By Emmanuel Oloniruha
Over the years, several stakeholders, particularly Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), have been working to improve on the Nigeria’s electoral system.
In spite of these multifaceted efforts, each election conducted in the past had its own peculiar challenges.
Some of the challenges are high rate of election violence as well as the late arrival of election materials and INEC ad-hoc staff at polling units.
Others include underage voting, multiple/over voting, failure of card readers, as well as snatching of ballot papers and ballot boxes.
While some of these challenges have been effectively addressed, others still remain major sources of concern to INEC and other stakeholders.
For instance, election observers recall that Edo governorship election on Sept. 28 witnessed a massive turnout of voters as well as early accreditation and voting in most polling units across the state.
They, however, bemoan what they describe as high level of voter inducement by some party agents, who were seen openly persuading voters with cash, ranging from N2,000 to N3,000, to cast their vote for certain parties.
The observers argue that the money shared at voting centres across the state distracted some voters who genuinely wanted to vote for candidates of their choice.
However, an interim report of the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room (Situation Room) said that the atmosphere surrounding the Edo election was largely peaceful and devoid of any major acts of violence.
The Situation Room is made up of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) working for credible and transparent elections in Nigeria.
The interim report, signed by Mr Clement Nwankwo, Executive Director, Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC), said that while the process and conduct of the Edo election was smooth, a major weak link in the conduct of all elections in Nigeria once again manifested in the election.
“Turnout at the election was impressive and voters generally were able to vote without fear or intimidation, although incidents of vote-buying by the major contending political parties cast a shadow of interference with the exercise of free will by voters.”
It added that there were reports of seeming collaboration between INEC personnel, security agents and parties to encourage vote-buying by setting polling stations in such a manner as to breach secrecy of voting and encourage inducement.
“There were concerns of widespread inducement and vote-buying in which two of the major contending parties were cited.
“The vote-buying also led to the monitoring of votes that were cast by officials of the said parties, apparently in a bid to ensure that voters who were paid voted as agreed.
“This monitoring was aided by the placement of the voting cubicles in a manner that enabled party agents to monitor the ballots cast, thus violating the principle of secrecy of vote,” it said.
However, the CSOs, via the report, advised INEC to take proactive steps to ensure that the secrecy of voting was protected in future elections.
It said that INEC should also ensure that agents of political parties were not allowed to stay in particular positions at polling booths where they could easily witness thumb-printing of ballot papers.
Mr Nick Dazang, INEC Deputy Director on Voter Education and Publicity, said that the commission was troubled by some reports it received on alleged inducement of voters during the governorship election in Edo.
“The commission received about 29 calls and SMS, alleging that some people were inducing voters with money during the election.
“We are troubled by such allegations; I am saying that over-voting and the use of money to induce voters are of concern to us and other stakeholders.
“This is something this is rearing its ugly head and it has serious implications for the electoral process.
“Going forward, we need to put this on the agenda, discuss and address it squarely before it becomes another major challenge to our electoral process,’’ he said.
Dazang said that voters’ inducement with money by political parties in the name of securing their votes must be tackled collectively and urgently by all the stakeholders, not just INEC alone.
He, nonetheless, advised voters not to allow themselves to be bought over during elections, saying that accepting bribe was tantamount to selling their mandate and future for a worthless amount.
“When you collect money and vote for a person, it means you are mortgaging your right. Also, that person you are collecting money from may not be able to deliver any dividend of democracy to you and others.
“Your right to vote for a candidate of your choice is as sacred as your right to life, your right to education, your right to religion freedom. All these rights are enshrined in the United Nations declaration.
“For you now to take money and forget your conscience shows that you are mortgaging your right to vote for a candidate of your choice.
“You have equally mortgaged your right to make the man accountable at the end of the day,” Dazang said.
Nevertheless, Chief Sam Eke, the National Secretary, Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC), said that voter inducement was not a new phenomenon in Nigerian politics.
Eke, who was a former presidential candidate and National Chairman of the Citizens Popular Party (CPP), said that voters’ inducement had been a feature of Nigerian politics ever since the country’s return to democracy in 1999.
“We are only looking for ways to end it because that is the only way that the real candidates and leaders who the people actually want can truly emerge,’’ he said.
Eke said that IPAC had been tirelessly working to address the factor of “money politics’’ in Nigerian politics.
“With `money politics’, we have not arrived. So far so good, others can believe that we are in a democracy but I still believe that we are in a transition,’’ he said.
He said that the country would still remain in a democratic cocoon or transition until the day its electorate realised the fact that vote-selling was like selling future generations into slavery.
Eke insisted that anybody who truly wanted to serve the people should not be thinking of buying their votes.
“Anybody fond of using money to induce voters to vote for him must first of all jettison that practice before he can perform, if at all he can perform.
“And when you go to confront such person on his compact with the people, he would simply tell you he bought his way to the position,” he said.
Eke said that as part of efforts to stamp out voter inducement, all Nigerians must be determined to have a democratic government that was accountable to them.
“It is when we choose to sacrifice our immediate `porridge’ (gains) for the future of our children and generations yet to be born that we can do that.
“Those in power must also do the needful by ensuring that hunger is banished in the country.
“If there is excess hunger in the land, people, in one way or the other, will be looking for what to eat and how to eke out a living,’’ he said.
Eke also advised the government to provide more employment opportunities for the people, particularly in the agriculture sector.
“When people are gainfully employed and not hungry, they will not be enticed with N1,000 to sell their votes,’’ he said.
A political scientist, Prof. Adigun Agbaje, said that it was very shameful that Nigeria, after 56 years of political independence, would still be having an election where there was such a high level of inducement and open use of money to subvert the process.
Agbaje of the Department of Political Science, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, said that the major question which all stakeholders ought to ask was: “Do we really want this democracy to succeed?
“If we do, then we cannot continue to actually keep away at the foundations of democracy. The element of choice in voting is important.
“We cannot continue to have elections that do not have meaningful choices built into them
“When you induce people with the kind of money that we are hearing about, it is either we are not serious about our democracy or we actually want the democracy to fail,” he said.
Agbaje emphasised that democracy was very difficult system of government to operate, saying: “If we don’t operate it the way it should be operated; then, we should be ready for a failure; God forbid!!”
The consensus of opinion is that for Nigeria’s electoral process to succeed and improve, all stakeholders, including the politicians, the media as well as the regulatory and security organisations, should be ready to play their respective roles in a more pragmatic way.