The Independent National Electoral Commission and the Nigerian Bar Association will commence the prosecution of electoral offenders in January, Sunday PUNCH has learnt.
Since 1999, there has been hardly any election that has not been characterised by offences in one form or the other.
Such electoral offences include culpable homicide and unlawful possession of firearms, snatching and destroying of INEC items, misconduct at polling units and stealing of results, among others.
On June 30, 2022, a bill to establish the National Electoral Offences Commission passed a second reading in the House of Representatives.
A similar bill was passed by the Senate and sent to the President for assent, but it was sent back to the House for further deliberations.
The bill is to provide the legal framework for the investigation and prosecution of electoral offences for the general improvement of the electoral process in the country.
The bill passed by the upper chamber prescribes a 20-year jail term for offenders found guilty of snatching ballot boxes during elections.
On January 17, 2023, the INEC Chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, urged the National Assembly to speed up legislative work on the Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal Bill.
Yakubu, who appealed in his presentation at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, London, United Kingdom, expressed helplessness about the prosecution of electoral offenders.
The INEC boss stated, “Although the commission is empowered by the Electoral Act to prosecute electoral offences, it lacks the power and resources to make arrests and thoroughly investigate electoral offences.
“Efforts at mitigating electoral malfeasance can only become effective with the arrest, prosecution, and sanctioning of the ‘mother spiders’ to end their reign of impunity.
“It is for this reason that INEC supports the establishment of the Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal imbued with the responsibility of prosecuting electoral offences as recommended in the reports of various committees set up by the Federal Government, notably the Uwais Committee (2009), the Lemu Committee (2011) and the Nnamani Committee (2017).”
Following the February 25 presidential and National Assembly elections, the immediate past Inspector-General of Police, Usman Baba, said over 700 offenders were arrested by men of the Nigeria Police Force for violation of electoral laws.
Baba disclosed this during a meeting with commissioners of police from the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory, as well as other senior officers on March 27, 2023.
Electoral offences remain a major threat to credible, free and fair elections in Nigeria, as they often heighten political tension and trigger violence.
But many of the electoral offenders are yet to be punished.
A document made available to one of our correspondents last month by the Chief Press Secretary to the INEC Chairman, Rotimi Oyekanmi, showed that a total of 1,076 electoral offenders were arrested in 35 states across the country during the general elections held in February and March.
Giving updates on the prosecution of the electoral offenders, a top INEC official, who spoke to Sunday PUNCH on Friday on condition of anonymity, said, “It appears the commencement of prosecution of most of these electoral offences handled by the NBA will be in January 2024. The letters of fiat to prosecute on behalf of INEC will soon be issued to the lawyers.”
The breakdown of the offenders by state indicated that out of 191 case files prepared for prosecution, Ebonyi State had the highest number of cases, followed by Edo and Anambra states.
Oyekanmi said, “All is now set for the prosecution of 1,076 electoral offenders arrested in 35 states across the country during the 2023 general elections held in February and March in an unprecedented collaboration between the Independent National Electoral Commission and the Nigerian Bar Association. The Nigeria Police Force is also involved in the synergy.
“However, 191 case files have been prepared. Ebonyi State has the highest number of cases with 64, involving 216 suspects. Edo State is second with 22 cases and 80 suspects, while Anambra State is third with 12 cases involving 66 suspects.”
The CPS noted that the electoral offences committed ranged from “culpable homicide and unlawful possession of firearms, snatching and destroying of INEC items, being in possession of offensive weapons, misconduct at polling units and stealing of election results, among several others.”
Oyekanmi further revealed that the commission would mobilise 191 prosecutors to prosecute the electoral offenders.
On other electoral offences handled by INEC in collaboration with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s legal officers, the source added, “The charges have already been prepared and filed in various courts and ready for prosecution, but we are waiting for dates of commencement. One of them at the Ilorin High Court has commenced.”
CSOs, lawyers react
The Chairman, Partners for Electoral Reform, Ezenwa Nwagwu, commended INEC for the move to prosecute electoral offenders, saying it would serve as a deterrent to others and curb electoral malpractices.
“Nothing can be more commendable than this very action by INEC, because, at the end of the day, it will reduce impunity. People who commit crimes during elections will know that there will be consequences. If people know that they will go to jail for vote-buying and engaging in electoral malpractices, they will be more mindful,” Nwagwu said.
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Victor Okpara, advised the police to ensure adequate investigation before taking electoral offenders to court.
According to him, it will be counter-productive to charge people to court without a proper investigation as true offenders may be freed by the court.
Okpara stated, “There are provisions in the Electoral Act, 2022 to deal with electoral offenders. The law will be useless if it is not being enforced. This will serve as a deterrent to would-be electoral offenders. If these people are properly prosecuted in the cases established against them and are adequately punished in accordance with the Electoral Act, others who want to engage in such offences will think twice.
“Meanwhile, the police must ensure that they conduct proper investigations. There is no need to prosecute people when you have not conducted a proper investigation because it can boomerang; if there is no proper investigation and you take people to court, they will go scot-free and if this happens, the deterrent element of it will be reduced.”
On his part, the Chairman of the Rivers State Civil Society Organisations, Enefaa Georgewill, cautioned against bias in the prosecution of suspected electoral offenders.
He said, “It (planned prosecution) is good, but we expect that they will ensure that they are not biased towards the prosecution. However, we have doubts that they will be able to prosecute the political elites and their cronies. If they do, we will praise them.
“The law is not to be used on a section of people, but everyone involved should be prosecuted. By doing so, we will know that they are not biased.”