INEC chairman Prof. Attahiru Jega recently repeated his warning to political parties to stop violating the rules governing electioneering ahead of the 2015 general elections. Opposition political parties believe he was merely playing to the gallery and grandstanding. While Section 99 (1) of the Electoral Act says that “campaigning in public by every political party shall commence 90 days before polling day and 24 hours prior to that day”, it prescribes no penalty for pre-emptive campaigns. What is however not in doubt is that campaigns for coveted offices in 2015 have since begun. Campaigners only hide under the guise of consultations or rallies.
Under different guises, politicians, on a daily basis, criss-cross the length and breadth of the country “consulting” or selling their candidacy even when primary elections have not been conducted to pave way for full-scale campaigns as envisaged by the Electoral Act (2010). President Jonathan, for instance, has been junketing from Minna to Sokoto, Ilorin, Onitsha, Lagos, Oyo, Osun, Kaduna and Imo, where he has met traditional rulers, held rallies to receive defected or returning members, and orchestrated his languorous “transformation agenda” ostensibly to hypnotise the electorate to vote for him again. Different socio-political pressure groups are daily encouraging serving governors to continue in office or to move to the national stage as senators. The only set of politicians that have stayed barred or who could speak of their ambitions in hush tones are aspirants who intend to oust the under-performing incumbents. We see no reason for pegging a timeframe for these democratic imperatives.
INEC has more to do than turning itself to a paper tiger and a toothless bulldog. As an independent umpire, it should provide a level-playing field and explain in unambiguous terms what constitutes “campaign”. It was not within the contemplations of the drafters of the Electoral Act to gag aspirants from positioning and presenting themselves to stakeholders. The mass media is already awash with would-be contenders, anyway. There are billboards, fliers, posters, newspaper and radio adverts and commentaries, and branded vehicles in all nooks and crannies of the country. The new information age has compounded INEC’s dilemma to enforce the campaign ban because it operates with an aura of anonymity and unhindered ubiquity. Unsolicited messages are broadcast on the mobile telephones, through short message services, e-mails, blogs and social networking sites like facebook, twitter, and what’s app. Who do you hold for these “breaches”: the aspirants, the parties or their supporters?
INEC should show courage if there are serious breaches — like those using religious places or public offices to propagate their ambitions or attack opponents — and sanction them. Sections 99 (2a &b), 100 (6) and 101 (3a, b, & c) criminalise the use of church, mosque and traditional places. It is in tandem with global best practice concerning leadership recruitment for aspirants to declare their intentions and solicit support for their aspirations early.
We need to be proactive in our electioneering process and not become unduly restrictive of due process and free speech. Long-haul campaigns enable candidates to articulate policies and provide the electorate assessment opportunities for the candidates. INEC should bear in mind that democracy is not an event; it is a process. A self-governing society, by definition, needs to interrogate issues and personalities. As Abraham Lincoln succinctly puts it, “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.”