Controversy over INEC’s power to deregister parties

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Despite the Court of Appeal judgment that overruled the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on the deregistration of some political parties, the electoral body says it has constitutional powers to deregister parties that breach the criteria for registration. LEKE SALAUDEEN captures opinions of lawyers and stakeholders on the issue

Nigerians have advised the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) not to relent in enforcing the law that empowers it to deregister political parties that fail to meet up with registration requirements. They expressed concern that the number of parties has increased to an unimaginable level, such that people can hardly keep track of the identity of the political platforms, what they stand for and those behind them. Even more disturbing is that more than 90 per cent of registered political parties exist on paper.

In enforcing the law, INEC had on February 6, 2020, deregistered 74 political parties after a comprehensive review of the 2019 general elections and the performances of the political parties. The electoral body premised its decision on the failure of the affected parties to fulfil requirements for their continuous existence.

Section 225A of 1999 Constitution (as amended) empowers INEC to register and deregister political parties in the country. Explaining the rationale for deregistration of the parties, INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu said the affected parties failed to meet constitutional requirements that qualified them to be registered.

Yakubu explained that the affected parties breached the constitutional requirements of their existence because they failed to win at least 25 per cent of votes cast in one state of the federation during the presidential election; they failed to win one local government of a state in a governorship election.

He said they also failed to win at least one ward in the chairmanship elections in local governments and some also failed to win one seat in the National or State House of Assembly election or one seat in a councillorship election since they were registered.

Legal luminary, Malam Yusuf Ali (SAN) said the Electoral Act (2010 amended) empowers INEC to deregister political parties that fail to fulfil the conditions of registration as stipulated in the Constitution and the Electoral Law. He said INEC decision was not arbitrary; it was based on extant law.

Ali noted that many of the so-called registered political parties are not viable. They don’t contest elections and where they do they score a ridiculous number of votes. The senior lawyer said if we must deepen our democratic values, there should be criteria for political parties to exist.

He said: “The present situation where husband and wife or business partners can float political parties because they have resources to do so would not augur well for our democracy. It is an abuse of privilege. The rule is that any party that failed to win elections or score a prescribed minimum number of votes should be deregistered.”

Ali frowned at a situation where 32 political parties were listed on the ballot paper in the last general elections. It is embarrassing, more so many of them scored less than 500 votes. He called on the electoral commission to explicitly spell out criteria for the registration and deregistration of parties. He said the electoral umpire should do more by applying sanctions on the political parties that fall short of standards prescribed in the Constitution and the Electoral Act.

He said there was no need of having as much as 90 political parties in Nigeria. We don’t need more than two or three parties as it obtains in the advanced democracy like the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, France and even Ghana, our neighbour.

Senate spokesman, Senator Ajibola Basiru has called for the amendment of the constitution that will make provision for stringent conditions for registration of political parties. He noted that the law allows people to form political associations and if they meet INEC’s conditions they are registered as political parties.

Basiru, a lawyer turned politician, expressed the danger of having 90 political parties on the ballot paper. He said it is unwieldy and dangerous for the country’s democracy. According to him, having an unlimited number of parties on the ballot create confusion for the electorate majority of whom are in the hinterland; they find it difficult to identify the logo of their preferred political parties.

He said: “These fringe parties don’t win elections, they constitute a nuisance to the electoral process. There is a need for new requirements for political registration to ensure that only political associations that will make an impact in the electoral process are registered”. To this effect, the senator said he was working on a bill to set up a new platform in the electoral commission that would handle registration of parties while INEC would concentrate on election matters.

However, he suggested that instead of having many parties most of which exist on paper, the constitution, when amended, should allow independent candidates to contest election to encourage people that don’t want to belong to parties to contest elections.

Lawyer and human rights activist, Monday Ubani agreed that deregistration of parties by INEC is sacrosanct and in conformity with the law. He said there should be no controversy over INEC’s power to deregister parties.

Ubani said “though some people will argue that we are in democracy and people have the right to come together to form political parties, but we must allow sanity to prevail; otherwise, before 2023, we will have over 100 political parties. To me, it is better we have two major parties, than having mushroom parties that can’t win a single seat at the local government poll”.

The right activist also supported the call for the amendment of the constitution with a view to putting ceil on the number of parties in the country. He argued that to put a limit on the number of political parties, “we have to look at the provision of law in order to amend it.” He noted that INEC cannot be faulted for registering 91 political parties, because the commission is being guided by law. According to him, the law empowers it to register any political association that meets all requirements for registration as a political party.

