Controversial Electoral bill exposes Nigerian lawmakers

SUNDAY ABORISADE highlights the views of experts and stakeholders on the implications of two bills recently passed by the National Assembly aimed at guaranteeing free, fair and credible elections in Nigeria

Last week, the two chambers of the National Assembly passed the Electoral Act (Amendment ) Bill 2021 and the Electoral Offences Establishment Bill as part of efforts to ensure that Nigerians’ votes count during polls.

While the bill seeking to establish a commission that would be saddled with the responsibilities of prosecuting electoral offenders was passed without much ado, that of amendment to the Electoral Act generated serious controversies both in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Electoral Offences bill, among other provisions, okayed a 20-year jail term for anybody caught snatching ballot materials.

The Joint Senate and House Committee on Independent National Electoral Commission in Clause 52(3) provides for electronic  transmission of election results by INEC where and when practicable but the All Progressives Congress senators rejected it and voted for an amendment made by Senator Aliyu Abdullahi ( APC Niger North) .

Abdullahi had added a proviso that “INEC may consider electronic transmission of results provided the national network coverage is adjudged to be adequate and secure by the Nigerian Communications Commission and approved by the National Assembly.”

However, the Peoples Democratic Party Senators stuck to the recommendation of the joint panel which states that, “The Commission (INEC)  may transmit results of elections by electronic means where and when practicable.”

The voice vote adopted by the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, to determine the winner in favour of the APC, was rejected by the Senate Minority Leader , Enyinnaya Abaribe, and he called for a division after a stalemate which could not be resolved behind closed doors.

The Clerk of the Senate, Ibrahim El–Ladan, conducted the headcount and a total of 80 Senators voted; while 50 APC senators and two from the PDP voted for the amendment made by Abdullahi, 28 PDP lawmakers voted for the original provision of the clause.

The clerk said 28 senators were absent during the division and voting session.

In the House of Representatives, however, the original provision recommended by the joint panel was retained but members of the opposition PDP staged a walk-out, following an unsuccessful attempt to make it mandatory for INEC to transmit election results, electronically.

Stakeholders and experts who expressed their views on the developments, however, expressed divergent opinions.

 For instance, the Executive  Director, Yiaga Africa, Samson Itodo, kicked against the version passed by the Senate which according to him, would erode the independence of INEC.

He also said the attempt to guarantee free, fair and credible elections in Nigeria would be a mirage if such a provision was retained.

Itodo said, “it is important to underscore the fact that the bill as passed by both chambers of the National Assembly is not a law yet until the President assents his signature to the bill.

“Given all the controversies and how both the Senate and the House of Representatives voted, it is clear that there is a consensus among lawmakers from the ruling APC to maintain the status quo as it relates to results collation and transmission and not to adopt an electronic transmission of  results for subsequent elections.

“This is a testament to the fact that the beneficiaries of a jaundice, very porous, vulnerable results collation process do not want to end these level of vulnerability and compromise that has plagued results collation over the years and it is disturbing.  This is because over the years, it has encouraged election rigging and results falsification and they don’t want to introduce technology that would curb that fraud.  That is why Nigerians should resist it with their attempt to exclude INEC from electronic transmission of results.”

He further explained, “The electronic transmission of results as contemplated within our electoral process is to serve as a check on the manual process and not necessarily replace or supplant the manual process of collating election results with the electronic transmission.

“Results collation happens at different levels depending on the elections. It can happen at the ward, local, state and national levels. The decentralised stages of results collation to a large extent, also serve as a check. We need to note that the integrity of the 2023 elections is going to be hinged on how results are collated, transmitted and how declarations are made. If there is an attempt to stop or preclude INEC from transmitting results electronically, we are simply saying goodbye to election integrity in 2023.”

On the 20-year jail term prescribed for ballot box snatchers, in the new bill, Itodo said, “I don’t think it will end electoral violence. On one hand, it is not about having a legislation, it is about holding defaulters to account. Politicians are the main culprit.”

He added, “They are the ones who made the law, and they are the ones who also compromise the judiciary. At the end of the day, I doubt if it will end electoral violence. I just feel that it shouldn’t be limited to those who snatch ballot boxes, the sponsors should also be captured in the law because they are the real beneficiaries of ballot box snitching. We should look for a way to sanction conspirators, their sponsors, and not just the perpetrators of the act.”

The National General Secretary, Campaign for Democracy, Ifeanyi Odili, said the electronic transmission of results was rejected by the retrogressive members of the National Assembly while the real progressives among then embraced it.

Odili said, “The end result of the electronic transmission of results will be very productive, un-hazardous, helpful and would not be counter-productive.

“This is because it will prevent candidates heading to challenge election results in the election petition tribunal, since everybody would have been in possession of the results as they keep coming in before the official announcement.

“The staggered elections we have today in Nigeria is a consequence of election rigging and the attended legal battles. If we imbibe this culture, snatching of ballot boxes will become history. Rejecting the bill can only come from retrogressive minds.

“I want to draw an inference here that if we take a critical look at the foundation of the lawmakers who are opposed to it, it would be readily concluded that they are the ones who got elected through the back door, I mean those who subverted the wishes of the electorate to get to position.

“I have a strong feeling that any lawmaker that is opposed to it has a retrogressive mind who found his or her way to the hallowed chambers though the back door. I mean they are the real products of election fraud.”

He further pointed, “It is appalling and absurd to hear that in this computer age and the global spread of the ICT, a federal lawmaker, very popular on social media, could oppose electronic transmission of results. Such affected lawmakers should have their brains examined by medical experts. Also, asking INEC to seek approval from the Nigerian Communications Commission and the National Assembly cannot work because it will compromise the independence of INEC.

“That will strip the commission of its independence. That opinion can only come from the pit of hell.”

