By Olaseni Durojaiye
President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent directive to security personnel to shoot ballot boxes snatchers has further sent the discussions around the 2019 general election into frenzy with varied reactions.
Both the traditional and the social media have been awash with different interpretations and reactions to the directive, even from some notable legal practitioners, who went further to justify the directive with sections of the nation’s supreme law, the constitution.
President Buhari reportedly made the statement while addressing leaders of his party at an emergency meeting in Abuja, convened in the aftermath of the elections postponement.
In his speech, he had warned against interference in the electoral process and implied that he had given security agencies the go-ahead to be “ruthless” with anyone found wanting of violating the electoral law.
Buhari said: “Anybody who decides to snatch ballot boxes or lead thugs to disturb, it may be the last unlawful action you will take.
“I am going to warn anybody who thinks he has enough influence in his locality to lead a body of thugs, snatch ballot boxes or to disturb the voting system, he will do it at the expense of his own life.”
Indeed, ballot box snatching has for long blotted the nation’s elections. Political thugs sponsored by politicians and often afforded security cover have made nonsense of many elections by disrupting the voting process through ballot boxes snatching and making away with it.
The Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) is also known to have gone ahead to announce supposedly valid results in the same polling units where election was disrupted by ballot boxes snatching. Some of the supporters of the president alleged “shoot-on-sight order” based their endorsement of the order on this premise.
However, many contended that the directive was needless even though the practice it seeks to stop was real, arguing that the nation’s constitution clearly states the appropriate penalty for election violators including the snatching of ballot boxes. But so is underage voting which the president was silent on.
Expectedly, many people had condemned the president’s statement. Some interpreted it to mean a license to kill citizens at the slightest assumption of an attempt to snatch ballot boxes; others welcomed the veiled directive as the solution to ballot boxes snatching which is not unknown to the nation’s democratic practice.
Instructively, the electoral act (2010) prohibits anyone from snatching electoral materials. Section 129 subsection (4) of the electoral act prescribes a maximum two years imprisonment for offenders.
The section reads thus: 129 (1) No person shall on the date on which an election is held do any of the following acts or things in a polling unit or within a distance of 300 metres of a polling unit: (a) canvass for votes; (b) solicit for the vote of any voter; (c) persuade any voter not to vote for any particular candidate; (d) persuade any voter not to vote at the election;
(e) shout slogans concerning the election; (f) be in possession of any offensive weapon or wear any dress or have any facial or other decoration, which in any event is calculated to intimidate voters; (g) exhibit, wear or tender any notice, symbol, photograph or party card referring to the election or Disorderly conduct at elections Offences on election day
(h) use any vehicle bearing the colour or symbol of a political party by any means whatsoever; (i) loiter without lawful excuse after voting or after being refused to vote; (j) snatch or destroy any election materials; and (k) blare siren. (4) Any person who snatches or destroys any election material commits an offence and is liable on conviction to 24 months imprisonment.
Section 128 of the act adds that “any person who at an election acts or incites others to act in a disorderly manner commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a maximum fine ofN500,000 or imprisonment for a term of 12 months or both.”
Section 131 of the same act further states that anyone, who uses force, threats, violence or restraint, is liable on conviction to a fine of N1million or imprisonment for a term of 3 years.
However, beyond the back and forth and the constitutional arguments around the directive, a few questions beg for answers. Do people still snatch ballot boxes in this age of electronic rigging perfected at the critical stage of the electoral process, which is voter registration?
What about underage voters which is very prevalent in the North of the country? Could the president have avoided the issue of underage voters because of allegation that his 2015 victory benefitted from the aberration?
As a matter of fact, insofar as ballot box snatching is an aberration, underage voting is also a big drawback on the nation’s democratic credentials and an abuse of the electoral process.
Underage voters made news headlines after the last Local Government Elections in Kano State.
Shortly after the election results were out, photos of underage voters surfaced on the Social Media to the shock of the whole nation. Afterwards it became known that the photos came about due to the in-fighting between a former governor of the state, Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso and his former deputy and incumbent governor, Abdullai Ganduje.
Interestingly, the issue of underage voters has gained traction, particularly on the Social Media since the president bared his mind on the issue of ballot boxes snatching.
Some commentators argued that since the practice is synonymous with the North of the country and the two leading candidates – President Buhari and former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar – are both from the North, they will both benefit from the practice.
However, others countered that the scourge of underage voters is another form of electoral malpractice and should be condemned with the same vigour with which the president condemned the snatching of ballot boxes.
Those who held this view insisted that before President Buhari can be perceived as desirous of free, fair and credible elections, he must go the whole hog and in very strong terms make pronouncement against underage voting.
It was however a welcome development when the All Progressives Congress (APC) Presidential Campaign Council declared the party would not the condone participation of underage voters in yesterday’s rescheduled presidential election.
The Director of Planning and Monitoring, APC Campaign Council, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, said no underage person will be allowed to participate in voting during the election in Abuja, while presenting an electoral guide that would assist APC poll agents in their assignment during the election.
“By the nomenclature of it, underage voting is unlawful. If you are not old enough to vote, why should you even go and register in the first place. So, it shouldn’t even arise; it shouldn’t happen; why should an underage person go near the polling station on the Election Day if the process is what it should be? Let us take it for what it is: the Act is impersonation and the law is very clear on what should happen to whoever is caught doing so,” he said.
As reassuring as Fashola’s clarification was, many still expected that such clarification should have come from the residency, adding that if it had, it would carry much weight as did his take on ballot boxes snatching.
Besides, it is argued that the security personnel, who are expected to enforce such directive are not answerable to Fashola but Buhari, leading to the conclusion that Fashola’s intervention was a face-saving move to stave off criticism of President Buhari’s silence on underage voters.