Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that at the sixth Biennial General Assembly of the ECOWAS Network of Electoral Commissions, the symposium was tailored towards promoting an all encompassing inclusivity for representation of women, youths, persons with disability and IDPs in the electoral process in West Africa
One of the issues that dogged the 2019 general elections in Nigeria was the claims and counter claims of lack of inclusivity, especially for Persons with Disability (PWDs). Although the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had rolled out and applied the braille ballot guide to assist eligible voters who are visually impaired to assist them cast their ballot without support, those it was meant for said it didn’t go round.
According to Emmanuella Agboje-Akinola, who is the executive programme director at Disability Awareness and Development Initiative, the Braille Ballot guide was meant to be inserted into the ballot paper so that blind voter can know the parties and vote independently for the first time. She said since it didn’t get to their voting unit, she still had to place her husband’s finger on the ballot paper to enable him exercise his civic duties.
To address such issue and more, the sixth Biennial General Assembly of the ECOWAS Network of Electoral Commissions (ECONEC), took place in Abuja last week. The ECONEC symposium on inclusivity in the electoral process provided a platform to discuss the legal frameworks and desirable practical steps for enhancing the participation and representation of women, youths and Persons with Disability (PWDs), Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and other maginalised groups, in the electoral process in West Africa.
Gracing the occasion were dignitaries like the Senate President, Senator Ahmad Lawan; Speaker, House of Representatives, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila; President of the ECOWAS Commission, Dr. Jean-Claude Kassi Brou; Vice-President Finda Koroma; Secretary General’s Special Representative and Head of the UN Office in West Africa and the Sahel, Dr. Mohamed Ibn Chambas, and the President, European Centre for Electoral Support (ECES), Mrs Monica Frassoni.
The event which was organised by ECONEC in collaboration with the INEC, Nigeria and the ECES with funding from the European Union (EU), also featured the presentation of two ECONEC publications – Report of the Cost of Elections Study and ECONEC Activities in Support of Credible Elections.
At the formal opening of the three-day event at Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja, President Muhammadu Buhari lauded ECONEC for promoting the best electoral standards and practices in West Africa, adding that it was a platform for mutual assistance in the promotion of credible elections through experience sharing, peer learning and capacity building to bring out the best electoral standards and practices in the ECOWAS region.
Represented by the Secretary to the Federal Government, Mr. Boss Mostapha, the president said the steady progress in ensuring that all segments of society have a voice in the management of public affairs, especially through the democratic process, was an encouraging sign.
Recalling the efforts by the Nigerian government to promote political inclusivity and the signing into law on May 31, 2018 of the “Not-too-young-to run” bill, he said the government was determined to ensure that not only youth, but other categories of citizens such as persons living with disabilities and those internally displaced for various reasons are integrated into the electoral proces.
He urged governments in the ECOWAS region to do more on political inclusivity through legislation, just as he charged the Election Management Bodies (EMBs) to take the lead in this regard, noting that through ECONEC’s advocacy under the erstwhile leadership of Prof Mahmood Yakubu, Chair of INEC, Nigeria had provided logistics and technical support to ECONEC members such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau.
He said it was gladdening to note that among the speakers are some of the youngest female members of parliament from different countries in the sub-region, adding that some of the persons with disabilities were included, among the parliamentarians.
He said: “This is a very encouraging sign of our steady progress in ensuring that all segments of our society have a voice in the management of public affairs, especially through the democratic process. It is also an indication that in spite of the progress achieved so far, more needs to be done by governments through legislation, by political parties through affirmative action in the nomination of candidates for election
and by all stakeholders through unrelenting advocacy for greater inclusion of all segments of society in the democratic and electoral processes.
“It is for this reason that before the last General Election in Nigeria, I assented to a constitutional amendment bill that reduced the age required of a candidate to contest for some elective offices. This followed the strong but peaceful advocacy by young men and women around the slogan of ‘Not-too-young-to-run’ as the bill passed by the National Assembly was popularly called.
“On the historic occasion of signing the bill into law on May 31, 2018, l hosted young persons from all the states of the federation. It is gratifying to see some at them here today and even more gratifying to note that many young men we elected to our National and State Houses of Assembly in Nigeria as a direct result of this proactive campaign. I want to assure you that this is just the beginning. We shall continue to ensure that not only the youth but other categories of citizens such a persons living with disabilities and those internally displaced for a variety of reasons are integrated into the electoral process in Nigeria in particular and other countries in our sub-region in general.
“In doing so, we will continue to support democratic consolidation in the sub-region. One way of doing so is for the EMBs to take the lead through peer support. I have followed with keen interest, the efforts of ECONEC in this regard. In the last two years, ECONEC, under the leadership of the Nigerian electoral body chairman, has been a strong advocate for Nigeria’s bilateral electoral assistance to countries in the sub-region based on need.
