… Explains how malpractice contributes to voter apathy

•Charges INEC, security agencies to investigate funds used by vote buyers 

By Nnamdi Ojiego

Following reports of massive vote-buying in the just held governorship election in Ekiti State, there have been concerns that the trend may have dire implications on the 2023 general elections if not nipped in the bud. In this interview with the Deputy Director of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, Mr. Kolawole Oluwadare, he speaks on vote-buying, its implications and dangers it poses to our electoral processes. Excerpts:

Please, can explain to us what vote-buying is all about?

Vote buying is an act of electoral malpractice and it simply means any attempt to influence the electorate to vote in favour of a particular candidate or party. It is also an electoral offence under the Electoral Act 2022. The inducement can be by monetary reward or any other of such.

What are the other kinds of inducement aside from money?

I can’t say specifically that these are the things people can use to influence the people to vote which is when you look at the Electoral Act itself, it describes various conducts that will in practice, amount to vote-buying. For instance, the Electoral Act describes section 1: 27, which talks about undue influence. It talked about money or any other inducement but in the Nigerian context, we induce people with various things including food items, even though that was not specifically mentioned in the Electoral Act, it can also amount to inducement of vote-buying. There’s also a provision in the Electoral Act about bribery and conspiracy which can be monetary or otherwise.

Any idea of the range or amount of money being given to each electorate to buy their votes?

No, I don’t. As I mentioned, SERAP did not cover the Ekiti election. I do not have any idea about how much were paid to voters for their votes.

Since we operate a secret ballot system, how does the seller ensures that the buyer fulfils their end of the transaction?

I really do not know. As I said, I can only speak of the stories we have seen and heard about elections in Nigeria. I do not know how anybody gives money to another person to vote in an election confirms that such a person cast their vote in favour of the person buying the vote, particularly since they know it’s a secret ballot system that we operate.

How does vote-buying compromise election results?

Vote-buying, bribery and other act of electoral malpractices, of course, compromises the process itself and the outcome. In some instances, it may not affect the outcome specifically, while in some instances, it affects the outcome. Either way, it mars the electoral process because we are practising a democracy that is based on a simple majority of votes. It can tilt the balance of votes as it were in favour of individuals or political parties unjustifiably and that will not represent the wishes of the electorate who are supposed to cast their votes to determine whoever occupies the office. So it does not only undermine the process, but it also undermines the outcome which is why in their wisdom, the crafters of the Electoral Act made it an offence that carries a fine of up to N500,000 or a term of 12 months in jail in the Electoral Act.

How much threat can we say that this poses to our democracy?

It’s a threat nonetheless, and it varies, depending on the angle that you are looking at it from. From the part of the electorate, it means that even if they vote without being bribed, there may be individuals who will take that from people offering that money to get people to vote in a particular way. And then, it affects the outcome of democracy itself. Secondly, it also contributes to voter apathy which we have seen a lot of in Nigeria. If people have this overriding belief that people will buy their vote and their votes will not count, it may affect people’s willingness to go and vote and as you know in Nigeria, we are still battling with the voter apathy, we are trying to encourage people to participate in civic duties, to make civic participation grow in Nigeria. So it affects a whole lot of things and it’s an act of corruption in itself, which is why those funds being used to perpetrate such bribery and inducement should be investigated.

What role does poverty play in vote-buying and selling?

Poverty plays a very significant role and with a high level of poverty in Nigeria with the last NBS report in 2019, over 80 million Nigerians are living in poverty that number has gone up significantly and the projection is going to go up also in the next five years. So, with the low level of socioeconomic empowerment we have seen in Nigeria, it’s not surprising, howbeit unfortunate that people will be willing to sell their votes for ultimately a pittance and that’s why poverty keeps those people in bondage, they do not know better than what to eat and drink. So poverty itself is a facilitator but not the cause because for there to be a taker, there must be a giver. So poverty is not what induces people but plays a very critical role.

What’s the place of education in all this? If people are well educated, do you think they can sell their votes?

