SAMSON BENJAMIN in this report wonders whether or not the establishment of an Electoral Offences Commission to prosecute election offenders as proposed by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs)would reduce cases of violence in Nigeria’s electoral process.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) last week urged the National Assembly to expedite legislation on the proposed Electoral Offences Commission.
The chairman of INEC, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, who stated this while addressing journalists in Akure, during a three-day visit to Ondo state in preparation for the October 10, 2020 governorship election, lamented the poor prosecution of electoral crimes, saying there is a legal framework to resolve issues.
Yakubu, who gave the assurance that the proposed amendment of the electoral legal framework would proffer lasting solution to the menace through a new legislation by the National Assembly, expressed the commission’s readiness to conduct a credible, free and fair election in the state, adding that all the smart card readers burnt in Akure recently had been replaced from Oyo state.
He, however, declared that any incidence of violence is worrisome to the Commission, saying that the National Peace Committee would be in the state by first week of October to commit all the parties and candidates to sign a peace accord.
The INEC boss, who solicited the support of media professionals on civic education, sensitisation and adherence to Covid-19 guidelines, pledged to surpass the successes recorded recently in Edo state.
The bill, titled, “Electoral Offences Commission (Establishment) Bill” which has passed second reading at the Senate was sponsored by Borno senator, Abubakar Kyari. It proposes deterrence and sanctions for anti-democratic acts in the electoral environment.
Speaking in favour of the bill during plenary, he said the bill would increase transparency and credibility of the electoral process, and the reduction of electoral banditry.
“Electoral crimes help electoral riggers and offenders take control of government against the democratic will of their electorate and gives birth to electoral apathy and national insecurity,” he said.
CSOs back bill
Likewise, the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, a coalition of civil societies working in support of credible and transparent elections in Nigeria, has called on the National Assembly to ensure the passage of the Electoral Offences Commission Bill.
Speaking with this reporter, the alternate chair of the group, Barrister Esther Uzoma, said the bill when passed would ensure more effective enforcement of election laws.
She commended INEC for conducting a much improved governorship election in Edo state and urged the Commission to ensure that the progress made with improvements in its conduct of the election were deepened and sustained during the Ondo state governorship election on October 10, 2020.
She said, “The administration of the Edo state governorship election appears to have been a marked improvement on recent previous governorship elections.
“INEC’s processes appeared to operate smoothly. The logistics issues of distribution of materials, deployment of staff and challenges in the Voters’ Register were significantly reduced. In addition, security personnel acted professionally.”
However, a civil rights organisation, Kimpact Development Initiative (KDI), has said over 1,542 suspects arrested for aiding violence and attempting to disrupt the 2019 general elections have been released.
The election monitoring group said that such acts were capable of institutionalising violence and disenfranchising genuine voters in future elections if they knew they would not be penalised.
KDI raised the alarm in Abuja during an interactive session with journalists on the post-election report of Edo state governorship election.
The group’s executive director, Bukola Idowu said, “The truth of the matter is that 1,542 persons who were arrested for electoral violence in the 2019 general elections have been released one way or the other.
“Up till today, we are still waiting for them to be prosecuted, but nobody knows their whereabouts. We have protested over this many times, but nobody is listening to us anymore.”
However, Barrister Joe Ogbe, a legal practitioner who has monitored elections for many years, speaking with Blueprint Weekend via WhatSapp said INEC does not have the manpower to prosecute election offenders in Nigeria.
He said, “Sections 149 and 150 (2) of the Electoral Act, 2010 as amended respectively vests the INEC with the discretion and powers to prosecute electoral offenders.
“Section 149 states that the Commission shall consider any recommendation made to it by the tribunal with respect to the prosecution by it of any persons for an offence disclosed in any petition. While Section 150(2) says the prosecution under this Act shall be undertaken by legal officers of the commission or any legal practitioner appointed by it.
“By the provisions of the sections 149 of the Electoral Act, 2010 as amended, INEC is not clearly enabled to prosecute offenders unless otherwise determined by a tribunal.
Ogbe said with less than 100 legal officers, and other operational deficiencies, INEC clearly does not have the capacity to prosecute electoral offences committed across Nigeria’s 119,973 polling units, 809 wards, 360 federal constituencies, 109 senatorial districts and 774 local government areas.
