• Friday, July 12, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

INEC wants Electoral Offences Commission bill passed

INEC wants Electoral Offences Commission bill passed

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has urged the National Assembly to speed up legislative work on the Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal Bill.

Mahmood Yakubu, INEC chairman, made the appeal in his presentation at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House in London on Tuesday.

Expressing helplessness on prosecution of electoral offences, he said: “Although the commission is empowered by the Electoral Act to prosecute electoral offences, it lacks the power and resources to make arrests and thoroughly investigate electoral offences.”

“Efforts at mitigating electoral malfeasance can only become effective with the arrest, prosecution, and sanctioning the ‘mother spiders’ to end their reign of impunity,” Yakubu said. “It is for this reason that INEC supports the establishment of the Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal imbued with the responsibility of prosecuting electoral offences as recommended in the reports of various committees set up by the Federal Government, notably the Uwais Committee (2009), the Lemu Committee (2011) and the Nnamani Committee (2017).”

Yakubu continued, “While we will continue to cooperate with the law enforcement agencies for the arrest, investigation and prosecution of electoral offenders, most of those that are arrested, tried and convicted so far are the foot soldiers rather than the sponsors of electoral violence and other violations. This will enable the commission to focus on its core mandate of organising, supervising and conducting elections and electoral activities.”

“While appreciating the considerable work already done, the Commission once again appeals to the National Assembly to expedite action on the conclusion of the legislative work on the Bill. It will be another enduring legacy of the 9th Assembly that will strengthen Nigeria’s democracy just like the passage of the Electoral Act 2022,” Yakubu added.

Furthermore, Nigeria’s chief electoral officer said the perennial insecurity in many African countries remains a source of concern to election managers, including Nigeria, which for many years, has been grappling with its own insecurity.

“In the North-East, the long-standing Boko Haram insurgency has continued, albeit with attacks now more intermittent than regular. In the North-West and the North-Central, banditry, terrorism and the herder-farmer conflicts remain major challenges,” he said. “In the South-South, the threat of renewed insurgency by groups demanding more share of petroleum revenue to the Niger Delta continues to simmer.”

“In the South-West, although an earlier surge by a group demanding independence for the region has considerably dissipated, recent violent attacks on places of worship, rise in the activities of violent cults and kidnapping groups, as well as a history of violence involving groups seeking to control markets and motor parks remain strong,” Yakubu said. “In the South-East, the lingering agitation for separatism championed by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) pose a major security threat. Not only have violent attacks by armed groups increased, the long-standing weekly lockdown of the five States in that geo-political zone, continue to disrupt social and economic activities.”

In addition to that, the INEC national chairman noted that violence makes deployment for elections difficult, particularly where some of the attacks are targeted at the electoral process and participants but the commission is working with security agencies and other stakeholders to establish mechanisms to understand, track, and mitigate security challenges.

He said unlike in 2019, the commission is adequately prepared for the election, leveraging on the provisions of the Electoral Act, 2022 which also accommodates the deployment of technology, inclusive electoral process and other innovations.

Related to the problem of insecurity, Yakubu said, is the rising attacks on INEC facilities, materials, and staff; in four years (2019–2022), the commission experienced 50 attacks on its facilities, mostly in the form of arson and vandalism.

“In these attacks, buildings, election materials and vehicles were destroyed. Sometimes, these attacks have even targeted staff. For instance, during the Continuous Voter Registration, some staff of the commission in Imo State were attacked, resulting in injuries and death. The implication of the attacks is that facilities must be rebuilt and several election materials must be replaced. Further, the commission and security agencies must have to increase the number of their personnel to these facilities”.

“However, the 2022 attacks constitute the deepest concerns for the commission. This is so not only because they are increasingly happening closer to the general election, but also because some of them seem to be coordinated. A detailed account of these attacks has been published on the commission’s website.”

Nevertheless, the INEC chairman said that “the commission is determined to continue its preparations for the general election despite these attacks. So far, all the destroyed facilities will be rebuilt, or alternatives found, and the materials lost are being replaced. We have repeatedly called for more concerted efforts to control the attacks. In December 2022, the National Assembly (House of Representatives) held a public hearing on these attacks, and we hope that authorities now have them under control since they appear to have abated”.

On campaign violence, the INEC helmsman said: “Campaign periods have traditionally seen increases in violent actions by political actors. These range from verbal attacks, hate speech, destruction of campaign materials by opponents such as billboards, to overt violence, sometimes leading to fatalities.

“We have seen some of these during the ongoing campaigns. Although the situation appears to be under control, yet the concerns still exist as we come closer to election day. The Commission believes that a peaceful electioneering campaign heralds a peaceful election. That is why we continue to engage with political actors and the security agencies to ensure that violence on the campaign trail does not snowball into major violence on election day or afterwards.

