Thursday, June 9, 2011

SIECs and the Consolidation of Nigeria’s Democracy

The April general elections are over and encomiums have not ceased to come the way of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) ably led by the indefatigable Professor Attahiru Jega. The European Union Observation Mission (EU EOM) presented its final report on the April polls on Tuesday, 31 May 2011. In the opinion of the Mission: “The legal framework, the general performance of the Independence National Electoral Commission INEC and of other stakeholders provided for the 2011 General Elections an overall democratic foundation for further democratic development in accordance with international principles and with international instruments ratified by the Federal Republic of Nigeria”. This positive remark by Alojz Peterle, the Chief Observer of the EU EOM is heart-warming considering the fact that in 2007 the EU Observer Mission had said that the polls were so flawed that it was below regional and international standard. With the democratic foundation already laid by INEC, will the State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs) be able to build on this groundwork to consolidate Nigeria’s democracy? This question is apt considering that the 1999 Constitution (as amended) has placed the responsibility for Local Government elections with SIECs.

SIEC was birthed by section 197 (1) (b). However, controversy has been trailing not only the performance of this Commission but also members of its Board. For instance, accusation of partisanship has been severally levelled against members of the Commission. This allegation is genuine considering that section 200 (1) (a) of the 1999 Constitution which prescribed qualification for membership of SIECs Board equated their qualification to that of an aspirant to the State House of Assembly which in section 106 (d) says such candidate must be a member of a political party and be sponsored by that party. That was the situation before the recent amendment of the 1999 Constitution. The inelegant drafting has been corrected as the amendment to the aforesaid section 200 (1) (a) has now been made to reflect that “in the case of the State Independent Electoral Commission, he shall not be a member of a political party”. This should ordinarily lay to rest the allegation of partisanship, perhaps when new boards of SIECs are constituted by the State Governors.

Just as it happened after the 2007 General Elections, many of the State Independent Electoral Commissions have started arranging to hold council polls. In fact, Rivers State SIEC had conducted elections into the State’s 21 local government areas on Saturday, 21 May 2011. News has it that Edo State SIEC will conduct council elections in August. With the flurry of elections coming, will SIECs learn from the success story of INEC and conduct free, fair and credible council polls? Will SIECs chairmen acquit themselves creditably like INEC chairman just did in April 2011? Will the donor community, the civil society organisations, the media, the political parties, the Governors and the State House of Assemblies give support, goodwill and the needful assistance to these managers of council elections just like they did to INEC? Council elections, to my own mind, are much more important than State and Federal elections. The reason being that Local Government is the closest to the people in the communities. It is the people’s first contact with governance. Unfortunately, most of those who have been managing these 774 LGAs in Nigeria belong to the ‘locust generation’. What they do is to plunder the resources of the Councils with scant regards for the welfare of the people at the grassroots.

The governors’ must share in the blame for the non-performance of the council officials. They have been accused of illegal deductions in the federal allocations meant for the LGAs. There is also the problem of illegal dissolution of Councils and appointment of sole administrators or caretaker committees which are unrecognised by the Constitution. Section 7 (1) says: “The system of local government by democratically elected local government councils is under this Constitution guaranteed...” The latest violator of the rule of law are legislators in the Oyo State House of Assembly whose faction (13 out of 32 members) on Thursday, 2 June 2011 announced the dissolution of the Caretaker Committees of the 33 LGAs in the State as well as that of the Oyo State Independent Electoral Commission (OYSIEC). Rather than calling for early election into the Councils, the Oyo lawmakers directed the new Governor, Abiola Ajimobi to constitute a seven-member caretaker committees for each of the councils with each of the committee having at least two women.

It is imperative that if democracy will be consolidated in Nigeria, the State Independent Electoral Commission must be truly autonomous. Arbitrary dissolution of the Commission must stop. Undue influence of the Governor and indeed State Government in the operations of SIECs and conduct of council elections must cease. Governors must live up to their promise made to late President Umaru Yar’Adua and the Council of State in March 2009. In order to save SIECs from being abolished, Governors had promised to reform State electoral commissions in line with the transformation of INEC. Thus, governors must now initiate bill(s) to their respective State House of Assemblies that will guarantee the tenure of Chairmen and Commissioners of SIECs as well as adequate funding of the electoral commission. Aside legal reform, SIECs must be adequately staffed, equipped, trained and motivated to perform their assigned constitutional responsibility in a professional manner.

It will however be naive and foolhardy to think that only SIECs can guarantee credible elections at the council level. Political Parties have big role to play. They are the ones that will field contestants at the council polls. They must strictly comply with the Code of Conduct for political parties, embrace internal democracy in the nomination of their candidates, eschew violent campaigns as well as forswear sharp practices during the polls. The electorates too must actively participate in the electioneering process. Now that votes have started to count, they must follow the campaigns keenly and make wise choice at the council polls. Even if the candidates offer them inducements, they must vote according to the dictates of their conscience. Nigerian media must also beam their searchlights on the activities of each of the 36 SIECs in a similar fashion as they did on INEC. Credible council polls are sine-qua-non to deepening of democracy and good governance.