“By the foregoing statistics, it is unrealistic to expect INEC to conduct free, fair and credible elections and simultaneously prosecute offences arising from the same elections. INEC has itself admitted that it lacks the wherewithal to prosecute even one per cent of 870,000 alleged electoral offences in the 2011 general elections. It is an affirmation of the necessity of a paradigm shift on how we deal with electoral offences.
“It is widely agreed that this duty is an undue burden on INEC. It distracts INEC from its core constitutional mandate of conducting elections and the answer is in the establishment of a commission charged with this important duty. The electoral offences commission should cooperate closely with security agencies to prosecute persons committing such offences.”
Similarly, INEC has admitted that it has challenges prosecuting electoral offenders. INEC chairman Mahmood Yakubu listed the challenges in his remark at the commission regular meeting with Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) recently in Abuja.
Yakubu said while INEC was at the moment saddled with the responsibility of prosecuting electoral offenders, it had no capacity to arrest offenders and conduct investigation “without which successful prosecution is impossible.”
He said, “Over the years, we have worked closely with the Nigeria Police. Since 2015, we have received a total of 149 case files, including 16 cases arising from the 2019 general elections. The cases are prosecuted in the states where the alleged offences were committed.
“Unlike pre-election and post-election cases, there is no timeframe for the prosecution of electoral offenders. A case may go on for several years. Some of the cases were dismissed for want of diligent prosecution while in some states; the attorneys-general entered nolle prosequi to get the alleged offenders off the hook.
“Even where the commission recorded the most successful prosecution of electoral offenders following the violence witnessed in a bye-election in Kano state in 2016, it is unclear how many of the 40 offenders sentenced to prison with the option of fine actually spent time in jail.
“The fine was paid presumably by their sponsors. That is why we believe that the Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal will dispense justice dispassionately and speedily in the same way that the Electoral Court deals with violators in other countries such as South Africa.”
He expressed the hope that the security agencies would get to the roots of all violations and support the commission to prosecute electoral offenders who terrorise voters and INEC officials, and their sponsors as well.
Also, the executive director of Pacesetters, Mr. Jonathan Obatola, decried the inability of the police to prosecute electoral offenders, attributing it to various degrees of electoral crimes in the country. Obatola, at an advocacy visit to the Ondo state Police Command Headquarters in Akure for a “vote not fight” campaign, recently, attributed the rising profile of electoral crimes to the lacuna in the Electoral Act. He lamented that the increasing rate at which electoral offenders go scot-free encourages people, especially the youth.
Meanwhile, the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room on Monday said passage of the Electoral Offences Commission bill will curb vote buying in elections.
Mr. Clement Nwankwo, the convener of the coalition of civil society organisations, made the call at a news conference on the just-concluded Edo state governorship election. Nwankwo said the call became imperative to check the menace of vote trading, which include buying and selling, in Nigeria’s elections.
“Politicians are increasingly investing monies to buy votes, with voters appearing to be willing to sell their votes. In Edo election, this practice was widespread with all the major political parties engaging in this infringement.
“The incidence of vote buying during this election was high, Situation Room calls for a more effective enforcement of election laws that prohibit vote buying and other election offences. Situation Room calls on National Assembly to move quickly and urgently proceed with legislative action to ensure the passage of the Electoral Offences Commission Bill that creates a body to enforce respect for election laws.”
In hits contribution, an independent civil society election observation body, Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) called for the creation of mobile courts to prosecute electoral offenders in the country. TMG’s chairperson, Dr. Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, made the call at a press conference in Benin City, the Edo state capital.
Addressing journalists barely 24 hours to the keenly anticipated governorship election in the state, she explained that such courts would help reduce the incidents of violence, vote-buying, and other forms of electoral malpractices.
“TMG calls for the establishment of Electoral Offences Mobile Courts to deal with electoral offenders with dispatch before and on the day of the election as a way out to lessen violence on the day of the election.
“TMG will work to make a necessary intervention in this regard,” she said.
She outlined the pockets of challenges – operationally and logistically – which she said have constrained the efforts of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in dealing with obstacles to the integrity of the electoral process in the past.