The 2022 Electoral Act empowers INEC to prosecute electoral offenders, yet in many instances, we find INEC officials lament that they would prefer it was done by a separate commission.
●3rd May 2023
As I write this piece, I ask myself if the drama that played out in the just concluded gubernatorial elections in Adamawa state has truly ended. The electoral shenanigans in that state started in March when it was declared inconclusive by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). A supplementary election was subsequently organized on the 15th of April, which saw the drama for who becomes the governor of the state come to a head.
The governorship race in the state was mainly between the incumbent, and candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Ahmadu Umaru Fintiri and the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Aisha Binani. Unfortunately, in a manner that can only be described as top Nollywood drama, the (now suspended) INEC Residence Electoral Commissioner for the state, Hudu Yunusa-Ari, without reference to any data, and while the process that should lead to the declaration of a winner had not been concluded, declared Aisha Binani of the APC as winner of the elections and swiftly left the collation center where the announcement was made. Immediately after that announcement, the purported winner of the election read an acceptance speech on National Television, and congratulatory messages started pouring in from her party faithfuls. However, Nigerians would not take it, to a lot of people, this was an open affront at the procedure for conducting an acceptable election that should lead to a winner emerging, and the call for the arrest and prosecution of the REC of Adamawa started growing.
This is just an example of several electoral offences committed by individuals in the various elections that have been conducted in Nigeria since 1999. This obviously calls for concern. In the following paragraphs, I will x-ray the place of INEC and law enforcement in the arrest and prosection of electoral offenders, and examine their challenges and possible way forward.
The 2022 Electoral Act empowers INEC to prosecute electoral offenders, yet in many instances, we find INEC officials lament that they would prefer it was done by a separate commission. In a 2018 Keynote Address by Hon. Nat. Commissioner and Chair, Legal Services Committee, Mrs. May Abgamuche-Mbu at a training for INEC Legal Staff and Nigerian Police officers on prosecution of election offences, she stated that “the duty of the prosecution of electoral offences has become a burden on the Commission for reasons I will mention later. INEC has been advocating the transfer of this responsibility to another agency or entity, preferably the creation of an Electoral Offences Commission.” This was further echoed in the address of the INEC Chairman at his 2023 speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House in London where he stated that “although the Commission is empowered by the Electoral Act to prosecute electoral offences, it lacks the power and resources to make arrests and thoroughly investigate electoral offences. While we will continue to cooperate with the law enforcement agencies for the arrest, investigation and prosecution of electoral offenders, most of those that are arrested, tried and convicted so far are the foot soldiers rather than the sponsors of electoral violence and other violations. Efforts at mitigating electoral malfeasance can only become effective with the arrest, prosecution and sanctioning the “mother spiders” to end their reign of impunity. It is for this reason that INEC supports the establishment of the Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal imbued with the responsibility of prosecuting electoral offences as recommended in the reports of various committees set up the Federal Government, notably the Uwais Committee (2009), the Lemu Committee (2011) and the Nnamani Committee (2017). This will enable the Commission to focus on its core mandate of organising, supervising and conducting elections and electoral activities. While appreciating the considerable work already done, the Commission once again appeals to the National Assembly to expedite action on the conclusion of the legislative work on the Bill. It will be another enduring legacy of the 9th Assembly that will strengthen Nigeria’s democracy just like the passage of the Electoral Act 2022.”
From the confessions of the INEC National Commissioner in 2018, and the current INEC Chairman, five years after, it has become obvious that Nigeria may not make any head way in terms of the prosecution of electoral offenders, especially from INEC, whose primary task of conducting elections may be crowded out by the imperatives of prosecuting electoral offenders. However, beyond the lack of capacity by INEC to combine its primary goal of conducting elections with that of prosecuting electoral offenders, law enforcement agents and agencies, who are empowered with the right to arrest and prosecute, must also step up to the plate. In the 2023 elections, a total of 781 electoral offenders were arrested. Most of them are what the INEC Chairman described as the “foot soldiers” of the “mother spiders”. In a country where law enforcement is very weak, it will not be surprising to find that most of these arrested electoral offenders, with the influence of the “mother spiders” will walk free. These “mother spiders” may have been the ones who have caused the disappearance of the Adamawa REC whose actions should have elicited the swift reaction of law enforcement agents, but then again, it was the same law enforcement agents who should have effected his arrest when he made the unlawful pronouncement, that flanked him as he announced a purported winner of the governorship election in the state. To compound the woes of law enforcement agents, they have become the target of criminals across the country, and in some instances struggle to protect themselves.
While it is most desirable that all concerned listen to the suggestions of INEC officials as to the successful prosecution of electoral offenders in terms of implementing the report of various committees set up for that purpose, the lack of progress in prosecution may not be entirely due to the non-implementation of the suggestions from the committees, but on the political will of law enforcement, to do the right things. Therefore, for electoral offenders to be successfully prosecuted, there needs to be political will by various stakeholders to see that this scourge is dealt with in our polity, and that it will be very expensive for electoral offenders to roam free. Furthermore, the concerns of the INEC officials in the span of five years should be given attention.