Democracy as a system of government was birthed in the ancient Greek city of Athens over 3,000 years ago. However, modern democracy is associated with the United States of America, particularly with Abraham Lincoln who in his famous Gettysburg speech on 19th November, 1863 had characteristically defined democracy in the following immutable words: – ‘the government of the people, by the people and for the people’. Those early days, all the adults in the city of Athens used to meet at city squares to consider and take decisions on matters affecting their communal life. With time and growth in population however, it became practically impossible for people to converge for such considerations and decisions. Thus the need for such considerations and decisions to be made by the people by their chosen representatives became imperative. The essence of this is that democracy is government by persons chosen by the people to govern and be accountable to the people who have chosen them. Thus, election being the process by which the people choose their government is a basic ingredient of democracy. Although the structure of democratic government may vary with different national cum state circumstances, there are other essential ingredients of every genuine democracy. They include accountability, freedom of speech and association, the rule of law, the independence of the Judiciary, respect for human rights and separation of powers. It is again crucial to highlight from the onset the importance of government. It is the opinion of the present author that next to divine power is the power of civil authorities, that is, the government. The import of this power accounts for the quest for the control of the machinery of government by people no matter how comfortable they have become given their wealth and intellectual prowess.
Elections in Nigeria in contemporary time
As is well known, Nigeria has had an unhappy history of elections. Our elections have in the past been marred by violence and different forms of malpractices. If it is not snatching of ballot boxes from the polling units to safe havens where they are stuffed with already thumb-printed ballot papers for a favoured political party candidates; it will be vote buying or different forms of intimidation, frustration and or harassment of supporters of opposition political parties. There are many reasons for this; reasons that I believe should be addressed if we are to make our national elections more credible and more violence-free. First, we must discourage the “do-or-die” approach to elections by reducing the financial and material benefits that come from winning elections. At present, the rewards of winning elections at the three tiers of the country’s government are such as to induce the contestants to want to stop at nothing to win. For example, Nigeria’s parliamentary representatives are among the highest remunerated in both developing and developed countries of the world. Secondly, many politicians vying for positions resort to a number of malpractices such as enlisting the services of thugs to intimidate and harass their opponents, compromising electoral officials wherever they can. Again, we must also address the issue of the cost of elections. The role of money is responsible for many deficiencies in our elections. There should be a limit, to be rigidly monitored and enforced, to what political parties can demand as registration fees from their prospective candidates, as well as to what the candidates themselves can spend on their campaigns. A situation whereby a particular political party sold her forms to presidential aspirants at prices far above the legitimate remuneration of Nigeria’s President for the whole term of four years, portends nothing other than corruption. It also shuts such electoral office out of the reach of people who are not wealthy. All thanks to the legislature for addressing the question of elected representatives defecting from the political parties on the platform of which they campaigned and won the elections to other political parties. The same prohibition should be extended to governors and the president as well. There was a significant improvement in general elections of 2015 courtesy of former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, who made and pursued his declared determination to give the country free, fair and credible elections. Even though he was a candidate for the election, he also declared and lived up to the mantra that his ambition was not worth a jut of the blood of any Nigerian. The Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC under Prof. Attahiru Jega also played a major role in seeing to the success of the elections. The evolving democratic culture was further strengthened by the statesmanship of the sitting President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan in telephoning to congratulate General, Muhammadu Buhari even before the final results of the election were announced by INEC. By that singular act, President Jonathan doused the prevailing tension in the country, and proved wrong the doomsayers who had predicted chaos and even a breakup of Nigeria after the 2015 elections. The gains recorded and the achievements of the 2015 general elections have however, been eroded and lost in the 2023 elections. The elections of 2023 can safely be said to be the worst ever conducted in Nigeria since even during the colonial days. Starting from the impunity of certain candidates who shunned media chats and debates because they had concluded rigging plans, which, of course, eventually became manifest; to intimidation, suppression and harassment of opponents by those in power. The last straw that broke the camel’s back was the flagrant violation of the Electoral Act and guidelines by the electoral umpire, INEC. The assurances by INEC that results from polling units would be scanned from the Form EC8A and posted with the aid of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System, BVAS to the INEC result viewing (IRev) portal where the public could view the results in real time, was not adhered to. Then clear evidences of INEC compromise of the elections. Professor Nnenna Nnannaya Oti, Vice Chancellor of Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO) and Returning Officer of the Abia State governorship election revealed how they tried to intimidate, harass and bribe her by the powers that be to compromise the results of the election. But she stood her ground against such.
The Electoral Umpire
The electoral body should be run by men and women of high ethical standard, proven integrity and who will be fair to all the contending parties and politicians of different ideological leanings without affection or ill will. They should be knowledgeable in the tenets of democracy, rule of law and detailed rules guiding elections. They should be above board and free from all likelihood of bias.
