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    We lack capacity to prosecute electoral offenders, says INEC Chair

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    … as stakeholders back electoral offences commission establishment

    By Gabriel Jonah, Abuja

    Critical stakeholders in Abuja on Tuesday threw their weight before the proposed establishment of the National Electoral Offences Commission, to amongst others investigate all  offences created in any law relating to elections in Nigeria and prosecute offenders under the bill under consideration.

    They said the establishment of a separate body to handle electoral offences becomes expedient as the Independent National Electoral (INEC) is not empowered to prosecute or sanction those who contravene the laws governing elections in Nigeria.

    The stakeholders spoke at public hearing on the National Electoral Offences Commission (Establishment) Bill, 2022, organised by the House of Representatives Committee on Electoral matters.

    Mahmood Yakubu, INEC chairman in his presentation said the reform of the country’s electoral process cannot be complete without effective sanctions on violators of the laws.

    Yakubu said INEC is presently
    saddled with the responsibility of prosecuting electoral offenders under the Electoral Act but the task is very challenging for the Commission.

    “For instance, since the 2015 General Election, 125 cases of electoral offences were filed in various Courts out of which 60 convictions have been secured so far, including the most recent one in Akwa Ibom State.

    “The Commission would like to see more successful prosecution of offenders, not just ballot box snatchers, falsifiers of election results and vote buyers at polling units but most importantly, their sponsors. We look forward to the day when highly placed sponsors of thuggery, including high-profile figures that seek to benefit from these violations, are arrested and prosecuted. We believe the work of the proposed Commission will help in this regard.

    “However, much as the Commission would like to see more successful prosecution of offenders, our effort is hampered by obvious constraints. INEC is basically an electoral commission with extensive responsibilities which include the registration and regulation of political parties, the monitoring of party and campaign finance, their primaries, congresses, meetings and conventions; nationwide Continuous Voter registration (CVR) and the maintenance of the national register of voters; creation of polling units (etc).” delimitation of electoral constituencies; voter education and publicity; management of electoral logistics; recruitment, training and deployment of election duty officials,” he said

    Yakubu said INEC’s incapacity to arrest offenders or conduct investigation that leads to successful prosecution of especially the high-profile offenders, led to the suggestion to unbundle the commission and assign some of its extensive responsibilities to other agencies as recommended by the Uwais and Nnamani Committees.

    The INEC chairman suggested that the
    Electoral Offences Tribunal should be established with exclusive jurisdiction to try electoral offenders, unlike the provisions of Clause 33 (1) of the bill which confers jurisdiction on Federal, State and FCT High Courts which are already over-burdened.

    He also observed that: “Clause 44 empowers the Attorney-General of the Federation to make rules or regulations for the Commission. Conferring additional power to any other body may cause friction or conflict with the Commission which should be independent in the discharge of its functions even if doing so requires consequential amendment to other laws of the Federation to empower the Commission and guarantee its independence. In any case, Clause 1(2)[c] of the Bill grants the Commission power to make its own rules and regulations.

    “Thirdly, because work on the Bill started before the passage of the current Electoral Act into law, all references to the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended), for example Clause 39(1), should be replaced with relevant provisions of Electoral Act 2022.”

    Yabagi Sani, chairman of the Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPA) in his presentation said the political parties were afraid as to how INEC was going to enforce the provisions of the Electoral Act, 2022 as it the commission is more or less, “bulldog that can not bite.”

    Sani however said with the proposed Electoral Offences Commission, the political parties “believe this is the missing link with Nigeria having a credible, free fair and more inclusive election.”

    He observed that,”in the membership of the commission, there is no mention of civil society groups. We are thinking that if at least one or two of them are included in the membership of the Commission, perhaps it will bring the interest of the public to be protected.”

    Clement Nwankwo, executive director of Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC) who backed the planned commission, however called for reduction of the proposed N40 million fine on electoral offenders in line with current realities.

    Nwankwo said: “I think 20 years imprisonment for vote buying is overwhelming. N40 million as fine, which means it could extend to 100 million fine, the chairman already said the persons sponsoring these are lurking somewhere in the shadows, those who are running around snatching ballot boxes and given the money, certainly cannot afford N40 million as fine and their sponsors are going to hide and disappear and leave them to bear the brunt of it.

    “So, I think the offences should commensurate with reality, it won’t even make a Judge to impose that sentence, rather than think how unjust it will be to impose such huge fine or imprisonment on the offenders.”

    He insisted that the Electoral Offences Commission must be independent and insulated from politics, partisanship, saying: “the Commission, if it should be set up, it should really give the outlook of independence and impartiality. We don’t have a problem with the President making nominations, and those nominations should be subject to Senate confirmation.”

    On the other hand, Deborah Ademu-Eteh, Assistant commander of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) kicked against the proposed body and called for strengthening of existing security agencies to handle such tasks.

    Ademu-Eteh said the offences contained in in Part IV (Sections 13-32) of the bill largely constitute offences that have already been criminalised by extant laws such as “the Electoral Act, 2022; The Penal and Criminal Codes, the Independent Corrupt practices and other related offences Act, 2000; and Economic and Financial Crimes (Establishment)Act, 2004.”

    Femi Gbajabiamila, speaker of the House while declaring the public hearing open said electoral crimes lead to low quality, corrupt and violent political leadership, as it helps election riggers and offenders take control of government against the democratic will of the electorate.

    Represented by his deputy, Idris Wase, the Speaker said a review of Nigeria’s past elections indicated the need for the National Assembly to take necessary legislative steps to address identified challenges and plug the loopholes encountered with the conduct of elections in the country.

    He said: “Civil disturbances and violence resulting from manipulated elections strain otherwise harmonious communal relationships with adverse effects on national cohesion, peace and security; because rigged elections throw up political schemes that are not conducive for businesses and the national economy. Electoral offences are self-inflicted injuries to be avoided at all cost “

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