By Chukwudi Ekezie
In every election cycle since independence, the problem has been how to deal with issues relating to election management in Nigeria, especially the activities of the electoral umpire.
Attention has always been on how to address institutional failures, such as ineffective resource management, poor preparations, collusion among politicians and election officials to cheat as well as electoral violence.
Others are acts of intimidation by contending groups, especially political parties, and the use of security agents for election duties.
While the focus is usually on institutional structures, little is said about the politicians and the voters, who cast an image of the victim of inefficiencies of the electoral process.
Since 1999 when Nigeria returned to civil rule after a long period of military dictatorship, the electoral umpire, in this case, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), and its activities have been mired in controversies.
Consequently, the government has always deployed energy and resources in efforts to deal with the challenges of election management, including electoral violence.
This is the reason that in addition to addressing the logistic challenges of INEC, the government also mobilises the security agencies to secure the election environment.
Furthermore, the government restricts the movement of persons on election days, but the measures have not guaranteed the sanctity and integrity of the process as the election outcomes are often contested in courts.
The Ekiti Governorship Election of July 14 like three others before it presents a new challenge for the electoral process – Vote Buying.
In Ekiti like in Edo, Ondo and Anambra states, the electorate turned their votes to commodities of trade and boldly struck deals with political party agents willing to pay the highest price in the presence of law enforcement officers.
Vote buying had always been part of Nigeria’s political process, albeit discretely.
In the past, political parties often tried to bribe voters with gifts, such as food items and clothing materials during electioneering.
The closest thing to election day vote buying is what happens at party primary elections and conventions during which delegates are bribed at the venue to vote for the highest bidder.
Dr Joe Okei-Odumakin, President of Women Arise for Change Initiative, one of the observer groups in Ekiti, said: “the incidences of vote buying and inducement became so prominent than it has never been during the Ekiti governorship election.
“This portends a great danger, not only to our electoral process but also to democracy as a whole.
“It will simply mean that the choice of leadership will no longer be on the basis of programmes or party manifestos but rather, the highest bidder on election days, no matter how incompetent.”
Another observer of the poll, Mr Ezenwa Nwagwu, Chairman, Partners for Electoral Reform and member, Working Group of Watching The Vote, Yiaga, Africa, noted that vote buying was not new in Nigeria’s electoral process.
Nwagwu said the reason people were complaining in the case of Ekiti was that INEC performed its duties well.
“The reason why we are hearing a lot about vote buying in this election is that INEC did its work very well.
“If logistics had failed and collation and verification didn’t go properly, that is what people would be talking about,’’ Nwagwu said.
He pointed out that politicians used to go to the homes of voters to bribe them and sometimes administered oaths on them to get their votes.
He said that the difference in the case of Ekiti was that there were voters willing to sell their votes to party agents ready to pay the highest price within the vicinity of election area.
Nwagwu highlighted the predicament of law enforcement agents over their failure to arrest the vote buyers and sellers.
He said had the law officers arrested the people, the politicians would have accused them of intimidation.
Some citizens have attributed the desire of voters to sell their votes to poverty and the lack of trust between the electorate and the politicians.
Mr Patrick Ugochukwu, a law teacher at Abia State University, Uturu, said vote buying was a crime but noted that people were willing to sell their votes because they had lost trust in government.
Ugochukwu, however, said that there was a limit to the role vote buying could play in determining election outcomes.
He said that in an environment where the people had trust in government it would be difficult for them to collect money and vote against their preferred candidate.
He compared the case in Ekiti with that of Anambra, in which politicians bribed voters but they still voted for the candidate of their choice.
“The Anambra State Government pays its workers on the 14th day of the month that is why in spite of the efforts by some politicians to buy their votes they voted for Gov. Willie Obiano of APGA.
“The political parties in the election did not go to the tribunal and all those who challenged the election outcome went on their own,’’ Ugochukwu said.
Similarly, Mr Vitus Ekeocha, the Director, National Orientation Agency in Imo, noted that the situation in which a governor owed workers in the state many months’ arrears of salaries the people would rather take what was available to them.
The activities in Ekiti and other states is worrying the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI) both of the U.S. which have warned that vote buying and insecurity constituted a threat to the 2019 general elections.
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh, Regional Director for Central and West Africa, NDI, said the groups were in Nigeria to assess the political and electoral environment as well as preparations for the 2019 polls.
Fomunyoh said the delegation interacted with INEC officials and other stakeholders, such as party leaders, civil society groups and the media and in addition, monitored the election in Ekiti.
“The delegation notes that the 2019 presidential race and other polls in the states will likely be closely contested and take place against the backdrop of shifting political alliances and significant security concerns.
“It also heard repeated frustrations about the continued role that money plays in Nigerian politics, from how candidates are selected to how parties seek to influence voters.
“Nigeria faces security challenges from a number of non-state actors that if unchecked, could disrupt the electoral process,’’ he said.
Fomunyoh said terrorist attacks, clashes between pastoralists and farmers were on the rise and that the conflicts were heightened by illicit trade in weapons and cattle rustling.
Mr Jan Surotchak, Regional Director for Europe, IRI, said squabbles over the selection of convention delegates and leadership in the states generated tensions within parties.
He said the high cost of politicking and opaque candidate selection processes were particularly challenging for women, youths and persons with disabilities to overcome.
He said that the Ekiti election witnessed vote buying which raised concern among Nigerians and added: `Vote buying is a frightening development in elections.’’
He said vote-buying was an electoral offence which could undermine the legitimacy of elections and weaken representative democracy.
He said that the lack of enforcement of punishments for the electoral offence had allowed the practice to persist and grow.
Surotchak called for a check on the social media ahead of 2019, adding that the platform was heavily laced with politically-related content.
He said there was a need to allay the fears of Nigerians on the persisting insecurity and the threat of violence as these could dampen citizen participation in 2019.
As a step to deal with the problem, Ekeocha said it was regrettable that the election budget was heavily centred on the provision of security with no attention given to citizen education.
He said the citizens must be re-oriented to appreciate the consequences of selling their votes.
Also, Nwagwu called for stakeholders’ engagement to address the issues around the electoral process.
“We talk too much to INEC and are afraid of talking to the politicians because in one way or the other we have one thing we want to benefit from them.
“Let’s talk to the politicians because they are the problem of our democracy,’’ he said.