Independence and neutrality of the electoral body
It is a trite principle of natural justice that a man cannot be a judge in his own cause. This is better captured in the Latin maxim – nemo judex in causa sua. The functions of the electoral body, which presently resides with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as the body that supervises the elections of the principal officers in charge of two out of the three organs of government, namely, the legislature and the executive, is enormous. As such the members of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should be selected in such a way as to ensure their independence and impartiality. A situation where the President of the federal Republic of Nigeria appoints one who he pleases as the Chairman, federal commissioner or other principal officer of INEC leaves much room for compromise especially if the appointing President will later be a candidate for election to an office. It does not create room for the removal of all likelihood of bias. This is so because as postulated by the principle of nemo judex in causa sua, that the electoral umpire was in fact, unbiased is not the point. Every room of a likelihood of bias has to be removed. The idea here is not to divest the President with the powers to appoint the Chairman and federal commissioners and other principal officers of the INEC. That is not the point. The point being made is that the President should not just wake up and appoint any Tom, Dick or Harry as a principal officer of INEC as obtains currently.
Electoral officers should be devoid of real likelihood of bias
Electoral officers should be men and women of proven integrity and who will be fair to all manner of persons without affection or ill will. They should be free from all likelihood of bias. Otherwise, they should not be appointed. By the Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th Edition, page 171, bias means inclination, prejudice or predilection. It may be actual, implied or judicial. This concept of bias has also been judicially defined and explained. According to Ayoola, JSC in Kenon v. Tekam (2001) 14 NWLR (Pt. 732) 12 at 41 – 42, bias is opinion or feeling in favour of one side in a dispute or argument resulting in the likelihood that the judge so influenced will be unable to hold an even scale. In Womiloju v. Anibire (2010) All FWLR (Pt. 529) 1002 at 1013 – 1014, Muhammed, JSC explained the concept of bias as follows: ‘Bias’ generally is that instinct which causes the mind to incline toward a particular subject or course. When a judge appears to give more favour or consideration to one of the parties before him either in his utterances, contention or action which is capable of perverting the cause of justice or where fair hearing cannot be said to take place, all in favour of the party he supports covertly or overtly, then an allegation of bias against him can be grounded. That of course is a judicial bias. Bias has also been defined in Denge v. Ndakwoji (1992) 1 NWLR (Pt. 216) 221 at 233 – 234 per Ndoma-Egba, JCA to mean; “The term real likelihood of bias may not be capable of exact definition since circumstances giving rise to it may vary from case to case, but it must mean at least ‘a substantial possibility of bias’. This may arise because of personal attitudes and relationships such as personal hostility, personal friendship, family relationship, employer relationship, partisan in relation to the issues at stake and a whole range host of other circumstance of a real likelihood of bias may be drawn….. Bias or likelihood of it covers a wide range of circumstances. It may arise if a judge either explicitly or implicitly indicates partisanship in a cause or matter before him by expressing hostile opinion favourable to one party in the controversy he has a duty to settle or has unduly earlier expressed his views about the merits or demerits of a case committed to him for fair hearing and determination. This may amount to the prejudgment of the matter rendering the judge inadequate in the proving minds and eyes of the public, to proceed in hearing and determination on the controversy between the parties concerned on the merits.” Per BULKACHUWA, J.C.A. (Pp.27-28, Paras.C-B) “Bias in its ordinary meaning is opinion or feeling in favour of one side in a dispute or argument resulting in the likelihood that the Judge so influenced will be unable to hold an even scale.” Per Ayoola, J.S.C. (P. 29, paras. C-D)….. In the concept of elections where electoral proceedings, be it the facilitation of campaigns, voting proper, handling of the collation and counting of votes, and declaration of winner have been conducted in which the authority of the electoral umpire has not fairly been exercised in consistence with the fundamental principles of fairness embraced within the conception of the process of law then the umpire may rightly be accused of bias.
A call for a proper institutionalisation of INEC
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should be institutionalized and strengthened in such a manner that it should autochthonously throw up candidates for appointment into her principal offices including the Office of the Chairman, Federal Commissioners, Resident Electoral Commissioners, and so on. There should be an Electoral Institute that will groom career personnel and electoral officers for manning the various offices of the electoral commission. There should be a Federal Electoral Commission that will be responsible for recommending the most senior among the Federal Commissioners to the President for appointment as the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The Federal Electoral Commission will also be responsible for recommending to the President for appointment the Federal Commissioners and the Resident Electoral Commissioner of the INEC for the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The members of the Federal Electoral Commission should be constituted from amongst retired judges, retired senior civil and public servants and professors of law, political science and other relevant disciplines. There should also be a State Electoral Commission for each of the states of the federation. The members, as that of the Federal Electoral Commission, should also be drawn from amongst retired judges, retired senior civil and public servants and professors of law, political science and other relevant disciplines. It shall be the responsibility of the State Electoral Commission to advise and recommend to the Governor a candidate for appointment as the Resident Electoral Commissioner of the state concerned. The recommendation must be from amongst the career electoral officers in the respective state. In essence, something similar to what currently obtains in the judiciary is being recommended here.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK