Thursday, May 5, 2011

Nigeria’s 2011 Polls in Retrospect

Opinions are diverse on the outcome of the just-concluded April 2011 general election. While the winners will score the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) high, losers are quick to point out that the election is flawed as the previous polls. Going by the view of international and local media and observers as well as the average electorate, 2011 general election is an improvement on the previous polls held in Nigeria. There is also a near unanimity that it is not yet a perfect election and that there are many areas crying out for attention. As an accredited observer who witnessed the elections in many parts of Nigeria (Lagos, Ogun, FCT, Niger and Bayelsa), I should say the election is a watershed and an epochal event in Nigeria’s political history.

For the harsh critics who see nothing good in the April polls, it is important to let them know that as a nation we have done well for ourselves, particularly given the time constraints and the very inclement political environment under which the April general election was held. The bulk of the problems observed during the elections were engineered by some politicians who resorted to desperate measures. Yes, there were a few black-legs and renegades among the INEC staff (ad hoc and permanent) and the security agents, but the subversive activities of a handful of these people should not be used to rubbish the sterling and splendid performance of majority of the election administrators.

While not making excuse for INEC on whatever imperfections were noticed during the polls, we must remember that Prof. Attahiru Jega had less than one year to prepare for the elections having been sworn in with his national commissioners on June 30, 2010. As at then, the legal framework was not in place and the uncertainty persisted until January 10, 2011 when the amended constitution was signed into law by the president. Even as we speak, majority of Nigerians have not been able to access the authentic copies of the amended 1999 Constitution as well as the Electoral Act 20110 (as amended). That in itself impacted negatively on the desired voter education and mobilisation.

It would also be recalled that INEC had to embark on fresh voter registration from January 15 – February 7, 2011. Registering 73.5 million eligible voters in three weeks is an incredible feat and INEC should be commended for that. The desperation of our dyed-in-the-wool politicians became manifest during the voter registration as they mobilised persons less than the mandatory 18 years to put their names on the register while also encouraging a lot of eligible voters to engage in multiple registration. The fact that the National Voters Register was somehow padded could be the rationale behind INEC’s introduction of accreditation before voting.

Going forward, it is time to commence preparation for the 2015 elections. First on the priority list is restructuring and reform. There is a need for INEC to start the broader restructuring of the commission to ensure that it takes advantage of the provisions of the law meant to guarantee its independence. For instance INEC by virtue of the recent constitutional and Electoral Act amendments have been granted administrative and financial autonomy. According to section 81 (3) and 84 (8) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) INEC’s funding has become a charge on the Consolidated Revenue Fund. Equally, section 160 of the Constitution has been amended to grant INEC power to make its own rules or otherwise regulate its own procedure without approval or control of the president. Moreover, board members of INEC are no longer expected to be partisan given the amendment to section 156 of the main constitution as well as section 14 of the Third Schedule of the same ground norm.

Thus, INEC needs to carry out a thorough staff audit and performance of various units and department within the commission with a view to finding out if they are achieving set objectives. The electoral commission should commence the continuous voter registration as there were many who could not register during the exercise in January. Furthermore, a forensic analysis of the National Register of Voters needs to be undertaken to weed out multiple and under-age registrants. Those who wish to transfer their voting units should also be allowed as significant number of people registered where they can without taken cognisance of proximity to where they intend to vote. INEC also needs to process the permanent voter card (PVC) and distribute it to owners.

This post-election period is the time to revisit the legal framework for election and carry out the needful amendments. For instance, it is time we initiated reform to accommodate out of country voting (OVC) for Nigerians in Diaspora and early voting for those who could not exercise their franchise because of their being on election duty during polls. It would be recalled that thousands of journalists, security agents, election observers and party agents are often not able to vote due to the nature of their engagements during elections. Nigeria’s electoral laws also need to be amended to make way for prisoners who are not on death row to vote. Moreover, voting by proxy should be allowed so that those who could not by themselves exercise their franchise can do so through anyone of their choice. I am also of the opinion that the ban on the use of electronic voting should be lifted. That option should be made available to the Nigerian electorate.

It would also be nice to revisit the Electoral Reform Committee recommendation to have the election petitions concluded before inauguration of winners at election. Moreover, the electoral commission needs to factor persons with disability into their preparation for future elections. It is equally important to take another look at the call for proportional representation, affirmative action for women in politics, provision of independent candidates, issue of one term rather than two terms in office, etc. These reforms should be concluded latest by the end of 2012 so that there will be ample time for implementation.

INEC needs to exercise diligent prosecution of perpetrators of electoral violence and frauds. This is the only way to break the culture of impunity associated with election-related crime. Good enough, the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) has offered to partner the electoral commission on this assignment.