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2023 elections dogged by lack of transparency, operational failures –Andrews, EU EOM Chief Observer

ν Says wide expectations new electoral law would improve overall conduct of polls not met

 

From Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja

The Chief Observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU  EOM) to Nigeria, Barry Andrews, has said that in spite of the corrective measures introduced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) ahead of the March 18, 2023 elections, the Commission continued to lack transparency.

In this interview with Sunday Sun in Abuja, Andrews also said that the wide expectations that the new electoral law would improve the overall conduct of the 2023 elections were not met.

He noted that the recently revised electoral legal framework laid an adequate foundation for conducting democratic elections, saying that important legal gaps persist regarding commitment to inclusion and the conduct of political parties and candidates.

Among other issues, Andrews stated that reforms are needed to ensure robust provisions on transparency and to provide for legal certainty in the country.  

The 2023 elections in Nigeria have come and gone. What is the overall assessment of the elections by the EU EOM?

We assess all aspects of the electoral process and assess the extent to which the elections comply with international and regional commitments for elections, as well as the legislative framework that applies here in Nigeria. The mission issued two preliminary statements so far, one after the Presidential and National Assembly elections, and a second one issued on 20 March on the governorship and State Assembly elections. Our overall detailed assessment will be presented in our final report in about three months’ time. We assess the elections on the basis of inclusivity, transparency, and credibility. Regarding the national-level elections, we noted that elections were held on schedule, but lack of transparency and operational failures reduced trust in the process and challenged the right to vote. We also reported that INEC’s lack of efficient planning in critical stages and effective public communication reduced trust in the process, including on election day. We noted that  INEC introduced some corrective measures ahead of the 18 March polls, allowing a timely delivery of sensitive materials and improved use of election technologies, yet the institution continued to lack transparency. EU EOM observers reported that voting during the gubernatorial elections mostly started on time. However, polling on election day was disrupted by multiple incidents of thuggery and intimidation of voters, polling officials, observers, and journalists. Unfortunately, there were many casualties and fatalities. Vote-buying, also directly observed by EU EOM observers, further detracted from the appropriate conduct of the elections. Protracted deadlines for candidacy disputes created uncertainty for voters and electoral contestants alike, while the clear under-representation of women as candidates demonstrated a stark lack of internal party policies to support constitutionally prescribed inclusion, also contrary to Nigeria’s international commitments to eradicate discrimination against women. Generally, the elections were preceded by a highly competitive campaign. However, political parties denounced unequal campaign conditions due to interference and an increase in violent incidents with the potential to impact the elections and suppress voter participation.

Did the elections meet 50 per cent of the expectations of the EU?

Our methodology is not about giving points or evaluating by percentages. We assess the elections based on international commitments Nigeria signed up to, as well as Nigeria’s constitution and electoral legal framework. Regarding expectations, what is really important is that the elections meet the expectations of the voters and the electoral stakeholders involved.

What were the challenges encountered by the EU observers during the elections? Were there incidents of threat to the lives of observers?

This mission was deployed on the 11th January with the arrival of 11 core team members. Our mission also consists of 40 long-term observers, and on election day, our mission was reinforced by short-term observers recruited from the diplomatic community, as well as my colleagues from the European Parliament. Altogether, our team was composed of over 100 observers representing citizens from 25 EU member states and from Canada, Norway, and Switzerland for the Presidential and National Assembly elections. For the 18 March elections, the mission deployed close to 70 international observers in 20 states of Nigeria. Our observers followed procedures at various polling units and covered long distances in this big country often on difficult terrain. I have to say that throughout the mission, our observers received a warm welcome from all electoral stakeholders who facilitated their work on the ground and were not threatened during the course of their work. We remain in the country until 11 April when our core team of experts leave, but again, the mission will come back to Nigeria to present its final report, including recommendations.

Were there areas where observers faced more than what they bargained for?

As observers, we always hope to see a frictionless electoral process and to see democracy striving. Unfortunately, wide expectations that the new electoral law – in particular – would improve the overall conduct of the polls were not met, due, in part, to the poor implementation of the law and lack of political will to achieve its objective. EU EOM observers noted that INEC staff and offices were subjected to violent attacks in several parts of the country, at times impeding operations. Our observers also witnessed attacks on rallies by organized gangs and noted widespread allegations and accusations of corrupt practices, including vote buying and buying of PVCs. Intimidation of voters, polling officials, observers, and journalists occurred in most of the states.  Yet, EU observers continued to observe amid a volatile security environment that resulted in people being killed and in the postponement of elections in several places.

Going forward, what should the government do to ensure a credible electoral process in the country?

The conduct of the 2023 elections revealed systemic weaknesses of election administration that, if not promptly and comprehensively addressed, could lead to democratic backsliding. However, we cannot say what a government should do or not do; our final report will include recommendations for issues identified during the electoral process, but it is up to Nigeria to consider and implement those recommendations if they so wish. Our mission adheres to the key principles of international election observation, including strict non-interference in the elections.

