Recently, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Mahmood Yakubu, stated that the commission lacked the capacity to punish electoral offenders. This, he said, stemmed from the fact that it could not apprehend offenders and conduct investigations, without which successful prosecution would be impossible. While stating that the commission had been working closely with the Nigeria Police on infractions relating to elections, Yakubu said that for the past four years, it had received a total of 149 case files, including 16 cases arising from the 2019 general election.
Conspicuously on display on the commission’s website, though, is a list of what it describes as electoral offences and penalties. In a document entitled ‘Election Offences and Penalties’, the commission unambiguously spells out the penalties, including long terms of imprisonment and/or option of fine by as much as N1 million. The document states that “any conduct, action or inaction which is prohibited by the constitution or the Electoral Act and a breach of which attracts punishment is called an electoral offence.” Consequently, under the law, “anyone in breach of any of these provisions is liable to being arrested and charged to court and prosecuted by INEC after investigation by the relevant security agencies.”
But all of that may be mere rhetoric. The INEC boss’ statement that the commission had no capacity to punish electoral offenders conveys the impression that perpetrators of electoral crimes could carry on with impunity. If the commission recognises electoral offence as constituting a crime, it stands logic on the head to suggest that the status quo could remain simply because it lacks the capacity to punish offenders. It is certainly disturbing that the latest statement came amidst outrage by local and international observers perturbed by the country’s terrible elections. There ought to be dire consequences for electoral brigandage. And INEC certainly ought to be interested in getting electoral offenders behind bars. To put it mildly, it has a bounden duty to say so in very unmistakable terms.
We find the lamentation on INEC’s limitations curious. Isn’t the commission just required to identify offenders and then leave prosecution to the police? Now, how many of the monumental crimes perpetrated during the recent elections have been documented with a view to getting the perpetrators punished? At the moment, elections are at the mercy of violent criminals, because there is no incentive to play by the rules. Despite the deluge of arrests the law enforcement agencies and INEC claimed were made over various election offences, only a negligible percentage of the cases are known to have been concluded. Professor Yakubu admitted this fact, just as he expressed doubts that the convicts served out their jail terms, because their sponsors presumably opted to exploit the options of fine prescribed by law.
In rationalising the untoward state of affairs, the INEC boss passed the buck to the law enforcement agencies, leaving out the commission that is statutorily empowered to handle all election matters. Statistics indicate that in 2011 alone, more than 800 persons were killed and 65,000 displaced in post-election violence. Again, more than 100 people died during and after the 2015 polls. The wider implication of this is that there is gradual erosion of public confidence in the country’s electoral system. Those behind the dastardly acts, particularly the brigandage witnessed during the recent elections in Kogi State, have been unwittingly emboldened to continue perpetrating their criminality and possibly take it to the next level. There are no dire consequences for those inclined to turn election into warfare.
A report by a group, Nigeria Watch, amply documents the country’s electoral anomalies. According to the body, from June 2006 to May 2014, there were about 915 cases of election violence in the country that claimed about 3,934 lives. But since 1999 till date, only a small number of such cases have been taken to a logical conclusion. The victims of the mindless killings and maiming also include INEC employees and ad hoc workers, among them young graduates from the country’s higher institutions who were undergoing the mandatory one-year national service and were given election duties. No doubt, INEC’s active collaboration with other stakeholders is necessary in order to clean up the electoral system. It is illogical for the commission to ride roughshod on Nigerians over its own foibles and shortcomings. It is a tragedy that the credibility of elections in the country has been eroded.
Nonetheless, the INEC chairman’s statement is a further indictment of the security agencies that have contributed to the credibility deficit in the country’s elections. There is apparent complicity and collective guilty in the steady slide of electoral integrity and the erosion of globally accepted standards. If INEC believes that it can only bark and not bite regarding appropriate punishment for electoral offenders, then the country is imperilled. We have found the government, INEC and the security agencies wanting in election matters. They are neither sincere nor committed to free and fair elections.