The thorny road to electoral reform


Kayode Komolafe

The cause of electoral reform would be greatly served if the bill to amend the electoral law could be salvaged as the President has withheld his assent to it. The important thing is for the protagonists of the bill not to feel frustrated about the possibility of some reforms in the process before the elections.

This is because the content of the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021 is more than the clause stipulating that parties should choose their candidates for elections through direct primaries.

The other provisions including the one on electronic transmission of results of election are the stuff worth saving.

With the President’s action it might appear that electoral reform is jinxed under his leadership. However, the President can still prove his critics wrong by looking at the important bill beyond his unconvincing reasons for withholding his assent.

The National Assembly must learn the due lessons from the experience of 2006. A bill for the amendment of the constitution was killed on the floor of the National Assembly because of a clause that could guarantee the then incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo a third term as against the stipulated two terms in the 1999 Constitution. The National Assembly under the leadership of Senator Ken Nnamani has been justifiably celebrated for “stopping the third term agenda” of Obasanjo. But the other provisions that could enhance political reforms were also missed in the process. The amendment was not only about a third term. There were other provisions to boost the operations of multi-party democracy. Obasanjo later denied in a broadcast that he ever wanted a third term.

If the National Assembly fails to muster the required majority to veto the President, there should be a tactical second look at the contentious clause on direct primaries. This would enable the federal legislature give a greater attention to the other provisions. There is really no point getting fixated on direct primaries. The importance of each provision of the bill is not in doubt; but nothing should be exaggerated. After all, it is a measure of internal party democracy that an otherwise routine process of the mode of primaries could become a a war of attrition among politicians. The forces on both sides of the argument are actually contending for whatever is left of the souls of their respective parties which are in need of rebuilding.

To start with, the concept of direct primaries should be demystified. The existing electoral law gives the legal backing to parties to conduct direct or indirect primaries. This means that even if this bill is killed eventually, nothing stops a party (big or small) from conducting a direct primary election for those aspiring to fly its flag in any election.

So the tone of the debate is totally misplaced. For instance, how can the provision of direct primaries in the proposed legislation be an “imposition” when the existing laws expressly give the powers to the National Assembly to legislate on the process of elections including how parties conduct their affairs? Can the argument be stretched further to say that even the idea of conducting a primary (direct or indirect) in itself is an imposition? The democratic quality of the process will certainly be diminished if it is made legal for the party leaders to merely compile names of candidates for elections without inputs from party members in the choice of candidates.

In any case, direct primaries are not a new thing to the Nigerian electoral process. The Presidency celebrated the direct primary in which President Muhammadu Buhari emerged as the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2019. Some governors got their parties’ tickets by means of direct primaries. Yet, some of the governors are believed to be opposed to the bill because of the direct primary provision.

At least, an earlier attempt to amend the Electoral Act was aborted largely because of the timing. The argument then was about the propriety of amending the electoral laws almost on the eve of elections.

This probably informed the commendable steps taken by the legislature this time round to have the bill ready before the whistle is blown for the 2023 elections.

For practical purposes, as variously canvassed by pundits Buhari should be in the legacy mode by now. So it should worry those strategising for the President that his tenure will in the future be referred to as one in which the road to electoral reforms was laden with a lot of avoidable thorns. The good news is that all Buhari needs to do is to give leadership to clear the road to electoral reform of the obstacles. This is important for the development of liberal democracy. By the way, it’s worth stressing that the failure to make it statutory for parties to conduct direct primaries would not be the only hurdle to scale on the road to electoral sanity.

The Nigerian experiment with liberal democracy has proved that the credibility of elections is central to the health of the system. Yes, democracy means more than periodic elections. Yet without the element of choice inherent in credible elections, there will be a huge deficit in liberal democracy. So the debate should be conducted in such a healthy and productive manner that could deepen the democratic process.

The reform of the system for the purpose of making elections more credible could be a political legacy of a President conscious of the verdict of history.

Perhaps, it was this sense of history that made Buhari’s predecessors make some efforts at varying degrees of electoral reform with varying degrees of successes.

To the eternal credit of President Umaru Yar’Adua, he committed his administration to electoral reforms in his inaugural speech. The 2007 presidential election that produced Yar’adua was flawed in many respects. Yar’Adua never lived in denial of the faults in the system.

