Electoral reform, going digital all the way – Punch

In earnest, the Independent National Electoral Commission has proposed 34 amendments to the Electoral Act 2010, as it prepares for the 2023 general election. The aim is to enhance the credibility of the electoral process, deepen the use of technology, reduce violence, instil confidence in voters and entrench internal democracy in political parties.

At a recent stakeholders’ meeting that comprised the European Centre for Electoral Support, International Foundation for Electoral System and relevant Senate and House of Representatives committees, the INEC Chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, was upbeat about the envisaged reforms, saying, “Our draft is ready but requires further internal review ahead of submission to the National Assembly.” With Yakubu’s experience in the last elections, INEC’s retooling should be thorough in line with global best practices.

Sadly, every election in the country since 1999 leaves a sour taste in the mouth. After the 2007 elections, which The European Union Election Observation Mission team said “fell far short of basic international standards,” the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, its major beneficiary, forthrightly promised to reform the electoral process. His death in office perhaps robbed the country of the chance of implementing the Mohammed Uwais panel report on electoral reforms.

But Attahiru Jega as INEC chairman in 2011 introduced an electronic device in smart card reader. With it, every registered voter was verified before being allowed to vote with a permanent voter card. The impact was felt. While the system is still in force, politicians in their desperation to win at all costs have subverted the design with various devious strategies. It has been so abused that, in the 2019 general election, the number of votes cast in one governorship contest exceeded the number of accredited voters. This was an unimaginable paradox, yet the highest court in the land gave its imprimatur to it.

Even before the 2019 elections, the National Assembly had passed a bill that legitimised electronic collation and transmission of results. But the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), spurned it, motivated by self-interest rather than national. Pointedly, he said such electoral guidelines could only come into effect after his second term election.

Now that card reader and PVC are no more critical safeguards in the conduct of elections, calls for the introduction of digital voting and transmission of results have become strident. Significantly, they are expected to check abuses, exemplified in snatching and snuffing of ballot boxes, snatching of result sheets, and falsification of results, which have become rampant. Incredibly, election – a civic, democratic practice – routinely morphs into war.

Many countries have overcome these anomalies during elections by adopting e-voting. They include Switzerland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, India, Canada, Italy, Brazil, Peru, Belgium, Estonia and Namibia. Besides protecting the integrity of the polls, the method has reduced voter-apathy. The success story of e-voting in Namibia, Brazil, India and Peru underscores the fact that it is a positive lesson for Third World countries. In Britain, Web Roots Democracy, a pressure group, says e-voting could boost voter turnout in the United Kingdom by nine million people. “It can significantly reduce the number of accidentally spoilt ballots, speeding up the counting process, and enable vision-impaired voters to cast a secret ballot,” it said.

However, with the desperation of politicians, its likely abuse in Nigeria cannot be totally ruled out. Kenya’s presidential election in 2017, for instance, was nullified by the country’s Supreme Court because of the suspicion that the result might have been hacked. But there is no system that is absolutely foolproof. Banks and other financial institutions are not deterred from deploying IT tools by possible hacking of their systems; INEC should deploy safeguards.

As far as free and fair elections are concerned, many variables are outside the ken of INEC. It seems obvious that the integrity of any election is only as much as the government of the day wants it to be. This is why Buhari should be held responsible for the sanctity or otherwise of the 2023 polls. The President is in control of the police and the military, which have shown partisanship in previous elections.

The military were used to rig the Ekiti governorship poll a few years ago. Sagir Koli, a captain, in a statement entitled, “How Nigeria Army personnel were used to rig Ekiti and Osun States gubernatorial elections 2014,” gave insights into what happened among himself, his commander, two ministers and the politicians involved. A subsequent investigation by this regime led to a brigadier-general being fired; three officers lost their commands and one was recommended for prosecution over bribery.

The National Human Rights Commission technical study group report on the 2007 polls in Edo State said, “The evidence of the witness is that police officers were, in fact, doing the shooting, the thumb-printing or the ballot-stuffing.” It was out of this mess that the country for the first time began the staggering of governorship elections in Anambra, Bayelsa, Edo, Ondo, Ekiti, Osun and Kogi states.

To stop the subversion of electorate’s wishes, the regime has to institutionalise an electoral offences commission as recommended by the Uwais report. As currently constituted, INEC cannot cope with such a responsibility. Without consequences for electoral breaches, every poll here will continue to be a mockery of democracy. It is, therefore, time public office is seen for what it is: a call to service. Unfortunately, this has not been so because of the huge financial rewards attached to such office and the advantage it confers on the occupant to despoil the public treasury. Therefore, government at all levels should increase their capacity to rein in perpetrators of this illegality.

The reward system should be drastically reduced to make public office less attractive and reduce the wanton violence that accompany electoral contests in Nigeria. According to the EU Election team, 30 people were killed on the April 11, 2015 Election Day.

Equally ominous is the seeming usurpation of the roles of the INEC and the electorate by the courts in deciding those elected. A former president, Court of Appeal, Ayo Salami, lost his seat for resisting a former Chief Justice of Nigeria’s bid to halt a judgement in an election petition in Sokoto State, which he (CJN) had an interest in. The CJN went ahead to hijack the case over which even the apex court had no jurisdiction. When courts give judgements that may eventually haunt our electoral jurisprudence, as one jurist warned recently, they drive the country into an anarchical spiral..

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