Nigeria: The Long Tortuous Journey to Electoral Reforms

2 August 2021

Chuks Okocha who has been following the attempts to reform Nigeria's electoral laws since 2007 reports on the twists, turns, wins and setbacks

In the beginning

That Nigeria's electoral system hit its lowest ebb by the 2007 general election is not in doubt. But 2007 did not just happen; it was a cumulative of all that had gone wrong with the electoral system. It was such that even the late President Umar Musa Yar'Adua admitted that the election that brought him to power left much to be desired.

Whenever Yar'Adua's candid assessment is mentioned, many people readily point in the direction of Professor Maurice Iwu and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that he superintended. Not many still remember that with the collapse of former President Olusegun Obasanjo's purported Third Term agenda, the Presidency appeared no longer keen on the 2007 election. INEC was deliberately starved of funds until very late in the day, such that the Commission had to rely on a credit arrangement with an indigenous ICT giant to get the voter registration underway.

It is also true that an administrative panel headed by Dr. Oby Ezekweilisi drew up an obnoxious List of Corrupt Politicians, mainly those the administration's perceived political opponents, most notably the then Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, which the panel disqualified from contesting the 2007 election. Atiku's disqualification nearly torpedoed the entire presidential election as it went all the way to the Supreme Court and overruled by a panel a few days to the election, which ordered the inclusion of the then Action Congress' presidential candidate on the ballot. It created for INEC the logistical challenge of reprinting and distributing millions of ballots to the 120,000 Polling Units across the country. Somehow, INEC succeeded.

Quest for Electoral Reform

While acknowledging the shortcomings of the 2007 general election in his inaugural address, former President, Musa Umar Yar'Adua pledged electoral reform.

"For the first time since we cast off the shackles of colonialism almost a half-century ago, we have at last managed an orderly transition from one elected government to another.

"We acknowledge that our elections had some shortcomings. Thankfully, we have well-established legal avenues of redress, and I urge anyone aggrieved to pursue them. I also believe that our experiences represent an opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Accordingly, I will set up a panel to examine the entire electoral process with a view to ensuring that we raise the quality and standard of our general elections, and thereby deepen our democracy" Yar'Adua said on May 29, 2007.

Yar'Adua inaugurated the 22-man Electoral Reform Committee headed by former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mohammed Uwais (rtd). Handing six Terms of Reference to the panel during its inauguration on August 28, 2007, the late Nigerian leader said: "We are charging them with the responsibility of evolving a practical roadmap to laying a solid foundation for the growth and consolidation of democracy in our country."

He particularly enjoined members to "make general and specific recommendations (including but not limited to constitutional and legislative provisions and/or amendments) to ensure a truly INEC imbued with administrative and financial autonomy."

In its report submitted in December 2008, the Justice Uwais Panel, as it is commonly known, made far-reaching recommendations including the unbundling of INEC, change in the mode of appointment of INEC Chairman, and extensive amendment of the 1999 Constitution and the Electoral Act 2006. However, apart from not taking kindly to the delays occasioned by the setting up of a three-man presidential panel to study the report, the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and the opposition were equally peeved by the eventual government White Paper, which rejected some recommendations by the Uwais Panel they considered key, such as the appointment of INEC Chairman by the National Judicial Commission (NJC).

The CSO believed the government should have sent the raw report to parliament. This formed part of the demands by the Save Nigeria Coalition protest in Abuja on March 10, 2010 during Yar'Adua's illness. But addressing the protesters, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mahmud Yayale Ahmed, assured that the Acting President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, had sent an "unedited" version of the Uwais panel report to the National Assembly as demanded.

However, both chambers denied receipt of the report, adding that the parliament was also far gone with crafting electoral reform legislative frameworks in line with their constitutional mandate.

"As I am speaking with you, the report is not sent to the House", Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Media and Public Affairs at the time, Hon. Eseme Eyiboh (PDP, Akwa Ibom State) told a national daily.

Enter the National Assembly

A Member of the 6th Senate, who did not want her name in print, told THISDAY that the Uwais Panel was set up by the executive and bits of its report to executive was read by members of the 6th National Assembly on the pages of papers like every other Nigerian.

"In any case, the 6th National Assembly was also doing its duty of lawmaking as demanded by the constitution. We couldn't have been waiting for them. I must give credit to the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Constitution Review (SCCR) at the time, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, who headed the electoral reform process at the time. I can tell you without mincing words that over 80 per cent of what we enjoy today as electoral reforms were drafted or crafted by him. Some were by the CSOs. It was an elaborate work in 2010. Nevertheless, what is not in doubt is Yar'Adua's and Dr. Goodluck Jonathan's commitment to a better electoral system and environment. Jonathan did not waste time to sign electoral reform Bills and Constitution amendments we passed in the 6th National Assembly," the source stated.

