We started a discussion last week on the dangerous signals coming from Edo state toward the build-up of the 2020 Governorship election. I made two assertions; the first is that Edo election will be a barometer to measure Nigeria’s readiness for a free, fair and credible election in 2023. The second is that there is nothing so far in the horizon to indicate that Edo will deliver any novelty in our electoral system or political behaviour ahead of 2023. I concluded by saying that it is strategic and of utmost importance that we get it right in Edo State in 2020 to set the stage for 2023.
Today, I will be suggesting some of the steps that may help in getting Edo 2020 right. My suggestions will not only apply to Edo State but every part of Nigeria and all institutions that are serious about free and fair elections and deepening of democracy in the country.
The focus on Edo State is so intense that most times we seem to lose sight of another governorship election taking place almost at the same time in Ondo State. Current official estimates show that Ondo State is more populous than Edo and its political history is chequered. However, the forces at play in the latter, have made the battle between Governor Obaseki and Pastor Ize-Iyamu a showpiece event. Edo State has all the ingredients of a Battle Royale. This political contest is such that defines history and have far-reaching implications and repercussions in the state and the entire country for years to come.
Historians will always remember the Western Regional Crises of 1962. The protracted battle between Chief Ladoke Akintola and Chief Obafemi Awolowo led to a high rate of violence and acts of lawlessness with lawmakers engaging themselves in vicious physical combats in the Western Regional parliament. That was when we had ‘Operation Wet ẹ’, where political gangs disrupted elections, set politicians and properties ablaze. This crisis in one region of the country in the First Republic eventually led to the first military coup in Nigeria on 15 January 1966, and the country’s history was changed forever.
The above scenario makes it imperative to get things right in Edo State to avoid history repeating itself. The dire nature of events in Edo calls for a broad-based approach, by key institutions and individuals.
I will deal with five issues identified as critical to having a semblance of free, fair and credible elections in Edo. The five issues are: curbing electoral violence, the neutrality of security agencies, impartial electoral umpire, streamlining campaign finance and mitigation of fake information/negative propaganda. I will not delve into root causes of some of these problems as those are long term and not in the purview of this article.
The first issue is eliminating or ameliorating electoral violence in the Edo State election. Electoral violence is one of the most attractive options to achieve electoral success in Nigeria, especially in the South-South geopolitical region where it is an economic enterprise because nobody gets punished for it. To curb electoral violence will require the early deployment of security personnel in a transparent manner to build confidence on all sides. All parties should have the list and identity of key security and law enforcement officials days before the election.
Enforcement mechanism must be put in place to punish parties and candidates using extant laws if they encourage or orchestrate violence of any sort – pre-election, during election and post-election. Local communities should receive training and assistance in setting up community systems to handle electoral violence. In off-cycle or stand-alone elections, there is absolutely no reason why we cannot effectively police all electoral units.
The second solution is enforcing the neutrality of security agencies when used in elections. In developed democracies, deployment of security agencies during elections is a rarity. However, in developing democracies like Nigeria, the essence of security forces lies in their deterring function and their law-enforcement capacity. Both functions must go hand in hand. In addition INEC needs to work effectively with non-state actors to track the conduct of security agencies during elections as well as raise early warning signals on the use of thugs.
There is the temptation to think that the party at the centre that controls the official forces of coercion will always have the upper hand in taking advantage of security agencies. That is not always true. Saturating the environment with law enforcement agents may be one of the deterrents to use of thugs and violence. Anyone caught instigating or perpetrating violence should be made to face the full wrath of the law.
The third resolution is the impartiality of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) which is critical to the success of our elections. Political actors have sometimes accused INEC of selling out to the highest bidder and dancing to the tunes of the powers that be. The Commission must provide timely access to information to all parties, consistently explaining the rationale for their decisions. I suggest that INEC, political parties, law enforcement agencies, civil society and mass media meet regularly to appraise preparations for the election.
INEC in the offseason or stand-alone elections has enough officials from all states of the country to use rather than to deploy ad-hoc staff (especially card-carrying party members). It should not only preach transparency and neutrality but must be neutral, professional and transparent in conduct.
It should publish names of proposed electoral personnel and their specific roles. These officials should be deployed at least seven days to the election to allow parties to raise objections if any. There is nothing wrong if political parties send representatives to observe the training of electoral personnel before elections. That way all key actors can be on the same page on expectations of the law. INEC should proactively sort out potential technical and logistics issues. The commission must ensure that election materials get to their locations on time and in good shape.
The card reader and its latest modification Z file must work correctly and transparently this time around, especially after being in place for over five years. According to INEC chairman, “The Z-file is a tablet with camera that captures the entire voting exercise in every polling unit. It functions in such a way that at the end of the process after voting has been concluded and sorted out, the ballots counted, the picture of the form EC8A would be taken and transmitted to a dedicated portal so that Nigerians can view the polling unit results live and direct by those close to the polling units.” Reports from the electoral officials in the past have shown that card reader failure or malfunction has contributed to electoral malpractice and thereby subverts the will of the electorate.
The fourth issue is the use of money to influence the outcome of the electoral process. It is common, in Nigeria, to bribe adhoc electoral and security personnel, buy and sell votes during elections, even when this delegitimises the result of the electoral process. Money politics leads to politicians becoming beholden to godfathers and special interest and directly leads to corruption in governance.
Campaign finances in Nigeria are fraught with different levels of corruption, and this often puts the credibility of our elections to question. Apart from disempowering a lot of people, it also raises a lot of moral issues relating to the sources of these funds. In Nigeria, although laws exist on political parties and campaign financing, the challenge has always remained that of enforcement. The various versions of Electoral Act have explicit provisions which address the funding of political parties and maximum spending limits of campaign finances. The Electoral Act also specifies the limits of contributions individuals and corporate organizations could make to a candidate and requires political parties to submit separate audited reports of campaign expenses to INEC six months after an election. However, individuals and political parties have consistently breached these provisions with impunity. The real challenge is the early passage of the proposed Independent Electoral Offences Commission bill before National Assembly as it will be too burdensome for INEC to monitor campaign finance.
All stakeholders should ensure that funds for political campaigns and election are not from the state or national treasury or from agents of government. Anyone seen sharing money near polling centres should be prosecuted and punished maximally and the party, he/she, represents penalised.
The fifth issue is mitigating the use of misinformation, fake news, rumours and propaganda in election campaigns. In the era of social media and citizen journalism, misinformation and outright fake news during elections are rife. This problem is dangerous for our democracy, although it has global ramifications as we can see in the current US presidential election campaign going on. Fortunately, Nigeria has extant laws (Electoral act, EFCC act, ICPC act, Penal and Criminal code) that make offenders criminally liable. However, successful prosecution and punishment of offenders are rare if not completely nonexistent. The proposed Independent Electoral Offences Commission will take up the responsibility of monitoring campaign activities, and campaign language, prosecuting defaulters as a critical part of the enforcement of electoral rules. That is the only way you can disincentivize name-calling, foul and inciting campaign language.
Violence, chaos, electoral malfeasance will not do anyone any good, not even the political parties but ultimately Edo people and democracy will be the losers. It is time to turn in a new direction and let go of our larger than life ego, appetite for wealth, and bragging right. Parties are not the issue as many political actors go to bed at night as a member of one political party and wake up the next morning as a member of another party because there is neither ideological basis nor value principles for joining any party. The parties are just platforms to acquire power either for primitive accumulation of wealth or real service but the number of those who are interested in real service to society is negligible. We must get it right in Edo State. And it would be a good omen for 2023 general elections.
– Peterside is the immediate past DG of NIMASA