Lingering Doubts Over Electoral Reform

Ahmed Lawan
Ahmed Lawan

BEVERLY HILLS, May 02, (THEWILL) – For a man who boasted about winning all six senatorial elections he has participated in since the dawn of the fourth republic in 1999 and then caped it by becoming the President of the Senate in 2019, Ahmed Lawan should be taken seriously in his magisterial pronouncements. That, however, is not the case with his promise to deliver to Nigerians a brand, new and inclusive Electoral Bill by the end of March 2021.

At the Public Hearing called by the Joint Senate and House of Representatives Committee on INEC and Electoral Matters for inputs into the Electoral Act 2020, held in early December, Senator Lawan had assured an expectant nation that a new Electoral Bill would be ready for presidential assent by the end of March 2021.

He said; “We’ve resolved to abide by the legislative targets and agenda that we’ve set for ourselves. We shall work assiduously to pass the Electoral Act 2020 before the first quarter of 2021. We also intend to pass the PIB before the second quarter of 2021,”

Then the boasted; “As an active participant in the Electoral System since 1999, my experiences in the six elections (1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019), that I’ve contested and won have been different. What is perhaps common is the demands of our people that their votes should count. Even when they lose, they want to see that the game is fair.”

Professor Mahmood Yakubu

His audience comprised the civil society coalition who had been pushing tirelessly for the passage of a new Electoral Act to reduce, if not remove completely the deficiencies in the country’s elections. Others were INEC officials, political parties, professional bodies, women organisations, youth, persons living with disabilities (PLWDs) and security agencies.

Among the issues on the front burner in the envisage electoral reform of which the amendment of the Electoral Act is one, are pre-election, election to post-election matters. They range from violence, voters buying, militarisation of elections, to financial autonomy for the INEC, tighter regulation of campaign funding, Diaspora voting, gender parity and inclusion for People with Disabilities, PWDs.

The stakeholders, particularly the coalition, had expressed their fears that the delay or refusal by the National Assembly to pass the reworked Electoral Act, may seriously tie the hands of the   Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to deploy technology in the form of electronic voting deliver a transparent election in 2023.

Indeed, the electoral umpire had been using off- season elections as it did in Edo and Ondo governorship polls recently, to test -run electronic voting. With the Anambra governorship poll approaching in November, 2021, the commission could have another chance to improve on the zip-file version of electronic voting it started in the two previous governorship elections it conducted last year in Edo and Ondo.  Then in 2022, the commission will have time to perfect observed challenges when it conducts the governorship elections in Ekiti and Osun, few months to the general elections in 2023.

A month after, things appear to have unraveled. On Tuesday, April 28. At a one-day public hearing on the National Electoral Offences Commission (Establishment) Bill 2021, organised by the Senate Committee on INEC, on that day, the INEC Chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu expressed hope for a binding legal framework that would enable the commission conduct future elections in the country and called on the NASS to do the needful.

He said; “We hope to release the Timetable and Schedule of Activities for the General Election immediately after the Anambra Governorship election scheduled to hold on 6th November 2021.

“In order to do so, there should be clarity and certainty about the electoral legal framework to govern the election. We are confident that the National Assembly will do the needful in earnest.”

A former Minister of Transportation and a member of the Board of Trustees of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Chief Ebenezer Babatope calls for purposeful   electoral reform. In an interview with THEWILL, he said: “Well, electoral reform is a good thing. Reform that is good is a reform that will give the people of Nigeria the freedom to choose those who will guide them in the elections and the freedom to choose those who in fact will plan to reshape the future of the country. This is because right now, people are being chosen at will and that is very bad. We should have election that will give the people of Nigeria the chance to elect those who should govern them.”

For Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, the NASS is playing games on electoral reform.

He said in a national television interview last week; “There is no suspicion about the capability of the National Assembly to give Nigerians an electoral act that will lead to the conduct of a free and fair election. With the way things are in the country, they know Nigerians have lost confidence in the government. The National Assembly will say one thing today and do another tomorrow. It is part of the game to deny Nigerians a fair election.”

