That Nigeria’s election management agency, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), is seeking more powers to play a more decisive role in the selection of candidates for the general election is an indictment of the nation’s unscrupulous members of the political class who have specialised in litigation to get powers. Instead of relying on the political party rules and the people, they have perfected the art of undermining the process, compromising or fooling the judiciary into handing them mandate they did not win. This, truly, is a disservice to democracy. Yet, the option being sought by INEC is not exactly fool-proof.
INEC did not just seek to ask for more powers to disqualify candidates for ordinary reasons. According to reports, this quest has been touched off by multiple law suits that always arise from the failure of political parties to observe internal democracy and abide by their guidelines on primaries. This is the tragedy of the Nigerian politician that has turned the judicial arm into a mandate-giving institution. This newspaper has at various times drawn attention to the danger of allowing the judiciary to play the role of “returning officers” in elections.
And INEC’s quest for more powers to disqualify is not new. It began before the 2015 general election. In a position paper submitted to the then Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), which explained the reasons for extraordinary powers to disqualify, the electoral body had tacitly blamed the judiciary for aiding electoral impunity through conflicting judgments that have affected mandates the people have freely given.
INEC then explained that it had become imperative for it to have the power to reject any candidate whose emergence may have failed to comply with the provisions of their party’s constitution or the electoral law.
In seeking mandate from the courts, most candidates fish for frivolous reasons outside the guidelines and the extant laws that should guide primaries and most times they succeed in those courts that have been proven to lack credibility. The electoral body had then specifically asked for more legal muscle thus:
“The role of INEC in the nomination process should be strengthened. Thus, a variant of the provision in Section 87(9) of the Electoral Act (before amendment) should be re-introduced thus: ‘Where a political party fails to comply with the provision of the Constitution or this Act in the conduct of the primaries or nomination of any candidate for any election under this act, its candidate shall not be included in the list of nominated candidates for the election.’
The electoral body further stated then that, “this is because INEC is constrained to accept the list submitted by political parties having regard to the provision of Section 31 of the Electoral Act,” it said in the paper to the federal legislature, the CJN, etc and others as part of sensitisation for the power it sought.
Consequently, INEC then wrote to the National Assembly seeking amendments to the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended).
In the letter dated June 13, 2015, and addressed to then Senate President, David Bonaventure Alechenu Mark, and then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, then Chairman of INEC, Professor Attahiru Jega, reminded the federal legislature of its request for the amendments in November (2014), which were yet to be effected. He also introduced a few other requests to strengthen the earlier ones.
The INEC had then noted that to further promote internal democracy, the emergence of candidates for elections should be on a democratic basis. Which was why it then asked that a variant of the provision in Section 87 (9) of the Act (before amendment) should be re-introduced thus: “Where a political party fails to comply with the provision of the Constitution or this Act in the conduct of the Primaries or nomination of any candidate for elections under this Act, its candidate for the affected constituency shall not be included in the list of nominated candidates for the election.”
In its 2014 letter to the constitution review committees of the Senate and the House, INEC demanded among other things, sweeping powers in order for it to be the sole authority on the disqualification of candidates as well as determine the names of political parties that would have their names and logos on the ballot papers.
By the provisions of the Electoral Act, INEC can only disqualify a candidate based on judicial orders. In making its case, the Commission said: “The commission should be empowered to disqualify any candidate, if there is a prima facie case shown from the presentation that the candidate is unqualified. After all, it (INEC) is not only a management body, it is also a regulatory one and should have some powers in this regard just like such bodies as the Nigerian Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC) or Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in revoking bank licences, approving bank director nominees, or National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) in sealing unregistered pharmaceutical premises or seizing bad or expired drugs.”
Accordingly, it said that the Constitution and the Electoral Act should be amended to: “Disqualify candidates who evidently do not satisfy the requirements for the position, he or she is vying for as provided in 65, 66, 106 107, 131, 137, 177 and 182 of the Constitution.”
INEC also sought powers to disqualify for 10 years anyone convicted for electoral offences by a court or tribunal, as well as powers to determine the names of political parties that would have their names on the ballot papers.
This is the origin of the current request for more powers for INEC to deal with the appetite of candidates for litigation before and after elections, a development that has disrupted the rhythm of electoral victories and defeats. The then National Assembly, after spending colossal amount of money on constitution amendment, achieved nothing as then President Goodluck Jonathan refused to sign the amendment bill into law. And INEC’s requests also went down the drain with other proposals.
All told, with the fate of the current exercise (constitution amendment) still hanging in the balance, it is not known how long INEC would have to wait for the empowering law, which in any case, if passed, can also be abused by persons in the electoral body.
The real counsel, therefore, should go to the politicians and the political parties. There should be a genuine desire by the political parties to put their houses in order. They should entrench a culture of discipline and compliance with their own constitutions. They should ensure party discipline. It should be the responsibility of the political parties to report their erring members to court and INEC. It is the political parties that nominate while the people vote, not the election management agency. As the court processes have been abused to impose and dispose of candidates, so is it possible for abuses to set in on the part of INEC when given more powers.
While the reasons for request for such powers are understood, amending the organic law and enabling laws of an agency for purity in political recruitment may yield other problems. It is the responsibility of the political parties and the people to determine how to put their best feet forward in the most democratic manner. What is more, there may indeed be some cogent reasons for some aggrieved candidates to have recourse to the courts of law, after all. And that right to approach the temple of justice should not be taken away. So, politicians should let the law of their parties rule and let democracy be democracy indeed.