Do you think the 2022 Electoral Act is sufficient for the conduct of elections in the country?

First of all, INEC conducted these elections under the Electoral Act adopted in 2022, which is one of the core laws of the framework for the elections in Nigeria. While the recently revised electoral legal framework lays an adequate foundation for conducting democratic elections, important legal gaps persist regarding commitment to inclusion and the conduct of political parties and candidates. Reforms are also needed to ensure robust provisions on transparency and to provide for legal certainty in the country.  Laws and regulations were not always easily accessible, nor through INEC’s website and, for example, could have been placed there easily and quickly and this could have contributed to greater public awareness.   

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has received knocks from the public, while others said the 2023 elections represented an improvement in past elections. What is the EU EOM’s opinion about the performance of INEC?

We all remember how public confidence and trust in INEC collapsed following the 25 February elections, primarily due to a lack of transparency and operational failures in the conduct of the federal-level polls. Uptill the postponement of the state elections, INEC limited its communication to a few press releases and ceremonial statements. These were insufficient to address public grievances and rebuild public confidence. Inclusivity and transparency are the fundamental principles of democratic elections that voters expected from INEC. Positively, from 11 March onwards, INEC introduced various corrective measures, and on 18 March, we saw that some of those steps taken were effective; for example, sensitive materials were delivered on time and the use of election technologies was improved. By midday gubernatorial race results forms available online ranged from 62 to 97 per cent depending on the state. A notable change if compared with the 25 February election when more than a quarter of presidential result forms were still missing at the declaration of the results on 1 March. Our observers noted that most polling units opened on time with materials present and election officials ready to serve the voter. However, there was less pressure on INEC operations throughout the day, owing to a dismal level of voter participation.

Regarding the fatalities recorded during the elections, what is the recommendation of the EU EOM to the Nigerian government?

There has been widespread evidence of thuggery, intimidation and political violence during the elections, especially those that took place on 18 March. However, this doesn’t in any way undermine our commitment as a mission to deepening the roots of democracy in Nigeria, and in Africa. Elections need to take place in a peaceful and secure context. Authorities need to improve security measurements for the elections and make sure that the perpetrators of violence are brought to justice. It is absolutely tragic that many people lost their lives in election-related violence and that is unacceptable. When this kind of activity happens in the context of the election, it is almost inevitable that it has the effect of suppressing voter participation.  Unfortunately, that is something that was very clearly seen on 18 March.

On EU’s funding of the promotion of democratic principles in the country, would you say there was value for the resources put into the last elections? 

It is important to draw a distinction between this mission and the European Union delegation in Nigeria.  We do represent the European Union together, but we are two separate entities. Our mandate is to observe the elections and provide recommendations for improvement. While resources were put into strengthening the civil society, the media, and improving the quality of electoral administration in the country, evaluating the EU’s investment in the democratic and governance process is outside of our mandate. Nevertheless, it is important for us to be impactful, and we hope that the work we do is useful for Nigerians in particular. We trust that our reports arising from observing Nigeria’s electoral processes add value and meaning to the democratic process. In fact, we carried out a follow-up mission just last year, and we were able to identify the progress that was made against some of the recommendations from our 2019 final report. Naturally, there is some disappointment about the events over the past few weeks, but we remain fully committed to helping to improve the democratic process.

Looking at the outcome of the presidential election where both the candidates of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Labour Party (LP) are claiming victory, would you recommend a government of national unity?

As I mentioned before, we cannot interfere in any way in the political process, in any country. Our methodology is very clear in this regard. We make our observations, we answer questions in these settings and we stand by the findings we are able to put in the public domain. Our mission has always called for the political parties to honour the peace accords they agreed to and the parties to follow established legal channels to address their grievances. Therefore, it is a matter entirely for the Nigerian government and authorities to determine the way forward.  Nigeria has to decide how they wish to proceed with these matters in the future.

It is commonly said that no presidential mandate has ever been retrieved through the courts. The international community, the EU inclusive, has expressed delight that the candidates of PDP and LP decided to take the path of seeking redress through the courts. What is the take of the EU on this?

I am aware that various aspects of the presidential election have been brought before the courts. I understand that petitions may also be submitted regarding several Senate and House of Representatives elections. That being said, it is important that this mission maintains its strict line of impartiality and non-interference in the process in accordance with the EU EOM observation methodology. Therefore, I cannot discuss matters related to those challenged elections, as they are now likely to be subjudice. This is to avoid saying anything that might be construed as to prejudice the interests of any party in those petitions. However, while the presidential election tribunal has exclusive jurisdiction to address petitions related to presidential elections, it is important that those processes are conducted in a transparent manner and that civil society and the media continue to play a crucial role in watching those processes and keeping the public informed.

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