By Nathaniel Gana
Heads of the 15 Election Management Bodies (EMBs) in the West African sub-region have converged on Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital for the ECOWAS Network of Electoral Commission’s (ECONEC) 6thBiennial General Assembly and Symposium on Promoting Inclusivity in the Electoral Process, to deliberate on policies that would promote an all-inclusive process for disadvantaged groups in the sub-region.
Declaring the symposium open on 5thAugust, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari said the theme of the symposium was an encouraging sign that would ensure that all segments of the society have a voice in the management of public affairs through the democratic process.
Represented by the Secretary to the Federation, Mr. Boss Mustapha, the President said: “it is also an indication that in spite of the progress achieved so far, more needs to be done by governments through legislation; by Political Parties through affirmative action in the nomination of candidates for election and by all stakeholders through unrelenting advocacy for greater inclusion of all segments of society in the democratic and electoral processes”.
President Buhari recalled the efforts of his administration aimed at improving youth participation in the electoral and democratic spaces with the signing of the “Not-Too-Long-To-Run” bill into law, which reduced the age requirement of a candidate seeking some elective offices in Nigeria. This, he observed, has already yielded fruits with the election of many young individuals into the National and State Houses of Assembly.
He said: “I want to assure you that this is just the beginning. We will continue to ensure that not only the youth but other categories of citizens such as Persons Living With Disabilities (PWDs) and those internally displaced for a variety of reasons are integrated into the electoral processes in Nigeria in particular and other countries in the sub-region.”
He recalled the successes recorded by ECONEC through mutual assistance in promoting credible elections under the leadership of its current President and Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu and the kind of technical and material support Nigeria had offered other countries under Prof. Yakubu’s leadership. He pledged Nigeria’s continued support for EMBs in the sub-region.
In his welcome address, Prof. Yakubu expressed gratitude to successive Nigerian governments for their support to countries across the sub-region. He listed “vehicles, motorcycles, boats, voter registration machines and professional expertise” as some of the areas where the Nigerian government had been supportive to EMBs in West Africa.
The ECONEC President used the opportunity to appeal to ECOWAS to “continue to strive to actualize the vision of establishing the electoral and logistics depot at Lungi in Sierra Leone from which countries in need can draw such facilities as ballot boxes and trucks for movement of election materials without each country having to procure its own materials with every election.”
The INEC Chairman also noted that when the electoral and logistics depot is put on place, it would help reduce the cost of elections in the sub-region.
Delivering the Keynote address, the Vice President of the ECOWAS Commission, Madam Finda Koroma, noted that the West African Sub Region is populated by approximately 320 million people, with 52 per cent being female and 64 per cent made of people below the age of 25.
Madam Koroma observed that there were still glaring challenges to inclusive political participation., Her words: “recent studies and current statistics affirm the under-representation of women and other marginalised groups at all levels of governance and particularly in political decision-making”.
The envoy called for a review of the legal framework for politics and elections in many member countries to enable greater participation of marginalized groups.
The ECOWAS Vice President also identified lack of internal party democracy as a major barrier to equitable representation and called for legislations that would stipulate a quota system for marginalized groups. She also identified violence in the political arena, especially gender-based violence (both verbal and physical) and called on political parties to sign non-violence pacts which must clearly protect female candidates ahead of elections.
The Keynote Speaker further frowned at the ‘pull me down’ syndrome among female women groups and voters, stressing the need for such groups to support qualified female candidates.
She urged election administrators, politicians, experts, scholars, stakeholders and legislators in the sub-region to continue to engage one another in order to produce useful recommendations and action plans for the ECOWAS region.
Nigeria’s Senate President, Senator Ahmed Lawan pointed out that a larger population of the sub region was made up of women and youths “who are critical stakeholders in the electoral process and should not be ignored.”
Represented by Senator Kabiru Gaiya, the Senate President lauded the promotion of inclusivity by the Heads of EMBs and encouraged the participants at the symposium to brainstorm and come up with implementable policies that will close the gap and ensure full participation of the disadvantaged groups in the electoral process.
His counterpart from the green chamber, the Speaker of the House of Representative, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, said elections can only be termed free, fair and credible if all segments of the society were allowed and enabled to participate fully in the process.
Represented by his deputy, Hon. Ahmed Idris Was, the Speaker assured that the National Assembly was committed to reviewing the electoral laws in order to promote inclusivity and expand the democratic space.
There were goodwill messages from other envoys and Development Partners who all pledged support for ECONEC and the promotion of inclusivity in the West African sub-region.
Prominent among them were the President of the ECOWAS Commission, Mr. Jean Claude Kassi Brou; GIZ Head of Programmes, Christian Voelkel; Chairman of Zanzibar Electoral Commission, Chief Justice (Rtrd) Hamid Mohmoud Hamid; and President, European Centre for Electoral Support, Ms. Monica Frassoni.
Others were: Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the Electoral Commission Forum of SADC Countries, and Dr. Mohamed Ibn Chambas; Head E.U Delegation to Nigeria and ECOWAS, Ketil Karlsen.