The country is at the threshold of concluding yet another electoral act amendment exercise. Although the process has been dogged with controversy over the rejection of e-transmission of election results, the passage of the Bill seeking to establish an Electoral Offences Commission bill seems to have gone under the radar almost as quickly as it was passed. But it is essential that the electoral offences commission bill considers the impact it could have on the credibility of the electoral system.
The bill, as passed by the Senate, if signed into law, will empower the commission to investigate electoral offences, prosecute electoral offenders and maintain records of all persons investigated and prosecuted. The legislation also prescribes a lot more penalties including a 20-year jail term for offenders found guilty of snatching ballot boxes during elections; at least five years imprisonment or a fine of at least N10 million or both, for any officer or executives of any association or political party that engages in electoral fraud that contravenes the provisions of clauses 221, 225(1)(2)(3) and (4) and 227 of the 1999 Constitution as amended.
Also it proposes at least 15 years imprisonment for any judicial officer or officer of a court or tribunal who corruptly perverts electoral justice, during or after an election. “At least 15 years jail term or N30 million fine for any security personnel or election official engaged by the Independent National Electoral Commission or State Electoral Commission who attempts to influence the outcome of an election.” And much more.
Indeed the clamour for an Electoral Offences Commission isn’t new. But it is sad that it took so long before we got to this. The first time it was recommended was in 2007. The creation of an Electoral Offences Commission was one of the recommendations put forward by the Electoral Reform Committee set up by President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in August 2007 and led by former Chief justice of Nigeria, Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais.
Civil society organizations and other election stakeholders have advocated for its creation ever since. For them, like most Nigerians would agree, the commission would address the rising menace of electoral offences in Nigeria, considering INEC’s lack of capacity to plan and conduct elections, as well as arrest, investigate and prosecute electoral offenders.
The Uwais Committee report recommended the establishment of an autonomous Commission to investigate and prosecute all electoral frauds and offences, as well as enforce relevant provisions of the Electoral Act. In addition, it had recommended that the Commission be empowered to introduce and maintain investigative and control techniques towards the prevention of electoral malpractices and fraudulent elections, among others.
It is sad, in our opinion, that that it took such a long time to come this far. The damage done to the electoral system because there was no strong institutional framework to prosecute electoral offenders is such that will require time to amend.
For over a decade there was no strong deterrent to electoral offenders despite the existence of such a critical proposal in the nation’s political archives, an abhorrent behaviour that has become systemic.
Looking to the future, we can only hope that lessons have been learnt which underscores the need for us to make up for lost times even though we don’t expect a perfect institution, especially at its inception.
We would naturally assume that the commission will be allowed to function as independently as should. However in the face of the seeming distrust among political stakeholders, it is only fitting that the composition of the commission would be such that it gives confidence to those who seek justice and who expect to get nothing short of it, and promptly too.
We would also hope that the commission would not be treated with the same subtle disregard that the judiciary is being treated as it concerns funding. More so, we hope that there will be a clear streamlining of their functions so as to avoid conflict with the duties of the regular courts.
Indeed, the benefit of the electoral offences commission to deal with electoral cases cannot be overemphasized even though some have had cause to argue that at a time there is call for reduction in cost of governance.
But the quest to ensure the sanctity of the electoral process cannot be toyed with considering that the commission would help to instill voter confidence and ensure greater participation in the political exercise.
But all these would amount to another mere wishful thinking if the bill does not get signed by the executive arm but much more the commitment of all stakeholders to make it work.