The former second National Vice President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) wondered why many are still interested in forming parties now since government have stopped funding parties. He advised the parties to merge and form a formidable force. He recalled how the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) and a faction of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) fused and metamorphosed into All Progressives Congress (APC) that dislodged ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) from power in 2015.

To reduce the number of political parties in the country, Ubani said INEC should apply the power granted it by law to deregister parties that failed to win a seat throughout the federation. He added that parties that fail to abide by the provisions of the Electoral Act should also be deregistered.

To civil rights activist, Comrade Mashood Erubami, the large number of political parties have not assisted deliberative politics in the country, instead of their existence continue to muddle the work of INEC and bundling the task of the electoral umpire.

Erubami said: “There is, therefore, the need to seriously downsize the huge number of political parties to allow for efficient service delivery on the part of INEC and streamlining the political membership of the citizens.”

He said for democracy to flourish and fully entrenched, reduction of more political parties in the context of the time, would guarantee the free choice of the electorate to use different platforms to elect their preferred candidates.

Insisting on reduction of the political parties, Erubami said “given the abuse to which multi parties have been put into especially when the government was allocating funds, there is no alternative for INEC than to downsize the parties who could still not command respect from the electorate in terms of bringing up huge population to drive the vision and mission of these parties to represent the aspiration of the people”.

On the way forward, the activist suggests: “INEC should for now stop the registration of new parties if it must be seen to be serious about efficient management of elections in Nigeria. In fact, deregistration of more political parties will not be a bad idea towards strengthening the efficiency of the electoral process and helping to quicken the election and counting process.

“Nigerians must be cautiously limited to join either of two political parties or be in a third as it were in the past when we had the Social Democratic Party (SDP) or the National Republican Convention (NRC).”

He reiterated that registration of more political parties would further jeopardise the smooth election process and delayed counting unless the appropriate electronics mechanism is adopted with it. He said a reduction of more political parties with an adopted appropriate digital system of voting will make voting and vote counting less cumbersome, improve political party performance and fasten the process, making transmission of results easier and more accurate.

A constitutional lawyer, Dr Mohammed Garba has justified deregistration of parties by INEC citing the provisions of Section 78 (7) (ii) of the Electoral Act 2010 as amended, which empowers it to deregister parties following the breach of the requirements for registration and failure to make any impact in the elections.

Garba said the action was based on the fact that the affected parties fell short of meeting the requirements of the law. He warned that more parties could be deregistered so long as they fail to meet the requirement of the law.

Insisting that INEC took the decision based on the powers conferred on it by the Constitution and the Electoral Act, the lawyer advised aggrieved parties to seek redress in the court and said he was convinced that the electoral umpire acted within the ambit of the law.

He was opposed to the registration of new political parties, because, he added, Nigeria landscape is already saturated with unviable parties. He likened most of the parties to associations that revolve around individuals who are seeking tickets to contest elections or parties sponsored by the government to further divide and weaken the opposition.

Garba noted that politicians have turned parties into a business venture where they invest heavily in anticipation of returns in form of contracts and political patronage. He said many of the parties knew they can win elections; what they do is to work for the stronger parties and negotiate for political appointments after election.

He recalled that in 2015, “one of the fringe parties had wanted to challenge the victory of the party that won the governorship election in one of the Northwest states at the tribunal claiming that the logo of his party was omitted on the ballot. The victorious party had to negotiate with the aggrieved party and promised it slots in the state cabinet and board appointments. The fear was that the tribunal may cancel the election and order a fresh poll. Considering the financial implication of a re-run and the danger of losing the election, the party opted to settle with the aggrieved party.

Garba said: “These mushroom parties don’t register to contest for elective offices, but for spoils of office. People just register parties ahead of elections so that they can participate. But after the election, they disappear only to surface again at the next election cycle. In advanced democracy, political [parties are not busy or visible during election season alone; they work hard all the year-round to remain relevant. That explains why the smaller parties are not growing. When they come out during election time, people don’t have confidence in them as they prefer to deal with familiar parties.”

Abuja to challenge INEC decision and argued that until all local government elections in the country are held instead of only FCT local government elections that the Constitution empowers INEC to conduct that the commission can’t deregister them. But the court ruled that  the reasons given by the commission for the deregistration of parties are valid, in conformity with the law, sacrosanct and could not be affected by the fact of anticipated local government elections by some states which dates were not fixed, certain or even ascertainable.

But the Appeal Court, Abuja, had overturned the High Court ruling on deregistration of the 74 political parties by INEC. The appellate court held that INEC failed to follow due process while deregistering the parties. The court declared that the deregistration was illegal and ordered INEC to relist the 74 parties.

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