By Wealth Dickson Ominabo
Elections are the cornerstone of any democracy; it is the major source of political legitimacy. That is why the electoral system is seen to be the “primary vehicle for choice and representational governance.”
Electoral systems are not just about elections, rather it is the entirety of how representational governance is structured and managed. Free, fair and credible elections are determined by factors such as the independence of the Election Management Bodies (EMBs), adherence to the rule of law and political discipline by the stakeholders.
Therefore, most countries pay attention to the impartiality of election umpires as part of the confidence building measures for their elections.
Once the people raise issues about its transparency, the credibility of the electoral process is put to question and so will doubts mount over the expected democracy dividends. Such reservations over the neutrality of the umpire sometimes promote electoral violence and usually push stakeholders to challenge the outcome of elections.
At the last count, over 1,000 petitions have been received by the elections tribunal challenging the results of Nigeria’s general elections at various levels. That obviously does not speak well of the transparency and credibility of Nigeria’s recent elections.
As a means of establishing stronger citizen confidence in future elections many stakeholders, including former President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan have recently been weighing in on what measures to adopt. For the former President, there is no alternative to having an EMB that is manifestly independent and impartial.
At different fora, both at home and abroad, Jonathan has continued to campaign for the institutionalization of the processes for appointing leaders of EMBs to ensure that they do not subject themselves under the control of a partisan incumbent.
In a speech at the International Leadership Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, Jonathan urged the African union to take up the task of setting minimum acceptable standards for appointing the leadership of electoral commissions as a way of enhancing citizen confidence and ensuring credibility of elections on the continent.
The former President observed that many African nations face election-related crisis, especially in cases where the people suspect that the election umpires do the bidding of the partisan appointing authorities.
He said: “The AU should, through its Political Affairs Department, set up a team of electoral experts to study different models and recommend the system they consider best for the continent.
“Such benchmark should also take cognizance of the need to review the election judicial processes to ensure that, where election tribunals are set up to specifically handle election cases, one judicial officer do not handle the role of appointing all members of the tribunals.
“Since neutrality of the security services is necessary in ensuring free and fair elections, it is also important that the Africa Union should establish a code of conduct guiding security officials in charge of elections.
The 2019 General elections in Nigeria have come and gone but if Nigeria is to gain access to the map of developed nations then it must tackle the ills inherent in its electoral system because there exists a greatnexus between national development and credible elections. The 2019 elections many observers believe were the worst polls in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. They were characterized by violence, suppression, intimidation, inducement in the form of vote buying. Flawed elections betray the essence of democracy as it enthrones unaccountableleaders. The Nigerian Situation Room and other local observer groups had shared their sentiments immediately after the elections, most of them condemning the way the elections were conducted, taking turns in condemning the partisan role of the military and other security operatives.
International Republic Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in their joint report on the 2019 Election released recently observed that “Only 35.66 percent of registered voters cast a ballot for president, the lowest turnout rate since Nigeria’s democratic transition in 1998/’99.” They submitted that the “2019 elections did not meet the expectations of many Nigerians.” This is a worrisome situation that must not be allowed to repeat in future elections.
Similarly, the European Union Election Observation Mission (EUEOM) in its report stated that “The elections became increasingly marred by violence and intimidation. This harmed the integrity of the electoral process and may deter future participation.” One interesting thing about the reports is that they didn’t stop at spotlighting the wrongs within our systems but went a step ahead to recommending solutions toward a stable system. The NDI/ IRI Report stated the obvious when it recommended on page ten of its report that “There is a pressing desire among Nigerians for a national conversation about the future of their democracy, which must begin with addressing the clear and urgent need to resume the electoral-reform process that stalled prior to the 2019 election cycle.”
There is no better time to start this conversation than now. The conversation for stable electoral system should be one that will be holistic and long lasting. It should accommodate the interests as well address the fears of all stakeholders and groups within the country. At the twenty first century, Nigeria, has no business operating an analogue system that gives room to result manipulation and violence during elections.Smaller democracies in Africa are embracing electronic voting and collation of results, we can’t continue to give excuses for our failures. We can preserve the lives of many citizens with a holistic electoral reform.
Independent and stable political systems remain the soul of good governance. Institutions are what defines a system and these systems are responsible for the pace of development in a nation. In Nigeria, we have frail, failed and dysfunctional systems. In these anomalies rest, the challenge of our nation’s development. No system is exclusive in itself; they are mutually reinforcing. A poor political system of course affects the economic system of a nation and vice versa. The need to overhaul our systems is more urgent than ever before. These changes must start from political reforms and electoral reforms are the basis of all other reforms. Electoral reforms are important not just for the sake of having credible election but also for the purpose of peacebuilding and peace sustainability. As John F. Kennedy succinctly stated that “the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all,” from this premise one can say that the security of nation is determined by the behavior of electorates; and the behavior of electorates determines the security of the nation.In Nigeria, and many other African nation, electoral violence and unrest have remained part of the features of its electoral system, this is part of the anomaly within our political system.
Electoral reforms are always sought with a view to democratizing a system and ensuring that electoral justice and peace are secured before and during elections. Democracy is not an end in itself: it is a process, as Boutros Boutros -Ghali observed “that democracy is an objective while democratization is a process. Democratization serves the cause of peace because it offers the possibility of justice and progressive change without force.” The question therefore is what possibilities of justice exist within our systems, starting our examination from the electoral system.
This is where the advocacy of Nigeria’s former President Dr.Goodluck Jonathan becomes very germane, especially his charge to AU to work towards establishing minimum acceptable standards for appointing members of EMBs. Nigeria must lead from the front in the discourse of a democratized Africa but how can this be if we continue to rejoice and gloat on a dysfunctional electoral system. One that is characterized with such uncertainties where elections are held, postponed, won and upturned at the whims and caprices of a few.
*Mr. Ominabo, a public affairs commentator and consultant lives in Abuja