Electoral Commissions: No more “yes men”

Current Affairs

Electoral Commissions: No more “yes men”

Presidents’ yes men used to fill too many of the continent’s electoral commissions. Now, thanks to growing civic awareness and transparency, some of Africa’s election arbiters are moving firmly in the right direction. But ensuring free and fair elections is one hell of a job. Mark Kapchanga 

Organising a successful national election is an intricate task. The CEO of Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), Ezra Chiloba, described running an election to New African as “akin to a military operation that requires detailed planning and thorough execution.” 

Electoral bodies’ improving ability to run these complex events has contributed to the democratic gains made across the continent in recent years. The commissions are expanding their roles too, as they attempt to assert independence from the government of the day and build their capacities. IEBC’s mandate, for example, now includes voter registration, management of the electoral roll, regulation of political parties, settlement of electoral disputes, demarcating electoral boundaries, registration of candidates, ensuring politicians adhere to codes of conduct, voter education, as well as managing polling day itself.

“The increased role means we are in charge of the entire process. At the end of it all, we have to entirely account for our actions,” says Issack Hassan, the IEBC chairman.

But it’s not just the complicated geographies, heated political rivalries, and infrastructure challenges that make this crucial job so difficult. Electoral commissions’ hard-won independence from the government in power is frequently under threat. 

IEBC notes there is a deliberate failure by political parties, particularly those in power, to adhere to electoral codes of conduct. Often, the power of incumbency is more than just name recognition. Ruling parties misuse the official government machinery and resources to further the electoral prospects of its candidates.

Nigeria has a sorry record of government resources being deployed on behalf of candidates. This abuse occurs at national level, which has been governed by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) since the return to electoral rule in 1999, and at the state level where opposition parties, as well as the PDP, have used their control of the powerful State Governorships to influence elections unfairly. The phenomenon is so widely recognised that, in January, political parties signed a code of conduct that they would not use public resources for campaigns. The document states, “no political party shall use state vehicles or other public resources for any electioneering campaigns or any other party business”.

However, the Sunday Punch has reported that President Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign has used almost all of the 11 planes in the presidential fleet. The newspaper also reported that nearly every state governor – from both the PDP and opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) – had used state resources in their campaigns. Doyin Okupe, a senior advisor to Jonathan, told the paper, “A sitting president has all the paraphernalia of office anywhere he goes. The same applies to governors. They are not ordinary citizens, so when you are contesting against them, you know you are contesting against an institution. There is nothing you can do about that.”

Okupe’s comment that incumbents are an institution, rather than an individual seeking re-election demonstrates the scale of the task that Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) faces. The separation of institutional and political resources in not yet a fully accepted norm for Nigeria’s political class.

The unapologetic rejection of electoral codes of conduct is not even the greatest challenge facing INEC. The commission postponed elections on 7 February, just one week before the scheduled presidential elections, despite INEC chairman, Attahiru Jega, stating that his body was “substantially ready for the general elections as scheduled”. INEC’s ability to conduct the elections was undermined by a letter from the National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, a Jonathan appointee, which informed Jega that “security could not be guaranteed during the proposed period in February for the general elections.” In effect, the security services withdrew their support for the preferred electoral timetable of the electoral commission.

INEC under Jega’s leadership received praise for its management of the 2011 elections, especially following the highly criticised 2007 poll. Despite some eyebrow-raising levels of turnout and margins of victory in Jonathan’s home region, the elections were considered the fairest since the return to electoral rule. However, even a relatively successful and independent-minded commission can be pressured by other sections of the state, as Nigeria’s election delay demonstrates. 

INEC’s independence cannot be considered total. Since the postponement, Jega’s position has become the subject of much speculation. Sections of the media, civil society and the opposition charged that if the president removed Jega, INEC’s independence would be so thoroughly compromised that elections would not be credible. Jonathan denied that he had any such plans to remove the chairman before the rescheduled elections. 

As Dr Emmanuel Manyasa, a lecturer at Kenyatta University, Nairobi, told New African, “The problem with electoral commissions in Africa is that they are not fully independent. Most of their heads are political appointees. As such, they have to swear allegiance to the government of the day.” 

While “swear allegiance” may not entirely describe the complex set of relations between INEC and the Jonathan administration, perception is almost as important as reality. It is not enough for electoral referees to be fair and impartial; they must be seen to be fair and impartial. Anything that undermines this perception in electoral environments that have the potential to turn violent, stokes that threat. 

