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Long wait for free, fair, credible elections

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2023 Presidency: Using your votes to reconstruct, reshape Nigeria 
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THE year 2023 is crucial in Nigeria’s checkered electoral history. It’s the third time in the country’s experiment with democratic practice that an elected President will be handing over power to a successor in an orderly manner.

The elected government of the First Republic (1960-1966) was aborted through a bloody Military coup that snowballed into the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), and a long spell of Military regime that ended in 1999.

The Second Republic that’s supervised by the Military in 1979 lasted only four years before it’s overthrown by another Military coup in December of 1983.

That junta was to last till 1993, but the same Military rulers that foisted a quasi Military-cum-civilian contraption of a Third Republic annulłed the presidential election it’d ordered in 1993, thus further prolonging the Military rule till 1999 when the subsisting Fourth Republic was born.

By May 29, 2023, the Fourth Republic would’ve been 24 years of an unbroken civilian government since 1999. That’s the record that the incumbent administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is striving to extend by delivering a free, fair, credible, transparent and acceptable General Election in 2023.

Save the annulled 1993 Presidential Election that’s adjudged – even by global standards – as the freest, fairest and most credible, no other balloting has met the minimum threshold of credibility and acceptability.

Hence, the 1993 poll, won by businessman-turned politician, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola (MKO for short), who died in detention while fighting to reclaim his annulled mandate, is described as a “watershed” in Nigeria’s electoral history.”

Manipulation of the process has tainted past elections, particularly those conducted in 1983, 2003 and 2007, with the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua admitting corruption in the 2007 election that brought him to power.

Because of their associated malpractice, elections in Nigeria have always generated controversies, resulting in challenges in the courts – that’ve become the norm rather than the exception – through the election petitions tribunals up to the Supreme Court.

If the process of the elections is in doubt, its outcome will be doubtful, leading, most times, to rejection of poll results even if their conduct has a semblance of credibility. The bottom line is that such results do not reflect the true wishes and expectations of the people at the polls.

Owing to proven cases of manipulation, and irregularities in elections, the courts have had to intervene by making consequential judicial pronouncements of cancelling officially-declared results by the electoral umpire.

With the exception of the 2015 poll – in which incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan accepted his defeat even before the result was declared – every presidential election from 2003 to 2019 was challenged in court, especially by the first runner-up political party and its candidate.

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Although no presidential election has been upturned by the courts in Nigeria, governorship elections in several states have been overturned wholesale or partially annulled, and fresh polls ordered to cure the defects.

Due to alleged instances of malpractice at the polls since the return of democracy in 1999, the courts have removed governors in Edo, Ondo, Ekiti, Osun, Kogi, Bayelsa, Anambra and Imo states.

The consequence is the alteration in the election calendar of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), and the change in dates of the governorship elections in the states, and the periods of tenure of the governors from the regular tenures of other states as started in 1999.

The 2007 general election was proclaimed as the worst since 1999, such that the principal beneficiary of the election, the late President Yar’Adua, admitted the flaws in the polls, and promised to reform the electoral system, to chart a new course of free, fair, credible and transparent elections in the country.

Although Yar’Adua couldn’t complete the proposed reforms, as he died in 2010 after a prolonged ailment that preceded his election in 2007, his successor, President Jonathan, followed through with the reforms, leading to the amended Electoral Act 2015.

Subsequent efforts to further amend the 2015 Electoral Act for the 2019 general election were unsuccessful, as President Buhari declined to sign into law the Electoral Amendment Bill 2018 that’s passed by the 8th National Assembly (2015-2019) under Senate President Bukola Saraki.

President Buhari, in a letter to the National Assembly, explained his reasons for rejection of the amended Electoral Act, particularly as its sanctioning would impact the preparations and conduct of the 2019 elections.

Buhari stated: “Pursuant to section 58(4) of Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), I hereby convey to the House of Representatives, my decision on 6th December 2018 to decline Presidential Assent to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2018, passed by the National Assembly.

“I am declining assent to the Bill, principally, because I am concerned that passing a new electoral bill this far into the electoral process for the 2019 general elections, which commenced under the 2015 Electoral Act, could create some uncertainty about the applicable legislation to govern the process.

“Any real or apparent change to the rules this close to the election, may provide an opportunity for disruption and confusion in respect of which law governs the electoral process.”

Significantly, the rejected amended Electoral Bill 2018 contained far-reaching provisions, one of which’s the introduction of electronic transfer of election results, aimed at improving the credibility of the electoral process.

