INEC, NASS synergy on legal framework for 2023 elections
Authorities of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) held a retreat last week in Lagos with the National Assembly and other development partners in attendance on the need to collaborate in the quest to produce a legal framework towards achieving improved elections in 2023, KUNLE ODEREMI reports.
SOME state governors across the country are just beginning to settle down for serious business after the 2019 general election. Yet, the poll that brought them into office was held a year ago. Variegated issues bordering on the conduct and outcome of the elections contributed majorly to the slow pace of governors in some states hitting the ground running after taking their oath of office.
It is recalled that President Muhammadu Buhari had held back his assent to the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended). His action drew spontaneous flak from different quarters, especially the main opposition politicians. Therefore, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the National Assembly appear set to smoothen all rough edges and grey areas in the march towards the 2023 general election. The overall aim and objective of the synergy between the commission and the legislature is to fine tune and evolve a legal framework based on consensus to secure both legislative approval and the ultimate consent of the executive arm of government. It was against the background that the INEC organised a retreat in Lagos between Monday and Friday last week ahead of 2023.
The stakeholders at the retreat included the deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege, who stood in for the president of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan; a former deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu; Senator Teslim Folarin, INEC national commissioners and resident electoral commissioners, the leadership of states independent electoral commissions and representatives of INEC’s development partners, the European Centre for Electoral Support (ECES) and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).
Of course, the opening speech of the chairman of INEC, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, gave an insight into the commission’s agenda on a number of proposed amendments that should carried out in the Electoral Act towards improving the nation’s electoral process. He said the retreat was important because it was meant to finalise the INEC’s comprehensive proposed amendments. Among the main issues he said were slated for discussion was how reducing the cost of elections; curb the incidence of violence and sundry malpractices and how to ensure that violators of electoral laws are effectively sanctioned. The other key areas included how to deepen the deployment of technology and increase the autonomy and independence (both administrative and financial) of the INEC, as well as the need to increase citizens’ confidence by enhancing the transparency and credibility of the electoral process, and entrench internal democracy within political parties. The proposal also included ensuring inclusivity in the electoral process for marginalised segments of the society such as women, youths and persons with living with disability.
All these factors, according to Yakubu, will help the review of the Electoral Act in particular, and the nation’s electoral legal framework in general. Noting that the commission’s input was not limited to the review proposed by the National Assembly, Yakubu said as election managers, the personnel of the INEC also monitored pre-election activities such as party primaries and handle post-election processes, including the outcome of litigation. Therefore, he challenged them to “cast our nets wide by dissecting the electoral act in the light of experience and proposing wide-ranging amendments that will give the nation an electoral legal framework that can truly protect their choice and guarantee free, fair and credible elections.” He disclosed that members of the Senate Committee on INEC and House of Representatives’ Committee on Electoral Matters would be at the retreat between Thursday and Friday for in-depth review of their proposal and the INEC’s input. “This is the first time that the National Assembly and the INEC are coming together on electoral reform. We look forward to this opportunity to serve Nigerians better.’” he said.
Yakubu thanked the European Centre for Electoral Support (ECES) and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), for their untiring support to the electoral and democratic processes in Nigeria, as such support was critical to the ongoing retreat that has brought together not only INEC officials but also, for the first time, members of the National Assembly and the commission to discuss the review of the electoral legal framework outside the context of public hearing that always took place in Abuja. He recalled that last year, the commission received from the Senate Committee on INEC a modified version of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, which the National Assembly had presented to the executive for assent before the 2019 general election. The revised Bill had amended several sections and subsections of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended).
In presenting the draft bill to the INEC, the Senate committee specifically requested for the commission’s input into areas that will strengthen the proposed legislation. In turn, the commission shared the draft bill internally with the national commissioners and directors at the headquarters, as well as the resident electoral commissioners and senior officials in the 36 states of the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) for comments. Yakubu said the comments had been compiled into a draft document that the retreat would discuss and validate as the INEC’s position on the electoral legal framework. According to him, the commission’s draft document has also taken the comments and suggestions by stakeholders into consideration, especially following the conclusion of the 2019 general election. However, Yakubu said, for an enduring review, the INEC looked at the electoral legal framework comprehensively, reviewed existing provisions with regard to elections in both the constitution and the Electoral Act. In his view, the procedure for constitutional alterations are handled separately, including a different procedure for harnessing citizens’ input. He said though the draft was ready, it required further internal review ahead of submission to the National Assembly.
