Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Voting Rights of Nigerians

THE granting of Nigerians in Diaspora right to vote by a recent judgment of Justice Adamu Bello of Federal High Court, Abuja calls for sober reflection. Let me first congratulate Hon. Hakeem Bello, Prof. Bolaji Aluko and Mr. Uzoma Onyemaechi on their hard won victory. Hon. Bello had sometime in March 2008 invited me to observe court proceeding on the case but I couldn't make it. There is no gainsaying that the history of voting franchise has almost always been that of struggle. I recall that voting right was restricted in Nigeria initially to taxpaying adults earning 50-100 Pounds while women were also denied voting franchise for long before the adoption of universal adult suffrage which guarantees Nigerians who are 18 years and above the right to vote at elections.
Justice Bello's ruling has once again expanded the scope of voting rights in Nigeria. This is a manifestation of judicial activism which has seen Nigerian judiciary playing active role in Nigeria's electoral process. In December 2006, Justice Abimbola Ogie of Federal High Court Abuja had given a judgment in favour of some political parties who sought interpretation of Section 228 (c) of the 1999 Constitution which guarantees disbursement of fund to political parties on fair and equitable basis vis-a-vis Section 91 (2 a & b) of the Electoral Act 2006 which spelt out a sharing formula of 10% - 90% against parties who do not have any seat in the National Assembly. The learned Judge agreed with the petitioners that constitutional provisions override those of the electoral act hence grants to political parties should be shared on equitable basis. Judicial activism has also brought about the entrenchment of staggered elections in Nigeria with the Supreme Court interpretation of Section 180 of the 1999 Constitution in the Gov. Peter Obi vs. INEC case which now ensures that the term of office of a Governor or President starts to count from the date of being sworn in.
I am sure that that Nigerians in Diaspora Organization (NIDO) must have, deservedly, been savouring its legal victory. However, it is not yet uhuru for the estimated 10 million Nigerians living abroad who may be itching to vote in their adopted country henceforth. INEC under law has a right of appeal and may decide to explore it during which time the Commission may seek a stay of execution order of the court until the appeal, which may be up to the Supreme Court is determined. Even if INEC decided to abide by the Abuja court ruling, the law in its present form is a handicap. For instance, to activate the ruling of Justice Bello, Sections 77 (2) and 117 (2) of the 1999 Constitution and Section 13 of the Electoral Act 2006, among others, have to be amended.
Aside the legal hurdle is the Herculean administrative cum logistic challenge the court judgment pose. I sincerely doubt if the INEC as presently constituted has the requisite capacity to register 10 million potential voters in Diaspora. A credible voter's register is sine qua non to the success of any elections. Right now, INEC has a bloated 65 million registered voters list which needs to be cleaned up. In the last exercise which ended February 2007, there were many ghost and fictitious names on the register. Mike Tyson, the world acclaimed pugilist was said to have voted in Ondo State while Prophet Ayo Babalola who died almost five decades ago also had his name on the register. These anomalies were discovered in a Voters Registration exercise conducted in the country, it is better imagined what can happen to Voters Registration exercise conducted in Diaspora. I bet Barrack Obama, Celine Dion, Michael Schumacher, Roger Federer and Cristiano Ronaldo will all suddenly become registered voters of Nigeria. Granted that each of the political parties has a right to appoint an agent to observe both the voters registration exercise and actual elections, how many of the 54 registered political parties have the financial muscle to engage hundreds of thousands of party agents they will need to police their votes world-wide? In Nigeria where there is currently 120,000 Polling Units, none of the registered parties, save for the Peoples Democratic Party, could afford to appoint an agent to observe proceedings at all the registration or voting centres.
Again, if the political parties will not be able to have their agents' world-wide, can they trust the Nigerian Embassies and High Commission staff whom INEC might recruit as ad-hoc staff for the exercise to be unbiased? I'm asking this question against the background that Nigerian Ambassadors and High Commissioners are political appointees. They are mostly, probably with the exception of few career officers among them, appointed as compensation for their loyalty and support to the party. Hence, voters' registration exercise or elections conducted under the supervision of these politicians will likely be diluted with a huge dose of partisanship. Thus the credibility question will pop up again. Other challenges with the extension of voting rights to Nigerians abroad include the need to re-draw electoral constituencies, distribution of sensitive and non-sensitive electoral materials during elections, etc. The financial implication of all these to INEC is simply mind-boggling!
In order to make the electoral reform holistic, the time has come for Nigeria to also have provision for early or special voting as well as voting by proxy such as obtain in Ghana. Special voting will afford millions of people such as the INEC permanent and ad-hoc staff, journalists, security agents and local election observers who would be on election duty opportunity to vote. Moreover, prisoners, particularly those who are not on death row, have an inalienable right to vote at elections and this should be guaranteed. People with disability also deserved to be specially catered for at elections. In summary, the Justice Bello's ruling is a double edged sword that needs to be handled with care. Political will is of essence in its implementation.