It is an understatement that the inconclusive Anambra gubernatorial election is a big national embarrassment. It could not have been imagined before the election, with the overwhelming concentration of electoral resources and security on the said election that we would come this low. INEC could not conduct a controversy-free election in one state, yet it plans to do a presidential election in thirty-six states. Anambra might be the sad prelude to the coming presidential elections in the unfortunate shape of things to come. Free and fair election is the bedrock of a democratic system, where the people as the ultimate sovereign, express their will in the choice of candidates who will govern them. The people do not do this every day but every four years. The election therefore is the only instrument of people’s sovereignty in a democratic state. When elections are compromised, or when they are neither free nor fair, we cannot have “the true government of the people by the people for the people”. The only reason politicians perform and govern well is the fear of being voted out by the people if they misgovern in the next election. If we can therefore not conduct a free and fair election where the people can genuinely express their will, we can say a permanent goodbye to good governance.
While we believe that the controversial election and its outcome would be tested in the law courts, the court of public opinion is already passing its judgment on INEC. The freeness and fairness of an election is a question of justice in which reality and perception must ally. A famous legal maxim based on the principles of natural justice says that “justice must on only be done but it must be seen to have been done”. In the case of Anambra elections, no matter what Jega and INEC say, we say that elections must not only be free and fair, they must be seen to have been fair. If elections did not take place in the stronghold of certain candidates, and even a key candidate in the elections was disenfranchised from voting because his name could not be found on the voters register, that election cannot be said to be just, free and fair. It does not matter whether INEC wants to conduct a supplementary election. The mere inconclusiveness of the election as admitted by INEC taints the election fundamentally and no supplementary exercise would adequately make up for it.
A cornerstone of a free and fair election is the freedom to choose a candidate without any form of pressure on the polling day. I should be making my choice of the electoral candidate largely from my own freewill. Hence, the polling station is designed to give voters the privacy to make their choice without any influence. It is also the reason why elections are conducted on the same day, at the same time. It is recognized as an electoral fairness principle that the choice of candidate should not in any way be influenced by the momentum of results of the same election from somewhere else. For the voters in the areas where INEC would want to conduct a supplementary election, it is certain that their choice would be significantly influenced by the electoral momentum from the areas where INEC has announced its inconclusive results. Whatever happens at the supplementary elections on November 30, its outcome cannot therefore be said to be just, free and fair.
We should not be impressed by the attempt of INEC to speak with both sides of the mouth. On one hand, it says that “it regrets shattering the expectations of Nigerians” and that the election was far below the people’s expectations, yet at the same time it argues that a substantial part of the elections comply with the electoral act. What an ambiguity! It is like saying an election is not fair on one hand, yet fair on the other hand. INEC has substantially lost credibility and the confidence of the Nigerian people in its ability to conduct a free and fair election.
A key player in this unfolding sad saga of INEC is its Chairman, Atahiru Jega, whose strong patriotic credentials is being eroded by the day. We all know Professor Jega’s antecedents in civil society and academia. His story might however be confirming very strongly that patriotic individuals without strong institutional support for the implementation of their patriotic objectives might be consumed by the corrupt and decadent institutions they lead. Jega as an individual cannot guarantee us a free and fair election without a strong electoral institution and a system of laws and enforcement institutions that genuinely and uncompromisingly promote free and fair election. President Jonathan and the National Assembly had chosen largely to ignore the good recommendations of the Uwais panel on electoral reforms. These include the criminalization of electoral offences and a strong independent electoral offences commission to prosecute electoral crimes and a long ban from politics of those found guilty of election rigging. The sheer impunity with which Nigerian politicians conduct electoral crimes is because the institutional mechanisms to sanction and punish their criminal behavior are virtually non-existent. Other recommendations of the Uwais report include limits and transparency of political party funding to reduce the corrupt influence of moneybags in elections. Had we have implemented the recommendations of the Uwais electoral reform commission; we would not be having the debacle in Anambra state today. In a way, the problem in Anambra state is also due to the lack of genuine will of the part of the President Jonathan and the National Assembly to strengthen our electoral institutions and guarantee for our people the right to a free and fair election.
The Anambra electoral debacle has exposed the institutional weakness of INEC to the core. Its public credibility and confidence have significantly nosedived. The expectations of a free and fair election in 2015 might have been put in abeyance. Yet, we must not give up the pressure to reform. We are a nation that has many times pulled back from the falling edge of a cliff. We can still do it now if we all cry out.
Olu Akanmu is a company executive. He publishes a blog on Strategy and Public Policy on http://olusfile.blogspot.com