Controversies over INEC’s poll dates

Newsguide | March. 18, 2018

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) recently rolled out the dates for Nigeria’s elections for the next 36 years. ONYEKACHI EZE writes how far the commission can go in adhering to the dates and the challenges posed by the controversial amendment of the Electoral Act

For the next 36 years, the dates for Nigeria’s general elections are no longer speculative but certain. The elections will begin on the third Saturday of February in the election year to be completed two weeks later, just like Americans know that they will go to the polls on the second Tuesday of November in the election year, to elect their president.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said this was to ensure certainty in the dates for elections, and to allow for proper planning by all the stakeholders in the electoral process.

“Our democracy is maturing and the commission believes that there should be certainty with regard to the timetable for elections,” said Prince Solomon Soyebi, an INEC National Commissioner who also doubles as Chairman, Voter Education and Publicity Committee.

Soyebi, who announced the date for the 2019 general elections, told newsmen on March 9 last year that the presidential and National Assembly elections, which will be the first in the series of elections, would hold on February 16, 2019 while the governorship, state Assembly and Federal Capital Territory Area Council elections would hold on March 2, 2019.

In furtherance to this, the INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, three weeks ago, rolled out the timetable for the nation’s general elections for the next 36 years.

Prof. Yakubu told leaders of political parties at the quarterly meeting with the commission in Abuja that apart from next year’s general elections, the 2023 general elections would hold on February 18 and March 4.

“In 2027, the dates are February 20 and March 6; in 2031, it is February 15 and March 1. In 2035, it is February 17 and March 3; in 2039, it is February 19 and March 5 and in 2043, it will hold on February 21 and March 7.

“In 2047, it is February 15 and March 2; in 2051, it is February 18 and March 1; in 2055, it is February 20 and March 6,” Yakubu said.

Nigeria holds seasonal elections once every four years and elected members of the executive arm sworn in on May 29. Presidential or gubernatorial proclamation is issued thereafter for elected members of the parliament to convene for legislative business.

The Nigerian Constitution provides that elections should hold not earlier than 150 days and not later than 30 days to the end of the incumbent’s tenure.

Apart from America, election dates for countries like Mexico, Norway, Sweden, Costa Rica, Switzerland, and even neighbouring West African country, Ghana, are known in advance. Ghana’s election takes place on December 7 of the election year.

Unfortunately, since the dawn of the present democratic dispensation, election dates fixed by INEC have not been sacrosanct. On two occasions, the commission was forced to shift the poll date, first, in 2011 by two days, and in 2015 by six weeks.

On April 2, 2011 after Nigerians were already in the field to elect their National Assembly representatives, former INEC Chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega announced the postponement of the election by two days, citing logistic problems. Even former President Goodluck Jonathan, who was already in his electoral ward in Otuoke in far away Bayelsa State for the election, had to return immediately to Abuja to meet with the commission on the way forward. In a nationwide broadcast, Prof. Jega said the election was re-sheduled for Monday, April 4.

“The reason for this is the unanticipated emergency we have experienced with late arrival of result sheets in many parts of the country. Accordingly, in many places, our officials have not reported at the polling units, making it now difficult to implement the Modified Open Ballot Procedure that we have adopted,” the former INEC Chairman explained.

He described the result sheet as central to the electoral process, adding: “Not only do we have to enter the results in the sheets, the number of accredited voters is also to be entered in the result sheet.”

Part of the logistic problems was the distribution of ballot papers meant for the gubernatorial election scheduled for April 16.

Before the shift in date, elections had already begun in Lagos, Kaduna, Kebbi, Delta, Zamfara and Enugu, and other states. Jega further explained that in order to maintain the integrity of the electionand “retain effective overall control of the process, the commission has taken the difficult but necessary decision to postpone the National Assembly elections to Monday, April 4, 2011.”

Four years later, in 2015, the poll date was again shifted by six weeks, this time at the behest of the military.

INEC had in January 2014, fixed February 14 and 28, 2015 for the national and state elections respectively. But on February 7, 2015, Prof. Jega said the election dates were shifted to March 28 and April 11, 2015.

“Let me state from the outset that the commission’s position was reached after carefully weighing the suggestions from briefings held with different stakeholders in the electoral process,” he said.

Jega said the elections were postponed after the nation’s security agencies indicated that they would not be available to support the elections planned for February 14 and 28.

“Last Wednesday, which was a day before the Council of State meeting, the office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) wrote a letter to the commission, drawing attention to recent developments in four Northeast states of Borno, Yobe, Adamawa and Gombe currently experiencing the challenge of insurgency.

“The letter stated that security could not be guaranteed during the proposed period in February for the general elections.

“This advisory was reinforced at the Council of State meeting on Thursday where the NSA and all the Armed Services and Intelligence Chiefs unanimously reiterated that the safety and security of our operations cannot be guaranteed, and that the security services needed at least six weeks within which to conclude a major military operation against the insurgency in the Northeast; and that during this operation, the military will be concentrating its attention in the theatre of operations such that they may not be able to provide the traditional support they render to the police and other agencies during elections,” he explained.

