Nigeria’s democracy

By Ikechukwu Amaechi

AS I watched the drama in the  two chambers of the National Assembly last week over the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill, I remembered President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s 1956  award-winning biographical book – Profiles in Courage.

The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1957, was a celebration of senatorial courage – acts of bravery and integrity by eight United States senators, who defied the opinions of their party and constituents to do what they felt was right even when they suffered severe criticism and losses in popularity because of their actions.

On Thursday, July 15, when the Bill was called up, I prayed that the lawmakers would step up to the table of courage by voting to promote public good. But I was not hopeful. And I was not disappointed.

At stake was the very soul of the country’s democracy. How can the electoral process be made more transparent and credible so that the outcome of elections will be a true reflection of the will of the electorate?

All well-meaning Nigerians, including the electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, unanimously agree that electronic transmission of election results will significantly reduce electoral banditry and raise the credibility bar. It will broaden the democratic space by burnishing the process.

To be fair, federal lawmakers were on board initially when a harmonised  report of the Committee on INEC of both chambers agreed on electronic transmission of results. But before the report could be brought back to the National Assembly for final consideration and passage, some lawmakers, mostly All Progressives Congress, APC, senators, had been reminded of the infamous admonition often attributed to the communist tyrant and former Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, that “those who cast the votes decide nothing, those who count the votes decide everything”.

Nigerian politicians don’t care who votes. That does not matter. They are more interested in who counts and tallies the votes. That is why they go after Returning Officers with sacks of money and if necessary cudgels. What happened in the National Assembly last week has raised a fundamental question.

If INEC is insisting, as indeed majority of Nigerians, that it has the capacity to transmit result real time from all parts of the country and that the use of technology will greatly help in deepening Nigeria’s democracy, why is the National Assembly kicking against that?

The INEC National Commissioner and Chairman (Information and Voter Education Committee), Festus Okoye, is on record as saying that the Commission has the capacity to transmit election results from the polling units to the registration area collation centres, local government collation centres, senatorial district collation centres, as well as the state and national collation centres.

Besides, he said on Sunday: “The Joint Technical Committee constituted by the Commission, INEC, the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC and telecommunication operators met on March 9, 2018, and the consensus was that the requirements for the electronic transfer of results proposed by INEC is practicable. The meeting, therefore, agreed that the solution that INEC wants to deploy is possible.”

Since then, the Commission has improved its operations, perfecting the use of technology in carrying out its functions in order to reduce to the barest minimum the human element. Okoye acknowledged that: “The Commission uploads Form EC8A, being polling unit results to a central viewing portal. Since 2020, the Commission has been uploading these results from different parts of the country ….

The Commission has uploaded results from polling units in Southern Ijaw with its difficult riverine and difficult terrain. The Commission uploaded results from conflict areas. The Commission uploaded results from all geopolitical zones. Presently, the Commission has obtained the GPS coordinates of all the 176,846 polling units in the country and expanded voter access to the polling units.”

So, if INEC has been doing this successfully, what then is the beef of the NASS? Section 78 of the 1999 Constitution provides that the registration of voters and the conduct of elections shall be subject to the direction and supervision of INEC and the Third Schedule, Part 1, F, S.15, says that INEC has the power to organise, undertake and supervise all elections. So, how can the National Assembly, particularly the Senate, arrogate to itself the nonexistent power that the NCC, with its approval, would determine whether INEC could transmit results electronically or not?

If the mode of election and transmission of results are critical elements of INEC’s duties granted by the 1999 Constitution, how can the NASS whimsically strip it of those undertakings? What struck me most was the pattern of voting. When the Senate Minority leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe, called for a division after Senate President Ahmad Lawan sought duplicitous voice vote, 28 senators – all of them PDP members, most of them from the South – voted for electronic transmission; 52 senators – all of them APC members, most of them from the North – voted against; 28 were absent.

Of the 28 senators who were absent or who were present but sneaked out of the Red Chamber shortly before the voting started, ten are PDP members, 17 are APC members and the only member of the Young Progressive Party, YPP, Senator Ifeanyi Uba. The question that has concentrated the minds of many since last Thursday is why did the senators vote the way they voted?

On the face value, it would seem that the opposition to the electronic transmission of results emanated from the North and some pundits are strongly of the view that it is a Northern agenda informed by 2023 political calculations, as reflected in the WhapsApp message by Mr. Aminu Malle, Chief of Staff to the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Idris Wase, to members of the Northern caucus.

“On behalf of the Deputy Speaker, Rt. Hon. Ahmed Idris Wase, and the Northern Caucus leader, Hon. Musa Sarki Adar, I am directed to write and formally congratulate and appreciate all the northern caucuses for standing firm through their wisdom and strength to ensure the Northern interest in both PIB and Electoral Act is adequately placed in a position of advantage.”

How can free, fair and credible elections be against Northern interest? What then is Northern interest? Is Northern interest in conflict with Southern interest? Who protests Nigerian interest? But the argument is not a straight line. Southern senators on the platform of APC also voted to “promote Northern interest”.

Senator Orji Uzor Kalu, former governor of Abia State and Senate Chief Whip, said there is no internet in his hometown – Igbere. That is not true. But even if he was honest, and he believes in credible elections, shouldn’t he be asking how the internet facilities could be upgraded between now and the time of election?

Some pretend to be taken aback by the fact that Senator Oluremi Tinubu, wife of the self-acclaimed doyen of progressive politics in Nigeria, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, voted against a process that would enhance the credibility of elections. But that is laughable. Have they forgotten the events in Okota and other parts of Lagos with a preponderance of Igbo voters during the 2019 elections?

Truth be told, there are no democrats on parade here. Anyone who claims otherwise is living a lie. Those we eulogise as democrats and progressives are nothing more than pseudo-democrats with autocratic reflex. What the APC-controlled National Assembly did last week may be crazy and senseless as former INEC Chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega, fumed, but it was true to character, not a happenstance.

All pretensions to the contrary notwithstanding, APC is not interested in free, fair and credible elections and President Muhammadu Buhari, who vetoed the Electoral Bill 2018 a record four times with flimsy excuses is in cahoots with the leadership of his party.

If we all agree that unless we fix our politics and the leadership recruitment process, governance will always go to the dogs, and if we all agree that without free, fair and credible polls, governance issues can never be sorted out, federal lawmakers should be working hard to enhance the credibility of the electoral process rather than diminish it, which is the end result of manual transmission of election result.

But to hope that this crop of political leaders will do the needful by ensuring credible polls in 2023 is to stretch the limits of optimism. That is crass naivety because this is a “democracy” without democrats – an oxymoron.

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