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APRIL 2011: IMPERATIVE OF ONE MAN, ONE VOTE

By NBF News
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If you have followed contemporary political developments in Nigeria, you would have discovered that the slogan: 'One Man One Vote', has been brandished and talked about by politicians, professional people and the ordinary man in the street as a precursor to the forthcoming general elections.

The use of the slogan has gained such a momentum that rallies organised to discuss the concept have become more contentious and 'relevant' than the actual meaning of the concept itself. Aspersions have been cast on the attendance or non-attendance by political personalities invited at one of those rallies to the point that even before the concept took off, Nigerians had already begun to lose its benefits in a mire of unbelievable controversy.

Like most concepts and principles, the notion of 'One Man One Vote' is not new. As a popular concept in legal jurisprudence states, 'If it is new, it is not true and if it is true, it is not new'. 'One Man, One Vote' is a veritable concept that has been an integral part of liberal democracy for generations. Its meaning is wide and extensive depending on the context in which it is used.

The principle was articulated by the United States Supreme Court in the seminal case of Reynolds vs. Sim.The court held in this case that a state's apportionment plan for electoral seats in its bicameral legislative chambers must allow seats to be allotted on a population basis so that the voting power of each voter would be as equal as possible to that of any other voter.

In many parts of the world, the concept was conventionally understood and used in the context of agitations for universal suffrage reforms. It was used in this form during the independence struggles in pre-colonial Africa.

The notion of 'One Man One Vote' has also been used in the United States to buttress the principle that all citizens, regardless of where they reside in a state, are entitled to equal representation

In Nigeria recently, the concept has been understood by some people in the context of a 'gospel which makes it far uneasy for powerful special political interests to get a stranglehold on government or the processes that would install any government'1, while others flaunting the concept see it as a formidable weapon against all forms of election malpractice that has compromised election results in the past.

Since the closing chapters of the 20th century, in most constitutional democracies, equal and universal voting rights have become enshrined constitutional rights. In such democracies, all adults have one vote, no large groups are excluded from voting and no one has more votes than anyone else.

I am sure that none of the members of our political class grabbing headlines at the moment with the use of the slogan 'One Man One Vote' still thinks that he is fighting for universal adult suffrage, for in different sections of the 1999 constitution and the Electoral Act, the right to vote has been accorded to any person who has attained the age of 18 years residing in Nigeria at the time of voters registration.

The crucial question is- Where does the concept of 'One Man One Vote' stand vis-a-vis the Nigerian Constitution and our electoral laws?

In section 14 (2) (a) of the 1999 constitution, it is provided that:

'Sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government through its constitution derives its powers and authority'

Sections 77 (2), 117 (2), 132 (5), and 178 (5) of the constitution and section 13 (1) (a) (b) of the Electoral Act 2006 all in essence provided for universal voting rights subject to certain conditions in the following terms:

'Every citizen of Nigeria who has attained the age of 18 years residing in Nigeria at the time of the registration of voters for the purposes of Election………shall be entitled to be registered as a voter for that election'

Without digressing from the terms of this discourse, it is noteworthy that a federal high court ruling dated the 28th of January 2009 has ordered INEC to expand the above underlined and set machinery in motion for those who reside abroad to vote in the forthcoming election. This is a welcome development that could further expand the concept of universal suffrage as it is presently understood and applied in Nigeria.

Section 144 of the amended Electoral Act 2006 provides as follows:

'An election petition may be presented by one or more of the following persons- (a) A candidate in an election. (b) A political party, which participated in the election.'

From the aforementioned constitutional and Electoral Act provisions, it is clear that there are skeletal equal and universal voting rights for every Nigerian person who has attained the age of 18 years. However, the constitution and in particular section 144 of the Electoral Act 2006 as amended regrettably failed to capture provisions that will enable the individual voter protect his equal and universal voting rights. The said section only recognised and provided for the right of an election candidate and a political party to vindicate their rights in an election where there is irregularity or fraud.

That you have the right to vote once you are 18 and registered in the voters' register is not enough. The question is can you as an individual (who is not a candidate) initiate an election petition on the grounds that your voting rights have been compromised? No. What rights do you have if after you have satisfied the voting age requirement, registered in the voters' registry but due to manipulation of the voters register, your name is left out on election day? The answer is none.

This is a very serious lacuna which at the moment impedes the full realisation of the concept of 'One Man One Vote', for how can the vote of the individual count in this circumstance when he has been denied his franchise?

At one level, it is amusing and at another, very tragic, that the right of the person who through his vote appoints the public office holder is abysmally left un- provided for, whereas that of the public office holder and the political party were boldly encapsulated by the Electoral Act 2006 as amended.

Section 14 (2) of the Constitution which provided for sovereignty requires further elucidation in this discourse. In constitutional law and jurisprudence, the term 'Sovereignty' essentially means the source of ALL Legal validity, authority and power in a jurisdiction. Put differently and adopting the property law concept, sovereignty is the root of title of the legal system. Understood in this context, the legal validity in Nigeria flows from the Electors i.e. the people.

