Growing Agitations for Scrapping of SIECs

The failure of State Independent Electoral Commissions to entrench credible local government elections has sparked agitations for the transfer of their responsibilities to the Independent National Electoral Commission, Wale Igbintade writes

As part of measures to strengthen local government administration in the country, the credibility of the State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs) has lately been questioned, due to their failure to conduct credible local government elections.

Under the 1999 constitution, SIECs have the mandate to conduct elections in the third tier of government, while INEC is responsible for the six area councils in Abuja and other elections.

Over the years, SIECs have failed woefully to conduct free, fair and credible elections, leading to the growing clamour for its abrogation.

Since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, LG polls have virtually become a charade. The results are usually predictable as the ruling party in each state usually sweeps the council polls, producing all the chairmen and councillors.

For instance, in the local government elections held recently in Gombe and Oyo states, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) swept the polls while the opposition political parties cried out that the elections were a charade.

In the states where local governments are run by elected officials, it is a fact that the governors delivered between 95 and 100 per cent of all the seats to their cronies.

The mockery of democracy extends to the process that leads to the emergence of candidates for local government polls even within parties.

Instead of a competitive primary election, where aspirants sell their programmes to enable party members to evaluate their strengths against those of other contestants, a selection process devoid of internal democracy, in the name of consensus, is adopted.

Governors handpick their cronies, who may not necessarily have the capacity to administer local councils, as ruling parties’ candidates. And with pliant SIECs, state governments select local government chairmen and councillors in sham elections.

 It is not surprising that many Nigerians  have concluded that local government elections are too important to be surrendered to SIECs.

They have called on the National Assembly to amend the constitution and empower the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct all elections in Nigeria –  federal, state and local councils.

It was against this background that the House of Representatives in 2021 considered transferring the conduct of council polls to INEC.

Section 197 of the Constitution establishes SIEC for each state, while the Third Schedule Part II establishes the functions of SIEC. Item 22 of the Exclusive Legislative List excludes elections into the local government from duties of the federal government.

In the eighth National Assembly (2015-19), the Senate passed an alteration that sought to achieve this same purpose. Then, the Ike Ekweremadu-led constitutional amendment committee made 32 recommendations.

Ex-Senator Dino Melaye, who represented Kogi West in the Senate, moved an amendment that SIEC should be abrogated.

That amendment was passed by the upper chamber but it was not passed by the House, hence it died in the course of that alteration.

It was also against this background that the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), called for the scrapping of SIECs. He identified the SIECs as the major impediment to development at the local government levels, advocating that their functions should be transferred to INEC.

Fagbemi, who spoke at a national discourse organised by the House of Representatives in collaboration with the UK International Development, explained that state governors have abused the rights of local governments by using SIECs to impose leaders on them through sham elections.

Incidentally, it is Fagbemi who, on behalf of the federal government, filed a suit at the Supreme Court against the 36 state governments, seeking the enforcement of full autonomy of the local governments in the country.

He argued that the constitution did not provide adequate political autonomy for the states, hence the abuse by state governments. He explained that the failure of the constitution should be blamed for the subjugation of the local governments by states.

“The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria did not provide adequately for the political autonomy of the local governments. The resultant effects of these inadequacies are that the state governments have the discretion to determine the nature, content and direction of local government elections and political activities.

“The failure of the constitution to articulate a clear line of authorities to both the state and local authorities and the continuing debate over the involvement of state governments in distributing local government allocation from the Federation Account has affected the capacity of LGAs to provide essential services at the grassroots,” he reportedly said.

Speaking further, the AGF said that most local governments operate “as an appendage of the state governments” due to the failure of the constitution.

“The constitutional provisions on State Joint Local Government Account (section 162 (5-8)) have placed the local government councils in a political bondage. Politically, due to the flaws in the electoral process in the country, what is obtained is a virtual selection and not the election of local government functionaries. Local government chairmen are always imposed on the people by the state governors,” he added.

Also, the Chairman of INEC, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, recently raised concerns about the conduct of local government elections in the country by SIECs, describing the polls as mere coronations of ruling party’s candidates.

Speaking during a courtesy call by the executive members of the Forum of State Independent Electoral Commissions, the INEC chairman lamented that in some states, the commissions were only constituted shortly before elections and dissolved immediately afterwards, with critical functions often taken over by government officials. He highlighted the severe underfunding of SIECs, which forces them to rely on INEC for basic election materials like ballot boxes and voting cubicles.

“Unfortunately, the conduct of local government elections in virtually all the states of the federation has become mere coronation of candidates of the ruling parties. It is time to stop the coronation and conduct proper elections,” he said.

Yakubu urged the state governors to allow the SIECs to have greater capacity for independent action.

  Though many Nigerians did not take Yakubu seriously, given INEC’s woeful performance in the conduct of elections under his watch in recent years, there is urgent need for reforms to improve democracy at the grassroots.

But an election observer group, Yiaga Africa, said abolishing the SIECs and transferring their responsibilities to INEC would overstretch the commission and undermine the autonomy of states

Its Executive Director of Yiaga Africa, Samson Itodo, urged the federal government to amend the constitution to safeguard the operational, administrative and financial independence of SIECs.

Itodo, however, called on state assemblies to come up with a legal framework that would guide the conduct of elections in their states, adding that state electoral laws should be harmonised with the provisions of the 2022 Electoral Act.

Since the campaign for INEC to take over SIECs’ roles requires a constitutional amendment, Nigerians are keen to see whether the governors will support it.

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