DANIEL AYANTOYE examines the need for the speedy prosecution of electoral offenders, and a closer look at the recommendations that a separate commission should be set up for that purpose
The presidential and National Assembly elections held on February 25 was plagued by controversies and irregularities, likewise the governorship and House Assembly elections held on Saturday. There were incidences of voter suppresion, vote-buying and violence.
However, the presidential election was adjudged by several local and international observers to be poorly conducted, compared to recent elections.
This, according to many, is contrary to the promise by the Independent National Electoral Commission and security agencies to deliver a hitch-free poll.
The INEC chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, while assuring a delegation of the Commonwealth Election Observer Mission before the election, said, “We also understand the benefits of credible elections. It will not only bring peace and good governance to our country but the positive effects on our sub-region. I want to assure you that we will never let Nigeria and the international community down.”
Earlier, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), while reinstating his commitment to delivering a credible election during his independence day speech last year, said, “Having witnessed at close quarters the pains, anguish and disappointment of being a victim of an unfair electoral process, the pursuit of an electoral system and processes that guarantee election of leaders by citizens remains the guiding light as I prepare to wind down our administration.
“The signing of the Electoral Act 2022 with landmark provisions further assures us of a more transparent and inclusive electoral process.”
However, the presidential and National Assembly polls recorded the prevalence of electoral offences like vote-buying, thugs invasion, ballot box and BVAS snatching, killings, harassment of electoral officers, alleged manipulation of results and other offences that plagued previous elections.
At the moment, the Osun State governorship election held in July, 2022 is being contested at the Appeal Court over the same issue of irregularities.
In 2011, the general elections were said to be one of the best well managed, but the post-election violence that eventually greeted it was a national tragedy that reportedly claimed about 800 lives and displaced about 65,000 persons. Till date, the election was regarded as the most violent yet.
In 2015 and 2019, cases of violence were also reported, while voter inducement, an electoral offence that was still emerging, became more pronounced and is now regarded as vote-buying.
In 2022, Yakubu said 125 cases of electoral offences (2015 and 2019) were filed in various courts and had been attended to by the commission since 2015. However, he said only 60 convictions had been made since then.
“The commission would like to see more successful prosecution of offenders,” he added.
Meanwhile, for years, some analysts, civil society organisations and lawyers have advocated the need for INEC to be spared the burden of prosecuting electoral offenders.
They argued that it would allow INEC to focus on election conduct and that diligent prosecution of electoral offenders would serve as deterrence to willing perpetrators.
But for the absence of such a commission, electoral offenders sometimes walk away freely.
Speaking on the February 25 elections, the Inspector-General of Police, Usman Baba, during a meeting with strategic police managers, said the police recorded and responded to 185 major incidents, arrested 203 electoral offenders and recovered 18 firearms from political thugs nationwide, during the election.
Interestingly, the need for this commission to be established has been a subject of discourse for many years but there were no concerted efforts to bring it to reality. The National Assembly again came up with a bill, which has remained in the pipeline as this current Assembly winds down.
The bill for ‘An Act to establish the National Electoral Offences Commission and for related matters’ was eventually sponsored in 2019 by Senator Abubakar Kyari, from Borno North.
In July 2021, the Senate passed the bill and it was transmitted to the House of Representatives for concurrence, but the lower chamber has yet to pass the bill.
No doubt, the bill has robust provisions that could help sanitise the electoral process.
The bill prescribed at least 10 years’ imprisonment or at least N20m fine or both against any person who uses hate speech to stir up ethnic, religious or racial hatred, social or political insecurity or violence against anyone or group of persons during electioneering.
It also prescribed a 20-year jail term or a N40m fine against any candidate or agent who damaged or snatched ballot boxes, ballot papers or election materials; 15 years’ imprisonment for any person who influence voters; three years’ imprisonment for any employee who directly or indirectly exerts undue influence on a voter in his employment; and 20 year-jail term without option of fine for any person who propagate information that undermines the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity or unity of the federation.
The electoral offence commission bill also prescribed 10 years upon conviction for any election official who prevented any person from voting at the polling station, rejected or refused to count any ballot paper validly cast; as well as 15 years imprisonment for any judicial officer or officer of a court or tribunal who corruptly perverts electoral justice, during or after an election.
The bill which was sponsored at the House of Representatives by the Chairman, House Committee on Electoral Matters, Aishatu Duku, with seven parts and 48 sections, is aimed at taking the burden of prosecuting electoral offenders off INEC.
The bill noted that it was unrealistic for INEC to conduct free, fair and credible elections and simultaneously prosecute offenders during the same elections.
In fact, on different occasions, INEC had canvassed the establishment of the commission.
Speaking at a public hearing on the bill, organised by the House of Representatives in August, 2022, the INEC chairman stated, “The Bill for an Act to establish the National Electoral Offences Commission is a critical legislation. It has been part of all national conversations on constitutional and electoral reforms for the last 13 years.
“The Justice Mohammed Uwais Committee on electoral reforms recommended it in 2009, echoed by the Sheikh Ahmed Lemu Committee following the post-election violence of 2011 and, most recently, by the Senator Ken Nnamani Committee on Constitutional and Electoral Reform in 2017.
“Similar recommendations are contained in reports of police investigations, INEC administrative enquiries, court judgments, reports by the National Human Rights Commission as well as several accredited election observers. It is clear that the reform of our electoral process cannot be complete without effective sanctions on violators of our laws. At present, INEC is saddled with the responsibility of prosecuting electoral offenders under the Electoral Act. This has been very challenging for the Commission.”
He stressed the need for the commission to be established with the exclusive jurisdiction to try electoral offenders.
