Viewpoint

June 10, 2024

Let SIECs be

INEC

By NICK DAZANG

ON Wednesday, May 22, 2024, executive members of the Forum of State Independent Electoral Commissions, FOSIECON, paid a courtesy call on the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, Professor Mahmood Yakubu. Professor Yakubu used the occasion to upbraid the State Independent Electoral Commissions.

He challenged them to demonstrate courage in upholding the integrity and credibility of elections conducted by them. He remarked: ”Unfortunately, the conduct of Local Government elections in virtually all the States of the Federation has become mere coronation of candidates of the ruling parties…It is time to stop the coronation and conduct proper elections.”

The INEC Chairman proceeded to catalogue the foibles of the SIECs. They include poor infrastructure and facilities at the disposal of some SIECs; many of the SIECs lack functional offices in the local government areas of their states; most SIECs cannot recruit their permanent staff; in some states the SIECs are not properly constituted; in others, they do not enjoy security of tenure; in some instances, the critical functions of SIECs have been usurped by government officials; some SIECs are constituted at the eve of elections and are disbanded shortly after their conduct; and some of them are so severely under sourced that they rely on INEC for basic facilities such as ballot boxes and voting cubicles.

As if on cue, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Lateef Fagbemi, on Monday, May 27, 2024, canvassed for the outright scrapping of the SIECs. Speaking at a national dialogue titled: ”Nigeria’s Security Challenges and Good Governance at the Local Government Level”, organised by the House of Representatives at the Sheraton Hotel, Abuja, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice had argued thus: ”Many experts have proposed that there is a need for the scrapping of the State Independent Electoral Commissions. Their functions and powers should be transferred to the Independent National Electoral Commission because the State Independent Electoral Commissions remain an appendage to every incumbent governor.”

Both the INEC Chairman and the Attorney General and Minister of Justice are justified in what may seem lacerating criticisms of the SIECs and taking them to the cleaners and back in a forthright and unblinking fashion. This is because the peccadilloes of the SIECs detailed by Professor Yakubu and Mr. Fagbemi are not exhaustive. Most appointees to the boards of SIECs are either pliant cronies, working in cahoots with their state governors or they are undiluted partisans. Even where a few are appointed on the strength of their character and merit, such persons are often dumped at the eve of elections. Most SIECs operate on shoe string budgets. And even where such niggardly budgets are appropriated, the SIECs have to go, cap in hand, begging for their allocations.

The local government elections conducted in Oyo and Gombe states on Saturday, April 27, 2024 underline, and further justify, the indictment of the SIECs. In the said elections, both OYSIEC and GSIEC overwhelmingly returned candidates of the political parties governing the two States. The challenges of the SIECs are a myriad, if not a legion. But these failings, many and grave, do not suffice to scrap them. Neither do they call for a hasty transfer of their functions to INEC. 

It is noteworthy, and it is instructive that the rooftop calls for the transfer of the roles of SIECs to INEC are coming hot on the heels of the relentless and vociferous campaign for powers to devolve from the Centre, which has since assumed the status of a Leviathan, to the states and local government areas. It is also coinciding with a time when Nigerians are canvassing for financial autonomy for the local governments. Their financial autonomy has been eroded by the states on account of the nebulousness of the Constitution and the overbearing propensities of our governors. Transferring local government elections conducted by SIECs to INEC will not only attenuate and weaken the local governments, it will acutely undermine our quest to engender true federalism and to take development to the grassroots.

There is grave danger in transferring the functions of SIECs to INEC, particularly at this juncture. Some Resident Electoral Commissioners, RECs, who were alleged, either to be partisans of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, or proximate to the party’s bigwigs, were unfortunately appointed by President Bola Tinubu. Pray, what happens to the conduct of local government elections supervised by such RECs, particularly in states governed by the opposition, were these elections to be transferred to INEC? Can such RECs be neutral and transparent? And can the outcome of elections conducted by them be credible? 

Lest we forget, it was the insistence of a former Chairman of the Commission, in a previous incarnation and dispensation in 1989, not to succumb to the manipulation of local government elections that led to his resignation and the Federal Government construing his alleged “stubbornness” as “irreconcilable differences”. Such a crisis, and the fireworks that ensued, can re-occur if INEC is to be saddled with conducting local government elections, especially if it has partisans at its helm.

Besides, this shrill call for transferring the functions of SIECs to INEC is coming at a time when, not a few, stakeholders are of the view that INEC is saddled with too many  responsibilities.“Additionally, this clarion call to scrap SIECs and transfer their powers to INEC is coming at a time when INEC itself has just conducted a controversial general election and three off cycle Governorship elections which came short of its previous stellar outings. INEC, though better than SIECs by several rungs on the Electoral ladder, is thus not a paragon. 

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Dazang, a public affairs analyst, wrote from Abuja

It may therefore not be deserving of additional responsibilities.

The best way to salvage and fortify the SIECs is to subject them to the kinds of guardrails, reform measures, capacity buildings and innovations, all of which INEC went through or were instituted in the past two decades. Their activities should also be subjected to the rigorous scrutiny of the media and civil society. Like INEC, SIECs should be robustly funded. They should draw their funding from the First Line  Charge of the State Revenue. By the same token, only persons of unimpeachable integrity and persons without political affiliation(s) should be appointed to their boards. The board members of SIECs should have fixed and secure tenures. This will confer stability, help in long term planning and implementation as well as build institutional memory. SIECs should have a bureaucracy manned by competent officials to run its administration, operations and to conduct voter education for the long haul. They should also engage with stakeholders on a structured basis.

As I have often argued, the appointment of the Chairperson of INEC and other Commissioners(National and Resident) should be outside the purview of the President, his being an interested party. In the same vein, the appointment of board members of SIECs should be outside the purview of Governors. This will ensure that they carry on without being tethered to their benefactors or owe them allegiance. Both Commissions will also be immune from manipulation and be  invested with true independence.

Once these reforms are carried out, and they are reflected in our Constitution and extant electoral laws, the SIECs should be able to discharge their roles in an impartial and transparent manner. In this sublime context, the SIECs should be allowed to be.