With barely 31 months to the 2023 general elections, the challenges of Nigeria’s electoral process are enormous, and it requires leadership and decisive actions from diverse stakeholders to fix. There has been series of effort to on electoral reforms by the National Assembly and Civil society groups have also proposed amendments to the electoral legal framework. These proposals are contained in numerous election observation reports. Achieving these proposals require a mindset shift in conceptualizing electoral reforms, facilitating a consensus among key political actors and building on a consultative process to aggregate the needs and preferences of society.
It is against this background that Yiaga Africa and its partners hosted the Citizens town hall on electoral reform to address the declining quality of elections and loss of faith in the democratic institutions due to impunity, exclusion and unbridled corruption. If the electoral process is reformed, it will improve the quality of public leadership and governance at all levels and also increase public trust in democracy and democratic institutions.
The town hall provided an opportunity for critical stakeholders to build consensus on electoral reform priorities. Speakers at the townhall include the Chairman of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof Mahmood Yakubu; attorney general of the federation and minister of Justice Abubakar Malami; Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Bishop Matthew Kukah; Mike Ozekhome (SAN), minister of State for Niger Delta,Festus Keyamo (SAN), amongst other Civil Society actors.
Amongst resolution that emerged during the town hall include the establishment of an electoral offences body as stakeholders came out strongly on the need to punish perpetrators of violence and violators of electoral laws. Other issues raised include, cost of elections, use of technology and managing political actors.
Speaking at the event, INEC chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, stressed that it is imperative to establish the National Electoral Offences Commission. According to him, this will improve the quality of elections in the country, noting that the nation’s policy on persons who undermine the election needs to be clearly spelt out. He said, “any nation that does not punish electoral offenses is doomed”, saying electoral offenders are becoming more brazen because they are not effectively prosecuted. He stated that though it was the responsibility of INEC to prosecute electoral offenders, the electoral body does not have the capacity to do that because it lacks the capacity to carry out proper investigation.
He decried that fact that, “once an election cycle ends, politicians would devise means of undermining subsequent elections. So, instead of consolidating on the gains of one election, we are always experimenting new ideas to ensure that those who have perfected the art of undermining INEC’s efforts do not succeed.”
On the cost of running elections, the INEC chairman lamented that the commission has been dragged to court over 2000 times, adding „most times we need to hire lawyers. “He said, ‘’Some of the cases are not intended by people who filed them, but we have to hire lawyers. Elections are expensive because we also conduct bye-elections including senatorial elections. We have six senatorial district elections to conduct and we continue to spend on these elections, he said.
Prof. Yakubu however called for attitudinal change which he said cannot be legislated saying, if politicians continue with the attitude of cutting corners and encouraging thuggery during election, no amount of electoral reform would guarantee free, fair and credible election.
Speaking on the controversy surrounding the assent to the electoral act, Attorney General of the federation, Abubakar Malami said President Muhammadu Buhari will certainly assent to the electoral act provided there are no breaches against the constitution. While describing the electoral process as a system that is evolving positively, Malami said there is room for more improvement.
He said, ‘’as at 1999, the system was unpredictable and very chaotic which is gradually becoming a thing of the past. Pre-election matters in 1999 can be in court for seven to 10 years. At the moment there are legal frameworks on the conduct of electoral matters. ‘’We understand the need for cooperation between the judiciary, legislature, and the executive and we will continue to stress this,’’ he added.
He said the current administration is collectively trying, as much possible, to enhance the quality of the system by way of empowering INEC, building capacity and ensuring that sanity, accountability are brought to bear through legal framework, judicial intervention or executive intervention.
Speaking of political inclusion of women in political process, entertainer, Omoni Oboli decried the marginalization of women in what she described as the country’s “dirty politics” characterized by violence. According to her, “Women have been greatly marginalized. It’s very disappointing that even till now, we don’t want women in key elective positions. They’re mostly appointed into offices not elected,” she said.
“And when it comes to financing for instance, a lot of women won’t even bother to come out because they know they don’t have what it takes to pull through. Most of the people that are financing politics are men and they are pretty much going to finance people that they think would win. So, these are the problems women are facing when it comes to politics.
According to her, “If we ensure that our electoral processes are free, fair, inclusive and save, more women would come, more of them would want to get into politics.” Reechoing this thought, Chief Executive Officer of Women Trust Fund, Mufuliat Fijabi further reiterated the need for an electoral reform that is inclusive of women. She said, often times we only look at credibility and fairness of elections, but we don’t look that the inclusion part of the it, especially the inclusion of women.
On the marginalization of People Living with Disability, Cobhams Asuquo, Nigeran-born songwriter said the electoral system has been designed in such a way that a lot of people with disabilities have not been able to exercise their civic responsibilities. He said this is a major concern because going through the electoral act, you’ll discover where people living with disabilities are mentioned but it is at best not inclusive.
Senior Lawyers and Civil Society actors also wade into the discussion calling on electronic ballot system, internal party democracy and prosecution of electoral offenders. For instance, a senior lawyer, Mike Ozekhome, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), said INEC ought to be independent in line with Section 153 of the constitution just as he noted that electoral offenders should be barred for contesting an election for a period of 10 years or above to serve as a deterrent to others.
Benson Oluguo, the Executive Director of CLEEN Foundation also raised concerns about the rising cases of electoral violence saying, in raising politicians remain key drivers of violence during elections. Also, Chair, partners for electoral reform, Ezenwa Nwagwu who decried what he described as the hijacking of political parties where elected organs within political parties have not been allowed to function effectively. He said, activities of political parties have become transactional saying, those who intend to run must pay huge sums of money, & the delegate system is compromised as well. “The Executive eventually take partial ownership of the running of party conventions. This gives a leeway for the entire process to be anything but independent”, he said.
Other speakers include, Director of Enough is Enough Nigeria, Yemi Adamolekun who also reechoed the need to introduce technology in Nigeria’s election. Idayat Hassan of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Akin Akingbolu of the International Press Centre amongst others further helped pushed the envelope on electoral reform in Nigeria.
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