Reforming Nigeria’s Electoral Law for Mandate Protection In 2023: Opportunities and Challenges

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In 2010, the Nigeria Electoral Act, which establishes the guiding principles for Nigeria’s elections, became law. In the years since, the law has undergone a series of amendments. The most recent amendment process started in 2017 with new provisions, such as the adoption of election technology. Indeed, the coalition of civil society organizations (CSOs) in Nigeria has largely linked electoral fraud and malpractice in the 2019 general elections to President Muhammadu Buhari’s efforts to delay the reformed electoral amendment bill from becoming law before the time of the 2019 polls, as well as the politicization of electoral reforms by the National Assembly.

Electoral fraud during the 2019 general elections took many forms, including increasing the number of voters for a preferred candidate, underage voting, mass voting by unregistered citizens, snatching of ballots to be stuffed with thumb printed votes by party candidates, snatching of results before or after elections to favor the ruling party candidate, and intimidation at the polls using militant gangs or even state security. The 2023 general elections present another opportunity to consolidate the Nigerian democracy and ensure mandate protection. However, with only one year until the elections, there were agitations for electoral reform as well as an increasing pressure and protest from the CSOs on President Buhari to assent to the passage of the Bill into law. While President Buhari ultimately signed the bill, his delay in doing so communicated a dangerous message to Nigerians as it called into question the commitment of the National Assembly and President to deliver the mandate of the Nigerian people and enact a citizens-responsive electoral act. 

Will a satisfactory electoral reform guarantee mandate protection amidst a lack of compliance by stakeholders and a poor enabling environment? To the electorates, answering this question will help in addressing issues that have slowed the pace of electoral reforms in Nigeria, such as concerns about the politicization of the 2021 Electoral Bill and apperception of the trajectory of Nigeria’s democracy in the coming decades.

The 2021 Electoral Amendment Bill’s initial provisions had revisions made by a segment of the National Assembly’s joint committee on Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and electoral concerns but were not given to the entire committee for assessment. A Clause outlawed the electronic transmission of results and another clause that attracted much concern removed the powers of INEC to evaluate results announced under duress or in violation of electoral regulations. A close assessment of these provisions revealed that they pose a significant risk to mandate protection and are incapable of ensuring a free and fair electoral process in the 2023 general elections. The introduction of electronic voting, but prohibiting the electronic transmission of results, would result in a lack of transparency, efficiency, and accountability, jeopardizing the entire electoral process, including INEC’s successes thus far. 

A coalition of civil society organizations in the country expressed their concerns over certain clauses in the Electoral Amendment Bill (2021). In a press conference, Ene Obi, the convener of the Coalition’s Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, argued that allowing electronic voting but restricting electronic transmission of results was restrictive and unacceptable. James Ugochukwu, co-convener of the Nigerian Situation Room, urged citizens to lobby their legislators to prevent the bill from being passed into law without the NCSSR’s observations and concerns being addressed.

Agitations for the Assent of the President

President Buhari announced his intention to withhold assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021 enacted by both chambers of the National Assembly in a letter dated December 13, 2021, which was read in the Senate by the senate president on December 21, 2021. This is the seventh time that the president has withheld his assent to the Bill in the last seven years. The President’s refusal to sign the Bill was based on two clauses: the provision for electronic transmission of results and the mandatory direct party primaries. 

In the letter, President Buhari particularly expressed his concerns over the clause which addresses the mode of primary elections to be used by political parties to select candidates for elective offices. Referencing the clause, the president mentioned issues of insecurity, the cost of conducting direct primaries, and infringement on the rights of Nigerians to participate in governance. He pledged to sign the Bill if the clause is amended to include consensus candidates and add an indirect primary option to the mode of selecting a candidate for an election. After many deliberations in the National House of Assembly following the refusal of the President to assent to the bill, the senate re-amended the Bill to provide political parties with three models of primary elections: direct primaries, and indirect primaries, and consensus candidates. 

One of the major consequences of the President delaying his assent to the bill is the accompanying delay in the INEC’s preparation for conducting free and fair elections in 2023. INEC stated that the timetable for the 2023 general elections would not be released until the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021 was signed into law. The INEC chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, stated at a consultative meeting with political parties in Abuja on the 19th of January 2022 that “as soon as the Electoral Bill is signed into law, the commission would release the timetable and schedules of activities for the 2023 general elections based on the new law”.

Even while the Electoral Act Amendment Bill gradually progressed toward a robust framework and reform to promote electoral mandate protection and transparency in the 2023 general elections, the reluctance of the President to assent to the bill offered genuine risks and unknown outcomes. 

