Sunday, January 24, 2016

The unfair treatment of SIECs

Election is very central to democracy and there are two election management bodies saddled with that Herculean responsibility in Nigeria. They are the Independent National Electoral Commission and State Independent Electoral Commission. Both were established by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended in 2010. While INEC takes care of elections into the office of the President, Senate, House of Representatives, Governor, State Houses of Assembly and the six Area Councils of the Federal Capital Territory; on the other hand, SIECs are to conduct elections into the offices of the Local Government chairman and councilors. Section 197 of the Nigerian Constitution says that each state shall establish its own State Independent Electoral Commission.

The idea behind the establishment of SIECs is to ensure that INEC is not overburdened and that in tandem with our federal structure states are empowered to take responsibilities for the conduct of elections into LGAs which are under their direct supervision. In fact, some scholars are of the opinion that Nigeria has a warped federal structure due to too much centralisation. For instance, in the United States of America, though there is a Federal Election Commission, its job is to administer and enforce federal campaign finance laws and not to conduct elections as that is essentially the responsibilities of each state. Thus, since there is a state judiciary, state tax board, state civil service, state sports council, there is nothing wrong with having a state electoral management board.

Many people have accused SIECs of conducting fraudulent elections and have therefore argued for their disbandment. Their functions, they suggested, should be taken over by INEC. What such people do not know or choose to ignore is that ‘cutting off the head is not the solution to a headache’. The challenges being faced by these electoral commissions are daunting and need to be addressed. Some of the problems of SIECs include the overbearing influence of the state chief executives, that is, the governors on the commission; inadequate funding for its activities; dearth of technical know-how on a complex and complicated exercise like election; and partisanship.

The first challenge SIECs face as highlighted above is the undue meddlesomeness in their activities by the governors. They are disbanded at will and are not properly funded to conduct elections into local government when they fall due. At present, many SIECs have had to severally postpone elections into their LGAs due to lack of funds for them to do so. As against the letter and spirit of Section 7 of the constitution which says that local government should be democratically governed, many state governors rather than funding their SIECs to conduct elections took the unconstitutional options of appointing caretaker committees and sole administrators to run them. This is a setback for democratic consolidation.  

Second, most of the SIECs are manned by versatile and accomplished persons from various fields of human endeavours. Among them are professors, justices, permanent secretaries, ambassadors, engineers, architects, etcetera. Good as these is, they lack the technical depth of election management. Arising from lack of proper funding, there is no resource made available to them to go for training in election administration courses and for those who are supported to go for these trainings, they could not practice what they have learnt as they are unable to apply such newly learnt skills to conducting their own elections. In addition, in some of the states, the SIECs are not adequately staffed. Beyond the board comprising the chairman and between five to seven commissioners which the Constitution stipulates in the Third Schedule and a handful of key staff, other personnel are on secondment from state ministries and cannot be said to be permanent staff of the commission.  Many of them are posted out immediately after the elections. This lack of permanence robs them of opportunity to garner needed experience on election administration.

The crises of confidence that have led to boycott of local government elections in many states is the allegation of partisanship against some of the board members of SIECs by the opposition political parties. This has resulted into litany of litigations. Opposition political parties accuse governors of appointing members of their parties as SIEC board members against the express provision of Section 200 (1)(a) of the Nigerian Constitution which states that they should not be members of any political parties. If this accusation is true, it will erode the trust and confidence that the actors and stakeholders in the electoral process should have in the EMB.

Now, it needs be understood that all the aforementioned challenges are not insurmountable if there is a political will to do so. In fact, INEC was in a similar quagmire until 2010 when a combination of legal and administrative reforms as well as appointment of credible electoral board members under the leadership of Prof. Attahiru Jega was made. The 2010 constitutional and electoral amendment gave INEC the much needed administrative and financial independence. INEC is now among the government institutions whose funding is a first line charge on the consolidated revenue fund. This is needful for SIECs too.

In addition, INEC at present enjoys a lot of technical support from the international donor agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development, United Kingdom Agency for International Development, Open Society Initiative for West Africa, European Union, Frederich Ebert Stiftung, United Nations Development Programme including several embassies. While a couple of these development partners have offered some technical support to few of the SIECs, majority of them do not consider the EMB important for their aid. This is a wrong assumption. Democracy begins from the grassroot and local government is the closest governance level to the people in the communities. Support to SIECs in form of capacity building for their staff, voter education, research and documentation, procurement of Information Communication Technology gadgets needed for election management, election planning  and election security will go a long way to improving the credibility of elections into the local government areas.

Finally, the onus is on state governors to let SIECs perform their statutory functions unfettered. They should ensure that SIECs under them are well resourced in terms of equipment, manpower and funding to enable them conduct local government elections as at when due. They should desist from arbitrarily dissolving SIEC boards and dictating electoral outcomes to their election managers.
Jide is the Executive Director of OJA Development Consult.