate places to primary and secondary schools and community centres.
The New Board should find ways of sustaining and reviewing the concept of an Election Monitoring and Observation Board. For the 2011 Elections, a National Board may be constituted and another Board constituted at the State level. They will serve as the official eyes and ears of the Commission as the Commission cannot be everywhere. Presiding Officers and Local Government Electoral Officers behave differently the moment they are aware that a Board with official backing is overseeing and reporting on their activities.
The Commission must have well publicized hotlines in each State and possibly in each Local Government where ordinary citizens, election observers and members of Election Monitoring Board, Political parties and their agents can lodge complaints on Election Day. The complaints must also be expeditiously attended to.
Festus Okoye Esq.
Human Rights Monitor