While regular elections by themselves do not and cannot guarantee true democracy, they serve as one of the major barometers for measuring an effective democratic process. This is especially because elections provide the electorate with the opportunity to change a government which fails to deliver.
The UN Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, in its September 2012 Report noted that "Elections can further democracy, development, human rights, and security, or undermine them, and for this reason alone, they (elections) should command attention."
But the Commission in the same report argued that "for elections to embody democracy, further development and promote security, they must be conducted with integrity."
Relating this global phenomena to Africa, Prof. Attahihu Jega, who presided over Nigeria's 2011 and 2015 presidential elections, posits that while "there is no African exceptionalism" when it comes to flawed elections, "the scale of (electoral) irregularities in Africa is immense and arguably more than in any other region of the world."
So much has been said and written about those two highly contested presidential polls in Nigeria supervised by Jega as Chair of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC). But it suffices to say that only a few heads of electoral bodies in Africa have supervised elections where an incumbent government lost power to the opposition. So to a very large extent, Prof Jega is and will remain an authority in electoral management, especially from the African perspective.
Even before he assumed the INEC leadership from 2010-2015, the Political Science professor and former Vice-Chancellor of Bayero University, Kano, in Northern Nigeria, had acquitted himself creditably as leader of the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU) during the difficult years of military rule in the early 1990s.
In a lecture he delivered 1st March 2017 at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, UK, where he has been on sabbatical, Prof. Jega acknowledged that "poorly conducted elections have become the "norm in Africa," with the attendant "remarkable constraints on stability, regime legitimacy and good, democratic governance"
Of the 167 countries including 43 in Africa assessed and documented in its latest report, the Democracy Index, Economist Intelligence Unit, quoted by Jega, only one African country is classified as "Fully Democratic," while seven are "Flawed Democracies," 14 are ranked as "Hybrid Democracies," and 21 of the 43, "Authoritarian."
Nonetheless, Jega underscores the significance of elections and why "increasing the scope of electoral integrity has therefore become central to the concern for democratic consolidation in Africa."
Narrating his experience while also quoting scholars, researchers and election experts in his presentation titled: "Electoral Integrity in Africa: Lessons from Nigeria's 2011 and 2015 General Elections," the former INEC Chair examined the dynamics that shape the integrity of African elections; how to address challenges faced in conducting elections with integrity; and proffered some solutions on the way forward.
"When appointed Chairman of INEC in June 2010, I took it for granted that it would be an easy job: a piece of cake," but "as it turned out, it is easier said than done," he said, adding: "As with many things in Nigeria, the more you see, the less you understand."
Even so, the "more general, good lesson," according to Jega, "is that: although relatively difficult, it is not impossible to conduct elections with integrity in Africa."
For him, the requirements are "planning, effective organisation, focus, resilience, relative autonomy of the Election Management Body (EMB), as well as its impartiality and integrity."
Jega went on to enumerate the six major challenges faced by INEC in preparing for and conducting the 2011 and 2015 elections in Nigeria.
They included: how to strengthen the EMB (INEC), cleanse its negative image acquired over time and make it efficient and effective; how to deal with persistent, prevalent aspects of electoral fraud, including ballot paper and results sheet snatching, ballot stuffing, multiple voting etc.; and making election day logistics and procedures transparent, accountable and efficient.
The other challenges were, creating a level playing field, and how to protect and strengthen the relative autonomy of the EMB in its relations with the political parties, the legislature and the incumbent executive arm of government, Jega disclosed.
To tackle these challenges, he explained that INEC under his watch undertook some quick "restructuring and reorganisation, planning, programming and leadership by example.
" The electoral body also introduced the use of technology to secure sensitive election materials; biometric registration; smart voter's card and smart card reader were also brought on board, along with online verification of registration status using SMS.
Other innovations were the scanning and uploading of result sheets on a secure database accessible via link to the website; decentralised distribution of election materials patterned with the Road transport workers union for movement of electoral personnel and materials, involvement of the Armed Forces in the movement in difficult terrain; and the use of Geographic Information System (GIS) Geo-referencing of all polling units and extensive mapping.
Additionally, INEC in its drive for transparency and accountability also "redefined" its mode of engagement with key stakeholders, such as the political parties, civil society organisations, media, security operatives, the government as well as traditional and religious leaders.
According to Jega, INEC like other EMBs in Africa "strove for impartiality, non-partisanship and integrity and "struggled with corruption within and outside," and "with ethno-religious mobilisation."
The Jega-led INEC is widely acknowledged to have delivered a credible election in Nigeria, with abiding lessons for Africa to move forward.
In his modest unassuming style, Jega is not unmindful that a lot still needs to be done on the difficult route to electoral integrity in Nigeria and the rest of Africa. For instance, he lists "outstanding challenges" to include: voter education for increased participation; updating and clean-up of the Voter's Register; change management training for staff; ethno-religious mobilisation, checking the influence of money in politics; technology adaptation and the "do-or-die mind-set of politicians."
"The key challenge now is how to ensure sustainability, and incremental value addition of electoral integrity, not to allow reversal of the gains made," Jega counselled.
Another presidential election is due in Nigeria in 2019 and the world is certainly watching with a keen interest. But the lessons from Nigeria cannot be lost on the rest of Africa, especially the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which places a very high premium on electoral integrity and Electoral Assistance to its 15 member States.
Conscious of the nexus between peace and security, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and development, the ECOWAS Commission has continued to work with development partners such as the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) towards improving the integrity of its election observation missions as a tool for conflict prevention and deepening of democracy in West Africa.
In line with the recommendations of regional election experts who met recently in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, and given that elections are an integral part of the democratic process, ECOWAS member States must pay serious attention to elections and their observation.
In addition to the implementation of the recommendations of ECOWAS Election Observation Missions by the member States and other stakeholders, the capacity of regional election observers must be strengthened, with an increase in the number of observers and extension of the duration of each Long-term Election Observation Mission (LTEOM).
This is to ensure a more comprehensive coverage of countries holding elections and a thorough observation of major phases of the electoral processes before, during and in the post-election period.
Also, to demonstrate their strong commitment to electoral integrity and democracy, member States should support the ECOWAS Network of Electoral Commissions (ECONEC), and assume ownership and responsibility in ensuring that Electoral Assistance through the deployment of election observers is sustainable.
Delivering electoral integrity in Africa is a collective responsibility. It involves the active participation of multiple stakeholders -- governments, EMBs, civil society organisations, the electorate, media, the security apparatus and election observers and monitors, local and international.
This is a delicate team work and any flaw or irregularity has the potential to trigger avoidable conflagration that could undermine peace and security and also derail democracy.-Paul Ejime is an International Media and Communications Specialist