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2023 elections: EU Urges Legal and Operational Reforms

European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) has called for legal and operational reforms in the Nigeria’s electoral process to enhance transparency, inclusiveness and accountability in its electoral system.

EU EOM specifically listed six areas, which it said if implemented, could contribute to improvements of conduct of elections in Nigeria.

The six priority recommendations were for the Nigerian government to remove ambiguities in the law, establish a publicly accountable selection process for Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) members, ensure real-time publication of and access to election results, provide greater protection for media practitioners, address discrimination against women in political life, and impunity regarding electoral offences.

Presenting its final report on the 2023 elections in Abuja, EU EOM Chief Observer, Barry Andrews, said: “In the lead up to the 2023 general election, Nigerian citizens demonstrated a clear commitment to the democratic process. That said, the election exposed enduring systemic weaknesses and therefore, signal a need for further legal and operational reforms to enhance transparency, inclusiveness, and accountability.”

The EU EOM stated that shortcomings in law and electoral administration hindered the conduct of well-run and inclusive elections and damaged trust in INEC.

It further said with the aim of contributing to the improvement of future elections in the country, the EU EOM is offering 23 recommendations for consideration by the Nigerian authorities.

In the executive summary of the report, the EU EOM said the 2023 general election did not ensure a well-run transparent and inclusive democratic process as assured by INEC. It added that public confidence and trust in INEC were severely damaged during the presidential poll and was not restored in state level elections, leading civil society to call for an independent audit of the entire process.

EU EOM said:“…Abuse of incumbency by various political office holders distorted the playing field and widespread vote-buying detracted from an appropriate conduct of the elections. Incidents of organised violence shortly before and on election days in several states created an environment deterring voter’s participation. Media raised voters’ awareness, fact-checkers stood up against disinformation and civil society demanded INEC’s accountability.

“The overall outcome of the polls attests to the continued underrepresentation of marginalised groups in political life. Positively, candidates and parties disputing outcomes took their complaints to the courts, although the number of such cases was extensive.

“The electoral legal framework lays an adequate foundation for the conduct of democratic elections, with key regional and international standards being ratified. However, gaps and ambiguities in national law enable circumvention, do not safeguard transparency, while also allow undue restrictions to the rights to stand and to vote. Fundamental freedoms of assembly, association, and expression, while constitutionally guaranteed, were not always well protected. The widely welcomed Electoral Act 2022 (the 2022 Act) introduced measures aimed at building stakeholder trust.

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“However, the Act’s first test in a general election revealed crucial gaps in terms of INEC’s accountability and transparency, proved to be insufficiently elaborated, and lacked clear provisions for a timely and efficient implementation. Weak points include a lack of INEC independent structures and capacities to enforce sanctions for electoral offences and breaches of campaign finance rules. “Furthermore, the presidential selection of INEC leadership at federal and state levels leaves the electoral institution vulnerable to the perception of partiality.

“Early in the process, while enjoying a broad stakeholders’ trust, INEC introduced a series of positive measures to strengthen the conduct of the elections. However, closer to the polls, some started to doubt INEC’s administrative and operational efficiency and in-house capacity. Public confidence gradually decreased and was severely damaged on February 25 due to its operational failures and lack of transparency. While some corrective measures introduced before the March 18 elections were effective, overall trust was not restored.

“The introduction of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) and the INEC Results Viewing Portal (IReV) was widely seen as an important step to ensure the integrity and credibility of the elections. In practice, multiple missteps and lack of transparency before the polls, compounded by severely delayed display of presidential result forms, dashed the public trust in election technologies used.

“INEC failed to give a timely and comprehensive explanation for the failures on February 25, hence the improved online display of results forms from 18 March 18 state elections just fuelled further speculations about what exactly caused the delays after the presidential poll.

“A total of 93.4 million voters were registered for the 2023 elections. Owing to civic mobilisation during registration, two-thirds of the 9.5 million new registrants were youths. Yet, poor institutional planning and, again, lack of transparency negatively affected the collection — of Permanent Voter Cards (PVC). Confidence in collection rates per polling unit was undermined due to their belated publication. “Overall, an external independent audit could have helped to assure accuracy and inclusiveness of the voter register.

“Following a contentious candidate registration process, there were 18 contestants for the presidential office, 4.223 for National Assembly seats and some 11,000 for state elections. All candidates were selected in party primaries many of which reportedly involved excessive costs to participate, lacked transparency and were marked by low levels of participation of women as aspiring candidates.

“Leading political parties fielded only two female candidates for highly prized governor seats. This demonstrated a severe under-representation of women in political life and a lack of internal party policies to support inclusion, contrary to constitutional principles and international commitments.

“Excessive pre-election litigation exposed pervasive intra-party conflicts and, compounded by protracted legal deadlines for solving candidacy disputes, created uncertainty for voters, electoral contestants, and INEC alike. Among at least 1,200 court cases, some were perceived as politicised, others too technical while some overlapped with the polls. Some legal disputes negatively impacted candidates’ prospects to meaningfully campaign, while others risked undermining trust in the democratic process.

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“The campaign, extended under the 2022 Act, took place in a shifting political landscape with ongoing realignments across party lines. It was competitive and presidential contestants conducted rallies nationwide, but naira cash and fuel scarcity and insecurity reduced activities and attendance. Canvassing was personality centred, and many governors used their executive powers to tilt the playing field. Overall, divisive rhetoric with ethnic and religious undertones led to increased polarisation.

“The EU EOM recorded 101 violent incidents during the campaign, including at least 74 fatalities. Assassination attempts and killings increased closer to the polls, creating a particularly insecure environment in the southern states.

“In several northern states, systematic attacks by political thugs on rallies and political opponents were observed. Use of violence obstructed the campaign, disturbed the elections, and suppressed voter participation. Campaigning was also distorted by an influx of unrecorded money and despite campaign finance being comprehensively regulated the law appears largely ineffective.”

Reacting to the report, INEC National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education, Festus Okoye, said INEC should not be judged based on the basis of glitch in result upload for the presidential election.

Okoye also said in assessing the process, Nigerians must start from the positives.

“Were there positives to this election? My answer is in the affirmative. One, the commission registered a lot of Nigerians to vote during this election and the commission also engaged in a lot of voter and civic education that engaged the Nigerian people with the electoral process.”

“Secondly, the commission introduced technology in terms of voter registration; the commission introduced technology in terms of candidates nomination; the commission introduced technology in terms of accreditation of domestic and international observers, including the media. That is a positive side.

“The commission also introduced technology in the electoral process itself. Nigerians have commended the commission for the introduction of BVAS for purposes of voter accreditation. In terms of voter accreditation, nobody, nobody has faulted the functionality of the BVAS in all the elections we conducted.

“The only challenge this commission has had is the issue of result upload for presidential election only and I believe it is not fair to judge the entire performance of the commission on the basis of glitch in result upload for the presidential election,” Okoye said.

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