Among civil society organisations, the suspicion keeps growing that the NASS do not intend to give Nigeria the required electoral reforms.

“Hopeful? My doubts are expanding day by day. This is the middle of April and we have not seen any increased pace in action,” reportedly said Dr Akin Akingbulu, executive director, Institute for Media and Society (IMS), one of the partners in the European Union sponsored democracy and governance project for Nigeria.

“I don’t see much on the horizon to support their commitment. If they were genuinely committed, we will see acceleration in their approach, at the various levels.  “If we apply history as our guide, we should begin to suspect that the current exercise could be made to go the way of its immediate predecessor: drag, delay, end up not completing the process.”

Ms Mufuliat Fijabi, Chief Executive Officer, Nigerian Women Fund is somehow hopeful. “Yes, we should be hopeful. I know that there seems to be an unusual silence on the part of the National Assembly but we need to keep hope alive especially, since the National Assembly also made a commitment to enact the electoral reform bill in good time before the 2023 elections,” she told National Democracy Report, a publication of the International Press Center, Lagos.

“It will be good to be hopeful; but this has to be with continuous engagement with stakeholders to encourage the National Assembly to fulfil its commitment to the electorates. I will like to draw our attention to the attempt by the 8th Assembly to amend the law before the 2019 elections, however the President of the country refused to sign the bill on the premise that it was too close to the elections.

“We therefore believe and hope that they will keep their words to amend the bill in good time ahead of the 2023 elections. The need for electoral reform cannot be over emphasized as it will promote electoral credibility,” Fijuabi said.

According to her, the issue has nothing to do with what she believes but the willingness of the NASS and President Buhari to see beyond partisanship and do what is patriotic.

“Well, I don’t think it’s about what I believe. Rather, it should be about whether the President, the ruling party and the leadership of the National Assembly are willing to give Nigerians true democracy and an enabling environment for civic participation. They made a promise when elected to make Nigeria better and so, we need to hold them accountable to that. I mean, we all are aware about the need for electoral reform of which the Electoral Act is part of and its importance for a credible and sustainable electoral process.

“The National Assembly should be responsible and responsive to the yearnings of the Nigerian people for a credible electoral system. Our legislators should be conscious of the historical and national imperative for electoral reforms. If they are not committed to giving Nigerians this, it then means that we may not move as much as we expect to in the build -up to the 2023 elections.

“The flaws and malfeasance that characterised the 2019 general elections were too apparent and pervasive to ignore. The onus is on the National Assembly and the President to expedite actions towards the reform of the electoral system.”

President of Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, Alhaji Yerima Shettima thinks the current NASS is embarking on a wasteful exercise on electoral reform.

 

“We should adopt the Justice Mohammed Uwais’ report, he told THEWILL in an interview, “that is already before us, we do not need to waste resources. The Uwais Committee has done wonderfully well and we should adopt its report. Doing that is better than to constitute an electoral reform committee and start wasting resources. Unfortunately for us the resources are not even there now for us to waste.”

Report of the Electoral Reform Committee otherwise known as the Justice Uwai Electoral Reform Report came in the aftermath of the 2007 general elections when the Federal Government established a 22-Member Electoral Reform Committee, chaired by Justice Mohammed Uwais, retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It recommended, among others, INEC’s independence, creation of Electoral Offenses Commission, unbundling of INEC, gender parity, inclusion of youths and people with disabilities in the electoral process.

One month after the promise by the leadership of the NASS to deliver on electoral reform, six months to the Anambra State governorship election, one year and five months to the Ekiti and Osun governorship polls in 2022 for INEC to test-run changes in the Electoral Act and a year and two months to the conduct of the general election in 2023 is a long time in the annals of legislation for the doubting Thomas’s to be proved right by the elected representatives of the people.