Checks by THISDAY confirmed that the 6th National Assembly under the leadership of Senator David Mark recorded extensive electoral reform in a process largely driven by his deputy and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Constitution Review (SCCR), Senator Ekweremadu. The reform efforts translated to the Electoral Act 2010 and a number of constitution amendments.

Constitutional amendment towards electoral reform in 2010 and ahead of the 2011 general election include amendment to Sections 81 and 84 of the Constitution to secure financial autonomy for INEC and amendment to Section 160 of the Constitution to accord INEC administrative independence. Section 160 (as amended) provides that in the case of INEC, its "powers to make its own rules or otherwise regulate its own procedure shall not be subject to the approval of the President," thus untying the Commission from the apron string of the presidency, as it no longer needed to clear its administrative decisions and election guidelines with it.

Others are alteration of Section 156 expunge membership of a political party as condition for appointment into INEC Board; deletion of Section 66 (1) (h) and Section 107(1)(h) to cure the abuses perpetrated with Administrative Panels in disqualifying political opponents; amendment to Section 285 and the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution to reduce the members and quorum of Election Petition Tribunals; fixing timeframes for the determination of election petitions; removal of funding of political parties from the Constitution; and amendments to give INEC more room to conduct election.

Meanwhile, key reform contained in the Electoral Act 2010 include barring of INEC from rejecting/disqualifying candidates; creation of window for direct primary; and removal of INEC officials as respondents to election petitions to give the officials freedom to conduct elections without threat of litigations; compulsory declaration of results at polling units, compulsory primary election and balloting at such primaries to elect candidates even where a candidate is supposedly a consensus candidate; substitution of candidates only on the stringent conditions of death or personal withdrawal under the candidate's signature, among many others.

In one of those embarrassing incidents, INEC had to call off midway the Imo State 2007 governorship election to manually delete Ararume's detail on ballots to replace it with those of Engr. Charles Ugwu following a very belated substitution by PDP.

But consequent upon the 2010 Electoral Act, political parties must submit the list of their candidates at least 60 days to the election.

Perennial Roadblock to Electronic Voting, Transmission of Results

However, considered as a major setback in the electoral reform effort in the 6th National Assembly was the outlawing of electronic voting in the 2010 Electoral Act. It was gathered that Ekweremadu and other progressives' effort to include it in the Act was strongly opposed. Not only was it rejected, the majority insisted on a clause to make it illegal. Consequently, Section 52 (2) of the Electoral Act 2010 provided that "The use of electronic voting machine for the time being is prohibited."

But it was gathered that through extensive lobby and explanations, electronic voting was allowed in by the 7th National Assembly preparatory to the 2015 general election. Consequently, Section 52 (2) of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2010 (as amended in 2015) provides that "Voting at an election under this Act shall be in accordance with the procedure determined by the Independent National Electoral Commission," thus givng INEC the liberty to deploy electronic voting.

The new provisions in the Act made possible the introduction or consolidation of electronic aspects of elections such as card reader, electronic voter register, among others. INEC also test-ran electronic transmission of results in the Nasarawa State bye-election, and subsequently in the Edo and Ondo 2020 governorship elections.

Meanwhile, owing to the resolve of the Senator Bukola Saraki-led 8th National Assembly to deepen the electoral process and ensure greater use of technology, that Assembly embarked on a number of constitutional cum Electoral Act amendment also led his Deputy, Ekweremadu. Principal among the reforms proposed by the Electoral Act Amendment Bill in the 8th National Assembly was the greater involvement of technology, including electronic transmission of results.

Unfortunately, the Bill was vetoed thrice by President Muhammadu Buhari. At the time it was passed a third time to address the President's further concerns, Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC), who were gunning for Aso Villa a second term, declined assent. The President based his third refusal on an extant ECOWAS Protocol, which prohibits alteration of electoral laws less than six months to an election. However, CSOs and the opposition believed the President and his party were jittery over the transparency Electoral Act amendments. Also of major concern to the party, many believe, was the rearrangement of the sequence with the Presidential Poll bringing the rear.

