Raising the Bar for Credible Elections: Exploring Multiple Options

Since independence, conversations on how electoral processes in Nigeria can be enhanced and made credible have been a recurring one. Former president, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan who spoke in Abuja during a visit to the digital pan-African news platform, the TOS TV network, also delved into the issue by recommending that Nigeria’s electoral laws incorporate stiff penalties against vote inducement and vote-buying.

He cited Tanzania as an example where it is against the law to use gifts or items to woo voters. His words, “But here (Nigeria) if somebody is contesting elections, you buy bags of rice, wrappers, and all manner of items to induce the electorates. Ordinarily, our electoral laws are supposed to come down heavily against such practices. If you do that, you are supposed to be disqualified from contesting in the election.”

Some of the concerns raised by the former president and many others were also mentioned by the Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Senator Kabiru Gaya (APC, Kano South).

Gaya while speaking on live television noted that as part of measures to guarantee the sanctity of the ballot and a credible electoral process ahead of the 2023 general elections, the National Assembly has made some provisions in the Electoral Offences Commission Bill and the Electoral Act (2010) Amendment Bill (2020) which are under consideration and will soon be passed into law.

Part of the new provisions includes the fact that candidates who submit false credentials and their political parties would be fined N5million and N50million respectively. His words:

“Let me tell you that we in the committee of INEC, we have now brought up a Bill on electoral offences commission that will be dealing with all the offences committed during elections, where people will snatch ballot box or beat people or force an electoral officer to declare a result or even kill people at the venue of the election.

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“When a party submits a name of a candidate that is not qualified, after disqualifying the candidate, then the law will take effect on the party. The party will be punished and made to pay almost N50million or the leadership will be punished for that.

“And the candidate that fails to submit a good or credible result, that man will also be punished. He will be made to pay about N5million or be handed five years imprisonment.”

According to the Senator, the Electoral Act (2010) Amendment Bill (2020) is currently at an advanced stage and will be passed into law within the second quarter of the year. Gaya noted that the new electoral law, among other things, provides for a 180-day window for party candidates to emerge before the secondary elections. This is contrary to the current provision of 90 days.

As the lawmaker explained and as analysts agreed, the new provision in the Electoral Act would make sure that only authentic party candidates participate in the election contest as all pre-election matters would have been resolved before 180 days. This will ensure that only the people’s choices emerge winners through the ballot box and not through litigations as is the current situation.

On the punishment for riggers and other electoral offenders, Senator Gaya had said that the measures put in place in the Electoral Offences Commission Bill were harsh, but were the best ways to sanitise the electoral system. While one might not understand the extent to which the Senator meant to use the word “harsh”, it is reasoned that the curtailment measures are not punitive enough.

On the issue of fake credentials, for instance, N5million is ludicrously meagre for an average Nigerian politician who is awash in money. The sum of N50million can also be paid in a blink of an eye by the party comprising of well-to-do politicians.

Pundits have also said that using money as a punitive measure in Nigeria’s political space can be counterproductive. It is an encouragement to partake in crime rather than a deterrent, particularly directed at a set of people who can afford any reasonable range. For the typical Nigerian politician, it is thus a worthy risk.

As one public commentator observed, “if five or fifty million naira will ensure my shot at the governorship position while ensuring the loss of my opponent, then I’ll be a fool if I didn’t take it.”

This is why a good number of people reason that prosecution and imprisonment should be enough deterrent for erring offenders. Combining different tools might eventually become the magic wand that will deliver free and fair elections in Nigeria.

A vote-buying prohibition or inducement bill would have been very reasonable as former President Jonathan pointed out. That is, a bill that stipulates that any party caught buying votes or inducing voters automatically loses the election. This would have qualified what Senator Gaya said was harsh but the best way to sanitise the electoral system. Proposing N5million or N50 million for a thieving politician is a risible giveaway.

It is good that Nigerian legislators are taking the diverse initiative to facilitate and enhance credible electoral processes in the country. But doing so within the context of the traditional system is retrogressive. At this point, conversations ought to expand towards how credible elections can be enhanced with technology.

While INEC has said that it is” looking forward to the amendment of the electoral legal framework that will domicile more concretely the use of technology in the electoral process”, the country’s legislature doesn’t look poised for such development, particularly when it is preoccupied with fraudulent voting practices associated with the traditional system of conducting elections.

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The new provisions contained in the electoral offence bill and electoral amendment act are replicas of what is obtainable in the old ones. They are no different as they can only achieve little or no results. What Nigerians need are parliamentary frameworks with longstanding results and not the lackluster ones our legislators keep throwing up.

Meanwhile, conversations round the world are gravitating towards blockchain voting as a way of facilitating credible elections. While a great deal of our lives has moved online, voting by and large still takes place using paper ballots. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need to modernise the mechanics of voting. Pundits argue that blockchain technology can enhance efforts to move to electronic voting by offering greater security and transparency, which may increase needed trust in election systems.

As a technology, blockchain is quickly becoming unrivaled. Developers who recognise the value of blockchain are now racing to create new use cases for it. Many are finding that blockchain’s primary value lies in its ability to improve old systems. In recent years, blockchain has been used to revolutionise industries far and wide, including cloud storage, smart contracts, and even healthcare. However, one of the biggest problems that blockchain can solve is voter fraud.

Blockchain can solve the many problems discovered in early attempts at online voting. Pundits state that a blockchain-based voting application does not concern itself with the security of its Internet connection, because any hacker with access to the terminal will not be able to affect other nodes.

Voters can effectively submit their vote without revealing their identity or political preferences to the public. Officials can count votes with absolute certainty, knowing that each ID can be attributed to one vote, no fakes can be created, and that tampering is impossible.

More than voting this system will encourage participation given that voter apathy has seen the number of people show up to cast their votes dwindle in recent years, even as it has become more important to do so. By therefore providing an irrefutable and easy way to vote from one’s phone or PC, these numbers would likely rise.

Cynics have nonetheless criticised blockchain and internet voting as a ready target for online attacks by foreign intelligence and said transmission of ballots over the internet, including by email, fax and blockchain systems, are seriously vulnerable.

As one analyst noted, “it assumes there’s no malware in the voter’s computer. It also assumes you want all the votes to be perennially public, because if someone finds a way to hack into the blockchain, everyone’s vote becomes public. And, while blockchain networks may be able to handle small absentee voter populations, the technology could not stand up to use by the general voter populace and its volumes.

“Until there is a major technological breakthrough in or fundamental change to the nature of the internet, the best method for securing elections is a tried-and-true one: mailed paper ballots.”

Tech experts counter this by insisting that a blockchain-based system can allow independent vote-monitoring bodies to audit the vote counting and codes used to make sure that the system is free from fraud – something that current centralised systems do not offer. That is, blockchains can be incorporated into the voting system right from the stage of electoral registration to vote storage and vote counting. At each stage, they prevent a single agent from making changes without agreement among a specified subset of the entire network. The downside of these additional security checks is the cost of running additional servers.

To discourage vote-buying or intimidation on account of blockchain voting, Nigeria can take from Estonia where any individual can change his vote multiple times before the close of the election, making it more difficult and costly for a vote buyer to check that the vote seller has indeed voted for the candidate he promised to support.

Categories: Features, Politics