Beyond visa restriction for vote riggers – Punch

Apparently infuriated by the failure and unwillingness of the Federal Government and its agencies to bring sponsors of electoral violence to book, the United States Government has dealt with the problem directly, announcing a visa restriction on persons who manipulated the conduct of the Kogi and Bayelsa elections that were held last year. The US promised to replicate the ban on those found wanting in the Edo governorship election held last week and in a similar poll in Ondo scheduled for next month.     Following suit, the United Kingdom threatened that beyond imposing visa restriction on such unscrupulous politicians, it would also seize their assets within its jurisdiction. This novel punitive step will ensure that those who had been able to escape past visa restrictions by virtue of their dual citizenship could lose their assets.

Countries have visa restrictions in order to check and control the flow of visitors in and out of the country and to prevent illegal immigration and other criminal activities.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs complained that the moves are disrespectful to Nigeria’s sovereignty. In international politics, experts argue, no concept is less understood and more misused than that of sovereignty. If the same government does not see anything wrong in receiving dollops of aid from foreign countries in virtually all areas of governance, including the running of elections, it is wrong to stretch sovereignty to a ridiculous level. Rather, Nigeria should welcome these steps as further international support to deepen democracy.

The 2015 general election was a watershed in Nigeria’s chequered democratic experience, which for the first time saw the seamless transfer of power from a ruling party to an opposition party. However, like many things associated with Nigeria, rather than consolidate on these gains and ensure that elections continue to improve, the reverse has been the case. The governorship elections in Ekiti and Osun states in 2018 witnessed unprecedented vote buying and violence. It got worse during the 2019 general election; a state governor audaciously threatened international observers that they would return home in body bags if they interfered in Nigeria’s election.

Rivers State, which has become synonymous with electoral violence, witnessed the killing of voters, electoral officers and security personnel. The Independent National Electoral Commission accused the Nigerian Army of using soldiers to disrupt collation of votes in the state to the dismay of international observers.

Violence also erupted in Kano State during the rerun governorship election. In Imo State, the Returning Officer for the Imo West Senatorial election, Innocent Ibeawuchi, alleged that he was forced to declare then incumbent governor, Rochas Okorocha, the winner under duress. While INEC refused to present the Certificate of Return and legitimise Okorocha’s victory due to these circumstances, a Federal High Court in Abuja ordered that he be recognised as the winner and INEC and awarded N200,000 costs to Okorocha.

Worthy of note is that off-season elections in Kogi, Bayelsa and Osun witnessed very high incidence of violence despite having a much larger deployment of security personnel. That carnage and mayhem flourish amid such massive security show of force merits investigation.

Besides, sponsors of electoral violence are never unmasked let alone prosecuted; only their minions are convicted in a few instances. INEC and the Nigeria Police charged 491 persons for electoral offences between 2015 and 2016 based on reports from the commission. However, only 52 had been convicted while 104 were found not guilty by 2018. Sadly, no high profile politician was on the list of suspected offenders. In addition, fewer than 10 of the 202 INEC officials indicted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission for allegedly receiving bribes in 2015 have been convicted. A former Deputy Senate President, Ibrahim Mantu, in 2018, confessed openly on live television to election rigging, but was never challenged by the appropriate authorities. This is not how to deter electoral malpractice.

Electoral violence undermines voter confidence and consequently leads to a low voter turnout. According to INEC, the 2019 elections were characterised by a very low voter turnout. About 72.8 million Permanent Voter Cards were collected ahead of the presidential election, but only 28.6 million votes were cast, representing a turnout of about 39.5 percent. It was worse in Lagos where less than 19 per cent of the 5.5 million persons with PVCs voted in the governorship and state legislative elections. The 2019 voter turnout in Nigeria is also the lowest of all recent elections held in Africa, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. This is abysmal for a country that prides itself as the world’s largest black democracy.

The frequency of electoral malpractice forced the electoral umpire to introduce several innovations, such as the PVC, smart card reader and recently, the Z-pad for biometric accreditation and the online portal for results coupled with the massive deployment of personnel and materials. These initiatives to stay ahead of unscrupulous, desperate politicians coupled with the crass opportunism of security agencies have cost taxpayers billions of naira, reaching N242 billion in 2019. INEC spent over N35 billion on ballot papers and result sheets alone.

The Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps budgeting N310 million to feed and administer drugs to dogs and the Nigeria Immigration Service budgeting N126 million for printing nametags for its personnel in the 2019 elections are some of the frivolous expenses that make Nigeria’s elections among the costliest in the world.

But there are smarter and cost-saving ways to ensure credible elections. The relevant laws must be swiftly amended to make provisions for electronic voting which will ensure that the entire process of registration, accreditation, vote counting, collation and announcement of results would be done electronically. Although this is not the silver bullet that will end electoral malpractices, studies have shown that it will reduce cost, decrease the time for collation and bring down the number of personnel needed to police elections and ultimately, boost voter confidence and turnout. According to the International Peace Institute, electronic voting prevents fraud at polling units and during tabulation and transmission of results by eliminating human involvement.

Indeed Nigeria will not need to be continually goaded into conducting credible elections if it puts in place the proper mechanism that would guarantee that votes are protected and punish swiftly those who try to subvert the democratic process.

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