Jega said the commission relied on Section 26(1) of the Electoral 2010 (As Amended), which states that: “Where a date has been appointed for the holding of an election, and there is reason to believe that a serious breach of the peace is likely to occur if the election is proceeded with on that date or it is impossible to conduct the elections as a result of natural disasters or other emergencies, the commission may postpone the election and shall in respect of the area, or areas concerned, appoint another date for the holding of the postponed election, provided that such reason for the postponement is cogent and verifiable.”

Chief Press Secretary to INEC Chairman, Rotimi Oyekanmi, said though the dates have been fixed, “if the commission ascertains that the lives of its officials or voters will be at serious risk or if there is a major armed conflict that could put the safety of the general public at risk,” or “if there is a major natural disaster, like massive flooding or earthquake,” the date could be adjusted.

Perhaps, what brought about the need for the certainty in election dates was the stability of Nigeria’s democracy. For the first time since independence in 1960, Nigeria has had 18 years of uninterrupted civilian rule, and May 29 has become a date set aside for the swearing ceremony of newly elected members of the executive.

The two other republics were short-lived, which probably was the reason why there was no attempt at certainty of election dates.

The timetable has attracted commendations from Nigerians.

The Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC), an umbrella body of registered political parties in the country, said the advance fixture of election dates would engender certainty in the election calender. IPAC also said the dates were within the period stipulated by the Election Act.

IPAC Chairman, Mohammed Nalado, described the sequence of elections as a constitutional issue.

“I think this is a constitutional issue and electoral matter. What INEC has done at the moment is based on what is in the provision of the constitution.

“If there is any law that supersedes what they have done, that law is not to be abandoned. So we stand on the same page. So, we have to be working together, INEC, political parties and most important the stakeholders in the democratic development,” he said.

Chairman, Senate Committee on INEC, Senator Ali Ndume, also said early release of the timetable would help INEC start early preparation for the elections.

“When I took over as the Chairman of the Senate Committee on INEC, I personally encouraged INEC to start preparing for 2019 now. When I looked at the budget of INEC, I discovered that there was no provisions for the 2019 elections. I advised them to make provisions for the 2019 election so that such items that are not sensitive and not perishable can be procured in time.

“It is not good for us to wait until a day or two to the election then we start running helter-skelter for the materials such as the data capture machine or other thing that should be in place. I personally believe that this INEC wants to improve on what has been done before and all encouragement and support should be given to them. So, let’s give them a chance,” Ndume said.

The Action Democratic Party (ADP), however, faulted the scheduling of the presidential election before the governorship poll. ADP National Chairman, Yabaji Yusuf Sani said it was an attempt by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to rig the 2019 polls.

“The order of the elections as released by the INEC is one thing we are not comfortable with because once you have a president sitting there, then he calls the shots. He can have his way against the wishes of the people of the country. So, this is one area we are not comfortable with and I think that area can be looked into,” he said.

ADP said the general elections should start from the State Assembly election and end with the presidential poll.

The National Assembly has also amended section 25(1) of the 2010 Electoral Act to re-order the sequence of the elections. Chairman of the conference committee that harmonised the decisions of the Senate and the House of Representatives, Suleiman Nazif, said the constitution only empowered the electoral commission to determine the date for the elections and not the sequence.

According to the amended sequence, which was, however, rejected by President Muhammadu Buhari, the National Assembly election comes first followed by State Assembly and Governorship election while the presidential election comes last.

The amended section of the Act states: “25 (1), Elections into the offices of the president and vice president, the governor and deputy governor of a state, and to the membership of the Senate, the House of Representatives and Houses of Assembly of each state of the Federation shall be held in the following order: (a) National Assembly election, (b) State Houses of Assembly and governorship elections (c) presidential election.

“The dates for the above stated primaries shall not be held earlier than 120 days and not later than 90 days before the date of elections to the offices.” The amendment, however, did not alter the dates fixed by INEC for the eelection but the sequence.

President Buhari, in rejecting the amendment said it was in conflict with section 25 of the Principal Act, which he said: “May infringe upon the constitutionally guaranteed discretion of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to organise, undertake and supervise elections provided in Section 15(A) of the third statute to the constitution.”

The president also noted that the “amendment to Section 138 of the Principal Act to delete two crucial grounds upon which an election may be challenged by candidates, unduly limits the rights of candidates in elections to a free and fair electoral review process.”

He added that “the amendment to Section 152 Sub-section ( 3)-(5) of the Principal Act may raise Constitutional issues over the competence of the National Assembly to legislate over local government elections.”

Until the 2015 general elections, the sequence of the elections had been the National Assembly, state House of Assembly and the governorship while the presidential election comes last.

Some persons have called on the National Assembly to veto the president on the bill. The main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) said the power to amend the Electoral Act rests with the National Assembly.

The House of Representatives has said it would override the president on the bill while Senate said the court order barring it not to veto the president did not affect it.

(source:pocket-novels,please contact us if any infringement)

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