NASS on electoral reform
At the session with the team from the National Assembly, Yakubu called for an early passage of the Electoral Act so as to ensure seamless preparations for the next general election. He also urged the Senate and the House of Representatives to expedite action on the Electoral Act Amendment Bill before the legislature, just as he called for tougher actions against electoral offenders. ”This is very important to the preparations for especially the next general election. Where the passage of the Bill is delayed, it will affect the formulation of regulations and guidelines, as well as the review and publication of the manual necessary for the training of ad-hoc staff for elections because both documents draw from the legal framework,” he stated.
The early passage of the Electoral Act, Yakubu said, was necessary because some far-reaching amendments proposed by the National Assembly required the procurement of new equipment, training of election officials and piloting of new procedures ahead of the general election. He noted that, early and adequate preparation was critical, as “late deployment disrupts preparations and in an electoral process governed by fixed timelines provided by law, postponement must be avoided because of its far-reaching consequences as witnessed a number of times in the recent history.
The INEC boss also spoke on what he called the critical area of reform that had dragged on for far too long: prosecution of electoral offenders, an issued which he noted was already being handled separately by the National Assembly. He called for the “expeditious passage of the Bill for an Act for the Establishment of the National Electoral Offences Commission which passed second reading on March 4, 2020 and the “Electoral Offences Commission (Establishment) Bill 2020 that passed first reading on February 27, 2020. The nation can no longer afford to foot drag on this important legislation which will provide the framework for dealing with impunity and brigandage in elections which are becoming more brazen essentially because violators of electoral laws are not effectively prosecuted.
“The commission appreciates the efforts of members of the National Assembly in spearheading the passage of the Bill into law. We also note the commitment of the executive to the matter. The Uwais Committee on Electoral Reform recommended it in 2009. The Lemu Committee on the 2011 post-election violence made a similar recommendation which was accepted in the Government Whitepaper on the report. Most recently, the Nnamani Committee on Electoral Reform made the same recommendation in 2017 which was also accepted by government. However, 11 years since the Uwais recommendation, we are still talking about the prosecution of electoral offences. We would like the ninth National Assembly to make history by passing this important Bill into law. It’s time to walk the talk.”
The message of Senator Lawan which was delivered by the deputy Senate President, Omo-Agege, centred on the need for collaboration and synergy, noting that the National Assembly had sacrosanct the duty of protecting the democratic order. He said: “We should start by ensuring that we provide the right electoral legal framework for the conduct of free, fair and credible elections by the commission. Ultimately, our collective success as a constitutional democracy depends on truly credible electoral outcomes.”
Omo-Agege restated that the legislature was fully committed to an electoral reform. “We recognise across party lines that it is in our country’s best interest to work together to strengthen our electoral laws and, consequently, better protect this very important and consequential democracy on the African continent,” he said.
Some words of encouragement also came from the chairman of the Senate Committee on INEC, Senator Kabiru Gaya. He said the repeal and re-enactment of the Electoral Bill would infuse better ideas into the electoral system, especially in areas that tended to undermine the process of free, fair and credible elections.
The submissions of the representatives of the National Assembly at the retreat underscored the remarks by the INEC chairman on the exigency of new areas of amendments to the Electoral Act being proposed by the INEC, which he said was based on experience in managing elections, including matters arising from litigation. He stated it was important to find a way to deal with a situation in which Returning Officers (ROs) are compelled to declare winners under duress. He added that with 809 pre-election petitions filed before the 2019 general election, the electoral legal framework should provide clear procedures for party primaries and consequences for violation. “Similarly, the right under the law to file pre-election cases in different categories of high courts often leads to what lawyers call “forum shopping” by litigants and conflicting judgments by courts of coordinate jurisdiction on the same case, sometimes even on matters already settled by superior courts. We also need a new definition of over-voting with emphasis on accredited voters rather than the number of registered voters in a polling unit. Doing so will make the management of the margin of lead principle easier and considerably reduce, if not totally eliminate, the incidence of inconclusive elections and the cost associated with conducting supplementary elections which in most cases merely validate the outcome of the first ballot,” Yakubu stressed.