Shortly after Professor Attahiru Jega assumed office as the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission(INEC) in June 2010, his first major outing was a visit to the INEC State headquarters office in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital.By the same token, shortly after Professor Mahmood Yakubu was inaugurated as INEC Chairman on 21st October 2015, he replicated Professor Jega’s pilgrimage with modifications. He visited the South West geo political zone, by beginning with a tour of the INEC State headquarters office in Ibadan, Oyo State.
After receiving a rousing welcome by the Oyo State INEC officials, the media savvy Professor Yakubu flagged off a visit of media houses in the zone with a robust engagement with the editorial board of Tribune Newspapers at Imalefalafia, Ibadan. One of the issues raised by a member of the Tribune editorial board was how Professor Yakubu intended to address the scourge of of vote buying and selling also known popularly in the South West as “see and buy”.
At the time of this engagement, the menace of vote buying and selling was as inchoate as Professor Yakubu was new to the Commission. Therefore, Professor Yakubu requested that the said editorial member elaborate on what he meant. An election cycle down the line and the conduct of many off season governorship elections and a legion of bye elections under his belt and watch, the phenomenon of vote buying and selling has since assumed the proportion of a clear and present danger to our electoral process.
From what stakeholders have witnessed recently during the conduct of the FCT Area Council Elections to the presidential primaries and the conduct of the Ekiti and Osun governorship elections, vote buying and selling have become rampant and commonplace.
Whereas vote buying and selling were carried out in the full glare of observers and the media during the FCT Area Council Elections and recipients were doled out Naira notes, the currency of vote buying in the presidential primaries morphed from the Naira to the Dollar, with deleterious consequences to the economy and the electoral process.
Following the token arrests of perpetrators of the act by anti corruption agencies during the conduct of the Ekiti governorship election, the perpetrators, who are our own version of geniuses of travesty, have contrived other means. Votes were reportedly bought in lieu of the Osun governorship election days ahead either by direct cash or by way of offerings or gifts. Rather than display thumb printed ballots, following the prohibition of android phones at voting cubicles, commitments were extracted during the Osun governorship election through vouchers by agents who then proceeded to take care of complicit persons who voted for their preferred candidates.
Instead of playing by the rules as enunciated by the Constitution and Electoral Act, thereby upholding the sanctity of the electoral process and putting our democracy on an enviable keel, our unscrupulous politicians seem to excel in gaming the system. Each time INEC plugs a loophole created by them, they proceed, with frenetic zeal, to create new ones. The upshot of their prolific negative genius is clear: they imperil and make nonsense of the onerous efforts of the Commission to sanitize the electoral process and to deliver wholesome elections which reflect the true and genuine wishes of the Nigerian people.
My fear – and indeed that of most stakeholders in the electoral process- is that if vote buying and selling are left unchecked and untrammeled, they will not only torpedo and undermine the integrity of the electoral process, they will rubbish all the gains and reforms which INEC and its partners have fought for over more than one decade and instituted.
Vote buying promotes the outright sale of political office to the highest bidder. It brings diminishment and devaluation to political power which ought to be sacred and hallowed. And when or where a deep pocket buys political office he will either covet or abuse it. He will seldom deploy it to uplifting ends. At best he will obsess himself with recovering his “investment”. At worst he will enrich himself with a view to further perpetuating himself in office. In this sordid scenario or circumstance, good governance and delivery of democracy dividends are the first casualties. The office holder is not obligated to deliver them. The voter who has exchanged his birthright for a miserable dish of pottage loses the moral high ground from which to hold such an office holder to account.
We have arrived at a sorry pass on account of bad governance and the arrogance and betrayal of the political class. Should we compound our woes by selling our votes and condemning ourselves and our children to untold and continuous suffering and servitude?
To rise to the challenge of vote buying and selling, INEC has had to expand its Interagency consultative committee on elections security(ICCES) by co-opting the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission(EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Commission (ICPC).
In response to the threat of vote buying, the two anti corruption agencies made a few arrests during the conduct of the Ekiti and Osun governorship elections. But given the widespread manner in which vote buying reportedly took place in the said elections, the arrests were at best niggardly. The arrests pale in significance when compared with the large number of alleged perpetrators. As if the arrests were not significant enough, we are yet to hear of the prosecution and sentencing of perpetrators by our courts in what appear to be open and shut cases.
As the Election Management Body(EMB) and therefore the chief driver of our elections, INEC has a responsibility to insist that those apprehended are prosecuted to the full extent of the law. INEC should upscale its voter education, underscoring to voters the danger which vote buying and selling constitute to our democracy and good governance. INEC and the anti corruption agencies should be proactive and anticipate in advance the shenanigans and tricks deployed by politicians to buy votes and to stop them in their tracks. In addition to being on top of their game, subsequent arrests of perpetrators of vote buying should not be limited to the minions. Arrests should be extended to their high profile sponsors.
Beyond these, INEC must work with other stakeholders to ensure the establishment of the Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal ahead of the 2023 General Elections. That way we shall have a separate body which remits shall be the apprehension and punishment of those who seek to undermine the electoral process. This should strengthen the integrity of the electoral process and divest INEC of the legion of responsibilities with which it is saddled and for which it has limited resources to discharge. The establishment of the Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal will also help check impunity in the electoral process and further improve the quality of our elections.