Feasibility of the Electoral Amendment Bill for Mandate Protection In 2023

Will a satisfactory electoral reform ensure mandate protection in the 2023 poll, despite the country’s alarming rise in insecurity? How credible, free, and fair will the 2023 poll be if a segment of the electorate is denied the right to vote due to looming insecurity in their region? Insurgent expansionism, political thugs, and the recent attack on the Kaduna-Abuja train all point to a deteriorating level of insecurity that poses a threat to the citizenry and the conduct of the 2023 poll. This situation has raised questions about INEC’s readiness for the 2023 poll. Professor Attahiru Jega, the former INEC chairman, and other religious leaders in the country have expressed their concern and warned that the 2023 poll may not take place unless the country’s insecurity is addressed.

An enabling environment cannot be undermined in order to secure the mandate of the electorates, and unless this is made possible, the country will go to the poll with more corpses. Mohmood Yakubu, the INEC chairman, stated that the 2023 election will take place regardless of the country’s security challenges. The Presidential/National Assembly elections will take place on February 25th, 2023, and the Governorship/State House of Assembly elections will take place on March 11th, 2023. Despite INEC’s assurances of a peaceful, free, and fair election, there is a growing concern about INEC’s preparedness.

INEC has also stated that the poll may not hold in 270 polling units in Niger state because of the state of insecurity looming the region. 14 local government areas out of 25 LGAs in Niger state has been taken over by bandits and residents scattered in various IDP camps across the state. According to INEC, the IDPs in the 14 LGAs may have the opportunity to vote in their various IDP camps only if the security condition in the state improves before 2023 polls.

It should be noted that disenfranchising the electorates in some parts of the country due to insecurity would have potential impact on legitimacy: firstly it would undermine the civic and political rights of the electorate, resulting in a diminished trust in the electoral process and institutions. Secondly, it may lead to the emergence of an unpopular candidate and reciprocity between the electorate and the elected candidate will be lost. Lastly, the quality of the Nigerian democracy and the credibility of the electoral outcome in securing mandate protection would be called into question.  

President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Electoral Amendment Bill 2021 into law on February 25th, bowing to public pressure and a concerted effort by civil society organizations to get his signature on the highly sensitive piece of legislation. Following the signing of the Electoral Amendment Bill into Law, the President raised concerns about certain sections of the bill that may have justified his hesitancy in giving his assent. He particularly raised concern against the section that disenfranchises serving political office holders from voting or being voted for at conventions or congresses of any political party to nominate candidates for any elections held earlier than 30 days before the National Election. Following his assent, the interest of the President in this section of the bill raises questions of National concern. Has the Electoral Act shifted from serving the interest of the electorates to serving the selfish interest of the Executive and its cabinet? 

In Nigerian democracy, the standard norm for elective officials seeking another term of office or vying for an elective position is to remain and vie. However, past election records have shown that it is never in the public interest for appointees to remain in office once elective interest has been indicated. The electorate faces double jeopardy when serving officials intend to run for elected office, as these officials often use state resources to gain an unfair advantage over other aspirants. Following the foregoing, the National Assembly should reject the President’s request to review the above section because the principle behind it was well thought out and would save the nation from the enormous funds and mechanisms that political appointees usually corner to advance their elective interests. Nigeria requires this type of reform legislation to check abuses of government resources and create a level playing field for all aspirants in the 2023 general elections to secure mandate protection. Instead of using public funds to pursue his political ambition, a political office holder who wishes to run for public office should resign and concentrate on adhering to the provisions of the electoral process.

In addition to the foregoing of office, the reformation of electoral laws for mandate protection in 2023 should focus not just on concerns of electronic transmission of results or primary election models, but more importantly on the security of the electorates, transparency and credibility of the electoral process. How efficiently will the Electoral Amendment Bill protect and deliver the electorate’s mandate with transparency? Answering this question would lead us to concerns that are on the verge of threatening Nigeria’s democracy. 

A transparent electoral process in which political party members and structures make decisions without being forced to do so and conduct party operations without resorting to thuggery and violence should be a top priority. Before the general elections, INEC should identify necessary polling units, make the continuous voter registration process more accessible to voters, develop and adopt a strong strategic communication plan, reconsider the order and timing of the general elections, create a process that allows those on official duty on election day to vote, and adopt a more transparent procedure for tabulation, transmission, and announcement of results.

The provision for electronic transmission of results in the general elections of 2023 will reform the electoral system. INEC, on the other hand, should take steps to guarantee the safety of the electorates at the poll and ensure that its election technology is administered in a way that minimizes technical issues and potential threats to the consolidation of the Nigerian democracy.

Finally, the optimism of the electorate that the signing of the Electoral Act Bill into law could be a precursor for the consolidation of the Nigerian democracy should be heightened. The President should go one step further and order the immediate release of the funds budgeted by INEC to begin preparations for the 2023 general elections.

Lois Matthew (@MatthewLois) is a first-class graduate of Political Science from the University of Benin, Nigeria, and a global youth ambassador @Theirworld. She is seeking to build models that will enhance the credibility and transparency of electoral processes in Nigeria.

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