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State Electoral Commissions And The Dilemma Of Independence

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In a country in desperate need of electoral integrity, the independence of the state electoral commissions has been a recurring theme, Gabriel Atumeyi, looks at matters arising.

The local government area should be the foundation of democratic governance for all countries. It is the closest level of government to the citizens. It should address the basic needs of the citizens.  It is expected to provide citizens with more direct representation and opportunity for political participation.

However, the perceived poor performance of State Independent Electoral Commission (SIECs) has become a cause for concern given the significance of local governments in a democratic society.

The recent conduct of local government elections in Kano and Edo States respectively, and controversies generated has brought to light once again the debate about the integrity and independence of the various SIECs.

In Edo State the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) decided to boycott the polls, citing distrust of the composition of Edo State Independent Electoral Commission (EDSIEC), and the unwillingness to give credibility to a flawed and pre-determined process engineered by the state government.

Similarly, in Kano State, the PDP, the major opposition party, rejected the outcome of the polls which saw the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) clearing all the chairmanship and counsellorship seats.

The PDP alleged that the election was orchestrated to give the ruling party undue advantage.

The integrity of the State Independence electoral commission has been on trial as it is seen as an extension of the ruling government and party.

The system has been the ruling party wins all the available positions in local government elections. for example, the November 2017 local government elections in Enugu State saw the PDP which is the party in government swept the polls. The APC in the State dismissed the election as a sham, insisting that officials of Enugu State Independent Electoral Commission (ENSIEC) were card carrying members of the PDP handpicked to do the bidding of the ruling party. So far there has not been a local government election that has been satisfactory to all parties involved.

In most of the states where local government elections were conducted, candidates of the ruling parties won virtually all the seats. Often such results do not reflect the voting pattern in federal elections.

In view of the performance of the SIECs, there have been popular suggestions at the public hearings, in some of the memoranda submitted, and also in the media for their abrogation.

Analyst  have observed that the SIECs, unlike the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which has gone through varying stages of incompetence and inefficiency before undergoing a reformation process, still remain mired in incompetence.

That State independent electoral commissions, observers say have become appendages of not just the governments in power at the states, but also of the ruling parties. The members of the state commissions openly have party allegiances, elections are poorly organized and brazenly rigged, and the term ‘independent’ is completely rubbished.

This is even in states where there are regular elections, as most states hold them any time they deem it fit, without any consistency or adherence to the idea of organizing elections at the expiration of tenures.

Unlike other elections in the country, local government elections have always been at the behest of the state governors.

All political parties are guilty of it. It happens in all the states of the federation. It is believed that where a local council election is held, the men and women who the governor anoints become council chairmen or councillors. It is another classic case of he who pays the piper dictates the tune.

The governors are empowered by the constitution to conduct local government elections; they appoint the state INEC chairman and other staff of the state independent electoral commission.  They pay their salaries and are responsible for every other thing needed for the election. By that very fact, the SIECs are only independent in name.

The controversy trailing the performance of SIEC was also seen in 2004 and 2008 elections.

The Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) set up by late President Yar’Adua in its December 2008 report observed that “Many people who submitted memoranda expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of SIECs which were considered mere organs of the incumbent State Governors and the ruling parties. The Justice Muhammed Uwais-led Electoral Reforms Panel suggested among other things for States Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs) and Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) to be abolished. SIECs will be brought under the INEC structure, while RECs will be replaced by Directors of Election for each of the 36 states of the federation and Abuja who will be career civil servants.

INEC’s funding will also be a first charge from the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the federation.

The 2014 National Conference resolved to have the States Independent Electoral Commission (SIEC) scrapped and recommended that its functions be transferred to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). It observed that the commission at that level has outlived its usefulness and has become a tool for governors to manipulate elections into local government councils.

Recently, the National Conscience Party (NCP) joined the call for the scrapping of State Independent Electoral Commission in addition to empowering the National Independent Commission (INEC) to take over the conduct of local government elections. The party said that there is empirical evidence that SIEC is not clothed with transparency because of its loyalty to state   governments.