The opposition to the proposed amendments birthed in March 2018 the Parliamentary Support Group, a pro-Buhari group in both chambers of the National Assembly. It was led by a former governor of Nasarawa State, Senator Abdullahi Adamu in the Senate and coordinated by Hon. Abdulmumin Jibrin in the House. Other key members included Senators Ovie Omo-Agege, Abu Ibrahim, Yusuf Abubakar Yusuf, Babajide Omoworare.

Things got really ugly on April 18, 2018 when gunmen walked into the red chamber in the company of suspended Senator Omo-Agege as the Senate was about to consider the Electoral Bill. The National Assembly and nation witnessed a pandemonium. Citizens watched live on the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) as gunmen made away with the mace from an otherwise highly secured National Assembly and Three Arms Zone.

Their mission was, however, not totally successful as Senator Ekweremadu, who presided over plenary on the day declined to hurriedly adjourn the Senate, insisting on exhausting every item on the Order Paper for the day, including the contentious Electoral Bill.

"We will not be intimidated in these circumstances. We stand by our democracy. We give the Inspector-General of Police 24 hours to recover and return our mace. We have also decided to go through everything on our Order Paper today, even if it takes us till 6pm," Ekweremadu emphasised.

At the end of that Assembly, only minimal electoral reform was recorded and they were in the area of constitutional amendment, such as reduction in age qualification for elective offices, timeframe for determination of pre-election matters. To many, in order to preserve power, Buhari and APC appear not keen to add to whatever electoral reform bequeathed by the PDP.

Still a Bumpy Road for Technology

Although the President of the 9th Senate and incumbent Chairman of the National Assembly, Senator Ahmed Lawan, had raised the hope on prioritising electoral reform, the Senator and the Speaker of the House, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, analysts believe they have not kept their words, compared to David Mark and Bukola-led Assemblies.

Declaring open a public hearing by NASS Joint Committee on INEC in December 2020, Lawan assured Nigerians that the Electoral Act Repeal and Re-Enactment Bill would be passed in the first quarter of 2021. He also reassured Nigerians in his New Year message that "We are determined to pass the Electoral Reforms Bill before the second quarter of 2021".

Consequent upon this, the Joint Committee on INEC headed by Senator Kabir Gaya (APC, Kano) and Hon. Aishattu Dukku (APC, Gombe) swung into action, setting up a Joint Technical Committee comprising some experienced Members of the National Assembly, INEC, and some CSOs to dissect the Bill and come up with recommendations to the Joint NASS Committee on INEC. Both Committees undertook marathon sessions at Transcorps Hilton Abuja in January/February.

Informed sources within the Joint NASS Committee, however said efforts to scuttle electronic transmission of results began from the Committee.

"NASS leadership and the APC were never comfortable with electronic transmission of results. Even though INEC had assured the Committee that it had the capacity to do electronic transmission, it took the likes of the former Deputy Senate President (Ekweremadu) to prevent them from dropping it. The former DSP even threatened to resign from the Committee if they would not allow electronic transmission," a source, which worked with the Committee told THISDAY.

Signs that all was not well began to emerge when the National Assembly leadership practically sat on the report of the Committee and ensured it was not laid for consideration and passage in March 2021 even though it was completed in early February. Nigerians were taken aback when it emerged in June that Clause 52 (2) of the report was allegedly doctored.

Whereas the jointly approved Clause provides that "Voting at an election and transmission under this Bill shall be in accordance with the procedure determined by the Commission (INEC)," it was soon discovered that the "doctored" version outlawed electronic transmission of results. It provided instead that "Voting at an election and transmission under this Bill shall be in accordance with the procedure determined by the Commission, PROVIDED that the Commission shall not transmit results of elections by electronic means."

This sent tongues wagging with CSOs staging demonstrations around the country, including the National Assembly. Senators, especially of the opposition extraction, were to have taken on Gaya as they expressed their disappointment during an emergency meeting he called on 5th July 2021. It was gathered that Ekweremadu told the Committee leadership that in his 20 years as a Senator and presiding officer for 12 years, he had never seen where a Committee was tampered with in the name of accommodating the opinions of Senate or House leadership.

It was further gathered that some elements also suggested that electronic transmission be made subject to the approval of the National Assembly and the guarantee of safety and service availability by the National Communications Commission (NCC), but Ekweremadu told them to inform the Senate leadership that it was overtly unconstitutional to outsource INEC's powers. He advised that the Committee and NASS leadership should not touch it with along pole.

In the end, the Senate Committee settled for a redrafted clause, which provided that "Voting at an election and transmission under this Bill shall be in accordance with the procedure determined by the Commission, which may include electronic voting means where and when practicable".

