October 22, 2021

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Why the law-makers should listen to Professor Yakubu


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I welcome Professor Mahmood Yakubu’s decision to talk, if only briefly in the circumstances, about what ails our elections as the honourable members of the 9th national assembly prepare to take on the tough task of making laws for the good governance of our dear country. At the ceremony at which the INEC chairman presented certificates of returns to the senators-elect in Abuja last week, Yakubu told the distinguished new and returning senators that “As a process governed by law, the success of election in Nigeria depends to a large extent on the electoral legal framework and most importantly, in ensuring adherence to the rule of law.”

There is a lot to take away from that brief statement. Of course, we know that our politicians have individual and collective problems with adhering “to the rule of law.” It is a problem that could not go away soon because while it is easy to set Ibrahim Magu after the looters it is not so easy to catch those who use their positions to make our laws look stupid, even in the eyes of an ass.

An electoral legal framework to strengthen INEC is still swaying in the wind. There is a lingering reluctance on the part of the executive and the legislative branches of government to comprehensively reform our electoral laws and processes. INEC is thus forced to bear the burden it was not constitutionally meant to shoulder and carry on as best as it can on the existing rickety legal framework.

Since our return to civil rule in 1999, the national assembly has on several occasions tinkered with the electoral act in an effort, to be charitable to them, to iron out the wrinkles in the law and smoothen the operational path for the electoral umpire. The last of such tinkering was the subject of controversy between President Buhari and the national assembly. He refused to sign the amended electoral act into law on the grounds that the law was coming too late at the dawn of the 2019 election season. He wanted, he claimed, to save the commission from perhaps being crippled by a law intended to make it stronger.

It was all politics, of course, played at the expense of the integrity of the 2019 elections at all levels.  The commission did its best in the circumstances but it could have done better had the law come into effect to help it tackle some of the lingering challenges facing it.

Our next general election season is four good years away. But Yakubu pointed out that the lawmakers do not have the luxury of time because “there is a lot of work but very little time available.” His plea to the senator-elect to “…start work early and conclude work on the legal framework in good time well ahead of the 2023 general elections “ reflects his anxiety.

I wonder if the 9th national assembly would see this as a challenge for the country. The problem is that all of them are beneficiaries of the current system and would not appear to see anything wrong with it. But something has to give. It is both impossible and unfair to expect the best from the electoral umpire when it is saddled, as it is, with the mealy-mouthed attempts to give us an electoral legal framework that takes away all the creases.

The need for electoral reforms has a long history in our country; so does the cynical attempt on the part of the politicians to ignore it. As Buhari begins his second and final term in office, I wonder if he would be kind enough to take time off catching thieves and pay some attention to comprehensive electoral reforms that, in my view, would more than the anti-corruption war, define his legacy as president. If we do not get our electoral legal framework right , we cannot get our electoral processes right. And if we do not get those right, we cannot get our elections right such that they command local and global respect.

I do not think that INEC has the powers it ought to have that should make it the primary custodian of our elections and the processes that drive them. Over the years, the national assembly has systematically stripped it of its powers leaving it with merely the conduct of the elections. I believe the commission bears greater responsibilities than that. FEDECO, the electoral umpire in the second republic, was effectively armed by the generals to make it the unquestionable primary custodian of our elections.

We need to take note of at least three points if we are serious about the reform process. One is the political party crowd. INEC registered more than 90 political parties for this year’s general elections. This sickening crowd was made possible by the electoral act which removed qualifications associations wishing to be registered as political parties must meet before they can be registered by the commission. This hardly makes sense. It cries for an urgent review if only to lighten the burden of the commission in accommodating the few serious-minded at the expense of the teeming crowd of jokers in the political market place.

In 1979, the generals gave us five political parties. By 1983, there were six of them with the addition of Tunji Braithwaite’s NAP, the party out then to rid our country of rats, cockroaches and mosquitoes but never had the chance to do so. See why the rats and the cockroaches and the mosquitoes are still our problems? INEC should have the power to prune the list of the parties down to a reasonable level – five to start with and let us see how those would historically evolve into the two-party system promoted by President Babangida during his transition to civil rule programme.

Two, there were 73 presidential candidates in 2019, the largest number this country has ever seen so far. Again, this motley crowd was accommodated by the commission because the law, as it stands, says so. How many of these largely unknown quantities really expected to have a fair shot at the presidency? An election is a leadership recruitment process. It ought not to be treated so cynically, least of all by a country that has had problems with good leadership, as opposed to rulers, at all levels.

Three, the lawmakers must restore to INEC its right to interrogate those who wish to seek election into the executive and the legislative branches of government and weed out undesirable characters who buy their way into elective offices with mostly dirty money.  Former Senator Nuhu Aliyu once looked up at the faces in the senate chambers and was shocked to see some thieves he had once arrested and prosecuted now ensconced in their seats as federal aw-makers. It is still happening.

Yes, Yakubu was right. There is a lot of work to be done to scrub the face of our electoral system. If the lawmakers ignore the exigencies of time and instead waste precious time on irrelevancies in the name of politics, there would be no prize for guessing what would happen to our electoral legal framework now swaying in the wind in 2023. (First published March 17, 2019)

So far, the president and the national assembly have ignored Yakubu’s plea. Nothing is likely to change in the conduct of our elections. Not under the watch of a man who thinks nothing of reforms as part of the processes in nation-building.