Monday, December 29, 2008

The Uwais Committee report on electoral reform

Sixteen months after its inauguration, the 22-member Electoral Reform Committee, headed by former Chief Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais, recently submitted its six-volume report and recommendations to President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua. The conclusion of the committee's assignment marks a major milestone towards the realisation of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua's promise at his inauguration on May 29, 2007, to sanitise the country's electoral process. The President had been honest enough to admit that the process by which he emerged "victorious" a month earlier was flawed.

Indeed, it was not until a day after the former Chief Justice and his committee submitted its report that the Supreme Court finally resolved, by a slim split decision, the dispute arising from last year's presidential election. Other petitions and appeals thereon are still pending, while several others had either been upheld or upturned. And when neighbouring Ghana successfully conducted its fifth successive general elections on December 7, this year, it served as an urgent reminder of the compelling need for Nigeria to emulate and enthrone the best practices in the conduct of elections.

The Electoral Reform Committee has made a number of far-reaching recommendations. On the basis of their current deficiencies which compromise their independence and capacity to deliver free and fair elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the various State Independent Electoral Commissions have been recommended for unbundling by the re-allocation of some of their functions. This proposal will necessitate the creation, by legislation, of three new bodies, namely, Political Parties Registration and Regulatory Commission, Constituency Delimitation Commission and the Electoral Offences Commission. Under this arrangement, the primary business of INEC will be the conduct of elections simpliciter.

The committee also calls for the re-introduction of independent candidature in all elections. In this respect, there are requirements for nomination and payment of deposit, which will be forfeited in the event that the candidate does not score a stipulated percentage of the votes cast at an election. Furthermore, there is an extensive proposal for Proportional Representation (PR) in elections to the legislatures and local government councils. In opting for the PR system, the committee states its rationale as follows: "It promotes universal adult suffrage by ensuring that all votes are of equal value, that no valid vote cast is rendered useless, ineffective or wasted as votes cast nation-wide or state-wide or local government area-wide, as the case may be, are taken into account. It also facilitates representation of women and other disadvantaged groups in the legislatures and the local government councils." Specifically, the committee wants an assigned percentage of seats for women and the physically challenged. It also wants a situation where seats are allocated on the basis of a party, or candidate's relative showing in the election, rather than the current winner-take-all.

Other than the snippets that have been published in the media, there is a necessity for a much wider circulation of, at least, the executive summary of the committee's report and recommendations. Granted that the immediate business of the Federal Government is to deliver a White Paper on the report, the White Paper will invariably be an aide memoire to the crucial process of translating the recommendations into law.

The more widely accessible the report, the more likely there will be informed contributions to the policy options and legal clauses. To achieve this, it is suggested that the government post a downloadable version of the executive summary on a website which is publicised for all concerned to access. This should not be construed as a re-opening of the functions of the Electoral Reform Committee, which received 1,466 memoranda from within and outside the country, invited experts from 11 countries and held public hearings in 12 selected states and the Federal Capital Territory during which some 907 representations were made.

It is possible that there may be superior or more workable ideas than the final recommendations of the committee. The Federal Government and the lawmakers can benefit from such ideas. For instance, it is sound judgment, as the committee has suggested, that no legislator shall be sworn in until any litigation involving his/her election is resolved. Yet, it is open to question whether it is a reasonable length of time that all elections shall be held six months before the elected persons are due to take the oath of office, so as to allow for the disposition of any election petitions related thereto. Also, it is a pertinent question whether the country can afford the cost of the additional bureaucracy that will arise from the creation of three brand new commissions in addition to INEC. Straightaway, we do not think so.

Certainly, a number of the proposals will require amendments to some provisions of the 1999 Constitution. The Uwais Committee has done some commendable preparatory work in this respect by including in its report draft clauses of the proposed amendments. This is the case, for instance, with independent candidacy, which at present is prohibited by the express provision of section 221 that stipulates that only a political party can present candidates at an election. What is not so clear is whether the grafting of the electoral reform proposals will await the omnibus review of the Constitution by the National Assembly and its ratification by the state Houses of Assembly.

Obviously, electoral reform will be meaningful if it guides the next round of general elections in 2011. Considering the contentious nature of some of the provisions of the Constitution that have been slated for amendment, there might be a logjam that could frustrate the enactment of new provisions in the country's supreme law. What is required, therefore, is that lawmakers must have a clear focus and, where advisable, separate and deal expeditiously with the proposed amendments that are consequential to electoral rebirth that Nigeria so badly needs to deepen its democracy.