Odili said the establishment of a commission to try electoral offenders would curb rigging and violence during polls.

He said, “Our people are stone-hearted, very difficult to predict. However, it is good tactics to stop snatching of ballot boxes.

“With this bill, I can see that we are heading somewhere. It is abnormal and insane for any person to snatch ballot boxes because it is subversive. It takes the entire process backward.

“However, a 20-year jail term is not enough punishment for someone who subverts our collective wishes, it is treasonable, it is mutiny and should be treated as such.”

A human rights activist, who represented the Kaduna Central Senatorial District in the 8th National Assembly, Senator Shehu Sani, said there could be chaos and anarchy if the National Assembly passed the Senate version of the Electoral Act (Amendment ) Bill.

Sani said, “There are three implications of the clause passed by the Senate on the 2023 general elections.

“First, the independence of INEC has been compromised. We now have three electoral bodies-the real INEC, the NCC and the National Assembly.

“The second implication is that the ruling party with dominance in the National Assembly, would now be determining whether the results of an election conducted by the INEC should be released or not.

“The third aspect is that announcements of results can be stalled by an appointee of Mr President who is the chairman of the NCC.

“Another implication is the fact that the National Assembly is not usually functional during elections because legislative activities are usually suspended two weeks before the elections and resume two weeks after the polls.

“The National Assembly members are politicians who are members of political parties. If the ruling party is losing the election for instance, there is no way the National Assembly will allow the release of that result.

“There is a tendency that the President of the Senate could be compelled not to convene the Senate that would approve the release of the election results.

“The President can compel the Ahmad Lawan-led leadership of the Senate not to convene the Parliament.”

On the Electoral Offences Bill, Sani said, “It depends on who is going to do the arrest.”

He said, “In Kogi State, the police shielded thugs of the ruling party until there was pressure. So, it all depend on who the police want to prosecute.

“They have the sole power to make arrest. They may decide to arrest thugs of the opposition and shield those of the ruling party.

“The election offences commission is , however, a good idea but it will unfortunately be subjected to the whims and caprices of the police.”

However, a professor of Political Science at the University of Ilorin,  Gbade Ojo, has a different view.

He said the raging controversy over the decision of the Senate was unnecessary, adding that the parliament reserved the powers to make laws for any agency of government, including INEC.

Rather, Ojo asked Nigerians to mount pressure on the Federal Government to boost network coverage across the country instead of blaming the Senate for its action.

He said, “The independence nature or character of INEC does not in any way makes it a law onto itself. INEC as an independent body must still operate within the ambit of the law; it is the primary responsibility of the National Assembly to enact laws.

“It is the law made by the National Assembly that INEC must work with. Globally, electoral bodies make use of electoral laws. The electoral body is as good as the laws that guide it.

“In that wise, electoral laws are made by the National Assembly. So, the raging controversy is unnecessary.

“If the National Assembly should legislate that whatever INEC wants to do, they must seek the consent of the NCC; if it is necessary for them to do so, so be it.

“This is because INEC and the National Assembly are not the authority when it comes to information technology.

“I do not expect members of the National Assembly, as many as they are, to be making laws blindly. They have to seek experts’ opinion. That is what they did with the NCC.

“If the NCC should say that it cannot guarantee election result’s transmission in more than 50 per cent of the areas in Nigeria, then, why can we not wait until we mount pressure on the executive arm to pump money into technology?

“The Federal Ministry of Science and Technology is there doing nothing. It is unfortunate if we cannot invest money in space technology.

“Since 1960 that Nigeria got independence, the country has never been serious when it comes to research. A country with a high level of cleptocracy, serious corruption, cannot be forced to put an arrangement that would guarantee election result’s transmission in place immediately unless they will disrupt the whole process and there will be crisis.

“The card readers are not functional in virtually all polling units in rural areas without network. I am not sure three quarter of the 774 local government areas are connected to electricity in their council secretariat.

“We need to be serious with technology first before we can be talking of results transmission. Of what use would it be, if you vote at a polling unit and the results cannot be transmitted until 24 hours after?

“If we don’t get it right, hackers could infiltrate the INEC facilities and send fake results to its servers; after all people get fake bank alerts from hackers.

“Russia was accused of assisting Donald Trump in transmitting incorrect election results. If developed countries could be having such problems, how much less, a third world like Nigeria, deeply involved in corruption?

“Anybody can tamper with INEC server and mess us up. We are producing professors of Science and Technology and those of Computer but without implements for them to work with. No funding to do research. That’s the problem.”

On the electoral offences commission, Ojo said the National Assembly was unnecessarily increasing the numbers of bureaucracy by coming up with the bill.

He said, “It is a sheer waste of resources. It is the primary responsibility of the police to make arrest and charge whoever with whatever offence.

“If since 1960 till date that we have been having elections in this country, nobody is in prison over election offences; that means with the establishment of that commission, policemen with mere batons at polling units who cannot face miscreants wielding guns, would just be watching and expect members of the commission to go and make arrest and take offenders to court.

“I think the fundamental problem of those in the National Assembly is the fact that they do not carry experts along in their process of law-making.

“It is not just about public hearing, it is about the National Assembly commissioning experts to review their proposed legislation and offer informed opinions and suggestions especially on the implications of such laws.

“We don’t need another commission presently. INEC should work with the police to ensure that electoral offenders are arrested and prosecuted.

“Instead of recruiting more people to the proposed commission, more personnel should be recruited to the Nigeria Police Force and empower the NPF with equipment to work with.”

In the meantime, Nigerians would have to wait till the National Assembly resumes in September to set up a joint panel to harmonize the different positions of the Senate and House of Representatives on the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021, before knowing the final verdict on the controversial electoral bill.

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