30 October 2008

Nigeria: Reforming the Electoral System


Lagos — The conduct of the 2007 elections had intensified the agitation for electoral reforms in Nigeria. In fact, the brazen disregard for basic rules and transparency led many Nigerians to despair whether democracy can ever work in Nigeria.

The electoral system is central to the very notion, and practice, of democracy. Where that system is flawed, but not quickly rectified, democracy itself will be imperilled.

A country's electoral system may simply be seen as a set of rules and procedures that guide the selection of the country's leaders. There are other supportive practices that help to make the administration of the rules easy, such as publicizing those rules and educating the contestants, the electors and umpires on the rules and their expected behaviour.

But the rules have to be right, which means that they have to be fair and cover most of the foreseen circumstances that might lead to flaws. They have to be followed, and they have to be enforced. And there should be severe sanctions when those rules are breached.

These would ensure the credibility of the entire electoral process and of democracy itself. Above all there has to be some basic understanding among the contestants that the rules must be followed.

In this essay, I will discuss the need to urgently embark on a comprehensive and meaningful electoral reform in order to save our democracy from election-related death.

The conduct of any contest depends on the credibility and impartiality of the umpire. An umpire that is seen, rightly or wrongly, to be taking instructions or directives from the powers that be and not acting in accordance with the statute establishing it cannot be expected to conduct free and fair elections.

Security is a critical factor in elections. It is important that elections take place in a safe, secure atmosphere, free of intimidation, coercion and illegal inducement. Therefore, the police must be specially trained to secure the election, ensure the secrecy of the ballot and prevent violence, intimidation and manipulation.

There is no doubt that money is vital for electoral contests. But it can also be a very corrupting influence. Therefore, legislation to reform our electoral system must address the issue of how money is raised, by whom and how it is used. And there should be a mechanism for monitoring and enforcing these by the INEC.

The use of government facilities and government time for fund-raising for partisan political purposes must be outlawed. These include buildings, vehicles and aircraft. It is also important to enforce rules against using government resources by those who occupy official positions or hope to occupy official positions, to induce people to contribute money for partisan political purposes.

There should also be strict limits to the amount of money parties and individual candidates should spend during elections. And we should place limits on the amount of money an individual or corporate body can contribute to candidates or parties.

Civil Society Organizations have played a significant role in the struggle for democracy, human rights, equity, transparency and electoral reform in Nigeria. I believe that they will continue to have important roles to play in electoral reform in our country. These include mobilization, voter education, acting as observers during all the stages of the electoral process, mediation and conflict resolution and support for security agencies or political groups in reducing tensions during campaigns and elections. We cannot make significant progress towards electoral reform if our citizens themselves are not educated about these and encouraged to participate actively in the electoral process.

All the laws in the world would not make a difference in our electoral practices and their credibility if there were no basic agreement among sides in the contest not to undermine the entire process. It is, therefore, important that the Electoral Commission be truly independent and its capacity to conduct impartial elections strongly enhanced. How independent the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) becomes will depend on, among other things, the source of its powers, its source of funding, the process of selecting its leaders, their term and the security of their tenures.

It also includes the degree to which its leaders and staffs are professionally trained to carry out their duties. Legislation that is intended to ensure the independence and impartiality of INEC must address these issues.

For elections to be credible, rules and procedures regarding polling, counting of votes and collation and reporting of results must be clear, transparent and fair. They must not be designed to give advantage to one of the parties in the electoral contest. It is, therefore, important that arrangements, about these be made early and that all parties endorse them.

Would we not have more transparency if there were representatives of each of the contestants at every stage of the process who have to certify what transpired was fair and truly reflected the desires of the voters? For example should the representatives of parties as well as impartial observers not be present during voting, counting and collation and tabulation of results of the polls and certify the outcome?

The rules in themselves will make little difference in our electoral system unless they are strictly enforced. It is, therefore, important to strengthen the INEC and other regulatory agencies to enable them to enforce the rules guiding elections in this country.

Rules about campaign finance, access of parties to the mass media, Security and Election Tribunals have an important role to play as well. We must ensure that all election disputes are resolved promptly, and prior to the date of assumption of office of the eventual winner. This will help to reduce the cynicism, in, and restore credibility, to our electoral system.

It may be necessary to designate certain special enforcement organs to enforce and oversee some of these rules, about conflict of interest. Could rules about access to the media, for instance, be entrusted to the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, the Nigerian Press Council or a similar agency and body? Whichever organs are chosen, they too have to be truly independent and impartial. Politicians must be compelled to play by the rules whether one is winning or losing. So, politicians themselves must be committed to electoral reform.

And our citizens have the responsibility to support democracy. We must shun efforts to undermine democracy just because we lost an election or do not like some people who occupy important positions. Also despite our best efforts there may still be occasional irregularities. While those should be addressed they should not constitute a reason to undermine the entire process. We must retrain our supporters and also try to resist provocation by opponents. But where the irregularities are so substantial as to bring into question the credibility and integrity of the entire process, the election commission should be honest enough to nullify such an election and prepare for a fresh one with adequate guarantee in place to prevent a reoccurrence of the ugly situation.

As parties we must work hard to regularly consult with one another at the national and local levels on important issues and bring forth matters that might create crisis if not addressed promptly.

Each of these areas is important. But if we really want to fundamentally reform our electoral system to make it more credible, they all have to be adequately addressed. Piecemeal, half-hearted changes will not do.

Let us not fool ourselves; we cannot continue along the current path and hope to build a strong, credible and enduring democratic order in Nigeria. If we try to do so we risk increased public cynicism and the possibility that our people will increasingly shun elections, having reached the conclusion that they make no difference. That will be bad for us as politicians and bad for Nigerian democracy. Repeated disappointments and unfulfilled promises usually create disillusionment with politicians and deep-seated cynicism among the citizens. The alienation of the citizens is not good for the growth of democracy.

As political leaders we must come to a common understanding that the rules of the game have to be transparent and fair and commit ourselves to practices that confirm to those rules. In fact it should even go beyond following the rules. We must demonstrate higher moral and ethical standards that the rules specify. We lack credibility and principles when we rig elections and manipulate or debase the electoral process to get us to power at all cost.

- Excerpts from Atiku Abubakar's upcoming book, NOT ABOUT ME: The Struggle for Democracy and the Rule of Law in Nigeria.

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