The technical fix

Electoral commissions are expanding their use of technology in the electoral process. Judicious use of technology could improve the credibility of the voting process, reduce election malpractice and increase the independence of commissions from the government of the day by increasing transparency. 

In November 2012, IEBC introduced biometric voter registration (BVR). The new method didn’t come cheap, but the cost of $95 million was deemed worth it to curb vote-rigging that was seen to be prevalent in the previous manual registration system. To join the electoral register and cast their ballots, all eligible voters would have to go through biometric analysis.

IEBC also hoped to use new technology to transmit provisional results electronically to facilitate faster announcement of the vote tally. Unfortunately, on its first outing – the all-important 4 March 2013 elections, IEBC’s first – the technology failed expectant Kenyans. A lack of power and data connections at polling stations caused the system to fail. In addition, the servers at the national tallying centre collapsed. The commission was forced to return to manual counting, delaying the announcement of the winner of the presidential election until 9 March.

Analysts accused IEBC of procuring the equipment and services late, making it impossible to test it sufficiently for possible stresses.

“The breakdowns were foreseeable and preventable,” says Makau Mutua, a law professor in New York. “They were due to incompetence, technological illiteracy and lack of adequate preparation.”

Despite the hiccup, Brian Munyao Longwe, an independent consultant, says Kenya has made tremendous strides in boosting transparency, trust in the electoral process and strengthening the country’s democratic institutions.

The IEBC admits failures in the 2013 election but says the technology works and is here to stay. “The Commission has subsequently employed technology in various post-election by-elections with considerable success, thus raising its mastery of the technology and increasing its confidence,” Hassan explains.

Other countries have joined Kenya by in introducing biometric verification. Ghana, whose electoral commission is one of the most praised on the continent having managed the incredibly close 2008 and 2012 elections, has embarked on fresh voter registration. 

Biometric verification and other technologies are not without their pitfalls. As Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga told New African, “The new technologies being introduced must be easy and friendly to use and make the registration, voting and conveyance of results as transparent as possible.”

Nigeria’s INEC introduced new Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) for its new electoral register for this year’s elections. The process of drawing up the new electoral roll succeeded in reducing the number of ghost voters on the electoral roll. As a result, fewer are registered to vote in 2015’s elections than those in 2011. This should reduce one avenue for electoral malpractice – non-people or the deceased “voting”.

However, the introduction of PVCs, a chip-based card that contains a voter’s identity and eligibility information, has been flawed, with distribution of the cards running significantly behind schedule. This failure helped open the door for the delay of the elections. Ten days before the scheduled Valentines Day presidential poll, only 44 million out of 68.8 million PVCs had been distributed with the deadline for final distribution four days before the election.

INEC’s logistical failure in distributing the PVCs the electorate needed to vote with undermined itself. It aided those who wished to delay the election, which had not been INEC’s preference, as they could point to the possibility of millions of Nigerians unable to cast their votes on 14 February.

Citizen support

Citizens across the continent are not taking mistakes by electoral commissions or impositions on their independence lying down. Voters are more knowledgeable and organised to protect their votes. “Times are changing. Gone are the days election commissions would just declare results without being scrutinised. The electorates are more informed putting the electoral commissions under the microscope,” says Manyasa.

After Ghana’s hotly contested 2012 elections, civil society organisations, the Supreme Court and others pushed for electoral reforms to further improve the credibility of the 2016 polls. From this process, The Electoral Commission of Ghana has announced changes including biometric voter registration. The country’s electoral commission, which received such praise for its handling of the incredibly close 2008 elections, has again shown itself to be a leader on the continent. In partnership with activists and the independent judiciary, it is securing the country’s electoral future and offering a model to others.

Electoral commissions elsewhere on the continent too have been part of this process of increased accountability through the increased prominence the organisations give to voter education. IEBC’s Chiloba sees voter education as pivotal to empower citizens to participate effectively in the electoral process.

This citizen participation and empowerment could prove the guarantor of the reforms that some electoral bodies are driving forward, and the genuine independence many commissions are trying to achieve. Manyasa argues that unless the public is thoroughly educated on the election process, electoral commission improvements will prove fruitless. He suggests awareness should not be constricted to the registration and voting but also cover the scrutiny of results.

“This way, the public will hold the electoral commissions accountable, and check on any possible rise of chaos,” he said. “More importantly, awareness increases people’s participation in the polls, enabling them to make their rightful, democratic decisions.”    

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