Education will reduce the possibility of people selling their votes and I said that because education is a means to an end and not the end itself. Education is a platform that not only enlightens the mind, it also provides opportunities and the ability to make choices. So good education should ordinarily, lower the incidences of vote-buying.

Turnout was said to have been better in the latest Ekiti election than the past elections. Can we reasonably say many voters were influenced to come out with the aim of selling their votes?

I don’t think so. It will be hard to make that conjecture because I have not seen any facts that support that turnout is based on the intention to sell votes.

How effective were security agents in trying to stop vote buying and selling in the Ekiti election? In essence, how many arrests were made and what sanctions were applied?

In the sense of specific data, it will be very hard to make a conclusive statement as to whether the law enforcement agents were able to curb vote-buying either pre-elections, during elections or post-elections, which is why SERAP has written to INEC as part of post-election responsibility, under the Electoral Act, to prosecute those who are involved in electoral malpractices. There are a lot of reports in the media about the people who were arrested by various law enforcement agencies but that’s just news unless we are able to see an investigation, prosecution and likely conviction, it will be very hard to speak to the effectiveness of the law enforcement agencies to curtail the menace of vote-buying. 

The law enforcement agents have always been present in every election from 1999 to date but we have always witnessed incidences of vote-buying. If you ask me, I think what we need to do is to ensure that the post-election as part of the electoral process is done carefully which means prosecution. So if law enforcement agencies said they have made arrests, I’m yet to see any official statement on that. However, that they have made arrests is not enough, we want to see investigation, prosecution and conviction. That will serve as a deterrent to others.

Are laws against vote-buying adequate?

The Electoral Act is very clear as to what amount to vote-buying. For instance, section 1: 21 of the Electoral Act talks about bribery and conspiracy and it talks about a fine of N100,000 or the equivalent of 12 months conviction. Would you say that the 12 months is too small? I don’t think it’s about whether the law is adequate or not but the enforcement of those laws, sometimes, bothers on political will to prosecute offenders. So the law, just like every other thing, is an instrument for social engineering, it’s not perfect. It’s something that is a work in progress. How’s the law being applied? How effective are those institutions that are enforcing the law? That’s where the issue is. In Nigeria, contextually, the political will to enforce laws including the Electoral Act, the Constitution and other laws are not perfect but they are sufficient as it were. The challenge is in enforcing those laws.

Ekiti and Ondo polls were relatively peaceful. But can we say vote buying is beginning to replace ballot snatching, thuggery, manipulation of election results as a form of election malpractice?

It will be very hard to say. Those are two elections out of many elections we have seen and what is to come in 2023. However, it behoves the state through the instrumentality of the law to curb that practice but I really don’t see vote-buying replacing ballot snatching and other malpractices. Let’s see what happens in 2023 and that is why even as we are having this conversation, it’s very important for the stakeholders in the electoral process such as INEC and other law enforcement agencies, to review this trend and make sure they put a lot in place to forestall this kind of incident.

How can vote-buying be stopped? What is the SERAP doing in this regard?

The chief public institution, the major stakeholder in the electoral process is INEC. We have other agencies as well. The electorate and the political parties are also important stakeholders in those processes. So all these stakeholders must work together. SERAP can only continue to do what we have been doing, which is advocacy. Sometimes targeted at the government to obey the law and do what is necessary and also a lot of times, targeted at the people as part of civic education to let them know what their rights are, their civic responsibilities and for them to hold the government to account based on the law set out for public officials and institutions as duty bearers but what INEC needs to do is to prosecute, and the law is very clear, the Electoral Act gives INEC that power to prosecute individuals who are involved in electoral malpractices. 

So we need to see INEC demonstrate that commitment pre-2023, by prosecuting those individuals involved in vote-buying in Ekiti. Doing so will send a strong message to Nigerians to trust INEC as an electoral umpire and also act as a deterrent to others who may want to do so. SERAP can only continue as part of civic education and INEC needs to also do more on the part of civic education but more important match their words with action to make sure they buy the trust of the people. I think that will go a long way to curb instances of electoral malpractices.

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