Nigeria has been tasked to find the perfect electoral act that would solve all our electoral woes.
By Ikemesit Effiong @judgeiyke
The ongoing rumbles over President Muhammadu Buhari’s fourth rejection of a proposed amendment of the Electoral Act 2010 as amended, and the wider question of the country’s readiness to enter its most competitive elections make this an appropriate time to reflect on the journey so far in ensuring clean, fair, competitive contests since our return to democratic rule almost two decades ago.
The colonial, post-colonial, military and the current democratic iterations of Nigeria has had a battery of electoral laws, from the introduction of the ‘Elective Principle’ in 1922 by the colonial administration superintended by Sir Hugh Clifford, the Post-Independence Electoral Acts (1961, 1962, and 1964), through the Military Electoral Decrees (1977, 1987, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998), to the post-democratic Electoral Acts of 2001 and 2002. The current law, a slightly amended version of the 2010 Law, streamlined and repealed two earlier laws – the Independent National Electoral Commission Act of 2004 and the Electoral Act No. 2, 2006.
The Electoral Act Amendment Bill, 2018, an ambitious 45-clause effort which passed the National Assembly in late November and was ultimately destined for the presidential hammer, did a few important things on streamlining knotty and vexing electoral procedural requirements. It penalised persons who knowingly fail to disclose political party membership in order to secure an appointment with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC); enshrined smart card readers and other technological devices in elections; legally required the Commission to keep an electronic copy of the National Voter’s Register as a duplicate to the paper register and gave voters the option to get a replacement Permanent Voters Card for a lost, stolen or damaged one, a convoluted process under the current legal regime.
These noble ideas were not what ultimately took the bill down. Partisan politics did. APC lawmakers say the imperfections in the bill such as a provision that accreditation of voters must be done electronically without the option of manual accreditation was the major reason why Buhari refused his assent. PDP lawmakers say this is political gimmickry and the President has prioritised his self-preservation over national concerns.
Section 25, the most vexatious of the controversial bills, flipped the sequence of electoral contests by bringing the national and state legislative races before the governorship and presidential elections. Rooted in the schism between Aso Rock and the Green Dome, this amendment was seen as an attempt by lawmakers to achieve separation of their individual mandates from an increasingly unpopular President. The Executive naturally felt betrayed by this Act and Buhari’s dissent, along with the accompanying political storm in its wake, is telling about the current state of the governing All Progressives Congress and opposition Peoples Democratic Party.
Divorcing electoral reform from its obvious political undercurrents has proved the hardest part of ‘future proofing’ our voting rituals. Legislative efforts in 2011 (granting more operational independence to the elections body) and 2015 (fears of the perils of electronic voting) were ultimately truncated for political considerations and barring a legislative veto, 2018 faces a similar fate.
For example, in the 2018 iteration, an attempt was made at raising the caps on political campaign spending, with spending by presidential and gubernatorial candidates capped at ₦5 billion and ₦1 billion respectively, while the federal legislative races were capped at ₦250 million for Senate candidates and ₦100 million for House of Representatives candidates.
Long reams of political commentary are not required to highlight the fact that politicians will not trim the fat on two decades of established profligacy in the bid to outdo themselves – INEC estimates that in 2015 alone, Nigerian political parties spent nearly N196 billion to contest various offices and with the increased polarisation of politics in the Buhari era, they will easily outdo that figure next year. Some observers make a fine point of noting that legitimate electoral costs, like advertising and round-the-country logistics, even when cursorily calculated, easily outstrip the legal proposals.
Six decades removed from Independence and two decades on from our last dalliance with military rule, the catalogue of enacted electoral laws appear to have been unsuccessful in sufficiently entrenching and deepening democratic norms in Nigeria. This is so, largely because such basic tenets of democratic governance as; popular sovereignty, rule of law, obedience to the rules, freedom of association, amongst others; have been crippled. Some say that credence to some of these norms has precipitously declined over the past three years.
The perfect law to solve all our electoral woes may yet be found, but as noted American jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote in The Common Law, “The first requirement of a sound body of law is, that it should correspond with the actual feelings and demands of the community, whether right or wrong.” It just may be that on elections, we are, indeed, the laws we currently have.
Editorial Note: This article was originally published in The Spark Magazine. Find the magazine here to read other articles.