Over the years, there has been clamour for the prosecution of electoral offenders. The most comprehensive documented list of offenders is contained in a 146 page report on the 2007 and 2011 general elections released in 2014 by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The report indicted the Nigerian Judiciary, the Nigerian Police Force and the Independent National Electoral Commission for perpetrating electoral impunity in Nigeria.
The report also documented 84 diverse violations committed by specific individuals and institutions in those elections. Those indicted included governors, senators, House of Representative members, State House of Assembly members, party officials, INEC officials and security personnel.
The violations identified by the report included
1. Cases of unlawful substitution of candidates by political parties and INEC,
2. Inflation of the numbers of ballots cast,
3. Forgery of election returns,
4. Intimidation of voters and election officials at polling centres.
5. Generating of results for an election that did not hold.
6. Declaration of election results before completion of collation
The list of these violations and the individuals and institutions was based on actual cases from tribunals across the six geopolitical zones of the country.
First, here are four things that election riggers often count on to sustain and conceal their actions:
Inability or difficulty of prospective petitioners to meticulously collect evidence to prove substantial non-compliance, even if an election was universally acknowledged to be blatantly rigged.
Often times, INEC does not have firm control over the Resident Electoral Commissioners and staff in the states. Hence, politicians can easily replace ad hoc staff with party supporters who will have lee way to engage in sophisticated rigging.
After an election is contested, INEC habitually obstructs the course of justice by blatantly refusing or delaying the release of election documents to petitioners who are working within a suffocating tribunal trial schedule. And when the electoral body comes to court to defend its elections, it often does that in a manner that makes a mockery of its so called independence.
Some judges at the tribunal level oblige respondents’ counsels who indulge in frivolous and time wasting motions to frustrate petitioners. Allied to that is the delay in getting certified copies of judgments that have been delivered.
Electoral offences and their punishments are mentioned in sections 117 to 132. There also offences in relation to finances of political parties in sections 88-93 and offences with respect to the conduct at political rallies and processions in sections 94-102.
The good thing about electoral offences as opposed to other criminal acts is that they are often committed in broad daylight. The perpetrators are well known members of communities were the crimes are committed. Why then is it so difficult to prosecute offenders?
First, it is all about the political class which has made itself superior to any other class in the society. They have a leash on the police whose primary duty it is to arrest and prosecute. Even if the security forces were to do their job, they would be overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who are usually involved in rigging and violence.
I understand that it is the responsibility of INEC to prosecute electoral offenders. Does INEC have the capacity to do that in view of the deluge of election cases that the body has to battle with after every election? In the 2015 elections, at least 81 elections where nullified and rerun ordered. Think of the huge number of cases that were involved and the fact that INEC was party to all of them. Now after the rerun, some of those parties will once again go back to the courts and INEC will be joined as a party. What time does INEC have to go and chase about electoral criminals that range from governors to Indian hemp smoking riff-raff in the nooks and crannies of Nigeria.
Unfortunately, Nigerians are paying a huge price as a result of these offences. Those who have access to state funds use them to defend their mandates. Those who are not yet in government spend huge sum of their hard earned money to fight in court and become predisposed to recoup their expenses once they succeed.
Most importantly, flawed elections provide room for those who are ill qualified or equipped to have access to public office with the catastrophic consequence of failing to deliver the often talked about dividends of democracy. Outside, conflicts inspired by primeval quest to be in power, flawed elections have been the most enduring course of the backwardness in the black continent.
What is the way forward? Prosecuting riggers as deterrence does not appear feasible. The challenging question is whether this administration has the will to galvanise the political class into rewriting the rules of the game such that it will be much more difficult to rig in the first place or extremely expensive after the fact.
The accreditation process and methodology of recording actual voters must be watertight. On the other hand, parties and individuals proven by court of law to have rigged their way into power in the first instance should not be allowed to participate in a rerun. It does that make any sense.
In any case, whatever reforms planned for future elections must involve the judiciary in other to avoid a judicial dislocation of the entire process when it is supposedly all done.
I am neither a lawyer nor a politician. But I do know that unless this warped political process is corrected urgently, Nigeria will continue to wobble along for a very long time.