I took my stroll through the Uwais committee report against the background of a painful reminder that with the will to rescue it from the shelf of forgotten reports lacking, it is as good as resting in the waste paper basket. Its views and recommendations on the institution of electoral reforms to strengthen and deepen our democracy are consigned to the sterility of academics. How sad. What a waste.
The consequences are bothersome for our democracy. We will carry on our back for all of eternity the problems that hobble the free and fair conduct of our elections identified by the committee. To reiterate, the committee these permanent problems: “The character of the Nigerian state as the arena for electoral contests; the existence of weak democratic institutions and processes; negative political culture; weak legal/constitutional framework; and lack of independence and capacity of the election management bodies.”
I do not think it is normal for human beings to identify problems and insist on living with them. But we can. As we like to say, this is Nigeria. What is not normal is not that not normal with us. A flawed electoral system that gives rise to post-election contests that last for years in the courts deadens our hopes for the conduct of free and fair elections, no matter how hard the electoral umpire may try o acquit itself. The need for electoral reforms has a long history in our country. We recognise the problems and the flaws inherent in the system and are fully aware that unless they are removed, the conduct of our elections would always be a war won by the rich but with their victory tainted with the blood of the innocent.
In setting up the electoral reform committee, the late President Umaru Yar’Adua responded to the anxiety of Nigerians. Had he lived, I believe he would have had the will to implement the recommendations of the committee and our democracy and its electoral system would have been the better for it. At Newswatch Communications Limited, we supported the president’s determination to rescue our electoral system from the depth into which it had sunk. We organised a three-day national colloquium on democracy, electoral reforms and good governance, December 7-10, 2009, to give the work of the committee greater national exposure. Important men and women who shared our concern presented informed papers and, in some cases, offered radical views on the subject. The then vice-president, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, represented by an official from his office, delivered the keynote address at the colloquium.
But nothing has changed; and nothing will change because those whose business it is to make the change happen are blissfully all right with what is. I noted in the first part of this two-part piece that because the current flawed system serves vested political interests, the very important people refuse to see that there is anything wrong with it. It is human for the politicians to fear that if things are put right they stand to lose. They have been so used to this crooked system that they are unwilling to listen to alternative views on how things can be improved for the greater good of the majority of the people. And so, our weak democratic institutions continue to get weaker; our negative political culture gets more negative and the election management bodies still lack independence. And, to crown it all, we are still unable to identify the primary custodian of our electoral system.
The courts have been pressed into service to try and make straight the crooked conduct of the elections and to see that the system is forced to reward someone it had cheated. In general terms, the courts have not allowed the politicians to always get away with murder. But, and this is not to impugn the integrity of the courts, justice often respects the influence of Ghana-must go bags. It could be worse if the losers did not have the courts to which they could cry in search of the justice denied them by the moguls and the Naira.
Some of the recommendations of the committee would be considered controversial and the politicians would keep a safe distance from those that impinge on their assumed right to do as they wish. I suspect that if Yar’Adua were to implement them, he might skip the recommendation for a constitutional amendment to guarantee INEC full independence as its name seems to imply. Fact is, keeping the dog on a leash is quite often considered politically wise.
I find four of the recommendations of the committee particularly interesting. The committee recommended the unbundling of INEC by taking some burden off the commission and transferring them to new bodies. To this end, it recommended the creation of three such bodies, namely, the parties registration and regulatory commission, the electoral offences commission and the constituency delimitation commission. The national assembly has toyed with the electoral offences commission for a long time only for motion to trump movement for good reasons. They could be victims, you know. It is interesting that although every election is replete with electoral offences, I am unaware of anyone prosecuted for them. Impunity would continue to rule so long as no one is held accountable for offences that rob some of their victory and put the dust of shame on the integrity of our elections.
The commission also recommended that cases arising from the conduct of the elections should be concluded well ahead of candidates assuming office. Again, this is something that has danced owambe in the public space all along. Once a man whose election has a question mark assumes office as a state governor, for instance, it becomes impossible to dislodge him. He freely dips his hands into the public fund of his state to fight his private case in the courts. The courts have always been inclined to take the view that dislodging a governor with a stolen mandate would be more disruptive than making justice blind to injustice. It seems to me that the courts would side with justice rather than politics if all such cases are concluded well before hand.
Presumably, it is the business of the electoral umpire to officiate at our elections with a sense of fairness and justice. But the conduct of elections does not often support this grand view. When a loser challenges the result declared by the commission, it reacts the only way a human institution reacts – it stands on its decision. But here is the irony. The commission does not defend its verdict in the court. As matters stand, the burden of proof is on the loser to show he was the winner. The late Justice Mohammed Bello once told me that the law as it is favours whoever INEC declares as the winner because the commission would never support the petitioner.
The committee tackled this by recommending that the burden of proof be put on the man who claims to be the winner. This then would force INEC to come to court with its verdict documentary proof. I remember that at a senators’ retreat in Enugu in 2010, a couple of senators took up Justice Uwais on this, pointing out that this was not the position of the law. He calmly told them that it was not in all cases that the burden of proof lies with the petitioner. He referred them to what happens in a libel where the burden of proof lies with the man who claims to have been libelled.
I wish I could go on but I have made my point. Even if I write a four-part series, I am sure that no one in the presidency would be moved to take the report down from the shelf and dust it off if only to see the price we pay for ignoring some suggested sensible cure for our electoral ailments. I conclude this two-part piece with the committee’s apt observation on what it calls “expectations of Nigerians”:
“Historical evidence shows that Nigerians have always had very high expectations from their intercourse with politics and democracy. However, these expectations have more often than not, been dashed as politicians and political office holders seem to have less faith in properly conducted elections as a foundation for democratic governance than the electorate.”
I rest my case. (Concluded)