Templates For Achieving Free & Fair 2023 Elections By: Prof. Ojo Emmanuel ADEMOLA

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Templates For Achieving Free & Fair 2023 Elections

By: Prof. Ojo Emmanuel ADEMOLA

Precisely on February 25th, 2023, Nigeria’s political viability will, once again, be put to the litmus test in the full glares of the world. The most populous Black race on the (earthly) globe will be required to prove its prowess and capabilities to elect its leadership, and govern itself without let or hindrance. Its democratic experimentation (the borrowed American presidential system of governance) which has been sustained in the past 26 years, will go through practical reliability and validity checks, capable of reaffirming the survival of the entity.
In the process of attaining good standing in the comity of Nations, the electoral body, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has a crucial role to play to ensure wider acceptability of the outcome of its election conducts.

In Nigeria’s voter registration process, 12.29 million new voters were added, 9.51 million of whom were then validated, as a result of the enactment of the Electoral Act in February 2022. This brought the total number of registered voters to more than 93 million. At the Chatham House, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, discussed preparations and priorities for ensuring electoral integrity and exclusivity to highlight numerous issues and the path forward. The INEC Chair confirmed, among other things, that the statistics show an exponential increase in the number of voters at the event.

Despite the challenges that still exist, the expectation for electoral integrity and inclusion are unprecedented at this critical juncture in Nigeria. In my opinion, the human resources aspect must be highly robust and should also be broadly inclusive in the interest of election security particularly when new technological systems are used. Such position is centrally in accentuation when giving due credence to matters arising at the Chatham House. In his widely publicised address to a distinguished audience at Chatham House, London recently, the INEC Chairman outlined critical success factors for the 2023 elections. Permit me to underline some as follows:

a) Election Planning – Learning from the lapses/challenges of the 2019 Elections, and engaging in planning and engagements. The fallout is the conclusion of a new four-year Strategic Plan and Strategic Programme of Action (SP & SPA), as well as the 2023 Election Project Plan (EPP), over 18 months before the date set for the election. The 2023 EPP identifies all the specific activities to be implemented for the general election. Each of these activities has a specific timeline based on which it is implemented and tracked. Among other things, the Plan reflects the new technological innovations that will be used in 2023, the increase in the number of voters from 84,004,084 to 93, 469,008 as well as the increase in Polling Units from 119,974 to 176,846, following the Commission’s expansion of voter access to Polling Units in 2021.

b) Electoral legal framework – Since elections are essentially anchored in law. Unlike the case with the 2019 general election, the new Electoral Act was signed into law on Friday 25th February 2022 exactly one year ahead of the general election, giving time for both the Commission and all stakeholders to fully acquaint themselves with any changes in their responsibilities and functions.
c) Voter registration and Permanent Voters Cards (PVC) – This has been a major component of preparations for the 2023 general election. The law in Nigeria requires the Commission to conduct voter registration on a “continuous” basis, and this has been adhered to, resulting in the addition of 12,298,944 new voters out of which 9,518,188 were validated after a thorough clean-up of the data.

d) Election Technology – To avoid the usual challenges with the application of new election technologies, the Commission introduced and tested innovations for the election early enough. There are three critical components namely, the INEC Voter Enrollment Device (IVED) for improved registration of voters, the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) for both voter accreditation and e-transmission of results for collation and the INEC Result Viewing (IReV) portal to offer the public access to view Polling Unit results.

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e) Expansion of voter access to polling units – Election is about actualising the fundamental democratic right to vote. However, if one has the right to vote but has nowhere to vote, then that right is only nominal. This was the principle that made the Commission work with a broad range of stakeholders to expand voter access to Polling Units in 2021. At the end of the exercise, the first in 25 years since 1996, Nigeria now has 176,846 Polling Units as against 119,974 previously.

f) Inclusive election – The Commission has worked hard to  make Nigerian elections inclusive, particularly through many stakeholders’ innovation of Gender Policy, etc

g) Election staff recruitment and training – This is essential to the success of any election. For the 2023 general election, the Commission requires at least 707,384 Presiding and Assistant Presiding Officers, about 17,685 Supervisory Presiding Officers, 9,620 Collation/Returning officers, as well as 530,538 Polling Unit security officials, making a total of 1,265,227. These are not staff of the Commission and must be painstakingly recruited and trained to ensure that they are both fit-for-purpose and non-partisan. However, the greatest number of election officials in Nigeria are these temporary or ad hoc staff recruited principally from among young Nigerian University and Polytechnic graduates enrolled in the mandatory one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), students of tertiary institutions, staff of federal agencies and university lecturers.

