Towards A More Credible, Fair and Free Elections in Nigeria, By Ken Nnamani

Ken Nnamani

Being A Text of a Keynote Address by Senator Ken Nnamani, GCON at the 3rd Oronto Douglas Memorial Dialogue in Abuja on Tuesday, April 9, 2019

It is a delight to be part of this dialogue at the period in our history after a momentous national election. The choice of electoral reform as the theme of this dialogue is wise. As we are smarting from the joys and pains of the 2019 general election, this is the right time to begin earnest discussion about improvement of the processes of the 2023 elections. So, the 3rd Oronto Douglas Dialogue has provided us a great opportunity to move away from incriminations and accusations and seek effective solutions to institutional problems.

Let me start my brief remarks by saying a few things about Mr. Oronto Douglas in which honour the dialogue is instituted. I did not have very close walk with him while he was alive. But I observed him closely as he served the past president as a key adviser. I had tremendous respect for his sense of mission, his courage and brilliance in seeking a new direction for the country. In his short life, he exercised so much energy and intelligence that he made powerful impacts. It is for the impacts he has made in promoting human rights and good governance that we are gathered today to honor his memory with this dialogue.

My perspective on electoral reform is shaped partly by my experience as a politician who has contested elections in Nigeria and as a former Chairman of the Constitutional and Electoral Reform Committee (CERC). As a politician I have seen firsthand flaws of the electoral system so glaring that you can be sure that the votes cannot count. Many Nigerian politicians will acknowledge that there are historical flaws with the electoral system. These flaws hinder the protection of the right to vote and the sustenance of democracy.

Democracy is based on the principle of self-determination and representation. In a democracy the people govern themselves through their elected representatives. Modern democracy is now representative democracy underlined by periodic elections. These elections are not mere rituals. They are real opportunity for the people to review the performance of political officeholders and decide whether they should continue to hold office. The premise of democracy is that such opportunity truly exists. But where elections have been compromised because of such fundamental flaws, the premise and promise of democracy are compromised.

I believe that critical to strengthening democracy is ensuring that the electoral process is free, fair and credible. Now, note that I refer to electoral process and not elections. Many Nigerians, including respectable civil society leaders consider fair, free and credible election as if it starts and ends on the election day. This is wrong. We should focus on the entire process, starting with how political parties elect or select their candidates up to declaration of results. This process involves different political and non-political authorities. Each of them must be willing to deliver according to its constitutional and statutory mandate and the highest level of public ethics for elections to be free, fair and credible.

The theme of this dialogue is: “Nigeria’s Broken Electoral System: Uwais Report and Unfinished Business”. It is obvious that the Uwais report represents a high point in the search for an electoral system that will suit Nigeria’s peculiar circumstances. The eminent members of that committee proposed many innovations that could restore credibility and fairness to our electoral system. Unfortunately, many of these innovative proposals were not implemented.

It was in this context that President Buhari appointed me and others to the Constitutional and Electoral Reform Committee to, amongst other things, review the Uwais report and make recommendations for reform of the constitution and electoral law to institutionalize free, fair and credible elections. Our committee reviewed Uwais report, accepted the logic of its recommendations and proposed constitutional and statutory reforms to ensure free, fair and credible elections in Nigeria. I will like to share two of these recommendations so that they can constitute insights for a more structured debate about electoral reform in Nigeria

The most important part of a good electoral system is the credibility and independence of the electoral management body. Oftentimes we have argued as if independence is just a matter of getting a credible person as Chairman of the electoral management body. It is far more than that. The independence of the election management body is mostly determined by the mode of appointment. In South Africa and some other African countries, the process of appointment of electoral management officials is more of competitive recruitment where those appointed will have a sense that they merited the position not that they are beneficiaries of political patronage. Therefore we recommended that although the President still appoints but another body advertises the job, interviews and recommends to the President for appointment. In this process, both the President and the Senate play a role. But the bigger role is reserved for a special recruitment body drawn from the NJC, the civil service commission, the human rights commission, professional and civil society groups and women society. The recruitment commission will advertise the position and interview successful candidates. Later it will present 3 nominees for each position to the Council of State which will recommend one person for the President to appoint.

This approach is almost like how we appoint federal judges. The idea is to ensure that we appoint persons who have institutional isolation to prime political actors. Here the National Judicial Council (NJC) will be part of the Electoral Commission Appointments Committee. We need such institutional redesign to help the integrity of electoral managers. We need to be realistic about the challenges and incentive for conformity in our political environment and redesign our electoral institutions to overcome such tendencies. The strength of democracy is better defined by the quality of institution and not necessarily by the heroism of persons.

The 2019 elections also highlight a serious pathology of Nigerian elections. There is so much violence and crimes associated with elections. Political desperation makes ordinary elections to resemble wars. We spend so much on providing security, yet we continue to witness a high level of violence and electoral crimes. This does not require religious exhortation and appeal to the conscience of politicians. In a Third World country like Nigeria public offices are very attractive so politicians have incentive to fight dirty to gain access to these political offices. Until we can reduce the financial rewards of occupying political offices through anticorruption and accountability measures, we should expect desperation from politicians. We must deal with violence and other electoral crimes through institutional redesigning.

The reason politicians sponsor violence and commit other crimes during elections is because they calculate that the benefits of criminal behaviors are more than the costs. To reduce the rate of these crimes we must reduce the benefits and make it difficult for those who sponsor or commit such crimes to go scot-free.

There is need to end the impunity in our system by prosecuting electoral criminals. In the past after elections we have failed to prosecute those who breached the electoral laws. This lack of prosecution is the biggest encouragement to politicians to breach the law. Attorneys General are political appointees. They don’t usually have incentives to prosecute electoral offences. This is why we agreed with Uwais Committee by recommending the establishment of a electoral crimes commission as an independent body that will manage the prosecution of electoral offences. Such body like the EFCC will have the powers to investigate and prosecute electoral criminals. Because it is an independent commission it will have better political neutrality to prosecute all those who violate the electoral laws. This will go a long way to reduce election violence and other electoral crimes in Nigeria.

I believe that we can start today to lay the foundation for more credible elections in Nigeria. No electoral system is perfect. Our challenge is to borrow those models that have worked well elsewhere and adapt them to suit our environment. We cannot rest on our oars. The Uwais provided a good framework for the work of our committee. We finished too late for those recommendations to reflect in constitutional amendments. Now, is the right time to pick some of the recommendations in both reports and begin a robust debate on how Nigeria can establish an electoral system that can guarantee a truly credible electoral process that will give us free, fair and credible elections in 2023 and beyond.

This gathering of scholars and advocate can focus on this challenge and propose implementable proposals to both the executive and legislative branch of government after May 29.

Thank you for listening

Senator Ken Nnamani, GCON,

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