The Electoral Bill 2021 is still waiting to be passed by the Nigerian legislature, having missed the two initial deadlines of March 2021 and June 2021. Against the background of the fast-approaching 2023 elections, it is important to ensure the Bill’s timely and quality passage.
Unfortunately, the process has become highly controversial and the outcome is uncertain. According to media reports, the Bill’s current version contains changes implemented by a section of the Joint Committee on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and Electoral Matters in the National Assembly, which were not presented to the whole Committee for review.
Some of these changes are particularly worrying, including the prohibition of electronic transmission of results (section 50(2)), the removal of INEC’s powers to review results declared under duress or in contravention of electoral laws (section 65), and the drastic increase in the limits on campaign expenses (section 88).
Critics worry that these changes have the capacity to reverse some of the gains that INEC has made since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in 1999.
Setting a Dangerous Precedent
The new provisions, if passed, have the potential to compromise important aspects of the electoral process. Prohibiting the electronic transmission of results and removing INEC’s powers to review results declared under duress may facilitate electoral malpractices such as intimidation of election workers and the manipulation of election results.
Worse still, the drastic increase in campaign financing may have a disproportionate effect on women, youth, and other minority groups who typically have less access to financial resources or sponsorship compared to their counterparts. This is further reinforced by the fact that minority groups typically contest on the platform of smaller parties who have less finances than the larger and more mainstream parties.
Against the context of low levels of women and youth representation across all elective positions, the increase in campaign expenses may amount to the monetisation of our democracy and an erosion of inclusion in governance.
The Electoral Hub’s Response
Against this background, civil society organisations (CSOs) have rapidly responded to the manipulation of the Bill by organizing activities aimed at raising public awareness and getting the attention of the National Assembly.
My organisation, The Electoral Hub, an organ of the Initiative for Research, Innovation and Advocacy in Development (IRIAD), has been driving the CSO response to the Bill.
Together with other members of the Alliance of Civil Society Organisations for Expansion of Electoral and Democratic Space (ACCESS Nigeria), we:
- Drafted and signed a joint statement condemning the manipulated provisions.
- Organised advocacy meetings with strategic partners including the European Union (EU), the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), and the Human Rights Commission. These meetings were aimed at forming collaborations as well as encouraging these stakeholders to use their spheres to influence to put pressure on National Assembly for quality and timely passage of the Electoral Bill.
- Organised protests at the National Assembly gate and a press conference condemning the manipulated provisions.
- Made radio and TV appearances to promote public conversations on the issues.
To further promote knowledge and advocacy on these issues, we have also prepared a table (a snapshot of which appears below – you can download the full table here) to highlight the differences between the original Electoral Bill and the manipulated one.
From this table, we can see that there are at least eight main issues on which there is a divergence between the original Electoral Bill and the manipulated one: smart card readers, transmission of results, declaration of results, judicial review of INEC decisions, nomination of candidates by parties, campaign finance, election expenses of political parties, and disclosure by political parties.
As discussed earlier, the provisions on transmission of results, declaration of results, and election expenses of political parties are particularly worrying, but all of these changes need to be interrogated much more carefully.
A Model to Work From?
We have already seen how pressure from CSOs and the public can generate desired results through the case of Ms Lauretta Onochie. Earlier this year, Ms Onochie was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari as a National Commissioner of INEC. However, Ms Onochie has on various occasions proven herself to be a card-carrying member of the All Progressives Congress (APC), which conflicts with the constitutional provision that INEC members shall be non-partisan (Paragraph 14(2)(a), Part 1 of the First Schedule to the 1999 Constitution).
Following a public outcry, Ms Onochie’s appointment was rejected by the Senate Committee on INEC and also during a plenary sitting. If her appointment had been confirmed, it would have undermined electoral integrity as well as public trust and confidence in the system. Her rejection therefore represents a commendable step by the Senate, and demonstrates legislative responsiveness to public opinion.
In turn, this episode should encourage citizens, civil society organisations and political parties to remain highly engaged on issues of electoral reform and strengthening – when public opinion is strong and clear, it can sway the government .
A Need for Free and Fair Elections
Given the long time it has taken to review and draft the Electoral Bill 2021, there is a real danger that if the manipulated version becomes law it will remain law for a long time. We must therefore continue to resist the Bill’s manipulated, and ensure that as the different versions of the legislation considered by the country’s two legislative chambers is harmonised – an essential step before it can become law – the recently introduced changes are removed.
Ultimately, we need an Electoral Bill that gives INEC the enabling framework to conduct free, fair and credible elections. That can only happen if these manipulated provisions are discarded.
We urge all stakeholders of the electoral process – governors, political parties, civil society organisations, donor agencies, the media, and the general public – to continue to pressure the National Assembly to give us the Electoral Bill we want. With this sustained pressure we are confident that just as Ms Onochie was rejected, the manipulated Electoral Bill will also be rejected.
Princess Hamman-Obels, an activist-scholar is the Founder and Director of The Electoral Hub. She writes from Abuja.