h) Inter-Agency collaboration and support – In its work, the Commission depends a lot on especially the judiciary, security agencies and media organisations. Inter-agency collaboration and support are therefore key in the conduct of the 2023 general election. To this end, INEC has established a long-standing collaboration with key agencies. It interfaced with different levels of the judiciary in the run-up to the 2019 general election, and that engagement was very fruitful. For the last three electoral cycles, the Inter-agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES) has been in existence and has supported the Commission. A lot of progress has been made in recent times through ICCES, especially regarding the production of a common code of conduct for security officials during elections, the establishment of common situation rooms, expanding the Committee to include other agencies, the most recent being the involvement of agencies working on financial crimes.

i) Electoral operations, procurement and logistics – To date, all necessary procurements for the 2023 Election have been concluded, and the operational logistics are ongoing.

j) Insecurity and election – It’s a major concern to the Commission, and it has received tremendous support from government agencies concerned in this regard. Closely related to the problem of insecurity is the rising attacks on INEC facilities, materials and staff. In four years (2019 – 2022), the Commission experienced fifty (50) attacks on its facilities, mostly in the form of arson and vandalisation across the Nigerian zones.

k) Campaign violence – One important provision of the new Electoral Act is the extension of the campaign period from 60 to 180 days before the date of the election. Campaign periods have traditionally seen increases in violent actions by political actors. These range from verbal attacks, hate speech, and destruction of campaign materials by opponents such as billboards, to overt violence, sometimes leading to fatalities. Some of these acts of violence have manifested during the ongoing campaigns. Although the situation appears to be under control, concerns still exist as the elections draw closer  The Commission believes that a peaceful electioneering campaign is essential.

l) Campaign finance and vote buying – This is one important undermining factor of elections to which the Commission is increasingly turning its attention. The Nigerian Constitution gives the Commission enormous responsibilities to oversight campaign fundraising and expenses of both candidates and political parties.

The Electoral Act, in turn, specifies various limits to campaign spending and also empowers the Commission to set other limits. Experience however shows that political parties and candidates often observe these limits in the breach. Consequently, INEC is working on strengthening the enforcement of these limits, including the use of a web-based application and dashboard for political parties to submit their expenditure for verifications.

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Also, vote buying or voter bribery by political parties and candidates provide a different, but related, set of challenges. It is not only illegal within the electoral legal framework, but also affects election administration. In the past, vote buying has been linked to disruption of elections at the polling units and even violent conduct. The practice takes several forms, one of which is the so-called “mark and show” technique in which a voter marks his/her ballot paper and shows it to the party agents present and later goes to an agreed location to collect the payment. In response to this, the Commission reorganised the Polling Units to ensure that the voting cubicle and ballot box are placed away from the party polling agents such that they are unable to see the marked ballots.

In reaction, the vote buyers modified their approach to “mark, snap and show”. This time around, a voter takes his/her cell phone to the voting cubicle, marks the ballot, and snaps it with the camera of the phone for presentation later for payment. Again, the Commission responded by banning the use of cell phones in voting cubicles. However, voters are allowed to take their cell phones to the Polling Units, but they are not allowed to take them to the voting cubicles while marking their ballots.

m) Electoral litigation and adjudication – While the Commission has the core responsibility to conduct free, fair and credible elections based on the law, the Judiciary is responsible for the interpretation of the law and adjudication of electoral disputes. In the discharge of its responsibilities, few public institutions in Nigeria are subjected to more litigations than INEC. In the 2019 general election, the Commission was involved in 1,689 cases, made up of 852 pre-election, 807 post-election and 30 electoral offences cases. The Commission is committed to the rule of law without which democracy cannot thrive.
Towards the 2023 general election, the Commission has been joined in 791 Court cases as of Friday 6th January 2023 involving intra-party elections and nomination of candidates by political parties alone.

n) Prosecution of electoral offences – Although the Commission is empowered by the Electoral Act to prosecute electoral offences, it lacks the power and resources to make arrests and thoroughly investigate electoral offences.
While we will continue to cooperate with law enforcement agencies for the arrest, investigation and prosecution of electoral offenders, most of those that are arrested, tried and convicted so far are foot soldiers rather than the sponsors of electoral violence and other violations. Efforts at mitigating electoral malfeasance can only become effective with the arrest, prosecution and sanctioning of the “mother spiders” to end their reign of impunity.

o) Diaspora voting  The Commission recognises the voting rights of all Nigerians both within and outside the Country Voting by millions of Nigerians living outside the country remains a recurrent issue for the Commission. Nigeria is said to have one of the largest diaspora communities in the world. Our quest for a fully inclusive electoral process in Nigeria will not be complete as long as these Nigerians are unable to vote. However, the Commission only acts per the electoral legal framework, which remains the main reason why it cannot implement diaspora voting for now.

