At Chatham House, Gbajabiamila says insecurity poses a problem, writes James Akadiri
It’s just about nine months to the 2023 general elections in Nigeria and the Nigerian political space has begun buzzing. While political parties are wooing their members, politicians are at the drawing boards, preparing for battle.
In the past, elections in Nigeria have been good, bad and ugly. Some fault lines have included violence, ballot stuffing, ballot snatching, political party shenanigans, use of court decisions to delay election outcomes, and other types of electoral malpractices. But it is the aspiration of democracy to see that the electoral process is designed in a fair manner. And the government has aimed to learn from its shortcomings and make each election better than the previous.
This yearning for better elections gave birth to the revised Electoral Act 2022 which was signed by President Muhamadu Buhari in February. No doubt, the law would change the conduct of the electoral process and is expected to bring about more decent elections in the country.
And ahead of the February 2023 elections, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Rt Hon Femi Gbajabiamila was at Chatham House, London recently where for nearly 90 minutes, he held his audience spellbound as he spoke on ‘Nigeria’s 2023 elections: Strengthening electoral systems’.
Highlighting electoral processes in different parts of the world, Gbajabiamila said that elections in even the best of democratic countries are not perfect. According to him, in Nigeria, lessons have been learnt over the years and electoral laws have been tweaked for better public faith in the process. The speaker said that in February, the National Assembly concluded work on the new electoral law which had be signed into law by the president. He revealed the act was a joint effort of the National Assembly and the executive.
He also noted major changes in the electoral law to include biometric voter accreditation and electronic transmission of results. This, he said, was to take advantage of technology to block loopholes that permitted voter fraud and ballot stuffing and snatching. He also lamented that while some people wanted electronic voting, that provision was rejected because it would have been impracticable to achieve on a large scale. Nigeria has infrastructural challenges to enforce electronic voting. Indeed, he said that some countries like Sweden tried electronic voting but reverted to manual voting after.
“’There is evident progress from which we have learnt lessons,” said Gbajabiamila while addressing the audience in the studio and those watching online. According to him, the elections in the county have gotten better since 1999. And for this, he praised the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) which is responsible for conducting all elections except those at the local government level.
During the 2023 general elections, Nigerians would elect a president, 109 Senators, 360 Members of the House of Representatives, 29 state governors and over 1, 000 state legislators. And while Gbajabiamila, who has spent 19 years at the House of Representatives, and a principal officer for 12 years, said that the Electoral Act is well-suited for success of the upcoming elections. But he identified insecurity as a huge problem as the country journeys towards the general elections.
Arguing that balloting and collation of votes is hinged on security, Gbajabiamila told the audience that the North is riddled with religious bigots, terrorists and bandits while secessionists hold sway in the south, a situation which he says has made the “government to continue to invest scarce resources to address this security challenge.”
“The question of how to secure voters, polling officials and materials in 176, 846 polling units in 774 local governments across the 36 states amid these multiple and varied security challenges is the great unanswered question of the 2023 general election,” Gbajabiamila said. “And it is not a rhetorical question or a matter of theoretical consideration.”
He related the recent attack of the INEC officials in Imo State where the attackers recorded a video and said that no election would take place there. He however assuaged the fears of the people that the government has made provisions to tackle such spurts of violence and provide “free, fair and credible election across the country.”
Reiterating the response of Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence, to a journalist in 2002, Gbajabiamila said, “All our planning and preparations are based on things we know and areas where we recognise that there are gaps to our knowledge. The unknown presents the most danger and for which we are the least prepared. One area of concern where we can work together is the issue of voter apathy and voter participation.” And on what he expects should be done to record success at the polls next year, Gbajabiamila advocated citizen participation in the voting process and the involvement of more women, young people and people living with disabilities.
He regretted the non-inclusion of the clause “mandating political parties to nominate candidates through direct primary elections that allowed all party members to be part of the decision-making process.” The process would have ensured the popular candidates emerged rather than some form of impositions by godfathers or select groups within the parties. The speaker also said he wished that Nigerians in Diaspora who contributed greatly to the country’s economy could have voted but also spoke on the impracticality of such a provision. The speaker related stories of his travels and stops at Nigerian embassies across the world where the ambassadors told him that many Nigerians do not register their presence in the foreign countries they reside. Apart from saying many countries also do not conduct diaspora voting, he also added that it would require a constitution amendment to provide for Diaspora voting.
Gbajabiamila also complained of the monetary expectations of the people from politicians. He cited the high cost of nomination forms by some political parties as sources of funds to run the party and also to screen aspirants who may just be spoilers. He also called for a reform of campaign finance through the law and constitutional amendment. On cyber security as it concerns electronic transmission, the speaker expressed faith as he acknowledged that there are some communities where there are no cell phone networks.
However, it is the desire of many election managers to organise ‘fair’ elections. And while the country has kick-started the 2023 electoral process with aspirants buying nomination forms, the speaker did a yeoman’s work in informing on the form and intricacies to expect at the next election. So much so that Dr Alex Vines, OBE, the Managing Director, Risk, Ethics and Resilience, Chatham House asked him to return to the podium after the election.