By Emmanuel Oloniruha
Election is incontrovertibly considered an integral part or strong pillar of democracy because it remains a legal means through which the government derives consent of the governed in a democratic system of government.
Hence, the success of any country’s democracy largely depends on how its conducts its elections.
In Nigeria the conduct of elections, which is the sole responsibility of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, is strictly guided by the country’s constitution and the Electoral Act.
Since the return of democracy to Nigeria in 1999, several efforts have been made to consistently improve on the country’s electoral system, which include the review of the laws that guide the operations of INEC and the conduct of elections.
While the commission has also introduced several guidelines and technology to improve on Nigeria’s electoral system, the National Assembly has altered the constitution and Electoral Act from time to time to enhance the performance of the election management body.
Between 1999 and now, the Electoral Act has been amended in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006 and the 2010.
This is not just to guarantee that election processes are free, fair and credible, but to also ensure that the outcome of elections is widely acceptable as well for INEC to win the trust of the citizens.
In a move to further consolidate on the gains made in the country’s electoral system, the 8th National Assembly in 2018 also passed the bill to amend the 2010 Electoral Act.
Unfortunately, presidential assent to the bill was declined due to concerns on certain provisions of the bill and its closeness to the 2019 general elections.
To avoid recurrence of the closeness of new amendment to the 2023 general elections, INEC at the inception of 9th National Assembly initiated discussions with the federal lawmakers to ensure early commencement of the process for the amendment to the bill.
INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu while presenting certificates of return to all the then senators-elect and house of representatives-elect in February 2019 urged them to give early attention to amendment of Electoral Act.
Yakubu gave assurance that INEC would work with the national assembly on the amendment of the Act to improve on the country’s electoral process.
Following the keen interests developed by Nigerians and critical stakeholders in the electoral bill, the National Assembly began work on the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021 which was hitherto passed by the Senate on July 15 and the House of Representatives on July 16.
However, the passage of the bill, especially Clause 52 which has to do with electronic transmission of election results generated much drama and disagreements among the lawmakers at both chambers.
While some lawmakers were in support of electronic transmission of results, others insisted on manual transmission.
This made the House of Representatives to invite the National Communications Commission (NCC) on the level of network coverage in Nigeria.
The Executive Commissioner, Technical Services, Ubale Maska speaking during a session with the lawmakers based on the invitation, said only about 50 per cent of Nigeria polling units has 3G network that could transmit elections results electronically.
Maska said that in 2018, the commission conducted an analysis of the 119,000 polling units in the country, stating that “about 50.3 per cent of the polling units have 3G and 2G network coverage, while parts of the remaining 46.7 per cent have only 2G and the rest do not have coverage at all.’’
Maska explained that only polling units with 3G network coverage could transmit election results electronically.
He, however, explained that results could be uploaded in areas covered by 2G and later be moved to an area with 3G for the transmission to be completed.
The clause which was eventually amended empowers NCC and the national assembly to determine application of electronic voting and transmission of result during elections as against the earlier provision which empowered INEC to decide on electronic voting and transmission of election result at elections.
Section 52(3) in the version of the Bill passed by the Senate as: “The commission may consider the electronic transmission of results provided that the National Network Coverage is adjudged to be adequate and secured by the Nigerian Communications Commission and approved by the National Assembly”.
In the House of Representatives, Section 52(2) of the Bill gives INEC the discretion to adopt electronic voting or any other method of voting it deems fit, but silent on the issue of electronic transmission of results.
For the spokesperson of the House of Representatives, Rep. Benjamin Kalu, the decision of the house was based on an informed judgment having listened to stakeholders that could guide the lawmakers in making a valid choice.
Kalu said it was imperative for the lawmakers to weigh the options before it and make an informed decision at all times.
He said that the house would not waver in its quest to put the interest of the country and the citizenry into consideration in all its legislative work.
Kalu said that adopting holistically the conduction and transmission of election results electronically could end up disenfranchising the electorate.
He urged Nigerians to be hopeful in their legislative efforts to rebuild the country, adding that “no stone will be left unturned in a bid to make the country great”.
President of the Senate Ahmad Lawan while adjourning the Senate till Sept. 14 said that with the passage of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, it was envisaged that no Nigerian would be disenfranchised in future elections.
Lawan said that time would definitely come when all parts of Nigeria would have the required coverage to deploy technology to ensure electronic transmission of election results.
“This has come to settle the issue of what the INEC can do and what it cannot. We are giving INEC an Electoral Act amended to enhance its performance.
“This electronic voting that we have passed, there is a distinction between electronic voting and transmission. Electronic voting has been adopted by the Senate,’’ he said.
However, the national assembly decision has continued to generate public outcry with calls on the national assembly to revisit its decision and allow INEC independent decision on electronic transmission of results.
Some Nigerians have also appealed to President Muhammadu Buhari not give his assent to the amendment bill if INEC is not empowered to electronically transmit election results without taking approval from either Nigerian Communications Commission or National Assembly.
The National Publicity Secretary, Young Progressives Party, Mr Egbeola Martins, believes that the rejection of electronic transmission of results was an attempt to subvert the will of the people.
Martins says the prohibition of electronic transmission of results while giving legal backing to electronic voting is illogical and selfish
“Perhaps, the lawmakers should also be reminded that the electronic transmission of results was experimented in Edo and Ondo State.
“This method proved to be effective in curbing election results manipulation at the collation centres where electoral frauds are mostly committed.
“Any electoral act amendment without the electronic transmission of results will be tantamount to giving a Greek gift aimed at only benefiting the political class at the detriment of the people whose confidence in the electoral system would have been further eroded,’’ Martins said.
Also the Convener of the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, Ene Obi, said that providing for electronic voting, but prohibiting electronic transmission of results was restrictive.
Obi said that anything short of electronic voting and electronic transmission of results will be unacceptable.
Also the Co-Convener of the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, Mr James Ugochukwu, urged President Muhammadu Buhari not to assent to the bill until the clauses are corrected.
In the same vein, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) National Publicity Secretary, Mr Kola Ologbondiyan, said the decision to subject INEC decision on electronic transmission of result to Nigerian Communications Commission and National Assembly would amount to a suspension of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
Ologbondiyan said that the action of the senators was a direct affront and a defilement of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which clearly conferred operational independence to INEC to conduct elections, free from interferences and regulations from any other agency of government.
Similarly, the PDP National Chairman, Uche Secondus, condemned the National Assembly’s position describing it as an attempt to murder the country’s democracy.
Former INEC chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega, notes that the decision of National Assembly prohibiting INEC from transmitting election results electronically except with the approval of both Nigeria Nigerian Communications Commission and the Senate is akin to undressing a masquerade in the market place and asking it to entertain the public.
Jega says that electronic transmission of election results is the way to go, noting that INEC has the capacity and capability to transmit election results across the country electronically.
The former INEC boss said that manual tabulation of election results is fraught with manipulation, adding that “manual tabulation should be done away with for any serious country that desires free, fair and credible elections.’’