The centrality of free, fair and credible election to good governance and democratic stability is, without doubt, a well-known phenomenon in contemporary political systems. Hence, there is often the continuous drive towards improving the efficiency of the electoral system through reforms that seek to safeguard the electoral process from irregularities and malpractices, which tends to undermine democracy as a government of the people. In the case of Nigeria, electoral reform has been an integral catalyst to the democratization process since the country’s return to civilian rule in 1999, which marked the beginning of the fourth republic. This has been achieved through various amendments to the 1999 constitution and the electoral act, both of which provide the legal framework that guides the conduct of elections in Nigeria.
Historically, the events that followed the controversial and largely contested 2007 general election marked a defining moment in Nigeria’s electoral system reform. Recognizing the various inadequacies of the election and the need to democratize the electoral process, the then President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua set up the National Electoral Reform Committee (NERC) otherwise known as the Uwais Commission, which was charged with providing recommendations for electoral reform to strengthen the electoral process. Interestingly, the 83 recommendations from the commission, which was submitted in December 2008, continues to form the basis of electoral reform in present-day Nigeria, as successive governments have been reluctant in ratifying several provisions contained in the commission’s report.
The major argument here is that fundamental changes to electoral laws in Nigeria are less likely to occur unless they are beneficial to the political actors in charge of changing the rules or at the very least do not contradict existing structures that unduly favour the political actors. A crucial example can be cited from the case of President Yar’Adua, who despite his commitment to electoral reform as exemplified in constituting the Uwais Commission, explicitly rejected the recommendation of the commission that sought to safeguard the independence of INEC by eradicating the powers of the president to appoint INEC’s Chairman. Furthermore, the failure of President Muhammadu Buhari to assent the 2018 Electoral Act Amendment Bill was heavily criticized as a strategy adopted by the president to avoid conditions of uncertainty that implementing the bill would have created, which could work against the president’s re-election bid in the then-forthcoming 2019 general elections. A similar scenario was at play at the floor of the senate when the Red Chamber decided to pass the new electoral amendment bill, which arguably takes Nigeria’s electoral governance backwards by several decades.
Without a doubt, the passage of the 2021 Electoral Amendment Bill by the Senate and the House of Representatives on July 15, 2021, and July 16, 2021, respectively with conflicting provisions, particularly regarding the controversial Clause 52 (2), which addresses issues of electronic transmission of result have generated contentious debate in the public space. The amendment bill as passed by the senate subjected the electronic transmission of electoral results by INEC to approval from the Nigerian Communications Commission NCC (an agency of the executive) and the National assembly. Hereby, abrogating INEC’s independence as guaranteed by the 1999 constitution.
It is ridiculously puzzling that the Nigerian senate seems to effortlessly tolerate electronic voting, while at the same time giving conditional approval to electronic transmission of results. The easy conclusion from this is that the senators are fretful of the openness that e-transmission of results will introduce into our electoral system, thereby prohibiting the system of malpractice from which many of them have benefited immensely. However, before jumping to a conclusion, it is imperative to consider the visibility of electronic transmission of results, which the senate has camouflaged as the basis for its venal decision. In doing this, my point of departure is the crucial point made by NCC officials while at the floor of the Green Chamber that 100% data security cannot be guaranteed. Undoubtedly, no system is completely safe from hacking and glitches are always a possibility. This has been the case even in developed countries like the US, where e-voting has generated some controversies. However, it does not give enough justification to disregard the process as even manual transmission of results has proved to be problematic in the past.
In addition, as evident in NCC’s analysis of internet coverage in Nigeria, 50.3% of the country has access to 2G and 3G networks and are therefore fit for e-transmission of results. Hence, as pointed out by former INEC chairman, Attahiru Jega, in his interview with Channels TV, Nigeria can adopt a gradual process of e-transmission in which urban areas with good connectivity pilot the process and over time, other remote regions of the country get to adopt this model. Offline transmission is another viable approach that can be adopted in regions with little or no connectivity. Furthermore, the digitalization of the electoral process in areas such as voter registration, compilation of voter’s register and accreditation of voters, which are all done electronically, have over time allowed for significant improvement in the effectiveness of the electoral system. Therefore, preventing a further integration of the inherent potentials of the digital space in electoral governance can be interpreted as a disservice to Nigeria’s drive towards democratic development.
Beyond electronic transmission of results, another provision in the recently passed electoral amendment bid that is equally injurious to Nigeria’s budding democracy is the wanton increase in the limit on election expenses. For example, the expense limit for a presidential aspirant was increased from 1 billion to 15 billion naira, an increase of about 1500%. Citing issues of inflation, as the basis for the increase, the senate’s ill-advised decision could as well be leading Nigeria towards plutocracy, a system in which money defines who rules. It is important to keep in mind that electoral politics in Nigeria is a vicious game, in which the winner takes all and the loser gains nothing. Hence, by encouraging politicians to spend more during an election, the senate may have given an implicit endorsement to corruption and spoil politics. Perhaps, what should have been a major concern to the senate is how to enforce already existing laws on electoral spending.
Furthermore, as contained in the amendment bill, INEC no longer has the power to reject results declared under duress by the presiding electoral officer and the commission is also no longer compelled to assist physically challenged people to vote. From all of these, it appears that the Nigerian senate has lost its bearing and is no longer concerned with serving the interest of the people. Perhaps the red chamber is covertly pushing the 2023 agenda of some ‘behind the scene’ godfathers, or the chamber is just arbitrarily self-serving, time will soon tell.
In conclusion, if all of these preposterous electoral rules are signed to law by the president, then the credibility of the forthcoming 2023 general elections may have already been compromised. The journey to democracy in Nigeria, however inadequate, has been a long and laborious one, hence, it is imperative to defend and protect electoral governance and democracy at all cost.