The process of amending the Electoral Act is on. And, as expected, it is already attracting reactions and generating, justifiedly, some contentious talking points. The discussions from whether there should be electronic transmission of results to an allegation by a member of the House of Representatives from Benue State, Hon. Mark Terseer Gbillah, claiming that the Senate made 20 illegal insertions in the 2021 Electoral Act under consideration at the National Assembly.
However, one area of the electoral bill that has raised eyebrows is the clause that proposed a N2 million fine or imprisonment for a term not more than two years or both for anyone who sells or offers to sell his or her voter’s card.
The bill stipulates that any person, including an entity, who is in illegal possession of any voter’s card, whether issued in the name of the voter or not, “sells or offers to sell any voter’s card issued in the name of any voter or not, or buys or offers to buy any voter’s card and whether on his or her own behalf or on behalf of any other person commits an offense and is liable, on conviction to, in the case of an individual, a fine not more than N2, 000,000.00 or imprisonment for a term not more than two years or both, and in the case of an entity, a fine of N5, 000,000.00.”
Some are wondering why such a law is being proposed to deal with what could ordinarily pass for bribery. Indeed, buying and selling of voters’ cards has increasingly become a negative feature of the nation’s electoral experience. And the impact has been enormous on the democratic space negatively speaking.
In the build up to the 2019 general elections, political parties were accused of approaching the electorate and offering some of them money to vote for certain preferred candidates during the elections. They were also accused of buying permanent voters’ cards out rightly.
This allegation preceded the admittance by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that vote-buying took place during 2016 Ekiti State governorship. The governorship election in Anambra State which preceded the Ekiti poll as well as subsequent elections after the latter also recorded, allegedly, massive vote buying and selling.
The situation became so appalling at some point that perpetrators of the ugly trend daringly engaged in their illicit act openly, while security agents assigned to secure polling process, complicitly, turned a blind eye to a crime of obvious bribery.
Reacting to the emerging ugly trend, the Nigerian Catholic Bishops’ Conference was compelled to issue a statement advising voters not to sell their permanent voter cards or their votes for that matter.
The sale of voter cards and votes have been blamed on the lack of confidence by voters in the electoral system and, indeed, in the goings-on in the country in the guise of democracy. This newspaper, nevertheless, disagrees with such mind set on the ground that no condition justifies the selling of votes. It is pertinent to stress that such a practice is not only immoral but also an affront to the democratic culture the nation is striving to nurture. Without doubt and by all standards of what is right, it is unpatriotic for any citizen to sell his or her right no matter the amount of money on offer.
That said, we consider it insightful that the proposed law provides as much penalty for the seller as also for the buyer. We believe that the buyer and the seller are equally liable. This position takes into context the practice of corrupt politicians who have mastered the act of exploiting the poverty or naivety of the electorate. We posit that the law should be tougher on the person making the offer.
However, beyond the provisions of the anticipated law, we are apprehensive that there may not be the will power to ensure its enforcement. This concern arises against the backdrop of the compromising attitude of security agencies towards voters’ buyers and sellers. We contend that without the security personnel performing their statutory duties, the law would likely amount to a waste of time.
Another worry is that the law, when passed, might be applied in the breach when it turns a blind eye to culprits of a certain party or political leaning. It is also important that the law does not become a ready tool to be used to intimidate the opposition either within the ruling or the opposition party.
It is our considered opinion that sanitizing the electoral system is a major step in the quest for free, fair and credible elections. And in a situation where political immorality as displayed during elections is beginning to erode the confidence of stakeholders, the place of appropriate penalties cannot be overemphasized.