He established a panel headed by former Chief Justice Muhammadu Uwais. Professor Attahiru Jega, who later emerged as Chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), was a member of the distinguished Uwais committee. After 16 months of work, the committee submitted an important report which included recommendations on electoral offences tribunal, funding of election, synchronising the state electoral structures with that of INEC and strengthening the independence of the commission. Unfortunately, more than a decade later some of the important recommendations of the Uwais Panel that could help in sanitising the electoral process of the viruses of irregularities have not been implemented by successive administrations.

For instance, why is there no pressure on government to establish the electoral offences tribunal to enhance orderliness and peace at the polling booths and at other stages? The objective reality is that INEC is so overwhelmed by the multi-layered operations involved in the conduct that it lacks the capacity to diligently pursue the prosecution of electoral offenders as it is the case now.

Hence, there is the urgent need for the institution of electoral offences tribunal.

Having acknowledged that the use of card reader has eased the voting process, it would be strange if the President is opposed to the electronic transfer of results as it is being alleged. From all indications, the forces that want the bill to become law seem to be ready to soften their position on the provision for direct primaries for the clause on electronic transfer to be part of the law.

Apart from direct primaries, electronic transfer of results and other provisions in the amendment bill , there are other weight issues of the electoral process.

For a credible system to be in place, these problems have to be ultimately tackled. One is about the funding model. The President gave costs as one of the reasons for opposing direct primaries. His statement came at a time when INEC is proposing a budget of N305 billion! This is more than the realistic budgets of some states put together. It is more than the allocations to some items in the social sector. The process is already costing huge some sums of money. Now, this huge cost cannot be addressed by merely saying that “if you find democracy too expensive, try dictatorship”. For instance, in the United States elections are funded in the federalist spirit by state and federal governments. Counties and municipalities also bear some costs.

It is expected that a funding model would be developed in Nigeria in the course of political evolution. That is why the experiment with liberal democracy will be boosted when legislations target identified problems such as the one of Electoral (Amendment) Act 2021.

Above all, there is also the huge deficit in the electoral process which politicians of different hues are hardly talking about: that is the progressive decline in voter turnout in all categories of elections. It was a symptom of alienation of the people from the political process that in some elections lower than 30% of registered voters turned up at the polling centres to cast their votes.

Billions of naira are invested on elections in which a few thousands of votes are recorded. Tens of thousands of policemen and security agents are mobilised to secure a state in which fewer than a quarter of a million would vote. This trend could ultimately impair the legitimacy of the democratic process. This problem is not matter of legality; so it is not one that can be solved by another electoral amendment bill. You cannot decree the participation of people in the political process. Instead, it should be deemed a problem for political parties and the governments elected on their platforms to tackle it as part of the process of electoral reform.

Policy notes

For a foreign policy review

A WhatsApp post in circulation has raised serious issues about foreign policy in a rather sarcastic manner. The author of the message puts the matter, inter alia, like this: Turkey-Africa Summit; China-Africa Summit; Israel-Africa Summit; UAE Africa Summit; France-Africa Summit; Russia-Africa Summit; Germany-Africa Summit; UK- Africa Summit; Albania Africa Summit. Soon it will be Afghanistan-Africa Summit and Taiwan-Africa Summit…

The sarcasm should be ignored while the salient being made is pondered. Some of the real summits in which one country engages African countries as a group have been justified on the grounds of economic, strategic and diplomatic benefits accruing from the meetings.

This new foreign relations trend of one country inviting to its capital African heads of state to discuss African problems should rankle all pan-Africanists. There is hardly any other continent that practises this sort of cheapening diplomacy for whatever reasons.

Nigeria, representing about a fifth of the continent, should at least have a rethink on this country-continent relations.

The principle of self-respect should make it look awkward.

Nigeria once proclaimed foreign policy themes such as “Africa as the centrepiece ,” “economic diplomacy” and “citizen’s diplomacy.”

Nigeria once boldly took the initiative to save West Africa from imploding when world powers were not forthcoming with rescue efforts. Nigeria once promoted the idea of “concert of medium powers.” Not a few Nigerian super-optimists had expected that Nigeria should be in the group of Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) identified by Gold Sachs economist Jim O’Neil in 2001 as countries that would dominate the world economy by 2050. Alas! A decade later it was South Africa that was added to make the acronym BRICS. At a time the acronym should be BRINCS with the addition of Nigeria, the largest black nation is episodically joining other African countries in ill-defined summits from one non-African capital to the other.

Despite all its problems, Nigeria should conduct her foreign policy with some dignity of purpose.

It’s time Nigeria had another foreign policy review.


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