Ahead of the 2019 General Elections, the electoral laws received some boosters in terms of re-modification of the Acts governing the conduct of elections in Nigeria. The journey to embracing lesser-fair e-voting through the introduction of the Biometric Voting Accreditation System (BVAS) signified total improvement in ensuring free and fair elections in the Country. The successful conduct of the 2019 presidential election benefited from the hybrid of BVAS’s application and the manual voters’ accreditation. But with full application of the new Electoral Law, the 2023 presidential election on February 25th, just as it has been operationalized in the last Osun State Governorship election in July 2022, will be run fully on BVAS, marking a viable template in ensuring a credible election in Nigeria.

The full use of BVAS aside, another critical template for the enhancement of free and fair elections in the Country should necessarily include the overhaul and reinvigoration of the use of the University’s personnel as Elections Returning Officers and Collating Officers. The conducts of past Elections (particularly 2015 and 2019 respectively) have exposed the lapses and inadequacies in the stated template. It is common knowledge that the frequent use of academia in the conduct of our elections has been compromised, and the need to rethink that template is now!

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Lately, INEC has owned up to the fact that the trust, respectability and credibility accorded the stakeholders in the ivory towers in the conduct of free and fair elections has been partially lost. The Electoral Body has been forced to prosecute in the Law Court (and still prosecuting) some Professors who have been found culpable in the discharge of their electoral roles in the previous elections. This is more than sufficient to consider an upgraded template for this key leg of the 2023 General Elections.

To actualize the template, it’s being suggested that INEC should consider an expansion of the use of academicians to also accommodate credible justice personnel at State and Federal levels as Returning officers, as well as staff from polytechnics, colleges of education, senior educators in the secondary schools and some Justice of Peace (JP) Ambassadors as Collation Officers rather than the use of serving Vice Chancellors of Universities. Similarly, the Electoral Body can avail itself of the use of credible retired professors,  permanent secretaries and time-tested Senior Citizens. The template being canvased will also include INEC offering short refresher pieces of training on election impartiality, unconscious bias, judgements and relevant electoral laws.

For the electoral votes buying malaise (a recurring sore decimal in the Nigerian quest for free and fair elections), the contemplated template seems to have found a connection with the current quagmire of Naira currency swapping. Before now, the elections in the Nigerian clime have been heavily monetized to the extent that the electorates have been constantly put at the mercy of the political moneybags. An election that’s meant to test the popularity of contestants based on proven capabilities and deliverables, has been lost on the alters of cash inducements. The highest spenders usually carry the day, thus not giving a fair representation of the elections’ outcome. That the currency swap policy is being implemented close to the 2023 General Elections could be seen in some quarters to give some succour to less likelihood of votes buying. The expectation is that the policy will offer all players a level playing ground to sincerely canvassed for votes from the electorates. Nonetheless, vote buying can still take place with the use of other currencies aside from the Naira.

Overall, the proposed templates place more emphasis on the neutrality of the Umpire (INEC) to live above boards and ensure that all its electoral processes, guidelines, materials, personnel, logistics, etc remain sacrosanct to the tenets of fairness, equity and justice to all stakeholders (parties and contestants). If the templates are strictly adhered to, we can be confident that there is no need to postpone the election and the outcome of the 2023 General Elections will be adjudged free and fair both locally and internationally.

The writer, Prof Ojo Emmanuel Ademola is  a cyber security technocrat and a public affairs analyst of a global standard

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About Babatunde Adekanmbi 183 Articles
Babatunde Adekanmbi is a digital creator with a demonstrated history of working in the civic and tech industry Babatunde Adekanmbi holds an Ordinary National Diploma in Mechatronics Engineering and Higher National Diploma in Electrical Electronics Engineering Yaba College of Technology Yaba Lagos . A certified Autocadd specialist , Google Digital Marketer with featured articles on various digital news platform .

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