It is the people as principals who through their votes appoint the government (their Agent) to oversee the different aspects of governance including the safeguarding of their (the peoples') security and welfare.

The people (the sovereign of Nigeria) cannot therefore adequately exercise their right to appoint the representatives of their government (public office holders), if the concept of 'One Man One Vote' is not sufficiently provided for and protected under our electoral regimes and the constitution.

The question is what factors can negate the realisation of the notion of One Man, One Vote in Nigeria?

Let's assume for a moment that the Nigerian legal system provided adequately for the notion of 'One Man One Vote' so that the individual voter has legal constitutional means to vindicate his voting rights. Would that have been enough? I think not.

'One Man One Vote' (under any system) isn't enough to give everyone equal political influence and ensure that everyone's interest (in a nation) are taken into account.

It has been argued that one man, one vote principle is hard to apply successfully in multi-ethnic or religious divided countries where people vote according to their ethnic or religious affinity. Is Nigeria one of such countries? Is tribal and religious sentiment a great influence on the way we still cast our votes at election times?

Even where people have equal and universal voting rights adequately provided for in the constitution, the way people use their vote can be influenced by excessive use of money during campaigns.

You will agree with me that despite the stupendous wealth in the hands of a tiny cabal of the privileged class, the level of poverty in our 'great nation' is legendary. This often leads people to offer their votes to the highest bidder thus denying themselves the chance and power to vote according to their conscience and effect real and sustainable changes in the country. As Acheampong once said. 'One Man, One Vote' is meaningless unless accompanied with 'One Man with Bread'. The average Nigerian politician knows this and takes undue advantage of the poverty-stricken voters of Nigeria. It has been said that due to poverty in Nigeria, people could sell their election vote as low as N500 or a loaf of bread.

Therefore, apart from the subversion of the independence of the voter, poverty and ignorance do not provide a fertile ground for advocacy and the promotion of rights.

What about the interplay of the influence of powerful special political interests and the prohibitive cost of running for public office in Nigeria?

There are very powerful groups in Nigeria who out of pure selfish interests would prefer the status quo over radical changes in our electoral regimes. These groups of people would prefer to continue to benefit from the broken rather than the amended system. These people would do anything (including manipulation of voters register) in order to frustrate measures geared towards ushering in a transparent free and fair electoral system based on the concept of 'One Man, One Vote.' Needless to say that these powerful selfish interest groups would still prefer an electoral system where they can throw their money around and target the votes of the vulnerable.

Linked up to the factor of powerful special political interests, another factor which could negate and derail the concept of 'One Man, One Vote' is the prohibitive cost of running for public office in Nigeria, as it takes a very rich person to be able to contest for an election. At a modest estimate, the costs of running for governorship election in Nigeria in 2007 were as follows: Southeast-N2billion, Southwest- N1.5billion, Southsouth-N1.5billion and North-N1.1billion. The result is that reliable people are disenchanted from the democratic process, and the stage is therefore left for impostors who have nothing to offer but their money to buy the votes of the indigent voter.

In view of the highlighted preceding negative factors, I have been asked to answer the question 'whether the Concept of One Man One Vote is still possible in Nigeria?' The answer is yes.

William Shakespeare said, 'Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt' and as Edmund Burke once said, 'All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.' It is time for all Nigerians (especially we in Diaspora who have witnessed liberal democracy at work) to rise up from our slumber and do something to move our great nation forward.

The concept of 'One Man, One Vote' is realisable in Nigeria. But first we have to radically amend our electoral laws to provide for substantive and procedural mechanisms where an individual's voting right can be protected, pursued and vindicated before the law courts both prior and after elections. The concept should not be confined to an election-time slogan but should 'become the overriding principle in the continuum of governance.'

Secondly, as a means of checkmating the influence of powerful selfish interest groups, very bold and laudable safeguards should be introduced into our electoral regimes to discourage excessive use of money during campaigns and unfair media attention of a particular candidate to the disadvantage of other candidates. Limits should seriously be imposed on political campaigning, personal and party financing of election campaigns.

Thirdly, there should be improvement in public discourse and voter education. As one commentator recently said, 'There is the need for voters' education so that people would be told that if they collect money from a candidate, such a candidate would have to recoup the money he spent if he won the election. The implication is that the people would be deprived of facilities and amenities they are entitled to'

Furthermore, efforts should be made to plug the loophole of voters' register manipulation that is currently used by politicians to influence the outcome of elections.

Finally we, Nigerians in Diaspora should deploy our intellectual and economic arsenal towards the realisation of the concept of One Man, One Vote by strategically positioning ourselves to influence policy decisions on the subject and other relevant issues back home. If we cannot do this of what benefits is our exposure, all this while, to transparent liberal democracy?

• Chukwuezi, Barrister & Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, Practising Solicitor of England & Wales and Ireland delivered this piece on the occasion of a symposium and Special Gala Night organised by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Dublin Branch, recently.