CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANIZATIONS AND ELECTORAL INTEGRITY IN NIGERIA
Nigeria has benefited enormously through the influence of civil society organizations especially during election seasons. So far, the success Nigeria have attained in terms of various reforms that have helped in shaping our elections, has been a result of strategic engagement that civil society organizations initiated with the election umpire, lawmakers and citizens.
Through active observation, we have made credible recommendations with great insights and nuances that improved our democracy. Civil society organizations are keen on observing actions of the government, activities of the election umpire; Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and behaviour of the people during the pre-election, election, and post-election seasons.
At the pre-election season, we observe activities of political parties and their primaries, National Assembly deliberation on electoral Acts, Presidential appointments relating to elections, INEC activities in the area of voters’ registration, release of voters’ card, adequate dissemination of relevant information and other declarations relating to elections. We also pay attention to citizens’ behaviour and participation at party primaries, campaigns, and voters’ registration.
On the election day, we observe it’s proceeding from the beginning to the end, paying particular attention to the conduct of INEC staff, election materials, the process of voting, collation and announcement, the conduct of political parties and their representatives, voters and mode of voting, security, and the general mood of the election.
At post-election, we are particularly interested in public perception and response to the outcome of the election. This entails political parties’ position, individual contestants and public opinion. This is important to access and ascertain the legitimization of the outcome of an election.
Nigeria has had to battle with so many factors that threaten the integrity of its elections, from the appointment of the chief election umpire and other critical team members such as the Resident Election Commissioner (REC), to the amendments of electoral Acts, provision of budget, conduct of personnel, campaigns and other numerous activities leading to a pre-election, election and post-election season. Decisions made can easily make or mar an entire election, causing a massive havoc that can jeopardize the security and unity of the country. The presence of the CSOs and their hawk-like observation provides caution for any constituted authority with the intention to abuse or manipulate the process.
Continuous observation and insightful reports by the CSOs have led to credible reforms of our electoral system, which has become more transparent, engaging, and digitalized, thus, improving access and having the capacity to enhance public trust and acceptance of election outcomes. The sustained advocacy for the electronic transmission of election results remains one of the most recent contribution of the CSO to attaining credible elections in Nigeria.
We bridge information gap by ensuring that INEC publishes critical information and procedures that will facilitate public understanding and participation in an election using various fora. Decisions and actions of the umpire are also being scrutinized to ensure concordance with electoral guidelines and regulations, and where there is an aberration, CSOs call for accountability and sanction, using facts.
In the process of observation, CSOs test the functionality or practicality of the existing electoral guidelines and laws to ascertain their usefulness and relevance or irrelevance. This helps to refine our existing laws to accommodate new situations and contemporary practices. Our observation and report have become credible research for INEC and the security operatives to understand the environment, situation and the mood of a community, pre-election. Our recommendations have helped to extend registration to enable increased participation, inspire inclusivity, boost security and encourage further training and preparedness of election staff.
After every election, citizens anxiously await the report of CSOs observation. This is because we are perceived as apolitical and work solely in the interest of the people and the country. Our reports are perceived as unbiased and grounded in facts. Where these reports confirm, to a large extent, INEC’s position, the public are more prone to accept the declaration by INEC and the outcome of the election.
However, where the reverse is the case, the legitimization of the result is questioned by citizens. In fact, the report becomes a tenable document at the court of law for the party challenging the outcome of an election. If poorly handled this can spark violence with dire consequences on the security of the country.
The election observation exercise comes with its challenges ranging from inability to remain apolitical, fear of withdrawal of INEC accreditation and resource constraint. Some CSOs are unable to detach themselves from identifying with a particular political party thereby destroying the credibility of their reports. To ensure objectivity in observation, it is important for CSOs to avoid any political affiliations. If an observer is sympathetic towards a particular party, their observation will be deemed biased, unprofessional and could be termed witch-hunting.
The fact that INEC has the sole right to issue, withhold or withdraw election observation license to CSOs, the tendency to not bite the fingers that feed you, can lead CSOs to be economical in reporting the truth or unfavorable incidence witnessed in an election.
Observing elections conducted in all the wards of local government and states is a massive venture that requires huge resources, both human and finance. We still battle with the financial requirement to recruit and train local observers capable of effectively observing and reporting incidences in pre-election, election and post-election seasons to cover at the wards.
Civil society organizations are partners in nation building and our contributions are expected to build and strengthen government institutions to better serve the people. If we approach election observation with this mindset, we will be more objective, unbiased and non-inciting with our observations, and our reports will assist in improving the country’s electoral system.
Executive Director, Peering Advocacy and Advancement Centre in Africa.