After vote buying, Nigeria’s new political headache reached its climax during the conduct of Ekiti governorship election in July, Nigerians have been thinking of ways to deal with the phenomenon which threatens to destroy the country’s democracy.
The electoral umpire, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), has since then held several stakeholders engagements to find a solution to the problem, which gets more sophisticated with every new election.
At the beginning, it was the bribing of prospective voters by politicians, who offer them gifts of food and clothing items as well as suspicious acts of philanthropy in form of empowerment programmes and infrastructure development projects during electioneering.
Later the practice was the secret bribing of election officials, party and security agents to change poll results in favour of losers.
However, recent experiences demonstrate the boldness of politicians who have turned election venues to open auction grounds, where the ballot goes to the highest bidder.
To avoid the shame of Ekiti during which voters received pay for voting after displaying pictures of thumb-printed ballot papers to party agents, INEC had resolved to re-administer polling units, starting with the Osun Governorship Election which held on September 22.
The Chairman of INEC, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, said when he presented Certificate of Registration to 23 new political parties that the new polling unit structure would make it difficult for voters to display their ballot papers after marking them.
“The commission is deeply worried about our elections, particularly the way they are becoming increasingly monetised.
“Vote buying is a cancer to our elections and we must work together collectively to stamp it out.
“Accordingly, and on the part of the commission starting with Osun Governorship Election coming up on Sept. 22, we would change the way our polling units are administered.
“It will be done in such a way that there would be no room for voters to expose their marked ballot papers between voting cubicles and the ballot boxes.
“We shall further re-strategise with the security agencies for a more robust response to the arrest and prosecution of vote buyers.
“We would also engage with all well-meaning groups for more effective voter education and voter sensitisation,” Yakubu said.
To strengthen its hold on the issue, INEC stated that voters would no longer be allowed to take smartphones into the voting cubicle to prevent them from taking pictures of thumb-printed ballot papers to present to party agents as evidence for payment after voting.
In the past, the commission said it was helpless over the handling of matters arising from the conduct of elections, especially the prosecution of electoral offenders. It said it lacked the capacity to prosecute such cases.
However, that responsibility has shifted to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) which has accepted to prosecute election fraud offenders.
The Acting Chairman of EFCC Ibrahim Magu said the agency was working with INEC and the police to track politicians and others involved in vote buying.
Magu said EFCC was monitoring spending by politicians and political parties during elections and had put banks on notice regarding transactions by parties and politicians.
“We are working with INEC to stop vote buying, we are seriously pursuing this.
“We will monitor unusual cash withdrawals. We are going to work with other relevant agencies like the police on this.
“Before now, it was inconceivable for law enforcement agencies to investigate the sources of election funding of political parties and their candidates.
“This has led to gross financial abuse and the perversion of the electoral process and consequently enthroned bad leadership which in turn led to corruption and bad governance,” he said.
The Federal Executive Council (FEC) on its part approved a bill for a law to establish an Election Offences Commission. The agency, it is hoped, will take the burden of post-election crises management off the shoulders of INEC.
The steps so far taken, particularly the ban on the use of smartphones in polling cubicles, do not appeal to some groups. The leading opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) describes the step as a plan by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to rig the 2019 general elections.
“We have all heard what the Chairman of INEC, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu said about the decision to ban the use of smartphones in the polling units. All over the world, a smartphone is the easiest way of communication.
“What they have said clearly shows that the commission, in connivance with the All Progressives Congress, has perfected a rigging strategy for the next election.
“In fact, INEC has sent Nigeria back to the primitive days.
“The same plan to rig the 2019 election is responsible for the refusal of the president to sign the amended Electoral Act because the card reader must be used,” PDP National Chairman Uche Secondus said.
Similarly, a group, Not Too Young To Perform, has rejected the ban on the use of smartphones at polling units and urged INEC to plan better.
“For us, since the major incident of vote buying occurred during the Anambra governorship election in November last year, INEC has not done enough to nip the anti-people practice in the bud.
“We hail the commission for recognising that vote buying is a big challenge that must be tackled, but the ban on use of cellphones and camera at polling units cannot be the best INEC can offer in its efforts to curb the menace. INEC should go back to the drawing board to find better ways to deal with it if it can’t prosecute offenders.”
While all stakeholders acknowledge the threat of vote buying to democracy, the issue remains contentious.
The approach adopted by INEC is traditional considering the state of technology at its disposal. The proposals by EFCC and FEC are laudable, but considering the weakness in law enforcement in the country, there are doubts that much can be achieved.
For example, while the law makes electoral fraud an offence, no one, including some persons alleged to have been involved in electoral violence, bribery, intimidation, forgery and manipulation of election results in the past, has been punished.
It has been difficult to apply the rule to all groups and persons in Nigeria, especially when influential persons are involved. Such persons and groups or those associated with them are often treated with deference.
In all societies when a problem arises in one sector the whole community, including scientists, get to work to resolve the issue.
The adoption of scientific approach to deal with issues is objective and less contentious.
Vote buying is a Nigerian problem. Maybe someday, a Nigerian scientist will develop a chip that can be installed on the panel used in constructing the voting cubicle to hinder all activities not related to the casting of vote in the enclosure.
Ekezie writes for News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)