14 July 2015

Nigeria: 2019 Elections and INEC's Burden of Reforms

opinion

Mrs Amina Zakari as acting chairman of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).I imagine many are of the opinion that it is too early to start talking about Nigeria's 2019 elections, considering the dust just settled on the 2015 elections and most of the winners at different levels are still trying to settle into their various offices.

However, Nigeria's socio-political history confers such importance on the 2019 elections that a deviation from the norm of suspending debates and preparations till a year or two before is crucial to consolidating the country's democratic credentials.

Since return to democratic rule on 29th May 1999, Nigeria has held general elections in 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015, with two successful transitions at the presidential level, and different measures of change in the 36 states and the National Assembly.

By 2019, Nigeria would have had more than 30 cumulative years of civilian rule and 20 uninterrupted years of democratic rule, and no excuse will be tenable for any repeat of the teething problems associated with our electoral processes in the past. 2019 will be the year to show leadership by example especially on the African continent where many countries are still struggling with the concept and practice of democracy.

It will be time to consolidate on the baby steps taken over the last 5 elections and stop awarding imaginary Nobel Peace Prize to politicians for conceding defeat when they lose.

The successful conduct of the 2015 elections revolved mainly around the integrity and steadfastness of the immediate past INEC Chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega, and he deserves all the praise and accolades for getting the job done. But as the man himself has admitted, it could have been better.

Jega came in after the 2007 elections, often described as one of the most fraudulent in Nigeria's political history, and swiftly introduced a number of reforms, including the biometric voters' register, Permanent Voters Card and use of Card Readers for voters' accreditation. These elements went a long way in ensuring a moderately free and fair 2015 election, but also posed challenges we were clearly not equipped enough to handle.

A total of 67,422,005 people registered to vote in the 2015 elections, but less than 50% of those (31,746,490) were accredited for the March 28 presidential election. And the turnout for the gubernatorial elections held two weeks later was even lower.

Millions of Nigerians were disenfranchised due to logistical failure in the PVC distribution process, while the fear of violence at polling stations, premeditated by the heated polity leading up to the elections, kept many others at home.

The collation and announcement of the results took over 48 hours, as absence of electronic collation equipment meant figures were added manually, a painfully slow and nerve wrecking process.

Jega has since taken a hero's exit from INEC, leaving behind a foundation that needs to be built on over the next few years to ensure elections are not just freer and fairer, but also quicker, less costly and more inclusive. With governorship elections scheduled to hold in Bayelsa, Edo, Kogi and Ondo next year, Anambra in 2017, and Osun in 2018, the commission is challenged to go into sprint mode and provide answers today to questions from the future.

Some of the factors that will shape 2019 election include increased use of technology, increased relevance of social media, independent candidacy, an expansion in the population of eligible voters, diaspora voting, and higher voters' turnout due to increased political awareness. To meet these challenges INEC has to move swiftly to complete some of the reforms initiated by Jega and implement new ones.

Nigeria took huge steps towards a fully electronic electoral process in 2015 through the introduction of PVCs and use of card readers for voters' accreditation. 2019 may prove too early for e-voting due to power, literacy and broadband internet limitations, but steps should be taken to ensure as many processes involved in elections are made faster and more efficient through the use of technology.

For the 2015 presidential election, most businesses closed early for the two days it took to collate and announce results, meaning the country used the entire first 4 months of the year transiting from one government to the other. We cannot have a repeat of such error-prone and tortuous process in 2019, so adequate measures must be put in place to allow for electronic counting of votes and collation of results right from each polling booth.

The basis of democratic, competitive elections is a transparent, accurate and updated voters' register. It is therefore essential for the INEC voters' registers database to undergo constant revision, which will guarantee that requisite new entries and deletions are made and that duplications are avoided.

The permanent voters register will have to be updated and published periodically, utilising data from bodies such as FRSC, CBN and NIMC as alternative measures to guarantee that the citizens' right to vote is correctly exercised.

This requires that voters' registration continue at all INEC offices nationwide and not be done just a few months to the election. This also means continuous production and distribution of the PVC happen concurrently with the continuous voters' registration process.

Social media played a big role in ensuring the freeness and fairness of the 2015 elections. A recent report by NOI Polls asserts social media grew as source of information to Nigerians from 2% to 20% between 2007 and 2015, overtaking newspapers and nearly matching television during the period.

This was evident in the way politicians trooped to various social media platforms in the months leading up to the 2015 elections to campaign and engage with the electorate.

Social media also served as a channel for reaching INEC for situation reports from different stations across the nation. Social media will play an even more crucial role in 2019 and it is essential that this be factored into any changes to be made to the electoral act.

A conservative estimate of 17 million Nigerians live abroad, and more than 50% of them are eligible to vote but cannot due to restrictions in our electoral law. We cannot continue to disenfranchise these citizens due to our refusal to employ technology that already exists to give them an opportunity to have a say in the leadership of their country. Nigeria's embassies and consulates should serve as voters' registration centres and voting stations for the 2019 elections and Nigerians living abroad should at the very least be able to participate in the presidential and National Assembly elections.

The Electoral Offences Court should be established for swift prosecution of electoral offenders. 2019 should also see the total elimination of deployment of armed forces for elections. INEC should also be empowered to sanction media houses for airing hate speech and abusive campaigns as seen done by AIT in the last election. A further reduction of the number of political parties should be considered as well. All these point to the fact that INEC can no longer be that agency of government that disappears to reappear every four years. And with Jega leaving such big shoes behind, the next INEC Chairman should be prepared to lead the transition of that commission into the digital age.

Ms. Amina B. Zakari was recently appointed as Acting INEC Chairman by President Buhari making her the first female to occupy this position in Nigeria's history. Former President Goodluck Jonathan appointed her as an INEC Commissioner in 2011, and both appointments are endorsements of a very successful career that spans over three decades across the public and private sectors.

She supervised INEC's Political Parties Monitoring Committee, and her efforts in consolidating the nation's political party system resulted in the reduction of the number of registered parties from 63 to 28. She played a central role in the success of the 2015 elections, chairing INEC's Planning Monitoring and Strategy Committee, driving the process of re-engineering and automating the Election Management System, leading to commendable 80% distribution of election materials.

She has been alleged to have close ties to the APC administration, especially with the Governor of Kaduna State Malam Nasir Elrufai. Apparently both were classmates at the Ahmadu Bello University, which also explains her relationship with former PDP Chairman Adamu Muazu, another ABU classmate. She actually served as a Special Adviser to the PDP government of Olusegun Obasanjo before being appointed INEC Commissioner by PDP government of Goodluck Jonathan.

She is also said to be close to the Acting National Chairman of the PDP, Uche Secondus. Politicians across the board like to whip up sentiments but the populace must not be carried away by such parochial considerations. What should count more than anything else is whether one can get the job done.

Clearly hers is a career premised on competence and credibility, and her appointments are devoid of all traces of personal, political, religious and ethnic influences.

Ms Amina is a reformer, as exhibited in the roles she played in the restructuring of INEC and in her role as Secretary for Health in the FCT.

Nigeria

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