Last week, the Independent National Electoral Commission officially lifted the restrictions on campaigns for the presidential and National Assembly elections slated for February 14. By this, the various political parties were expected to start full blown campaigns on January 5. Chief press secretary to the INEC chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega, Mr. Kayode Idowu, who expatiated on the final removal of the ban on electioneering, warned politicians to desist from inflammatory language and provocative actions in the course of their campaigns.
But the code of conduct for the campaigns, as presented by Idowu, did not indicate sanctions against those who may flout the rules. This again raises the fundamental question as to whether INEC really has the capacity to effectively enforce its own electoral regulations, especially, regarding the meting out of sanctions to offenders.
Facts on the ground seem to prove that it does not.
The rules on campaigning have severally been flouted by virtually all the political parties, with INEC habitually responding by issuing warnings that are largely ignored. Such disobedience is hardly followed with sanctions.
Before the final removal of the lid on campaigns last week, INEC had in the general election timetable released on January 24 last year scheduled the initial commencement of campaigns by political parties for presidential and National Assembly elections for November 16, and governorship and state assembly elections for November 30. This was in line with section 99 (1) of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended), which provides for the start of campaigns 90 days before polling day.
But it is almost impossible to point to any political party that adhered to the campaign timeframe. INEC had severally frowned on this disobedience in frustration.
Jega said in March last year, at an interactive session with editors in Lagos, that the political parties were flouting the rules governing the commencement of campaigns. Last September, Idowu was quoted as saying, “The rules on electoral campaigns are there; all parties are flouting those rules, without exception. All parties across the divide are flouting those rules. Why they are flouting the rules is that there are gaps in the law.”
Indeed, the electoral law is fraught with gaps that tend to make INEC not more than a spectator in many electoral matters.
The Electoral Act states in section 100 (1), “a candidate and his party shall campaign for the elections in accordance with such rules and regulations as may be determined by the commission.” But the law remains largely silent on the powers of INEC to sanction politicians and political parties that contravene the rules.
But campaign timeframe is not the only area where INEC’s lack of capacity is bound to cause contention.
As the country marches towards elections next month, another area where the near toothless position of INEC is set to generate a lot of controversy is campaign funding.
The law specifies the maximum amount of election expenses allowed for various elective positions, thus, presidential candidates, N1 billion; governorship candidates, N200 million; senatorial and House of Representatives candidates, N40 million and N20 million, respectively; and House of Assembly candidates, N10 million.
Section 91(10) of the Electoral Act states, “A candidate who knowingly acts in contravention of this section commits an offence and on conviction is liable to a maximum fine of N1 million or imprisonment for a term of 12 months or both.”
Section 90 of the Act gives INEC power to impose limitations on the amount of money or asset individuals or groups can contribute to a political party’s campaign. It is not clear if the commission has ever exercised this power or actually tried to determine expenses made by parties and individuals during election.
Last December 20, Peoples Democratic Party blazed a trail in controversial campaign funding, when it netted N21.27 billion at a fundraising dinner reportedly for its presidential candidate, President Goodluck Jonathan. The party has been hard-pressed to find a justification for the contentious naira rain, despite afterthought explanations that the money is not for Jonathan alone, but also for other elections and projects of the party.
INEC, too, has said it cannot prosecute any party or individual for campaign funding violations until it is presented with concrete evidence after investigation by the security agencies – an indication that no one may ever be prosecuted, not least from the ruling party.
There is also the question of deadlines, which under the current Electoral Act INEC has been stripped of any power to enforce.
Section 87(9) of the old Electoral Act, 2010 had provided, “Where a political party fails to comply with the provisions of this Act in the conduct of its primaries, its candidate for election shall not be included in the election for the particular position in issue.” This provision had given the commission power to enforce deadlines and really monitor the process for the emergence of candidates.
However, section 87(9) was expunged in the amended Act and replaced with section 31(1), which, effectively, stripped INEC of any say in the qualification of candidates for election. Section 31(1) of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended) provides that political parties should submit the list of their candidates to the commission not later than 60 days to the date of the election. But the section goes further to say, “provided that the commission shall not reject or disqualify candidates for any reason whatsoever.”
This unrestricted allowance granted the political parties has been the source of endless litigations, which look set to continue before and after the coming general election.
The current status of the country’s electoral laws appears to leave too many things to the discretion of the courts. The commission or parties are left with the option of presenting perceived violations of the electoral law before tribunals or regular courts that, in most cases, are not committed to any time-frame.
Consciously or unconsciously, INEC has been reduced to a toothless bulldog with ability only to bark, but never to bite. This, certainly, is not in the interest of the political class. And it does not augur well for democracy.
So as the country prepares to inaugurate a new National Assembly after next month’s general election, those going into the federal legislature should see it as an urgent patriotic duty to give the electoral umpire some teeth to make it truly effective.