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Free, fair polls rhetoric

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Emeka OMEIHE

Edo State governorship election has come and gone. But, its outcome denotes different things for different people.

President Buhari set the tone for credit appropriation when he commended the outcome of the election restating his “commitment to free and fair elections is firm, because without free and fair elections, the foundation of our political and moral authority will be weak.”

Toeing the same line, chairman of the Caretaker/ Extraordinary National Convention Planning Committee of the APC, Mai Mala Buni in his congratulatory message to the winner said the outcome represented victory for Nigeria’s democracy. He aligned the party with Buhari in affirming their commitment to free and fair elections in order to strengthen the foundations for political and moral authority.

But even as Obaseki considers his victory as the triumph of the peoples will as expressed at the ballot box, the significance of the election for him, rests squarely on the fact that it signalled the defeat and dismantling of godfatherism in the state’s body politic. In his own words, the verdict of the election has tamed and caged the lions, the tigers and behemoths of Edo politics.

So the trio somewhat scramble for some credit on the outcome of the election, ether from the prism of its largely free and fair outcome or the doggedness and determination of the voters to take their destiny in their hands. In some sense, all claimants are right. Victory they say has many friends both the real and the fake.

Buhari and the APC are at liberty to take credit for the successful outcome of the election. The language of political discourse prior to that contest overheated the political space such that genuine fears were nursed as to the prospects of extreme violence.

If the election had been marred by serious violence or failed integrity test in truly representing the expressed will of the people, the blame would have been heaped at the shoulders of the president and the ruling party. Now that all seemed to have gone well, it will be uncharitable to deny them the credit of savouring the success of that election irrespective of what their preferences would have been.

This is more so given that two days before that election, the president had in a statement by his media aide while restating commitment to free and fair polls said: “I want this commitment to be one of the legacies I will leave behind when I leave office”. Though he raised the hope of seeing higher democratic standards raised at every level, he added a caveat that these cannot be achieved when politicians resort to do-or-die tactics to gain power.

Ordinarily, these should come as heart-warming statements given the rancorous politics that has stunted development in all spheres of our national life. Yet, they must be taken with serious caution. Even as one is delighted by the president’s admission that the foundation of their moral and political authority is weakened by compromised elections, that rhetoric on its own may amount to little. To many, it is a worn out cliché full of sounds and sentiments but practically of little weight when the chips are down.

What should be of interest to Nigerians at this moment is the practical institutional steps and safeguards the president is taking to stave off the proclivity by rogue politicians to compromise the outcome of elections at each point. We recall that before the 2019 elections, the Eighth National Assembly unanimously passed the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2018 and sent same for presidential assent. That bill contained provisions that would ensure the credibility of elections.

It provided for the swift prosecution of election violence and vote-buying through the setting up of special courts for that purpose. It also made it mandatory for the use of card readers, on-the-spot live transmission of results and above all the imprisonment of any INEC staff that contravenes the Act. In sum, the bill had all that was needed to check sundry electoral infractions that had overtime compromised the electoral process on these shores. It contained all provisions to institute that legacy of credible elections which Buhari claims he wants to bequeath the nation before he leaves office.

Sadly, thrice the bill was sent to him for assent and thrice he refused to assent to it. The last time it was sent for his endorsement, it suffered serious delay only for him to come out belatedly citing time constraints and proximity to the 2019 elections as part of his reasons for refusing to assent to it.

Off course, the subsequent general elections were marred by serious infractions such that shook the confidence of the people in the continued relevance of elections in approximating the collective will of the electorate as expressed at the ballot box. In some states, it was a war situation as all manner of weapons were deployed by politicians and compromised security agencies to thwart the will of the people. It is not surprising that the 2019 election marked an embarrassing reversal of some of the gains previously recorded in the country’s electoral process.

It is a measure of loss of confidence in our electoral process that the United States of America, US imposed visa ban on some officials of this country for their ignoble roles during recent elections. The United Kingdom UK has even threatened to seize assets and prosecute such offenders under international law.  And we are here still parroting the sanctity of free and fair elections as if it is a national anthem. There may not be much in visa restrictions. At any rate, must these officials travel out? But it is a verdict that all is not well with our electoral process and it must align to serious democratic standards or give way to other forms of governance framework.

It is now a year and four months Buhari was sworn into power. Nothing has yet been heard of that bill.  And we are being treated to expressions of hope and precept rather than concrete examples. One would have expected Buhari to have gone beyond trite statements and take concrete and concerted steps in liaison with the National Assembly to rectify whatever defects there are in that bill and assent to it quam celerrime.

That will make better meaning. You cannot leave a legacy of free and fair elections without the necessary institutional framework to approximate it. As at now, there is nothing on ground except the deployment of security agencies in numbers that could even frighten and intimidate the voters. INEC officials and politicians are still their former selves. And the judiciary too! These are the things to contend with.

Buhari should go beyond what he hopes to bequeath the electoral process and initiate concrete action for us to see it happen. The electoral process is still largely porous with serous loopholes for manipulation. It is high time such gaps are plugged. The plethora of litigations after each election is a huge statement on the process. Ironically, this has come with some dangers as even those who clearly lost elections see the courts as another avenue to achieve through unwholesome means, what they failed to get through the ballot process.

Curiously, the judiciary has found itself entrapped in the same complex web that accentuates loss of confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. Some of its recent verdicts clearly failed the standard test of impartiality. We are witnesses to a candidate who trailed fourth in a governorship poll being declared winner by the Supreme Court even when the results used did not tally with INEC’s accredited voters for that election among other serious shortcomings.

That is a clear instance of the weakening of political and moral authority which Buhari talked about. It is a serious legitimacy challenge in which the judiciary should not be found complicit. The role of the judiciary has become a serious threat to democracy. Something urgent and serious must be done to extricate it from the ambush of desperate and influential persons seeking to thwart the will of the electorate.

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