The conduct and outcome of the November 11 off-cycle governorship elections in Bayelsa, Imo and Kogi states have again called into question the neutrality of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the impartiality of our law enforcement agencies.
Local and international observers like YIAGA Africa and Connected Development (CODE) have raised concerns over instances of deliberate electoral malfeasance such as massive vote-buying, harassment of political opponents and by-passing of the Bimodal Verification Accreditation System (BVAS).
In Imo State, the viral video of the Labour Party (LP) party agent, Mr Calistus Ihejiagwa, being assaulted and removed from the Collation Centre in the full glare of policemen and other security agents, on the directive of the Returning Officer, Abayomi Fashina, for insisting that election did not hold in Orsu Local Government Area, among other frauds perpetrated during the elections by the ruling All Progressive Congress(APC) in connivance with officials of INEC, speaks volumes about the integrity of the electoral process.
Similarly, in Bayelsa State, the media reported several instances of vote-buying across the state. Several polling units were converted to market places where politicians engaged voters in negotiation to massively buy votes. Political thugs in military and Police uniforms were fingered in the diversion of electoral materials. This was in addition to the kidnap of a top electoral official and death of one George Sibo at the collation centre in Brass Local Government Area. In all these sordid incidents, security agencies could not apprehend any of the suspects.
The story in Kogi was not different. YIAGA Africa reported about the compromise and unprofessional conduct of electoral officials and Police officers deployed for election duty. Opposition parties have also alleged “institutionalised and scientific” rigging as well as harassment and intimidation of opponents by the ruling party in the state.
The National Association of Seadogs, Pyrates Confraternity (NAS/PC) has taken note of the various complaints about the conduct of the off-season governorship elections. While we want to commend INEC for its timely deployment of logistics to polling units and prompt response culminating in the suspension of elections in nine wards in Ogori/ Magogo Local Government Area of Kogi over discovery of pre-filled results sheets (EC84) in Kogi state, we at the same time register our displeasure at the obvious bias of some of its officials in the conduct of the elections.
The credibility of the electoral process is eroded when those expected to act as umpires descend into the arena and compromise the electoral process as witnessed in the just concluded off-season governorship elections.
The general assumption and hope that INEC and security agencies would use the off-season governorship elections to redeem their battered image in the aftermath of the badly conducted 2023 general elections has been dashed. Rather, it has further accentuated justifiable claims that elections in Nigeria are increasingly becoming commercialised. INEC’s obvious bias in elections was recently highlighted by the Court of Appeal in Abuja which decried its partisanship thereby neglecting its role as an unbiased umpire in an election.
We are convinced that the fundamental factor responsible for the lack of integrity in our elections is what has been generally referred to as the ‘capture’ of INEC. This has been responsible for the brazen manipulations that have dogged the conduct of national and subnational elections by members of the political class.
Appointment of party members, cronies and loyalists as Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) is a blight on free, fair and credible elections in Nigeria. This scandalous practice which was prominent under the administration of former President Muhammadu Buhari has been sustained by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
Out of the 10 people recently appointed RECs by President Tinubu, four of them are allies of chieftains and sympathisers of the ruling party.
Disappointingly, in spite of suggestions that the Senate should exercise utmost discretion in screening these individuals, it ignored diligence and confirmed them. This is in gross violation of Section 156 9 (1) (a) and 14(2a) of the Third Schedule of the 1999 Constitution as amended which states that, “a member of the Commission shall be non-partisan and a person of unquestionable integrity’’ and shall not be a member of any political party”.
The implication of the ‘capture’ of INEC by politicians is grave for the health of Nigeria’s democracy. Aside from eroding the independence of the electoral body with overwhelming interference, it undermines the legitimacy of the outcome of elections with the electorate lacking confidence in the results and becoming gradually disenchanted with democracy. Elections can only be credible if voters are allowed to choose freely without any form of coercion and inducement. A situation where the political class exploit the abject poverty of the masses to buy votes and where undue pressure is mounted on the electoral umpires to subvert the will of the people is a bad advertisement for democracy. Tragically, this has been the hallmark of Nigeria’s elections.
As a sign of seriousness and demonstration of integrity and commitment to genuine democratic process, President Tinubu should lead the charge to wash off the stain on Nigeria’s elections by withdrawing the appointments of partisan RECs. Such reckless appointments mock democracy and further reinforce Nigeria’s image as a nation of impunity.
Also, we urge the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to commence the prosecution of suspects it arrested over allegations of vote-buying in the three states. EFCC has developed a habit of announcing the arrest of suspects in connection with vote-buying but succumb to cold feet in prosecuting such individuals. Nothing has been heard of suspects arrested during the 2023 general election. Until law enforcement agencies like the EFCC do their work diligently, politicians would not stop the shameful act of buying votes to retain power.
We welcome the decision of INEC to engage the NBA in prosecution of certain categories of electoral offenders. This has been one of our suggestions as part of measures to sanitise Nigeria’s electoral system.
In addition to this laudable step, we implore the National Assembly to fast track the establishment of the Electoral Offences Commission to handle all cases of electoral offenders. The Senate in the 9th National Assembly has already passed the bill, but the House of Representatives could not pass it before it was dissolved. The Rt Hon Tajudeen Abbas led House of Representatives should revive the bill and pass it into law.
Nigeria’s democracy is bigger than any political party or individual. Nigerians must collectively work to protect our democracy.