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Wednesday, 29 November 2023 09:17

[OPINION] Urgent need to reform Nigeria’s politics and elections - Jide Ojo

Nigeria conducted her seventh general elections in this Fourth Republic and three off-cycle governorship elections in 2023. As the year winds down, there is a lot of doubt in the minds of Nigerians whether our politics and elections are developmental and at par with international best practices. More than ever before, the Independent National Electoral Commission received a lot of bashing, especially from netizens. Some of the youths of Nigeria who voted for the first time in 2023 were largely disappointed and believed the narrative of the opposition political class that this year’s elections were the worst polls ever conducted in the annals of this country. I don’t subscribe to that extremist view. However, there is no gainsaying the fact that it is imperative to have electoral reforms.

As I write this, both the Senate and House of Representatives committees on electoral matters have had retreats and started conversations on the kind of reforms that need to happen ahead of the next general election. I fully endorse plans to reform our electoral process but these reforms must start from the political class. Our politics needs to be overhauled, not just elections. For the avoidance of doubt, INEC alone cannot deliver credible elections except other stakeholders agree to play by the rule. Other critical stakeholders to successful elections include the political parties and contestants, the legislature (National Assembly – both the Senate and House of Representatives); the security agencies; the electorate; the media; the civil society; the judiciary and international development partners.

Ahead of 2027, each of the 19 registered political parties must do an internal assessment of their role and performance in the 2023 elections. There is no gainsaying that there is the need for internal party democracy. Many political parties fell short on this count. The fact that many of them conducted bad elective congresses and conventions as well as party primaries that can best be described in negative adjectives were largely responsible for over a thousand pre-election matters that were filled in many of our Federal High Courts. According to section 82 of the Electoral Act 2022, political parties are mandated to give a minimum of 21 days’ notice to INEC to observe their congresses, conventions, conferences, mergers, and meetings. The operative word here is to come and observe, not to undertake or play any other role at such events. If politicians are a better version of INEC, why are there so much confusion and litigations arising from their intra-party elections?

I make bold to say that the outrageous Expression of Interest and Nomination Fees charged by dominant political parties such as the All Progressives Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party during their candidate nomination process created a lot of problems for the last elections. Imagine the scenario where billions of naira are already spent by aspirants to clinch the tickets of their political parties. This is because after paying millions for official EoI and nomination forms, many of the presidential aspirants crisscrossed the country to campaign to their party leaders and delegates. This caused them a lot of resources. The real vote-buying took place on the eve of the party primaries when wealthy aspirants warehoused delegates at different hotels and financially induced them with mouth-watering sums of money both in local and foreign currencies. Some of the delegates who participated in the candidate nomination process of the 2023 general elections became instant millionaires as several aspirants in their parties reached out to them in order to financially induce them to vote one way or the other.

 
 

While the monetisation of the candidate nomination process was being reported in the media, the party leadership played the ostrich with their heads “buried to the ground.” They neither investigated nor condemned the bazaar that they conducted as party primaries. Of course, many of the party leaders got their own fair share of whatever largess the aspirants were distributing. In fact, the various committees set up by the political parties to conduct elective congresses and conventions always end the exercise, smiling to their banks as the aspirants reached out to them in “hard and soft” currencies in order to influence their decisions.  The monetisation of the candidate nomination process is why the phenomenon of ‘imposition of candidates’ gained traction ahead of the 2023 elections. Political party gatekeepers simply ignored their electoral guidelines and gave party tickets to their anointed candidates, preferably, the highest bidder.

Another reprehensible thing party gatekeepers and administrators did ahead of this year’s election was the abuse of party waivers. In some of the party constitutions, you must have been a member of their party for between six months and one year before you can contest an election and be given a ticket to be the standard bearer at general elections. However, there is a caveat that the National Executive Committee or the National Working Committee can give a waiver to allow someone who just joined the party to contest on the platform of the party. Thus, ahead of the 2023 elections, we saw instances whereby a person joins a party today and, in two weeks, has been elected as the standard bearer of his or her new party. Even these persons may have contested and lost in another party before coming to them. An interesting scenario was that of former Deputy Governor of Ondo State, Agboola Ajayi, who left the APC to join the PDP ahead of the last governorship election in the “Sunshine State.” After losing at the party primary to Eyitayo Jegede (SAN), he left the PDP again to join and become the governorship candidate of the Zenith Labour Party in that election; all of these in a space of six weeks or thereabouts.

The truth is that our political parties suffer from the lack of transparency and accountability. They are supposed to submit their annual statement to INEC, latest by the end of March of every year. They are also supposed to submit election-contributors report three months after the elections, and election-expenses report six months after the polls. A simple check at INEC will show non-compliance with these legal requirements by many of the registered political parties: both past and present. Intra-party and inter-party conflicts dominate Nigeria’s political scene. Many of the political parties operating in Nigeria today are factionalised either at the national or sub-national level. This is largely due to issues around the management of the political party finance and other resources. The incumbent Minister of the Federal Capital Territory openly called the immediate-past National Chairman of the PDP unprintable names for purportedly mismanaging the billions of naira realised from sales of nomination forms and collection of bribes. Even though the chairman debunked the allegations, he did not press charges against his accuser. In any event, the leadership of both the PDP and APC has had to be pressurised to leave over numerous allegations bordering on the abuse of their respective political offices after the 2023 polls.

All the aforementioned showed that Nigeria needs political reforms, not just electoral reform. In terms of areas of electoral reforms, I have said time and again the need for the following: Electoral Offences Commission that will be well resourced. The commission should have the power to make arrests, investigate and prosecute electoral offenders. There is a need for the provision for early voting that will ensure that millions of potential voters (accredited observers, journalists, security agents and poll officials) who are not able to exercise their franchise due to their election day duties can vote ahead of the general election. This is operational in many African countries like Ghana, Kenya and the like. It is also high time we allowed prisoners to vote as Kenya currently gives the opportunity to its prisoners who are registered to vote. This happened in the August 2022 general elections in that country.

Furthermore, I am of the considered view that Nigeria is mature for out-of-country voting in 2027 if the framework can be put in place well ahead of that time. Niger Republic, South Africa and Kenya are some of the countries already doing it. In the 2022 Kenyan elections, nationals of that country in 12 other adjourning countries and in Germany, Canada, the United States, and Britain were allowed to vote in the presidential election. Why is INEC having two strands of elections? All the five elections currently being held over two Saturdays could be held in one day! Kenya in 2022 held six elections simultaneously. Why can’t INEC hold presidential, governorship, senatorial, House of Representatives and state Houses of Assembly polls in one day?  It will save a lot of resources. I should also say that the lockdown of the country during polls is needless and does not in any way safeguard the security of the poll. It should be discarded. INEC should think of extending voting hours to a minimum of eight hours from the current six.

Sincerely speaking, if we do all the aforementioned and we fail to change our attitude to elections, nothing better will come during future polls. All stakeholders must agree to play by the rules of the game and not resort to self-help. Above all, where there are infractions and deliberate acts of sabotage of the electoral process, there must be severe punishment to serve as deterrence. That’s the only way the culture of impunity will be broken.

X: @jideojong

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