Fixing Nigeria’s Democracy

Ensuring that the country recruits the right political leaders will require more than fair elections.

On Friday 25 February 2022, President Muhammadu Buhari signed Nigeria’s highly anticipated and controversial Electoral Act Amendment Bill into law. By this action, Buhari seems willing to keep his promise to leave a legacy of good and credible elections in Nigeria by strengthening the country’s electoral framework. Crucially, the development presents a historical opportunity for Nigerians to hold credible elections and to reject ethnic and religion-based politics.

The news about the presidential assent to the new electoral law reverberated across the length and breadth of Nigeria as citizens expressed excitement towards the development. Indeed, the new law brings a ray of hope since the lack of a credible electoral framework has been identified by stakeholders as a crucial (even though not the only) factor affecting the integrity of elections and the leadership recruitment process in Nigeria. Sadly, elections in Nigeria since its return to democratic rule in 1999 have been riddled with challenges and fraught with irregularities and fraud such as the imposition of candidates, rigging, stuffing ballots, violence, and lack of independence of the electoral umpire (Independent National Electoral Commission; INEC).

To address these recurring issues, key clauses and provisions were incorporated into the new electoral act. If well implemented, these key clauses and provisions will significantly improve the electoral process and deepen the democratic space in Nigeria.

Top among the provisions, clause 50 (which seems to be the most significant inclusion in the law) gives INEC the legal backing to transmit election results electronically. It is popularly believed that this provision will help to prevent situations where election results are tampered with and manipulated in the collation process between the points of voting and the final declaration of results/winners.

Clause 3(3) stipulates that the funds for general elections must be released early (at least one year before the election) to INEC. This provision gives some level of financial independence to INEC to properly plan and put in place good logistic management apparatus that will ensure that election materials and personnel are available in time across the country for the smooth conduct of elections.

Also, Clause 65 empowers INEC to review results declared under duress. This will help solve the problem where INEC returning officers have been coerced into declaring a particular candidate winner of an election, which makes a mockery of the entire electoral process.

Another important addition (Clause 47) gives legitimacy to the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) technology of INEC which before now had no backing of the law. The BVAS can be described as a system that will combine fingerprint and face biometrics for identity verification of voters. This innovative technology comes with a number of benefits. For instance, it will reduce human interference in the electoral process. It also serves multiple purposes for different activities in the electoral value chain in Nigeria, namely during enrolment, registration and accreditation of voters as well as uploading results on the election day. 

Clearly, the signing of the Amended Electoral Act is a step in the right direction in Nigeria’s democratic journey. However, ensuring that the country recruits the right political leaders who will bring about development, economic prosperity and dividends of democracy to all citizens will require more than fair elections. History is replete with examples where seemingly free, fair and credible elections have brought about thoughtless leaders, as recently seen in the US (with the case of Donald Trump), Boris Johnson in the UK, and many others elsewhere. This brings to the fore the urgent need for political parties in Nigeria and Africa to put in place internal mechanisms that will ensure that only credible candidates emerge from their parties as flagbearers. Otherwise, elections will continue to be a show for the external gallery, with the successive elections of the wrong set of leaders during each cycle, the kind of leaders who do not represent the interests nor aspirations of the citizens or those of Africa at large.

Nigeria needs candidates who have all it takes to bring about inclusive and sustainable development for all. Also, those who manifest the pan-African drive for unity, self-determination, freedom, progress and collective prosperity for the African continent are very important, considering Nigeria’s strategic position and potential influence in Africa. Nigerians will have to seek such qualities in the leaders they choose. In this regard, Clause 29 (1) of Nigeria’s new electoral law stipulates that political parties must conduct party primaries and submit the list of candidates at least 180 days before the general elections. This provision gives voters ample time to know and scrutinize the candidates. It also presents an opportunity for the citizens to make an informed decision at the ballot about their individual future and the future of the country and the continent. However, ultimately, it is the responsibility of political parties to front candidates who have the personal quality, the requisite ideologies/values, and adequate professional track records.

It is important that Nigerians/Africans shun ethnic and religious biases as we decide on who leads us to the “promised land” at all levels. And despite the impact of the multidimensional poverty in Nigeria and Sub-Saharan Africa, it is equally important that citizens stop selling their votes to “money bag” politicians and political parties, as doing so mortgages their future and the future of their children.

The new electoral law as amended presents a unique opportunity for Nigeria to begin a process of an overhaul of its leadership recruitment architecture ahead of the 2023 general elections. In the meantime, the new electoral law can be put to test in the upcoming gubernatorial elections in Ekiti and Osun states later this year.

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