“Within the limits of available resources, Nigeria has responded by providing material and technical support to ECONEC. The more recent examples include logistics support to Sierra Leone, deployment of experts from INEC on the request of ECOWAS and the United Nations to assist in cleaning up the voters’ register in Liberia ahead of the Presidential run-off election in 2017 and the provision of voter registration equipment to Guinea Bissau which facilitated the conduct of parliamentary election in March this year.
“I want to assure you of Nigeria’s continued assistance because credible election in our sub-region is not only good for democracy and periodic elections, it is also good for overall sub-regionai stability. We cannot allow the failure of the political process to destabilise our countries to the extent that regional military intervention becomes inevitable as is unfortunately still the case in the sub-region.”
Giving legislative backing to the network,
President of Nigeria’s Senate, Senator Ahmed Lawan, said the National Assembly will collaborate with stakeholders to provide equal and effective participation in electoral process to the “marginalised’’ groups.
Represented by Senator Kabiru Gaya, Lawan said the participation of the marginalised group in the political life and electoral process in various West Africa countries could not be over emphasised given that women, youth, PWDs, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and other maginalised groups are critical stakeholders in nation building.
He said: “Therefore, the inability of these segments of our society to actively contribute their full potential to the national building has far reaching implications to political stability and social economic development.
“Measures should, therefore, be taken to enhance their popular participation and engagement with the political process, not only as voters, but also as candidates for elections and holders as of leadership positions in political parties.”
Similarly, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt Hon Femi Gbajabiamila, added that the 9th Assembly was committed to expediting the consideration and passage of bills that would promote inclusivity in Nigeria, adding that he recently appointed a physically-challenged, Abdulsalam Idowu as a special assistant on special needs/equal opportunities.
Gbajabiamila, who was represented by his deputy, Rt Hon Ahmed Idris, said the Nigerian parliament was working to continue to refine electoral laws to achieve more credible electoral outcome in the country.
“Beyond credible elections, however, we also need to open the democratic space to give more opportunity to persons who otherwise will be denied equal access and opportunities to political participation.
“It is in this light that we reiterate our commitment as parliament to make progressive legislations that will promote inclusivity of all stakeholders within the democratic community especially, women, young persons and the physically challenged,” he said.
ECOWAS’s Seal of Approval
In his speech, the President of the ECOWAS Commission, Mr. Jean-Claude Kassi Brou, charged the participants to provide a “scalable blueprint to ensure that elections in West Africa become more inclusive and reflect the aspirations of all strata of our populations.”
Represented by Director of Political Affairs,
Remi Ajibewa, the president who listed some of the achievements of ECONEC, said they have witnessed a significant improvement in the way elections are organised and conducted in the region.
He said: “With support of ECONEC, we have witnessed a significant improvement in the way elections are organised and conducted in the region. Despite these notable achievements, however, there are still challenges that subsist. One of such is the riding cost of organising elections in our member States that in most cases, are low income countries with huge infrastructure deficits, failing healthcare and educational systems, and widespread youth unemployment.
“There is also need to harmonise the manner in which elections are conducted in our region, drawing from best practices and taking into account the specifics of individual member States. I would hope that going forward, ECONEC will assist us in exploring ways of achieving the desired political convergence in West Africa.
“On our part, ECOWAS will continue to partner ECONEC to ensure that elections in our member States continue to improve and that we eventually get to a point where electoral outcomes are accepted by all and sundry and electoral violence is completely eradicated.
In her keynote address, Vice President of the ECOWAS Commission, Her Excellency Finda Koroma, described the symposium as another achievement by ECONEC, noting that “ECOWAS member States are yet to sufficiently mobilise women, youth and PWDs for inclusive participation in the electoral process and for equal opportunity”.
While suggesting possible solutions, she, however, noted that women “should sum up courage to lead and should not be afraid of losing an election”.
Reiterating the commission’s support, the vice president noted that “ECONEC through this symposium would have contributed to creating awareness and building knowledge and understanding for increased (political) participation and representation of women, youth and persons living with disability.”
Earlier in his opening remarks, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, immediate past ECONEC President and Chairman of Nigeria’s electoral body, INEC, set the tone of the symposium by outlining the framework the entire process would take. He also paid tribute to ECONEC’s founding fathers and outlined the achievements by the network in the past two years, including Needs Assessment, Post-election Follow-up, Solidarity and Peer Support and Learning missions to eight of ECONEC’s 15 members.
He noted that the intervention activities, including the study on cost of elections, International workshops on the use of technology in elections and on professional reporting of elections, have been carefully documented by ECONEC’s Programme Officer (Communications and Advocacy).
