Jailed professor and electoral fraud
A landmark conviction of a professor of soil science, who acted as a returning officer in the 2019 general election, is a symptom of the deep-rooted chicanery scarring elections in Nigeria.
To the delight of legal purists, the Akwa Ibom State High Court II sitting in Ikot-Ekpene, sentenced Peter Ogban of the University of Calabar to a 36-month jail term for tampering with the results of the state’s northwest senatorial district in favour of the All Progressives Congress. In Nigeria’s muddy electoral jungle, this is a milestone. To deter crooked politicians, entrench electoral rectitude and integrity in line with global standards, more of such convictions are welcome.
Ogban’s conviction is a brutal reminder that Nigerian politicians perennially engage in electoral fraud to attain public office. So far, election riggers are scarcely brought to book, a perverse incentive for unscrupulous politicians and their cohorts in the Independent National Electoral Commission to persist in bad behaviour. In the 2015 elections, INEC received 149 case files. Most of these cases are dismissed for lack of diligent prosecution. At times, the attorneys-general of the states file nolle prosequi motions to get the offenders off the hook. At the end of the day, 61 cases were prosecuted, but no conviction was secured. This is appalling. In this way, the offenders compromise the elections with impunity.
Despite the introduction of technology – like the smart card reader and the permanent voter card – the police recorded 796 arrests in the second phase of the 2019 general election and 323 arrests in the first phase. This total of 1,119 arrests is huge, but only Ogban appears to have been convicted. It seems this is the crux of the matter.
In its final report, the European Union Observer Mission to the 2019 polls stated that the prevalent forms of electoral fraud included forgery of permanent voter cards, interference with a ballot box or ballot papers, dereliction of duty by election officials, impersonation, voting when not qualified, bribery, violation of the secrecy of the vote, and disorderly conduct of elections. In that election, INEC refused to give a certificate of return to a senatorial contestant who allegedly forced the returning officer to declare him winner at gunpoint, but the court overturned the commission’s decision.
Incidentally, vote-buying on Election Day occurs prominently, as witnessed in the recent off-season governorship polls in some states. Political hirelings chase away voters and security agents have been fingered in mass thumb printing of ballots for their masters. Indeed, in Nigeria, elections are war. Politicians deploy weapons and skulduggery to win at all costs. Hanging on to technicalities, the courts often close their eyes to all this.
The implication is that over time, the electorate has become disillusioned with democracy. Voter apathy is escalating. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy, a British NGO, stated that the voter turnout in the 2019 presidential election fell to 35 per cent from 44 per cent in the 2015 polls. That 44 per cent turnout was also a decline from 54 per cent attained in the 2011 polls. “Statistics show that the voter turnout for Nigerian presidential elections has been dropping since 2003,” the WFD lamented.
In turn, charlatans brazenly parade the corridors of power. They bend the will of the people to their ego. Politically and economically, things have been getting worse. In 2018, Nigeria overtook India as the global capital of poverty, having recorded 86 million extremely poor citizens. Insecurity is widespread. There have been two economic recessions in the space of five years. At 33.3 per cent, the country has one of the worst unemployment rates in the world.
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Repeatedly, INEC deplores its helplessness to rein in offenders. Under the Electoral Act, it cannot investigate or arrest offenders, though it can prosecute. By relying on external forces to do its job, this hamstrings the commission. Since 2015, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has been prosecuting the suspects linked to the $115 million allegedly distributed by a former Petroleum Minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke, to compromise that year’s general election. In a scandalous case, INEC said though it secured 40 convictions – described as the highest so far – in a bye-election in Kano State in 2016, “the convicts did not apparently spend any time in prison” because they were given the option of fine.
In Nigeria, electoral fraud begins from the party primaries. Although INEC has an observer status during this exercise, it has no power to intervene. For the 2019 elections, there were 1,700 pre-election suits as of November 2020 with INEC spending between N3 million and N4.5 million on each case. This is more than one and a half years after the election itself. This is weird. It ought to be reviewed, and the Electoral Act strengthened.
To overcome this scourge, the National Assembly should speedily pass the Electoral Offences Commission Bill, making it easier to punish electoral heist. Currently, cases take too long; contestants get sworn in to office through rigging, only to be sacked later after the usurpers might have gained office. Therefore, consideration should be given to a special election court, part of the abandoned Muhammadu Uwais report. Politicians who collude with electoral officers should face the music.
But without strong institutions, all this might not work. For example, as noble as the Administration of the Criminal Justice Act is, corruption cases are still being delayed. In contrast, the institutions and the courts in the United States resisted every attempt by former President Donald Trump and his supporters to compromise the November 2020 presidential polls. With the conviction of Ogban, Nigeria has a reference point to remake its fraudulent electoral system.