That’s why critics were unsparing of Buhari, alleging that the transfer of poll results electronically would expose the manipulative tendency of the president’s ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), to retain power in 2019.

However, Buhari, facing no other election in his eight-year tenure that ends in May 2023, has signed the Electoral Act Amendment Bill into law in 2022, after an initial request for certain amendments to be effected by the National Assembly, headed by Senate President Ahmad Lawan.

The new Electoral Act contains further innovations relating to the use of technology in the electoral process. The Act empowers the INEC to decide on the use of technology during elections.

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The innovations include the adoption of Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) and INEC Result Viewing (IReV) portal, which involves electronic transfer of election results – that can be viewed real time – on election days.

So far, INEC has experimented with the technology in the isolated governorship elections in Edo, Anambra, Ekiti and Osun states, with encouraging results acceptable to many.

President Buhari, at the signing of the amended Electoral Act, declared: “It is gratifying to note that the current Bill comes with a great deal of improvement from the previous Electoral Bill 2021.

“There are salient and praiseworthy provisions that could positively revolutionize elections in Nigeria through the introduction of new technological innovations. These innovations would guarantee the constitutional rights of citizens to vote and to do so effectively.

“The Bill would also improve and engender clarity, effectiveness and transparency of the election process, as well as reduce to the barest minimum incidences of acrimony arising from dissatisfied candidates and political parties.

“These commendable efforts are in line with our policy to bequeath posterity and landmark legal framework that paves the way for a credible and sound electoral process that we would all be proud of.

“Distinguished Senators and Honourable Members of the National Assembly, from the review, it is my perspective that the substance of the Bill is both reformative and progressive.

“I am making this bold declaration because I foresee the great potentials of the Bill. Worthy of note include the democratic efficacy of the Bill with particular reference to sections 3, 9(2), 34, 41, 47, 84(9), (10) and (11) among others.”

But being able to transmit election results electronically isn’t a guarantee for free, fair, transparent and credible elections, as the average Nigerian politician has the tendency to manipulate and subvert the system.

Fears are already being expressed about possible manipulation of the election equipment by unscrupulous INEC officials doing the bidding of corrupt politicians.

There’s a video trending on social media, claiming that the people seen in the film – reportedly INEC staff members – were imputing (uploading) PVC data into cellphones provided to them by politicians.

Nobody is certain how this could be deployed in 2023 to replace, and/or manipulate the figures transmitted to the INEC server, but if the culprits are indeed INEC’s staff, they must possess the back-end code to tweak the INEC server and change the uploaded results from the polling units.

If what happened in the mid 2022 Osun State governorship poll is any guide, the fear of electronically rigging the 2023 elections is real. The INEC allegedly had two sets of results in the Osun poll: The one declared following the close of the balloting, and another produced after about three weeks of the election, to cure the defects in the earlier declared results.

Perhaps, this is one of the grounds of the petition filed by the defeated APC and its candidate, former Governor Gboyega Oyetola, alleging over-voting in over 700 polling units in favour of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its candidate, Ademola Adeleke.

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How can INEC, entrusted with the responsibility of conducting transparent and credible elections, produce two sets of results for the same election? Which one will the voters believe?

It’s the first time Nigerians were made aware of such an electoral phenomenon. So, can the voters trust the electoral umpire to produce authentic results in future elections, especially for the make-or-mar 2023 exercise that’s projected to deepen and consolidate Nigeria’s democratic governance?

The spectre of electronically-manipulated poll results has virtually pushed to the background the incidence of physical attacks against political opponents, voters, poll workers and INEC facilities and equipment.

Killing of political leaders has been recurring since the First Republic, particularly the wanton destruction of life and property in the Western Region (South-West), which’s cited as a reason for the first Military coup in 1966.

Political killings were also rampant in the Second and Fourth Republics, but have abated in recent times, even as attacks on INEC’s offices, destruction of its documents, machines and PVCs have escalated, thereby posing a new dimension of electoral violence threatening the 2023 general election barely two and half months away.

Nonetheless, the INEC has given the assurance that the commission would reproduce the destroyed PVCs and other materials for the smooth conduct of the 2023 polls.

That said, only free, fair, credible and transparent elections can reflect the true wishes and expectations of the people, as contained in the innovations in the Electoral Act 2022. Therefore, Nigerians of whatever political leaning and persuasion should join the INEC to achieve this onerous, but laudable goal in 2023.

 

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