With clean copies of the report printed, vetted and endorsed by Committee members, what played out at the floor of the Senate during the consideration of the report on July 15, 2021 has been variously described as a gang up against democracy by the ruling party.

The clause earlier rejected by the Committee was proposed by Senator Abdullahi Sabi (APC, Niger) to the effect that "INEC may consider electronic collation of results, provided the national network coverage is adjudged to be adequate and secured by the Nigerian Communications Commission and approved by the National Assembly."

The Minority Leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe (PDP, Abia) invoked Order 73 of the Senate Standing Rule to call for a division of the Senate. At the end of the day, Senators voted along party line with 52 voting against unfettered electronic voting, 28 voting against, while 28 senators, mostly APC Senators were absent. The pattern was along party line as even the Committee Chairman, Gaya, voted against the clause adopted in his report.

In the House of Representatives, the manner of handling of the consideration of the report by the Deputy Speaker, Idris Wase, who presided, threw the green chamber into a rowdy session, which could not be brought under control, hence the House was adjourned to Friday 16th July. Wase had ruled that the nays had it even when the ayes in favour of electronic transmission were clearly louder than the nays.

Also, even though the House resolved to invite both the INEC and NCC to brief it on the feasibility of electronic transmission of results, members were surprised that only the NCC was invited and present, leaving the electoral umpire uninvited and out of the picture. It was gathered that this was not unconnected with INEC's insistence that it could do electronic transmission.

Another stalemate also ensued on the adjourned date as Wase overruled a Point of Order by the Deputy Minority Leader, Hon. Toby Okechukwu (PDP, Enugu), to the effect that the call for division by Hon. Kingsley Chinda (PDP, Rivers) was not effected the previous day. The Minority Leader, Hon. Ndudi Elumelu (PDP, Delta) thereafter led the Caucus to stage a walkout.

Nevertheless, the House passed a version of Clause 52 (2), which provides that "Voting at an election and transmission of result under this bill shall be in accordance with the procedure determined by the commission."

Glimmer of Hope

Amid the national outcry triggered by the National Assembly, however, Ekweremadu, who was on a national assignment in Montenegro where he presented and witnessed the consummation of National Assembly's Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with International Parliament, while lashing out at those who opposed electronic transmission, nevertheless expressed hope that results of the 2023 general election would eventually be transmitted electronically.

A statement by his Media Adviser, Uche Anichukwu, said in part: "It is very unfortunate that those who rode to power on the back of the electoral reforms and conducive democratic environment engendered by PDP administrations have continued to take various caustic measures to frustrate further electoral reforms.

"Nevertheless, Ekweremadu restates his faith that results of the 2023 elections will ultimately be electronically transmitted because it is the best way to go. The issue of electronic transmission of results should not be reduced to party or sectional dichotomies. Every lawmaker is expected to vote in support of what is best for the country, irrespective of political affiliation.

"Therefore, as was the case with electronic voting, Ekweremadu is resolved to work with other patriotic and progressive lawmakers to resurrect electronic transmission of results upon the resumption of the National Assembly, starting from the point of harmonisation of the clauses passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives."

The wisdom in Ekweremadu's intervention is that if lawmakers think above self, party, and sectional interest, the least Nigerians would get during harmonisation is the House version, which still allows INEC to transmit election results electronically.

Meanwhile, well meaning Nigerians have continued to impress on the National Assembly and President Buhari to think long term national interest. Fielding questions on national television interview programme, former Minister of Aviation, Osita Chidoka, said that having failed in his promises on economy, security, and anti-corruption, Buhari should call his party men to order for him to at least be remembered for electoral reform.

Will lawmakers heed the clarion calls or will they stick to party line, which gives APC an overwhelming advantage even if all PDP lawmakers voted or along sectional line, which gives a section of Nigeria numerical advantage? If they do the right thing, will President Buhari, who confessed that the use of technology such as card reader gave him victory in 2015 and promised to further entrench the adaptation of technology in Nigerian elections sign it into law? Or will he renege, as was the case in 2018? Only time will tell. But whatever choice holds far-reaching consequences for Nigeria.

QUOTE

At the end of that Assembly, only minimal electoral reform was recorded and they were in the area of constitutional amendment, such as reduction in age qualification for elective offices, timeframe for determination of pre-election matters. To many, in order to preserve power, Buhari and APC appear not keen to add to whatever electoral reform bequeathed by the PDP

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