Lagos — The Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and the country's leading opposition political parties were yesterday sharply divided over proposals for electoral reform submitted by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to the Senate.
While opposition parties flayed the commission for failing to utilize its existing powers to safeguard the integrity of the electoral process, the PDP blasted opponents of the reforms proposed by INEC Chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega as enemies of the state.
The Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, and the Congress for Progressive Change, CPC, were joined in their opposition to the proposals for the reform of the electoral process by stakeholders in the civil rights community.
INEC had on Monday submitted its proposals on electoral reform with suggestions for the amendment of the electoral act and the constitution to increase the autonomy of the commission, to empower it to disqualify candidates in elections andprovide stiffer punishment for electoral offenders. The INEC proposal forwarded to the Senate also wants an amendment of the constitution to allow Diaspora voting.
While supporting the reforms, the PDP, however, sidestepped commenting on the demand by Jega for the electoral commission to be given the power of disqualifying candidates saying the party would behave like a dutiful player and not dabble into the "uniform of the referee."
Besides the PDP, the ACN and CPC, constitutional lawyer Prof. Itse Sagay, civil rights activist Bamidele Aturu, founder of the Odua Peoples Congress, Dr. Fredrick Fasehun, and two former members of the House of Representatives, Eseme Eyiboh and Dr. Junaid Mohammed, reacted to the proposal.
INEC should face its roles-- ACN
The ACN speaking through its National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed said:
"INEC should face its primary responsibility which is creating the necessary environment for a free and fair election. It should concern itself with the logistic problems of election, the issue of qualification or disqualification of a candidate is between these two bodies, the constitution on one hand and the courts on the other. INEC has so much to do that I think that it is evident that they don't know about the responsibilities before them that I think they want to dabble into the issue of qualification or no qualification. The constitution is very clear on who can contest election.
"The laws are there for eligibility and so long as the party conforms with the extant laws , it is not the responsibility of the INEC. INEC cannot usurp the responsibilities of the parties and the courts at the same time. They cannot even do what they are supposed to do, which is to guarantee free and fair election and they still want to dabble into qualification. What do they know about qualification?"
Alhaji Mohammed also dismissed proposals from the commission more severe sanctions for electoral cheats asking:
"Who are the electoral cheats? Are they not INEC people? Is it possible for you to commit an electoral offence without INEC, police and the security conniving?"
CPC slams INEC proposal
Faulting the proposals submitted by INEC to the Senator Ike Ekweremadu-led Senate Committee on Constitution Review, SCRC, the CPC in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Engr. Rotimi Fashakin said:
"Warts and all, does Professor Jega believe that more powers even to disqualify candidates is the immediate need for him to function as an electoral umpire? It is utterly not correct! Without mincing words, with the current arrangement, Prof Jega shall only transform into the clobber man for the President, being the appointive authority.
"What is still maintaining some modicum of sanity in our electoral system is that the power to disqualify candidates is vested in the Courts. If the truth must be said, Prof Jega has not used his position well as an unbiased umpire. For instance, how many times did the Courts overturn the candidates that Jega's INEC imposed on CPC? Succinctly put, this proposal by Jega's INEC should be jettisoned unreservedly," Fashakin said in an SMS to Vanguard last night.
Aturu, Junaid, others react
Rights activist and lawyer, Mr Bamidele Aturu also faulted the INEC move, saying the move by INEC will not takeNigeriaany where as far as election matters are concerned.
"My position is that, let us do credible elections, let us use the existing laws to jail those who rig elections. Advocating fancy punishment, such as INEC is doing, is not going to take us anyway. At the end of the day, it is how we enforce the law that matters. If we enforce all the laws that we have on election riggers, I think people will no longer rig. What is important is that let us do our elections credibly and use the existing laws to deal with those who rig elections."
Fiery social critic, Dr. Junaid Mohammed also sharply disagreed with the INEC position saying: "I believe Professor Attahiru Jega should not be given such powers. Why? Jega governs an institution whose identity is unknown and when he was nominated to take over INEC, I raised an issue that he was partisan. Jega in the past had wanted to be a Minister, a Senator, so he cannot claim not to be partisan.
"Professor Jega cannot claim to be non-partisan, he has shown that the INEC he leads is not an independent umpire, so giving him such powers would have given the ruling PDP more powers at the forthcoming elections as majority of the INEC staff are card carrying members of the PDP",Mohammed a member of the Second Republic House of Representatives said yesterday.
Speaking in the same vein, Eseme Eyiboh, also a former member of the House of Representatives asserted that INEC and its officials were essentially the cog in the wheel of the electoral process.
He argued that the commission should not be given the power to disqualify candidates.
On voting rights for Nigerians in the Diaspora, the former lawmaker said: "I don't have any problem with Nigerians in the Diaspora voting. The problem is when people at home are disenfranchised is it when you include people abroad that you will enfranchise everyone? I think it is another way to have more voters than what we have in the voters' register."
The criticisms against the proposals were pooh-poohed by the PDP which claimed that anyone opposed to severe punishment for election cheats was an enemy of the newNigeriabeing fashioned by the PDP federal administration.
Speaking through its National Publicity Secretary, Chief Olisa Metuh, the PDP said: "The PDP supports severe punishment for electoral offenders because the president has already said that one of his legacies would be democratic rights and free and fair elections. So, anybody that participates in electoral fraud, forgery or rigging of votes should be dealt with severely. The party completely supports the view of the president that we should have free and fair elections. So, anybody that talks against it is an enemy of the state and should be dealt with severely."
"In the case of autonomy of INEC we will allow the National Assembly to deal with it. We have every confidence and faith in the National Assembly as presently constituted to handle the matter."
Constitutional lawyer, Professor Itse Sagay welcomed the proposals on punishment for electoral cheats and Diaspora voting, but was, however, cautious on the INEC request for power to disqualify candidates.
"For as long as there is provision for the INEC decision on disqualification to be challenged in court, there is nothing wrong with it," Sagay said yesterday.
Founder of the OPC, Dr. Fasehun also endorsed the INEC requests for Diaspora voting and sanctioning of electoral offenders. He, however, said that a 10 year ban on electoral cheats was too light and suggested at least a 20 year ban because according to him, electoral offence is a major act of corruption.
"On the case of banning electoral offenders, 10 years is too small. They should be banned for at least 20 years. If we are serious about fighting corruption, we should go the whole hog. Infringing our electoral law is utmost corruption. Those guilty of electoral offences should be given maximum punishment."