He said ECONEC was established because at the time, given the enormous challenges of organising elections in the sub-region, there should be a forum for electoral commissions to collaborate with one another through peer learning and support.
He noted that the ECOWAS Commission at the time led by His Excellency Mohamed Ibn Chambas worked so hard to ensure that the idea gained traction leading to the formation of the forum.
Thus at the last General Assembly in Cotonou in March 2017, ECONEC formulated a two-year Action Plan focusing on the need to establish a permanent secretariat in Abuja, deepen peer support, initiate a conversation with the aim of finding ways to reduce the enormous cost of conducting elections in the sub-region, build the capacity of the media to ensure professional reporting of elections in West Africa and find ways to enhance inclusivity in the electoral process.
He said: “Attaining these modest goals in a sub-region characterised by infrastructure and security challenges can only be realised over time. With support from OSIWA, experts were commissioned to undertake a major study on the worrisome cost of conducting elections in the sub-region focusing on two countries from each of the three linguistic blocks i.e. Anglophone (Nigeria and Liberia), Francophone (Benin Republic and Senegal) and Lusophone (Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau). The report was discussed and validated by member States at a high profile meeting here in Abuja in October last year.”
On the challenges faced by the network, he cited funding as the critical issue for the future of ECONEC.
He said: “While we appreciate the support of ECOWAS and the development partners, we agreed last year that each member country shall pay the sum of $5,000 per annum to support the activities of the network. I am glad to report that many countries have fully paid their dues for two years. This is a very encouraging show of confidence in the management of the management.”
“I also extend the network’s appeal to ECOWAS to continue to strive to actualise the vision of establishing the electoral logistics depot at Lungi in Sierra Leone from which countries in need can draw such facilities as ballot boxes and trucks for movement of election materials without each country having to procure its own materials with every election. This is achievable and will in the long run help to reduce the cost of elections in our sub-region,” he added.
At the symposium, many goodwill messages were taken from the Head of the European Union’s Delegation to Nigeria and ECOWAS, Mr. Ketil Karlson; Monica Frassoni, President of the European Centre for Electoral Support, ECES; Head of Programme of the German Agency for International Cooperation, GIZ, Christian Voelkel and rtd. Chief Justice Hamid Mahamoud Hamid, Chair of the Electoral Commission, Zanzibar and Head of the Electoral Commissions Forum of Southern African Development Community (SADC).
In his goodwill message, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Secretary General’s special representative and Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, (UNOWAS), reminded electoral institutions about the need to conform to some basic universal principles and practices of governance and human rights, including the rights of women and persons of disability enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.
Chambas, who was the President of the ECOWAS Commission when the network was formed in 2008, congratulated ECONEC for “great strides,” recorded and reaffirmed UNOWAS’ support to the commissions.
At the end of the respective sessions, it boiled down to one thing; elections, of which the Chairman of Cape Verde Electoral Commission, Dr Maria do Rosario Lopes Pereira Goncalves, emerged as its president, taking over from Nigeria’s INEC chair.
Other members of the Steering Committee are 1st Vice President, Newton Ahmed Barry of Bourkinafso; 2nd Vice President, Momarr Alieu Njai of The Gambia; Treasurer, Amadou Ba from Mali and Deputy Treasurer, Jean Mensa who is chairman of the Electoral Commission of Ghana.
In her acceptance speech, Goncalves expressed appreciation to her colleagues for selecting her, just as she also expressed the commitment of her team to fulfill the engagement and responsibilities of ECONEC and consolidate on the work of past presidents.
ECONEC was established in February 2008 in Guinea Conakry through the encouragement of ECOWAS and its Permanent Secretariat is domiciled in Abuja, within the Electoral Assistance Division (EAD) of the Department of Political Affairs, Peace and Security (PAPS), of the ECOWAS Commission.
While its vision is to “envisage a West African sub-region where free, fair, and credible elections are an integral part of the democratic process”, its mission on the other hand is “to promote and consolidate the democratic culture in West Africa through experience-sharing, research, capacity building and election observation”.
According to the commission, it’s objectives are to promote free and credible elections in West Africa; of independent and impartial election organisations and administrators; strengthen public confidence in the electoral process through free and credible electoral procedures; develop professional election officials with integrity, a strong sense of public service and a commitment to democracy and predict the framework for elections.
Others include to commit to the promotion and consolidation of democratic culture to create a conducive environment for the peaceful organisation of elections; share experiences, information, technology and election documents; cooperate for the improvement of electoral laws and practices; gradually harmonise
electoral laws and practices, as appropriate, capitalising on good practice in electoral matters; rationalise and pool resources to reduce the cost of conducting elections; as well as improve the working conditions of its members in the fulfilment of their mandate.