By Iheanacho Nwosu, Abuja

A new challenge is on the card. The Federal Government has taken up the gauntlet of, again, reforming the electoral system.

Last week, it announced the setting up of a 24 man committee headed by former president of the Senate, Chief Ken Nnamani to handle the task of  articulating how to reform the electoral process. The committee is to review   existing electoral law and past reports.

Members  of the committee include Dr. Mamman Lawal of Bayero University, Kano (Secretary); Dr. Muiz Banire (SAN), Dr. Clement Nwankwo, Chief A. C. Ude and the Director, Legal Drafting, Federal Ministry of Justice.

A statement by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami said “The 24-member committee will be chaired by a former Senate President, Senator Ken Nnamani.

“He is expected to bring his wealth of experience to bear on the reform process.

“The committee is expected to review electoral environment, laws and experiences from recent elections conducted in Nigeria and make recommendations to strengthen and achieve the conduct of free and fair elections in Nigeria.”

Among other things, the Committee’s assignment which is expected to last for 16 weeks will review conflicting court judgments on legal disputes on past elections.

The scope of the committee’s work read in part, “Review the laws impacting elections in Nigeria, in relevant provisions of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended) to assess their impact and adequacy for the administration of elections in Nigeria.

“Review of recent judicial decisions on election petitions as they relate to conflicting judgments; absence of consequential orders; delay in issuing Certified True Copies of judgments; harmonisation of the Electoral Act in view of the judgments with a view to enhancing the electoral process.

“Review of the lessons learnt from the 2015 general elections and make recommendations for the improvement as they relate to the judicial decisions and experience from field operations.

“Identify and assess international best practices on electoral system relevant to Nigeria’s experience and identify best practices that would impact positively on the quality and credibility of the nation’s electoral process.

“Review the extent of the implementation of the recommendations of the 2008 Electoral Reform Commission headed by Justice Muhammad Uwais (Uwais Report) and advise on outstanding issues for implementation.”

The move by the government has, rightly, drawn huge attention from diverse circles. Although, many are yet to make definite pronouncement on the issue in the public, they are, however, discussing it informally. Electoral reform has always been a tetchy issue in the country. You don’t blame people for that. Election has been one critical aspect of the country’s life that has remained a huge concern to many.

The interest that the new move by the government has elicited is not about the importance of the proposed reforms, neither is it about the composition of the committee. Instead, it has to do with the motive behind the move.

“We do not know why they are embarking on the new project. Nigerians do not know whether it is just an opportunity to give ‘boys’ a job or it is meant to divert attention from crushing economic challenge facing the country”, Dr Ibrahim Daudu, a university don and rights crusader said.

The reservation by many about the new committee is derived from the fact that a similar committee headed by the former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), few years ago did similar job. Many Nigerians hailed the work done by the committee. Yet the reports of the committee have not seen the light of the day till date.

The Uwais reports focused on key concerns about the nation’s electoral system. It looked at the recurring debate about how best the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) can be truly independent. The argument has always dwelled on whether or not the President should be allowed to continue to appoint the Chairman of the commission. The constitution empowers the President to appoint the INEC chair and other members of the board. The President is also empowered to appoint and remove the 36 resident electoral commissioners for the 36 states. Many, especially those from the rights group as well as lawyers have maintained that the law effectively puts the INEC under the influence of the President and the ruling party. They maintained that the electoral body cannot be impartial when the President and his party know that they can manipulate INEC to achieve their plan.

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“Daudu said “ what are you talking about, the law empowers the ruling party to have INEC under its sleeves . That is exactly the reason it has been difficult for our INEC to deliver free and fair election”.

Strictly speaking, since 2003, the body language of INEC has always shown that it can hardly go against the wish of the ruling party. Although the outcome of the 2015 poll favoured the opposition, analysts believe that it was more of the man calling the shot wanting it that way than the claim that it was because the commission resisted manipulation by the presidency.

“I believe that people who praise Jega’s INEC as being wonderful and above board do that out of ignorance, the truth is that President Jonathan chose to do the right thing. If it were those before him, they would have done the opposite”, Daudu further argued.

Uwais report wanted the power of appointing INEC chairman and RECs by the President removed. The Committee  recommended: The President has no business choosing the INEC chairman and the rest of the board. A neutral and non-partisan body should handle it.

The committee asked  that the constitution should be amended to remove the INEC from the list of Federal Executive Bodies and empower the National Judicial Council to appoint the chairman, the deputy chairman and the other board members.

Uwais committee equally recommended that ‘Only the Senate should have the power to remove the chairman or anyone on his board, and this should be based on the NJC’s recommendation. The President shouldn’t be able to fire anyone on the board.’

On the funding of the electoral body, the committee  recommended: The INEC should be financed directly through the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation. It should be empowered to draw from this Fund independently to do its work and pay its bills.

In the same vein, the committee recommended steps to be taken on areas like delimitation of constituencies, formation and funding of political parties and setting up of special court for electoral  offenders. “The INEC should be relieved of the delimitation work and a Constituency Delimitation Commission should be set up specifically for the work. This new commission should have a team drawn from the INEC, the National Population Commission, the National Boundary Commission, the Office of the Surveyor-General of the Federation, the National Bureau of Statistics and the National Identity Management Commission.”, it recommended.

It continued: “The presidential and governorship elections should be held at least six months before the expiration of the term of the current holders of the offices. The National and State Assembly elections should also be held two years after the presidential and governorship elections in order to cut the INEC some slack.

“The 2006 Electoral Act allows candidates whose election victory is being challenged in court or a tribunal to remain in office till the case is finished. The result is that some people who rigged to win stay in office for a few years while the case drags on, and this disrupts the term of office when the rightful winner begins his own full term.”

Uwais recommended that “No elected person should assume office until the case against him or her in the tribunal or court is finished.”

The question now is would the nation have had any need for electoral reforms if it had implemented the Uwais reports? May be yes, may be no. Justice Uwais feels the latter would have been the case. He accused the authorities of lacking the political will to implement his committee’s reports.

He regretted that the report of the committee, died on the altar of politics. Uwais noted that instead of implementing the recommendations of his committee holistically, the Federal Government, decided to “pick and choose.” He spoke at a dialogue on the review of the Electoral Law and Process, organised by the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center (PLAC), in Abuja.

He said: “As we know, the bill that was produced by the National Assembly, though reflected on some of the recommendations of the Electoral Reform Committee, but not all of the recommendations of the committee were adopted. As far as the Electoral Reform Committee was concerned, the recommendations were intended to be in tandem with one another.

“If you want to make a good job of it, you cannot just pick and choose a few. Unfortunately, although I am not blaming the National Assembly, party interest came in. However, the 2010 Electoral Act was produced; it was put in practice in the 2011 elections.

“ I know from the legal point of view, some provisions, like the one that electoral petition should be completed by the tribunals within 180 days created some problems. But luckily, the Supreme Court was there to resolve whatever interpretation problems there was. I know among the lawyers, they are not happy with the solution provided by the Supreme Court.  At the moment, we are aware that there is an exercise going on and we cannot amend the Electoral Act in certain respects without amending the Constitution”.

Now that the Nnamani committee is expected to review and adopt Uwais reports, many would be waiting to see how far it can go on the assignment. If the new committee reproduces what the one before it did, not a few will chuckle and scowl their faces. But if it covers new ground, it will, sure, get a pat on the back. But whichever recommendations(s) the Nnamani committee comes up with will make little meaning to the nation if its reports suffers the same fate as Uwais’.