That Nigerians are desirous of having credible elections can be seen from the furore, widespread interest and debate that Section 52(2) of the proposed new Electoral Act has generated. The new bill, seeks to repeal and re-enact the 2010 Electoral Act. It principally seeks to resolve issues concerning INEC’s introduction of modern technologies into the electoral process by the introduction of a section that empowers the electoral umpire, INEC to electronically transmit election results right from the polling unit.
The contentious Section 52(3) reads: “The Commission may transmit results of elections by electronic means where and when practicable.” The bill has many sections but this is the part that has elicited most interest and debate. This is understandably so because from the experience of most Nigerians figures of elections have been known to change dramatically between the polling units and coalition centres in our chequered history of electoral processes
Apart from adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights, elections have the most consequential impact on participatory democracy. Aside the issue of legitimacy and acceptance, the manner through which people attain political office determines to a large extent how they behave and govern when they assume office. A government elected through popular will is more likely to enjoy the support and followership of the people. Support and followership of the people, which is often overlooked in our clime, is crucial to the entrenchment of the democratic attitude and ethos. The opposite of this is resentment and antagonism as against constructive criticism and rational opposition which are the hallmarks of democracy rather than the pull it down at all cost type of opposition we practice today. A ruling class that can always impose itself on the people in respective of how they feel, will feel no compulsion to be responsive to their needs or even be afraid of being voted out of office by the next election. This has been the core of leadership problems in Nigeria. A country where leaders are either imposed or rigged into office.
Let us now reduce the issues to their barest forms devoid of any colouration. So INEC is telling us that the best way to protect the integrity of the ballot is through electronic transmission of results from the polling units. It cites Edo and Kogi states as examples where this has worked perfectly. On Saturday morning, I listened to Mr Festus Okoye, the INEC National Commissioner for Information and Voter Education speak on national television where he insisted that the Commission has the capacity to transmit results from the remotest part of Nigeria network or not. I think we must listen to them but not without interrogating some loop holes in their claim. For example, if INEC is so sure of this capacity why did it include in it’s proposed amendment to the Act that “The Commission may transmit results of elections by electronic means where and when practicable.” Why use the word “may” and “where and when applicable” when it is cocksure that it can transmit the results from anywhere? Why not go the full hog by saying that “transmission of results shall be by electronic transfer”
Secondly, if we assume that this provision is an acceptance by INEC that there are areas where transmission of results are impossible, is this not in contradiction of what the INEC official said on TV on Saturday?
Thirdly, if there is acceptance that there are such areas where results cannot be transmitted electronically, which areas are this? The answer to the question is necessary for four reasons: One, so that the decision to transmit electronically or manually is not left to the discretion of some INEC official most of whom we know to have been involved in juggling figures in previous elections on the day of elections. Two, so that those from the affected areas can prepare their minds for manual transmission. Three, to know how large these areas are and what percentage of the voting population is likely to be affected, and their impact on the general outcome of the elections, since the electoral body is insinuating that manual transmission is more likely to be influenced or manipulated? And four, for the purpose of avoiding post election litigations on manner of transmission.
I agree without equivocation that introduction of technology into our electoral process will greatly enhance the integrity of the ballot and reduce the incidence of rigging and will go with INEC if it can provide answers to the above questions and assurances that the process will be hitch free. However, it must also be noted that credible elections does not begin or end with electronic transfer of results. To this extent the question should also be asked. How far have we gone or perfected the “electronic” voting system? Have we solved the problem of failing card readers? If we must insist on electronic transmission, we must first insist on the integrity of the result to be transmitted. As one who have voted and withnesed elections since the introduction of the card readers, I can say without fear that rigging still takes place majorly at the polling units. In short if the card readers have worked perfectly and records the true number of those accredited to vote, how come there is a huge difference between the numbers declared at the polling units and figures that finally gets announced at that coalition centres. Our problems are beyond the process but rests squarely with the operators of the process. It is squarely and mainly a human problem. To defeat this, we must design a process that will make it almost impossible for humans to manipulate or we must all agree to repent. This where one is tempted to agree with INEC but it must be noted that mere electronic transmission of results that could have been fraudulently obtained, no matter how enticing and popular, is not the panacea for our myriad of electoral problems.
Credible elections do not begin or end with electronic transmission of votes cast. It includes and encompasses the process of selecting candidates for elections right from the party primaries to campaign funding, to the time of voting in the general elections, counting and announcement of the votes. Thank God the version of the Act passed by the House of Representatives tries to address this issue by insisting on direct primaries by political parties. I hope the Conference Committee of both chambers comes to agreement on this as it will greatly encourage popular participation and emergence of credible candidates as against the godfather imposition system we have today.
On the other hand is the position of the National Communication Commission, NCC which says only about 50% of the country is covered by 3G network and that INEC can only achieve what they are proposing with 3G network. The NCC is a government parastatal. Nigerians and those opposed to this government are understandably suspicious of this position as they would of everything government. They have queud up behind INEC not because INEC has been saintly or without blemish but because it is seen this time, as being in opposition to the government as represented by the National Assembly which they believe is a tool in the hands of the Buhari led Administration.
So before the National Assembly, we have two government agencies presenting opposing positions. While it is good to listen to INEC, it is equally important to listen to the nation’s appointed internet communication expert and regulator on the matter. My take on this is that owing to the widespread suspicion of having tinkered with the report of the Electoral Committee, which preceded the consideration of the report by the whole house, what the National Assembly should have done to erase accusations of bias or prejudice would have been to invite independent experts to publicly advise it before taking a decision one way or the the other on the matter. This is very important because a hitch free election is also as important as free and fair elections and the National Assembly has the responsibility to ensure both.
For elections to be credible, they do not only have to be free and fair, they also have to be hitch free. The Electoral Act deserves all the debate and energy that it has generated because of its consequence for our democracy. A system designed to deliver a credible and hitch free elections need to be critically interrogated but such interrogation should be devoid of the bile and rancourous political noise and emotions that have attended this debate.
I for one believe that it is time to go fully electronic. My only quarrel with Section 52(2) of the Act as proposed by INEC is the discretion it gives it to INEC to electronically transmit result “where and when practicable” This is too vague and dangerous for the reasons already adduced above and gives too much latitude to any Nigerian government Agency judging by our history. Even INEC needs to be “guarded with a signpost.” The regulator needs to be regulated less it runs amok.
We have seen the use to which a combination of card reader and manual register accreditation have been put and the distortion it has caused in the system. The electronic system is good but it should only be used if it can be deployed uniformly across the country. Or don’t we require equity again?
Independent experts should be called in to weigh in on the claims of both INEC and the NCC. If it is doable across the nation then less do it. It is important for the government and particularly, the ruling class should know that it is in their own interest to institute a credible electoral system before the 2023. If internet penetration is what is needed to make this possible they should put political differences aside and make it possible across the nation. This is because the fire next time is more likely to consume them than anyone else.