“Partly in consequence, the Commission issued specific guidelines on the Conduct of Political Rallies, Processions and Campaigns in November 2022. We are also closely monitoring and tracking compliance as we come closer to election day.

“A major contributory factor to violent campaigns is also a high degree of disinformation, misinformation and fake news. During the recent Ekiti and Osun Governorship elections held in June and July 2022 respectively, many observers noted the rise in fake news and disinformation.

“This has also been noticeable in the general election campaigns. Deeply worried about this, the Commission has been engaging with civil society organisations, media executives, oversight bodies, law enforcement agencies and owners of social media platforms to track and curtail the spread of fake news.”

While decrying the threat posed by campaign finance and vote buying, Yakubu said it is one important undermining factor of our elections to which the commission is increasingly turning its attention.

“The Nigerian Constitution gives the commission enormous responsibilities to oversight campaign fundraising and expenses of both candidates and political parties. The Electoral Act, in turn, specifies various limits to campaign spending and also empowers the Commission to set other limits.

“Experience however shows that political parties and candidates often observe these limits in the breach. Consequently, INEC is working on strengthening enforcement of these limits, including the use of a web-based application and dashboard for political parties to submit their expenditure for verification.

“Working with one of our development partners, we have developed the Political Parties Financial Reporting and Auditing System (PFRAS) for this purpose. We shall be deploying it soon and will train both our staff and political parties on its use. In the past, the reporting system had been tardy and unorganised, making it difficult to effectively oversight campaign finances.

“Vote buying or voter bribery by political parties and candidates provide a different, but related, set of challenges. It is not only illegal within the electoral legal framework, but also affects election administration. In the past, vote buying has been linked to disruption of elections at the polling units and even violent conduct.

“The practice takes several forms, one of which is the so-called “mark and show” technique in which a voter marks his/her ballot paper and shows it to the party agents present and later goes to an agreed location to collect the payment. In response to this, the Commission reorganised the Polling Units to ensure that the voting cubicle and ballot box are placed away from the party polling agents such that they are unable to see the marked ballots.

Read also: Despite INEC assurances, Nigerians still worried over postponement ‘promo’

“In reaction, the vote buyers modified their approach to “mark, snap and show”. This time around, a voter takes his/her cellphone to the voting cubicle, marks the ballot, snaps it with the camera of the phone for presentation later for payment. Again, the Commission responded by banning the use of cellphones at the voting cubicles. However, voters are allowed to take their cellphones to the Polling Units, but they are not allowed to take them to the voting cubicles while marking their ballots.”

Lamenting the challenge of electoral litigation and adjudication, he disclosed that towards the 2023 general election, the commission has been joined in 791 Court cases as at January 6, involving intra-party elections and nomination of candidates by political parties.

Yakubu said these are not cases involving elections conducted by the commission or litigations initiated by it, but purely intra-party matters involving candidates and their political parties mainly due to the absence of internal democracy within parties.

He said the commission is only a nominal party in these cases but nevertheless has to be represented by lawyers in all court proceedings.

“While the Commission has the core responsibility to conduct free, fair and credible elections based on the law, the Judiciary is responsible for the interpretation of the law and adjudication of electoral disputes.

“In the discharge our responsibilities, few public institutions in Nigeria are subjected to more litigations than INEC. In the 2019 general election, the Commission was involved in 1,689 cases, made up of 852 pre-election, 807 post-election and 30 electoral offences cases. The Commission is committed to the rule of law without which democracy cannot thrive.

“The Commission will continue to obey clear orders of Courts because of the plethora of conflicting judgements from Courts of coordinate jurisdiction on the same subject matter, particularly those involving the leadership of political parties or the nomination of candidates for elections, Yakubu stated.

Speaking further, the chief electoral officer said the February-March general election will proceed as planned despite challenges. “INEC is working collaboratively in the context of Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security and it also has the Election Violence Mitigation and Advocacy Tool, a research and diagnostic tool for predicting and mitigating election violence prior to elections,” he said.

“There is also the Election Risk Management Tool, which tracks and reports general risks to elections, adding that they “feel assured by the actions we have taken and our collaboration with the security agencies.”Another pertinent issue Yakubu addressed is the fate of displaced voters. “In 2015, an estimated 2 million voters were displaced by conflict in the North-East and North-Central part of the country. In response, the commission worked with the National Assembly to amend the Electoral Act to support voting by Internally Displaced Persons (IDP).

This entailed making additional provisions for enumeration of IDP voters and for voting in their camps.”In response to the IDP problem, the commission recently revised its Policy on IDP Voting, which it has been using since 2015, to cater for new realities of displaced populations.

Unfortunately, in some states, it is difficult to identify the IDPs because they are not in camps but rather settled among extended family members, relations and good Samaritans within safer communities where they are not registered voters.”As a result, it is very difficult for the commission to provide necessary electoral services to such IDPs. However, those in camps within Nigeria will be catered for in line with the commission’s policy.”