The authorities must come up with a solution to the worrying problems of elections
Due to their limited number, off-cycle elections are ordinarily expected to produce better outcomes than general elections. But that has not been the case as the problems associated with general elections are often serially repeated, some in the worst forms. Last week, the National Peace Committee decried cases of violence, intimidation, and vote-buying, among other vices that characterised the November 11 off-cycle governorship elections in Imo, Kogi and Bayelsa States. “The persistence of the culture of vote-buying, intimidation, and voter apathy, among others are disturbing,” the committee, headed by former Head of State, Abdulsalami Abubakar, noted in a statement. “A democratic culture will only grow if we participate in cleaning up the process of our elections because, in the end, we are the victims.”
This is an assessment shared by several stakeholders. Electoral irregularities, and security concerns often associated with the main elections were prevalent in the three states while the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) officials appeared helpless. Evidently worried by these increasing irregularities, former President Goodluck Jonathan, after casting his vote at his country home in Bayelsa State, canvassed the need to do away with off-cycle elections. He urged the National Assembly to enact a law that would end it, arguing that a time may come when even the presidential election would be off-season.
Unfortunately, it may not be that easy. Off-cycle election, an entirely Nigerian phenomenon which came into being in 2006, is increasingly being ingrained in our system. The 1999 Constitution as amended sanctions it. Off-season elections are primarily due to court rulings which overturn election results. And as the courts continue to play a major role in our elections, the number of states conducting off-season elections would likely be lengthened, except cases are speedily dispensed. Section 180 (2) of the Nigerian Constitution specifies that a governor vacates the office four years from the date they first take the oath.
For now, eight states conduct off cycle elections. They include Anambra, Edo, Osun, Ondo, and others. It started when Peter Obi, then of All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in Anambra State, successfully challenged the election of Chris Ngige, then of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) through a court process that lasted for three years. Since the constitution says a governor is entitled to four years, Obi was sworn in for a fresh period of four years from the day of his victory in court. Most of the other off-cycle elections followed the same trajectory. In Imo State, for instance, the 2019 polls elected former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Emeka Ihedioha as governor. But a Supreme Court ruling in January 2020 declared victory in favour of Hope Uzodimma who, by INEC results, came fourth at the election. Meanwhile, Uzodimma’s tenure started counting from 2020. Kogi’s governorship election became off-season following a court ruling that nullified Governor Ibrahim Idris’ victory in 2007 and ordered that a by-election be held in 2008.
Essentially because of the desperation by politicians, off-season elections are now marred by controversies. Instead of enhancing public trust and building confidence in the electoral system, the exercise, in many aspects, has deepened the crisis of legitimacy in our elections. From late arrival of polling materials and officers to polling stations to ballot snatching, and thumb printing to thuggery and killings, vices were widespread. In many polling units in Imo State, voters reportedly stayed away from exercising their civic rights due to fear of violence. In Bayelsa State, there were reports of violence with the PDP candidate and incumbent Governor, Douye Diri and the main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate, Timipre Sylva, a former governor of the state, trading damaging allegations. In Kogi State, there was less of violence but more of another nightmare: There were pre-filled election results forms before the election started in five Local Government Areas of Ogori-Magongo, Adavi, Ajaokuta, Okehi and Okene, prompting INEC to cancel the results. Besides, votes were freely sold. Operatives of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) reportedly seized millions of naira from suspected vote buyers and sellers.
Beyond the logistical nightmares that are now associated with off-season gubernatorial elections, we must find a constitutional response to the challenge of making INEC to conduct elections every other day. As President Jonathan has said, it is an aberration that bodes ill for our democracy.