Although the Chairman of the Senate Committee on INEC, Kabiru Gaya, had promised to ensure the passage of the bill before the 2023 polls, the National Assembly has yet to see it to a logical conclusion.
Apparently troubled about the possible outcome of the poll in view of the incidents in Ekiti and Osun governorship elections, the Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission, Chief Tony Ojukwu (SAN), in December called on the House of Representatives to speed up the process and pass the bill.
He stated that the bill, if signed into law by the President, would enable INEC to concentrate on organising credible polls while the responsibility of prosecuting electoral offenders would rest on the proposed National Electoral Offences Commission.
Driven by the need to ensure peace during the elections, the National Peace Committee, chaired by the Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Matthew Kukah, drafted a peace deal, which all the 18 presidential candidates signed. However, that did not totally eliminate violence during the exercise, as people were killed during the exercise, including a pregnant woman in Rivers State.
This further emphasises the need to try offenders so as to serve as deterrence to others.
Speaking to the issue, a security expert, Nnamdi Anekwe-Chive, said if the government failed to take proactive steps in curbing the menace of electoral violence, participation in electoral processes would continue to dwindle.
Indeed, the fear of violence has been identified as one of the reasons for the apathy in the elections. Voter participation dropped from about 35 per cent in 2019 to about 27 per cent in 2023.
Anekwe-Chive called on the government to exercise the political will to arrest the menace.
He stated, “Violence is what discourages people from coming out to vote on election days. You can imagine that we have over 93 million registered voters, just about 25 million people voted.
“We discovered that politicians are the ones sponsoring violence on voters and at the end of the day, prosecuting them becomes a problem. The government should be serious with arresting and prosecuting electoral offenders because the violence we witnessed in the last elections suggests that there are no consequences for those involved in election violence.
Also speaking, a political analyst, Jackson Omenazu, accused the legislature of deliberately delaying the passage of the Electoral Offences Commission bill, saying many of them were beneficiaries of electoral offences.
He stated, “The Electoral Offences Commission as promised by the Senate hit a wall because some of the senators are part of the electoral problems. As much as they are beneficiaries of the electoral crimes going on in this country, they are reluctant to make that law.
“Some of our National Assembly members don’t have a genuine mandate to sit in that hallowed chamber, else I do not see any reason why they cannot complete the process of making that law or strengthening the judiciary to do the job.
“Most of these National Assembly members are not willing to pass the bill because most of them will be victims of that law. So what they are doing is self preservation, apart from manipulating the laws to suit themselves because they are in authority.”
He called for a sovereign national conference, with representation from all tribes, to draft a new constitution for the people.
He added, “Honestly, one is ashamed to describe Nigeria as a democratic nation. The military psychology is still with us and in the first place the 1999 constitution is tuned for the interest of the criminal elite because they are aware of the lacuna in the constitution.
“Nigeria does not have a constitution. The people have no input in that constitution and for the past 20 years, we have been calling for a sovereign national conference.”
On his part however, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and former Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association, Afam Osigwe, said the establishment of the Electoral Offences Commission would be a waste of the nation’s resources.
He said INEC, the police and other agencies should handle the responsibility of prosecuting electoral offences.
He stated, “I don’t know why a nation should have an Electoral Offences Commission, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Independent Corrupt Practices Commission. What offences are there in the Electoral Act that are so difficult for the ICPC and EFCC? How many of them have they taken to court and the issue is that they are now overwhelmed to handle these things.
“You want to create a commission for a matter that is seasonal, that comes up only every three or four years. Have we asked ourselves how much burden it will put on our budget? You will employ members of staff; build offices in all the states.
“Let’s be concerned with the financial implication of setting up such a commission especially for a country like ours that is borrowing to finance its budget; a country whose currency is on the decline and a country that does not seem to have a pleasing economic outlook.”
He blamed it on politics, saying it was more important for the National Assembly to make laws that would help resuscitate the economy and enhance the welfare and the security of the people. “How many of the offences have the police prosecuted, and people were attacked in various parts of Nigeria during the election,” he queried.
He also asked what the security agencies had done to ensure that the offences this time round were minimal. He said if the police were overwhelmed to handle such, it was better to improve their capacity, provide funds for them to recruit more persons and train them to be able to prosecute such offences.
Osigwe added, “It is an unnecessary distraction, we have enough security agencies, they should rise up to their responsibilities. We can’t keep creating commissions for everything. Very soon we will have a fuel scarcity commission to deal with fuel scarcity.
Speaking further on the impact of the politics on the polity, he stated that the judiciary was overwhelmed with political cases while other cases that would have greater impact on the nation’s economy were suffering setbacks.
He explained. “We keep amending the constitution to enable political cases to go fast at the detriment of people that will grow the economy. Now, other cases are not moving in our courts. The Federal High Court, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court are overwhelmed with a high number of appeals emanating from the political class.
“The economy is bad, we need laws that will make people come here to do business and make people have interest in investing in our economy. We need laws that will improve the administration of justice, help our court system to work better and laws that will make law enforcement agencies work better. Not that anytime we amend the constitution it’s about politics, yet the people are misleading the country. We can see the money being invested in all these political gymnastics.”
Meanwhile, the Lagos State police command has arraigned the electoral offenders arrested during the February 25 elections, saying the matter had been handed over to INEC.
Speaking on the issue, the Force Public Relations Officer, Olumuyiwa Adejobi, in an interview with our correspondent, stated that it was the duty of the police to investigate electoral offences while INEC would do the prosecution.
He said, “INEC prosecutes, while we investigate. So, if you want to know about the prosecution of suspects, contact INEC.”
Efforts to get the INEC National Commissioner and Chairman of its Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye, were not successful as calls to his mobile phone were not answered, while the messages sent to him were not replied.
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