Why making INEC strong matters

Professor Mahmoud Yakubu is back at his duty post as INEC chairman after he stepped aside briefly for the senate to confirm him for a second term. He has promptly served notice that he is bent on pursuing some amendments in both the 1999 constitution and the Electoral Act to strengthen the commission and commit it being fair to all elective office seekers and give our elections a good name. I look forward to the day our elections generate something much better than snickers.

        Yakubu is passionate about the INEC reforms. He has been since he took on this jungle job in the political jungle where things have a way of making the crooked look all wise and smart. He is determined to leave a legacy of an electoral system that is less atomistic and consumed by mago-mago and wuru-wuru and perpetually at war with itself. He wants to build an electoral system that can birth elections with local and international acceptability and integrity. I am no great shakes at prayers but I can manage this: may his tenure become the watershed in our long and frustrating quest for an electoral system run smoothly on the tracks of law and the observance of the rule of law. And may the holy ghost fire rain down on all politicians who turn themselves into barriers against him. 

Well, as the Onitsha man would say, the professor knows this is not going to be easy. Despite my full admiration and support for his passion to put his unique stamp on an electoral system that left many professors looking a bit like a man emerging from the conference confused, I cannot but entertain the irrational fear that he might be trying to empty the Abuja dam with a tea cup. It is not impossible but the possibility of success should make you wince.

When Yakubu presented certificates of return to new and returning senators after the 2019 general elections, he reminded them that the electoral system was hobbled by problems that only the legislative and the executive branches of government could solve.

He said: “As a process governed by law, the success of election in Nigeria depends to a large extent on the electoral legal framework and most importantly, in ensuring adherence to the rule of law.” He pleaded with them to “…start work early and conclude work on the legal framework in good time well ahead of the 2023 general elections.” Time, he said, was short and the work was huge. But so far, the legislators, always resplendent in their traditional wear, have shown no anxiety to begin work on the legal electoral framework, the kind envisaged by Yakubu to make INEC an institution that commands the respect of local and international communities.

The Electoral Reform Committee set up by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, and chaired by former CJN, Justice Mohammed Uwais, was the first major attempt at comprehensive electoral reforms by a civilian administration. It noted in its report that “An effective regime of electoral laws is vital to the integrity of any democratic system. One of the key challenges facing the electoral process in Nigeria is the need to develop a comprehensive legal framework that guarantees the independence and integrity of the electoral process, promotes consistency and equality in electoral management …”

This is the magic wand that Yakubu has been searching for in frustration and, I would imagine, some degree of despair because both the executive and the legislative branches of government seem collectively tardy here. You should know that politicians are terrified by laws; yet they make them. Funny. An electoral legal framework would not necessarily make Yakubu’s work easier but it would help to make it run on the guard rails of the law.

Chief Festus Okoye, the commission’s national commissioner for information and voter education, opened the window to the commission’s new thinking at a summit on: “Two decades of party politics and democracy: Issues and prospects,” in Abuja recently. A good topic too to discuss at this time with the politicians fully engaged in the mathematics of power configurations and the re-alignment of political forces towards 2023. For all its vaunted claim on being the government of the people by the people democracy is still vulnerable to egregious abuse and autocratic manipulation by the supposed keepers of its flames.

You do not need me to tell you that there are too many things wrong with our electoral system. Perhaps you know only of the top cancer in the system famously called rigging. We cannot honestly grow our democracy with our feet tied to the millstone absent of a credible electoral legal framework. We would, indeed, continue to conduct elections whose outcome invites derision by the international community and a helpless cry of God-dey by those who are blatantly cheated by the system.

Yakubu has identified some of the problems to make it easier for the law-makers to get rid of the unwanted and replace them with the wanted in the constitution and the Electoral Act. I find some of the new thoughts on resolving our lingering electoral problems are a welcome radical departure from the usual cosmetics of political gamesmanship. The commission wants to amend sections 68, 109 and 117 to curb the frequency of bye-elections. Under this proposed reform, if a legislator resigns or is too ill to perform his legislative duties, he would automatically be replaced by the candidate of the party who came second in the elections. Thus, there would be no by-election. Rather too neat. I can hear the politicians snort. Trump pikins.

Here is what I really like. According to Okoye, “the commission proposes further alteration to section 285 of the constitution to make it possible for all pre-elections disputes to be concluded before the conduct of elections. This can be achieved by making it possible for the court of first instance to conclude all pre-election matters within a period of 60 days rather than 180 days while the court of appeal can hear and deliver its judgement within a period of 30 days rather than 60 days.”

The Uwais committee similarly recommended that all election disputes, pre-and post, be resolved before the winners take office. It said that “Nigeria’s electoral process needs to be sanitized by making INEC more independent and autonomous of the executive (and) by ensuring that all election disputes are concluded before any elected officials are sworn-in.” This is the kind of music that sounds like jarring tin drums in the ears of our politicians. Kai.

The court dockets in every state are filled with pre-and post-election cases that drag on forever and make a mockery of the integrity of our electoral process and our elections. It is really insane. The courts, in any case, given our very corrupt system, have generally been complicit with the politicians in subverting the people’s right to choose their representatives in government.

        I find it difficult to believe that this late in the day, the commission is, according to Okoye, “canvassing the creation of an electoral offences commission and tribunal..” The Uwais committee recommended it too and Yakubu is in favour of it. But the commission and the tribunal still do not exist because the politicians are playing it safe. They and their thugs would have to account for their misdeeds before the electoral offences tribunal.

        The real problem is that INEC has systematically been stripped of its powers by the law-markers who prefer to see a weak and weakened electoral umpire serving the rich and the strong at the expense of those with good brains but holes in their pockets. 

The challenge, therefore, should be the restoration of the powers of the commission taken away from it in order to build it into a strong institution able to take on and discharge its responsibilities as the primary custodian of our electoral process and the conduct of our elections. I know the politicians, even in pain of roasting in hell, would not let this happen. An INEC on a leash is their preferred electoral umpire. Fight on, Mr Chairman.

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