State Electoral Commissions
By Hakeem Baba-Ahmad
“No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.”- Abraham Lincoln
IT will be difficult to find enthusiastic, independent support for the continued existence of State Electoral Commissions. But they will continue to exist because they serve very powerful interests that have nothing to do with the growth and development of the democratic system.
They will continue to cause further damage, because they provide the pillars of the awesome powers of Governors.
Governors have to agree to an amendment of the constitution, and they will not tolerate tinkering with election management bodies which guarantee them virtual control of all political power in the two tiers of government in states. Far from abolishing SIECs, governors will use their control of state legislators to make and amend electoral laws which can further enhance the electoral fortunes of ruling parties.
The recent elections into offices of local government councils in GombeState remind us of the hopelessness of the struggle to entrench some semblance of democratic values and practices at the lowest levels of governance in this country. The Gombe variant is only one among many travesties which are only marginally affected by local coloration and whims of state chief executives.
Only two parties, PDP which rules and the CPC fielded candidates for the entire elections. CPC had candidates in only two out of the 11 LGAs. It had gone to court to challenge the high cost of the non-refundable deposit (N500,000, N250,000 and N150,000 for Chairmanship, Deputy and Councillor, respectively).
It failed. It tried to stop the elections until its grievance over the fees was resolved, it failed. Apparently neither the party nor the candidates themselves could raise the amounts within the period allowed. So the party went to the elections to contest for a sprinkling of councilor positions and two out of 11 chairmanships positions.
One day before the elections, gunmen rode in on motorcycles and shot dead five people and injured seven in Gombe. The levels of security were raised. All entrances and exists into Gombe and the neighbouring Kwami, the two LGAs where both PDP and CPC had chairmanship candidates were heavily manned. There was also visible and pronounced presence of security personnel in and around the town.
Voters who came out to vote were confronted by heavily armed security personnel moving around the town. Many chose to give up voting and stay indoors. Others say they were told to go back home in explicit terms. Interpretations of election day events in Gombe and Kwami LGAs were therefore heavily contested by voters and observers. Pro-government comments said there was heavy turnout and the elections were peaceful free and fair. PDP won virtually all the positions at stake.
The opposition claimed intimidation, threats and harassment, and said no elections took place. The PDP won all chairmanship positions. CPC won in a few councillorship wards, lost an opportunity to make a positive impact on the merger talks, and created the impression of a party too poor and too disorganised to police the ballot.
The PDP had unopposed candidates for all positions in Akko, Balanga, Billiri, Nafada and Yamaltu Deba LGAs. Voters who turned up in LGAs where only PDP candidates were fielded were asked to “affirm” candidature, or candidates were “returned unopposed” as winners. Affirmation had been made illegal by the State Assembly just before the elections, but CPC cannot challenge it where it had no candidates contesting.
On the whole, “elections” took place in only two out of the 11 LGAs in GombeState, and the ruling party coasted home, as it does everywhere, with a bagful of victories, leaving behind few councillorship positions for the opposition. What was unique about Gombe was that in 79 electoral wards, the PDP had no opposition at all, and the legality of the manner winners emerged is open to legal challenge.
No one, however, will challenge these results. No one challenged results in KadunaState recently when PDP won 22 of 23 LGA chairmanship positions. No one raises eyebrows anywhere when results return 97 percent victories for ruling party candidates all over the country, irrespective of the party in power.
No one should be surprised that our democracy is shriveling either. Governors amass massive powers because they determine who becomes chairman and councilor, and they control the use of the funds of local councils.
They also control, through such dominance, party structures from ward to state levels. Even LGA elected officials from opposing parties are powerless against governors because the latter control their purse strings.
So people do not contest for positions of chairman and councilor to serve the people, but to become errand boys of governors. They feed off the crumbs left, grow fat from exercising non-accountable power, and live permanently in hiding from people who they can neither serve nor help.
Presidents who feel frustrated at the powers of Governors know the sources of such powers, but cannot do much about them. President Jonathan was a Deputy Governor, and a Governor. He knows of the powers a governor exercises.
The late Umaru Yar’Adua could not stop his state from massively rigging the first LG elections under his watch as President, even though he was seriously looking into how he can improve the electoral process. If presidents cannot reduce the unhealthy control of governors on LG funds, on who gets elected, and on how party machinery functions, who can?
You could start with a constitutional amendment which proscribes SIECS, but this will not succeed with the governors in place. They will exercise their control over state legislatures to frustrate any attempted amendment. The National Assembly cannot proscribe SIECS. The courts cannot do so.
Yet, without allowing some genuine democracy at the lower levels, it is useless attempting to reform and improve the electoral process. Governors and presidents emerge as candidates, and are elected through flawed processes. Party delegates from ward and local government levels are determined by governors, overseen by chairmen and councilors whose elections are rigged.
Delegates are bought and paid for, and they do the bidding of governors, not their constituents. It goes all the way up. Control of political power and funds of LGAs is therefore a vital necessity for all State governors, and the single most destructive source of subversion of our democratic process.
Presidents owe their positions to the whims and dispositions of governors. Governors garner massive powers to protect their positions, determine who becomes president, and determine how he works all because they have unhindered access to pervert the will of the people at the level which most intimately connects the citizen with the state.
Improvements in levels of accountability and responsibility of elected leaders will be impossible to achieve until local councils are freed from the damaging control of state governors.
When a state governor literally handpicks you, funds your campaign and virtually guarantees your “victory”, it will be impossible to say no when he demands all loyalty from you. Your funds are his. Your job is to enhance his political assets and fight his enemies. You have no responsibility to the local citizens, beyond reminding them daily that all money and power comes from state capital.
The current attempts to amend the constitution is likely to produce nothing. The nation would have wasted billions, as is the tradition, in chasing shadows. But constitutional amendments are too important to leave to law makers and governors.
Nigerians must raise their voices in demanding that reforms that should free local governments from control of states must be made between now and 2015. State electoral commissions must be abolished, joint accounts abrogated, and state legislatures should have their powers to prescribe operations of local governments further limited.