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Balloting Without Tears
GUEST COLUMNIST by Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN
Over the weekend, precisely on Saturday, February 25, 2023, Nigerians finally trooped out to perform their civic duties to choose the next president and members of the National Assembly. The expectations were very high, mobilisation was massive in the urban areas and all eyes were on INEC, the electoral umpire. From the reports garnered so far, voter turn-out was impressive in some areas and average in others, due mainly to a number of factors, ranging from voter apathy, fear of attack by political thugs, intimidation, political tension and restriction of movement. It was a crucial vote for Nigeria. It took Nigerians so much to put together the new Electoral Act, 2022, the highpoint of which was to de-emphasize incidences of human intervention in the voting process. With the experiences in Edo, Ekiti, Anambra and Osun gubernatorial elections, Nigerians expected INEC to be on top of its game for the presidential election, especially in the areas of electronic transmission of results and the subsequent announcements. But this was not to be as voters waited endlessly for INEC to upload the results electronically as it had promised on countless occasions.
Let me share with you the excuse proffered by the commission in a statement titled: Challenges Experienced With the INEC Results Viewing Portal (IReV)’
“The commission is aware of challenges with the INEC Results Viewing Portal (IReV). Unlike in off-season elections where the portal was used, it has been relatively slow and unsteady. The commission regrets this setback, especially because of the importance of IReV in our results management process. The problem is totally due to technical hitches related to scaling up the IReV from a platform for managing off-season State elections, to one for managing nationwide general elections. It is indeed not unusual for glitches to occur and be corrected in such situations.
“Consequently, the commission wishes to assure Nigerians that the challenges are not due to any intrusion or sabotage of our systems, and that the IReV remains well-secured. Our technical team is working assiduously to solve all the outstanding problems, and users of the IReV would have noticed improvements since last night.
We also wish to assure Nigerians that results from the Polling Units, copies of which were issued to political parties, are safe on both the BVAS and the IReV portal. These results cannot be tampered with and any discrepancy between them and the physical results used in collation will be thoroughly investigated and remediated, in line with Section 65 of the Electoral Act 2022.
While we fully appreciate the concerns of the public on this situation and welcome various suggestions that we have received from concerned Nigerians, it is important to avoid statements and actions that can heat up the polity at this time or promote disaffection towards the Commission. We take full responsibility for the problems and regret the distress that they have caused the candidates, political parties and the electorate.”
So much has been put into this election to avoid this kind of error from the electoral umpire. Technology answers to precision and it should not be subject to undue human interventions. There was enough time for INEC to prepare for this, enough money was budgeted and approved and the people of Nigeria stood with INEC in order to birth a regime of free, fair and credible elections. Though the incidents were in isolated locations, the fact that they happened at all should be a cause for concern to those who swim within the status quo. The solution is for INEC to go back to the drawing board and put its house in order. Time is of the essence in the uploading and transmission of election results.
The events that culminated into the general election, starting from the #EndSARS experience, signalled the events happening presently. The opportunity that was provided for reconciliation was squandered on the altar of politics. Then came the fuel scarcity and increase in the cost of fuel, cooking gas, kerosene and even aviation oil. The DISCOS jerked up their tariffs without any whimper from the government, leaving the people at the mercy of economic buccaneers. And as if that was not enough, the Naira redesign policy hit us like a thunderbolt, whereby money kept in the bank after gruesome hours of labour became trapped without justification. How do we go into an election in that circumstance? The people will speak and they have spoken. What is clear across the land is that people desire a change. That is the message of the 2023 elections and this will resonate louder as we approach the gubernatorial elections.
I verily believe that no election should be worth the life of any citizen, no matter the stakes. I do not agree that section 33 (2) of the 1999 Constitution grants any licence for summary execution of any citizen. All those who indulge in snatching ballot boxes containing the decision and mandate of the people should be made to face the law of the land because that is the only way to stop the reign of impunity by ensuring that deviants face the consequences of their actions.
I do not think that the decision to demilitarise the polling units was done in error because it is important that we learn how to regulate ourselves as people who respect the laws made by ourselves. The other point is the mentality of our security agencies, over the years. Our experience presently is that law enforcement officers still see the gun as an instrument of oppression and coercion, even and especially in military-civilian relations. The level of training and exposure of these security personnel calls for detailed evaluation during their civilian engagements. Part of the ‘Basic Principles of the Use of Force and Firearms’ developed for law enforcement officials by the United Nations expect that there should be other non-lethal alternative means of law enforcement and crime prevention. This should include non-lethal incapacitating weapons, for use in appropriate situations, with a view to increasingly restraining the application of means capable of causing death or injury to persons, by equipping themselves with self-defensive equipment such as shields, helmet, bullet-proof vests, etc. The other principles are listed as follows:
“Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.
* Governments shall ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.
* Exceptional circumstances such as internal political instability or any other public emergency may not be invoked to justify any departure from these basic principles.
* Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.
* Governments and law enforcement agencies shall ensure that superior officers are held responsible if they know, or should have known, that law enforcement officials under their command are resorting, or have resorted, to the unlawful use of force and firearms, and they did not take all measures in their power to prevent, suppress or report such use.
* Governments and law enforcement agencies shall ensure that no criminal or disciplinary sanction is imposed on law enforcement officials who, in compliance with the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and these basic principles, refuse to carry out an order to use force and firearms, or who report such use by other officials.”
The experience of Saturday’s elections shows clearly that INEC has a long way to go in guaranteeing the sanctity of the ballot. The right to vote is fundamental, it should not and cannot be denied or hampered in any way, through subtle threats to voters. Fair enough, the ruling party was in exactly the same position as it seeks to unleash now, way back in 2015 and I recall vividly that Nigerians rose in their support to insist on peaceful and credible polls. There is no reason now to deviate from that lofty ideal.
Indeed, Article 13 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights states clearly that “every citizen shall have the right to participate freely in the government of his country, either directly or through freely chosen representatives in accordance with provisions of the law”. There is therefore no justification whatsoever, for seeking to exclude any citizen from exercising the right to vote, under the guise of inadequate logistics, electronic glitches and failure to plan. March 11 should be more scientific and conducted in such a way that we will hear the true voices of the people as they speak with their votes.
•Adegbowura, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, writes from Lagos