According to NCP, this will create room for the much needed transparency and neutrality in the conduct of local government polls at the local government level.

Proponents of the scrapping of state owned electoral bodies have argued that it amounts to duplicity of office, as INEC is constitutionally empowered to conduct elections in the country while others are of the opinion that it will allow for greater autonomy of the local government. They said one cannot speak of local government autonomy without addressing the foundations. They further noted that states have to be stripped of powers to constitute State Electoral Commissions to conduct elections into local government. and that the autonomy of local government was sacrosanct and there will be fairness only if INEC is allowed to conduct elections into councils.

Speaking to journalists in early 2017, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, described the conduct of local government elections in Nigeria as a shame and mockery of democracy. He faulted the situation where elections are conducted and only one political party wins all the seats.  He said the current system is not working, that local government elections have benefited only those who constituted themselves into middlemen to grab the resources meant for the development of the grass roots.

Little wonder that last year; there was a renewed call in the National Assembly for the abrogation of the state Independent Electoral Commissions and the transfer of their functions and power to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

It was the third bill on scrapping of SIEC from the constitution but was narrowly defeated in the House of Representatives with eleven votes short of the required 240 votes.

Speaking to LEADERSHIP WEEKEND, the Chairman of APC in Edo State, Barrister Anselm Ojezua said, a level playing ground is the universal application of rules. If the PDP is given 45 day notices, justice requires the APC and other political parties are given the same time notice and that is what EDSIEC did. He said all the parties were given the same notice. “Is there any other definition of a level playing field?” he queried, adding, “What happened in the local government elections is that the PDP no longer enjoys the goodwill of the people of Edo State. “They don’t even have capacity to give leadership to their followers. How can they tell their members to boycott the elections? The local government election is the most important and they say they are not interested but if it is election into other national offices, like the Senate and House of Representatives they will be interested. If they cannot contest an election how can they justify their existence. If people are calling for the SIEC to be scrapped they forget that INEC are also made up of human beings. I don’t think SIECs should be scrapped, if there is evidence that the independence of any of the SIEC have been tempered with, they should restore it.

Also speaking to LEADERSHIP WEEKEND, the Chairman of Edo State chapter of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Dan Orbih, stated that there was a deliberate plan to exclude his party from the local government election. According to him, “A meeting was fixed by the state electoral commission, we were only invited to the meeting on the day of the meeting. “But we insisted on sending officers of the party to attend the meeting, it was at the meeting that they announced their intention to conduct local government elections and they read out a series of activities that will proceed the election. We pointed out that the elections will not hold based on the information they gave us. The law for the conduct of local government election in the state is very clear; parties should be given a minimum of 90 days notice before the day of the election. On their part, they claim that instead of 90 days it should now be 45 days notice. We later agreed but the amendment bill was horridly sent to the state House of Assembly.

The executive bill was proposed and sent to the state assembly by the state governor, it was the same day the law was amended and it was the same day the governor assented to the bill.

“It may interest you to know that under our legislative system in the state, a proposed executive bill must go through the first, second and third readings, and there must be a public hearing to have the inputs of the people they intend to applied to. It may also interest you to know that what was said to have been amended did not go through the first, second and third readings as well as public hearing before it was pass and  assented to by the governor.

The governor is the only person with the authorisation to propose an executive bill and convey it to the state House of Assembly. In this very instance, it was the secretary to the state government who signed on behalf of governor, which is not how it ought to be, all these issues and many others like the composition of the EDSIEC made up of card carrying members of the APC, made us seek redress at the high court.

Dr Abubakar Umar Kyari  University Lecturer at University Of Abuja said there has been a clamour for transfer of SIEC’s function to INEC but proponents of strict federalism have been kicking against it. Because under a federal structure the component units have their own responsibilities and one of them is for the components unit of the federation to hold their local government elections but if you look at it democratically the local government elections in Nigeria has been marred by endless controversies and the state electoral commissions have failed to deliver outcomes that can be said to truly represent the will of the grassroots people.

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