Electoral offenders may be in for a tough time as both chambers of the National Assembly are considering bills on electoral offences. The one before the Senate, “A Bill for an Act to establish the National Electoral Offences Commission charged with the responsibility of Prohibition and Prosecution of Electoral Offences” has passed second reading, while the House of Representatives is working on “ A Bill for an Act to establish the Electoral Offences Tribunal for the Purpose of trying electoral offences.” Its Committee on Electoral Matters has already made weighty recommendations on the proposed legislation and laid them before the House for final consideration and approval. The report is scheduled for consideration on January 16.
Highlights of the bill before the House of Representatives include the provision for a ten-year jail term with an option of a N50 million fine, or both, for persons involved in unauthorised printing, distribution, importation or destruction of ballot papers and result sheets. Moreover, offenders will not be tried in conventional courts, but by the Electoral Offences Tribunal. The bill before the Senate which was sponsored by Sen. Abukakar Kyari (Borno North) is one of those to be considered when the legislature returns from recess. Like the House bill, the Senate version seeks, among other things, the establishment of National Electoral Offences Commission and other matters connected with it. It laments that the punishment of electoral offenders which is part of the statutory responsibilities of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has not been effective, hence the need to set up an administrative structure that will deal will such offences.
We welcome any law that can deter all forms of electoral offences. Even though the proposed ten-year jail term and a fine of N50 million appear excessive, it could help sanitise our electoral system and curb the current “do-or die” tendencies of our politicians and their supporters. However, the usefulness of the law will depend on the political will to enforce it to the letter and the commitment of those who will be entrusted with its enforcement.
Truly, we need stiff penalties for electoral offenders. This will discourage electoral offences and fraud, which have become common features in our polls, sometimes resulting in deaths. Moreover, the electoral agency has not been doing much to rein in electoral offenders, even when Sections 149-150 of the Electoral Act give the commission the power to punish such offenders. Part VIII of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) lists types of electoral offences and prescribes specific punishments for them. These electoral offences include pre-election violence, stuffing and snatching of ballot boxes, shooting and detonation of explosives to scare voters, intimidation etc. They all pose danger to our democracy. For instance, Section 23 of the Electoral Act prohibits the buying or selling of voter’s card. The offence attracts a fine not exceeding N500, 000 or imprisonment for not more than two years, or both. Under Section 81, a political party or association which contravenes the provisions of Section 227 of the Constitution (prohibiting retention, organisation, training or equipping of quasi-military organisations) commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N.1m and N.7m for any subsequent offence and N50,000 for everyday that the offence continues.
Also, Section 91 of the Act criminalises contravention of limitation on election expenses. Under Section 91(12), any accountant who falsifies or conspires or aids a candidate to forge a document relating to his or her expenditure on an election in breach of the provisions of Section 91 commits an offence and on conviction, is liable to ten years imprisonment. Besides, under Section 129(4), anybody who snatches or destroys any election material shall be liable on conviction to 24 months imprisonment, just as Section 130 frowns at undue influence of the electorate or electoral officials.
Clearly, the Electoral Act makes ample provisions for punishment of electoral offenders. However, the electoral body has prosecuted only a few offenders either due to lack of diligent prosecution or outright lack of political will to do so, or the unnecessary delays in the conventional courts. This is why we support the handling of the trial of offenders by a National Electoral Offences Commission or Election Tribunal. The advantage is that, being a specialised court or tribunal, it will be faster in the disposal of the cases before it ahead of the swearing in of elected officials. Currently, election petitions in conventional courts often drag for so long.
While these measures are welcome, those who will be appointed to head the tribunal or commission when it is established, and its members should be persons of proven integrity and competence in the interpretation of the Constitution and the Electoral Act. If offenders are made to serve jail terms or pay hefty fines, or convicted politicians are barred from holding public office for a specified period, our democracy will be the better for it.
So far, only a few cases of electoral irregularities or offences are known to have been prosecuted to their logical conclusions, even when INEC recently said it had detected over 870,000 cases of multiple registration which are in breach of the Electoral Act.
Overall, while the proposals by the National Assembly are welcome, we believe that one of the best ways to reduce the incidence of electoral offences is to remove or curtail some of the things that make political office in the country so attractive. This will help to reduce the desperation to attain these offices.