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2011 ELECTIONS: WORTHWHILE PROPOSALS

By NBF News

As the Constitution Review Committee of the National Assembly sits today to consider crucial issues on the 2011 elections, it has become necessary for the people's representatives to undertake a comprehensive review of timelines and other arrangements for the polls to ensure everything needful is done for the credibility of the exercise.

Two key issues the people expect the committee to take a firm decision on are the timetable for the polls; and a revision of the plan to stagger the elections, as is now being freshly canvassed in several quarters.

The chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Attahiru Jega, opened new vistas on the timing of the polls, on September 22, when he wrote to the National Assembly to formally request for a postponement of the election from January to April 2011, to give the Commission more time for preparations towards a credible exercise.

The INEC step followed a resolution on postponement reached at a consultative meeting with leaders of the political parties. Some other interests, including the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), have also called for the holding of all the polls - presidential, gubernatorial, national and state assemblies - on the same day.

The fresh calls for all elections to hold in one day are in tandem with a similar proposal submitted for inclusion in the 2006 Electoral Act, but which did not sail through.

The ANPP, through its National Chairman, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, last Thursday, said the adoption of staggered polls in the 2010 Electoral Act is an act of bad faith, which would give a particular party unfair advantage. The 2011 polls is a matter of grave national importance that deserves the most serious consideration by the government and people of Nigeria to ensure that we get it right, this time. It is one assignment that we cannot afford to flunk.

We, therefore, commend Professor Jega for the courage to admit his fear and that of other stakeholders on the timing of the polls, and his call for a postponement, shortly after he released the timetable. We urge the National Assembly Committee to acquiesce to his request for more time and shift the National Assembly, presidential, gubernatorial and State Assembly polls from the earlier scheduled January 15, 22 and 29, 2011, respectively, to April 2011. The National Assembly should urgently amend relevant electoral laws to pave way for the postponement.

We also strongly advocate a review of the decision on staggering of the polls. Conducting all elections on the same day holds several useful advantages that the Constitution Review Committee will do very well to consider at its crucial sitting. It will save huge costs as personnel and equipment will have to be mobilised to the election venues just once. It will help to reduce the challenge of logistics and summarily settle the lingering controversy on the order of elections.

It will also checkmate the bandwagon effect, which often sees patterns of electoral victory in subsequent elections following that of the very first one, as voters in the later elections try to join the flow of the winning party. Holding elections in one day will also reduce the stress and tension of the electorate, which, under the present arrangement, must go to polling centres, thrice in one month.

By accepting the request for all elections to hold on the same day, the legislators will only be acceding to the wishes of the people. The nation will then join the list of countries that appreciate the wisdom of not staggering their polls. This long list includes the United Kingdom and Brazil, which hold their presidential and parliamentary elections on the same day.

Brazil and Bosnia Herzegovina have both their presidential and parliamentary elections coming up on October 3, while Haiti has both coming up November 28. Some countries have contestants into all elective posts, including presidential, state and parliamentary, on one ballot paper, on which voters thumbprint their choices.

Although adoption of this method will call for larger ballot papers, and demand greater care in counting by INEC personnel, its advantages for the polity far outweigh any demerits.

Nigeria will definitely profit more from having all elections on one day. The challenge before the Constitution Review Committee, therefore, is to expedite the amendment of electoral laws to accommodate the postponement of elections and, perhaps, dropping of staggered polls.

These two issues deserve immediate consideration and adjudication because of other activities on the election timetable, like voter registration which had earlier been scheduled for between November 1 and 14. It is important to come up soon with a reviewed timetable to put the entire exercise in proper perspective.

The committee, however, must take due cognizance of other issues that will arise from postponement of the polls to April.

The 2010 Electoral Act provides for three months for aggrieved contestants to seek redness at the electoral tribunals, prior to the May 29, 2010 handover. With elections shifted from January to April, the three months provided for litigation has been wiped out. This has led to calls in some quarters for a revisit of the proposal for the handover date to be shifted, possibly to October 1, because of its historical significance as Nigeria's independence anniversary.

This position, however, has the challenge of legality, as it will keep the president, governors and legislators in office longer than the period for which they were elected. This is unjustifiable and contrary to the rule of law.

We advise that the May 29 handover date be held sacrosanct. Any other position cannot stand critical legal examination. However, the provision of three months for litigation by aggrieved contestants should still be strictly adhered to. This will ensure that winners are sworn in on May 29, but all petitions against them must be concluded within three months, specifically, by July 2011. The elections petitions tribunals and the Appeal Court must be made to adhere strictly to this.

This is necessary to avoid the present situation where winners of controversial elections hold on to power, while election petitions against them drag for years in the courts. Although changes in timing and mode of elections can tinker with the credibility of polls, the nation has limited choices in this matter because INEC must be given time that it requires to conduct a credible election. Any other decision to the contrary will be a ready excuse for shoddy polls that Nigeria cannot afford at this time.

If we do not do everything that is needful now, the billions of naira that will be used for the polls, the energy, logistic and human resources that will be deployed, and our credibility in the international community, will be at risk. The Constitution Review Committee and the National Assembly have an historical assignment before them. They need to take decisions that will help us avoid a rehash of past sham elections.

Now that there is a consensus across the parties that January is unrealistic for the polls, let the committee make the national interest paramount and expedite the process for the amendment of the 2010 Electoral Act so that INEC can come out with a new timetable. The decision on staggered elections should also be reviewed.

It is important for the legislature to take the right decision now. The Constitution Review Committee and the National Assembly should take these two important steps that are needful for the success of the polls.