The role of the state/government is to perceived to be, in theory, in social science literature, the facilitation of the attainment of the fundamental needs and aspirations of citizens in their country, with regards to peaceful coexistence, human dignity, security and pursuit of happiness. Specifically, the role of the state in the modern era is often defined as consisting of the following:
1. Defense of the territorial integrity of a country both from external aggression/attacks and internal combustion/threats
2. Regulation, moderation, and adjudication with regards to interpersonal, intercommunal, interinstitutional and international relations
3. Mobilizing, harnessing and deploying national resources to ensure progress and development of a country and its people
It is for the purpose of discharging this role, that 1) the state/government has the monopoly of the ownership and legitimate use of means of coercion, through institutions, such the army, the police and other security agencies; 2) the state/government has three arms, such as the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Executive, to make laws, regulations and policies, with institutional mechanisms and processes to implement them; and 3) the state has the power to mobilize and deploy state resources through economic activities, taxation, budgeting, appropriation, as well as programs and projects (e.g. infrastructure, education, health & Social welfare, housing, urban/rural development, etc.)
For the state/government to optimally discharge its role, governance has to necessarily be good, in all respect, from the behavior, attitude, disposition and inclination of public officials, whether elected or appointed, to functional role of state institutions/agencies, and the procedures and processes through which state/government activities are conducted.
If, on the other hand, the behavior of public officials, elected and appointed, is irrational, self-serving, lackadaisical, narrow-minded, and parochial; and the institutions, processes and procedures of governance are bad; and state resources are inappropriately and ineffectually harnessed and/ or utilized, then governance would be bad in addressing the fundamental needs and aspirations of the citizens. The ultimate end result of this is chronic / persistent state failure to play its role and discharge its obligations; hence the now increasing reference to some countries as “failed states”. These are countries engulfed in crises and conflicts, afflicted by inequality and poverty, and bedeviled by the fundamental erosion of human dignity and perpetual insecurity.
There are many things that can and need to be done, to avoid or minimize the risks of state failure, occasioned by bad governance. Of these, the primary one is perhaps electoral integrity. In other words, the preparation and conduct of elections of public officials into government leadership positions with integrity, by an election management body (EMB) that is independent and impartial; led by people with integrity, and that has institutional integrity and concomitant respectability. Only such an EMB can help actualize the collective desire for “organizing free, fair, inclusive and transparent elections”, and help nurture good governance, “for the protection of citizens’ rights and interests by government”.
Organizing free, fair, inclusive and transparent elections
In a liberal democratic context, elections are indispensable mechanisms for constituting government and governance, because it is through elections that qualified and participating citizens legitimize leadership in the executive, legislative, and in some cases even in the judicial, branches of government. The more elections have integrity in all their fundamental respects, the more likely that those elected would represent as well as reflect the true wishes and choices of the electorate, and also the better the quality of those elected would be, in terms of their being responsible and responsive to the needs and aspirations of citizens through the governance institutions, processes, as well as in legislations, policies, programs and projects.
For government to truly and objectively satisfy the fundamental needs and aspirations of citizens, and to in particular, protect their rights and interests, governance needs to be good, purposeful, efficient, effective, and targeted at achieving the objectives encapsulated in the role of the state, rather than be bad, indolent, chaotic and exceedingly corrupt, resulting in poor governance and the possibility of state failure/collapse.
Only elected public officials, who truly reflect the true choices of the electorate, and who are responsible, and responsive to citizens’ needs and aspirations, could catalyze and drive good governance that could also, in particular, ensure the protection of citizens’ rights and interests.
The West African Electoral and Governance Context
Although since the 1990s, elections have become routinized and are used to periodically/ regularly constitute governments, substantively and increasingly, electoral integrity has come into serious questioning, and the outcomes of elections have left much to be desired. Increasingly, in most electoral jurisdictions, politicians/contestants have become more desperate and reckless in the electoral and governance arenas, the relative independence of the EMBs is being systematically eroded (e.g. through exceedingly partisan appointments into the commissions), funding constraints are deliberately being imposed, and elections are being commercialized. Some key government institutions who play a key, complimentary role, such the Police and other security agencies, are being compromised especially by incumbent regimes.
The consequences of all these have become glaring in many of the electoral jurisdictions, as reflected in the following:
1. Partisan, rather than neutral professional conduct by staff in the EMBs
2. Inadequate / inappropriate preparations and conduct of elections by EMBs, due to underfunding and/or partisan political influences
3. Compromised role of state institutions, such as the Police, Army and other security agencies
4. Compromised electoral outcomes, which do not truly reflect the choices and wishes of the electorate
5. Increased confrontations on, and contestations of, electoral outcomes
6. Increasingly depressed/low voter turnout in elections, mostly due to citizens loss of faith and disenchantment with the electoral process
7. Increased bad governance perpetrated by irresponsive, and irresponsible ‘elected’ citizens in control of governmental institutions and public resources.
Given all these, a serious dilemma has, thus, been occasioned: while in the modern system of government that countries in the West African sub-region operate (i.e. the liberal/representative democratic system) elections are the only constitutionally legitimate means of constituting, reconstituting, or removing elected governments, they are becoming ignored/abandoned, if not rejected, by disenchanted citizens.
This dilemma may well explain how and why many ordinary citizens become easily susceptible to be mobilized to support and defend unconstitutional removal of elected governments and their replacement by illegitimate military coupists.
Towards Enhancement and Entrenchment of Electoral Integrity
Given the current challenges of governance and elections into government leadership positions, there is need to refocus attention and re-channel energies into improvement of the preparations and conduct of elections in the West African sub-region, as a panacea, in the medium- and long-term, for both improving governance, deepening democratic development and tackling the resurging phenomenon of Coup D’états.
Citizens need to objectively perceive the quality of conducted elections and accept the outcome, win or lose, for elections to truly legitimize leaders chosen by democratic means. Hence a focus on the integrity of elections is necessary.
Electoral Integrity has been defined as:
any election that is based on the democratic principles of universal suffrage and political equality as reflected in international standards and agreements, and is professional, impartial, and transparent in its preparation and administration throughout the electoral cycle (Kofi Annan Foundation, 2012).
As scholars on elections have come to realize and advocate, electoral integrity matters for multiple reasons, including political legitimacy, by strengthening public confidence in electoral institutions, a sense of external efficacy, and satisfaction with the performance of democracy; for civic activism, by increasing levels of voter turnout and civic activism while dampening the propensity to engage in protest politics; for political representation, including by improving the electoral accountability and thus the responsiveness of elected officials for the delivery of private and collective goods; for security, by accommodating all groups through electoral channels and thereby reducing the underlying grievances which lead towards electoral violence, popular unrest and civil wars; and ultimately for processes of democratization, including encouraging the macro-level consolidation of democratic procedures, norms, and institutions. (Norris, 2014)
The critical constituent elements of Electoral integrity can be summarized as follows:
1. A very good legal framework for elections (Constitutional provisions and Parliamentary Acts/Legislations), which in addition to enshrining fundamental principles which enable citizens’ effective participation in the choice/election of their public officials through free, fair and transparent elections, also create, protect and defend an independent, impartial, professional and well-resourced Election Management Body (EMB). In this regard attention needs to be paid to how to transparently appoint people with integrity as the heads and other members of the EMB, as well as how to insulate them from partisan pressures aimed at compromising the effective discharge of their responsibilities.
2. Professionalism and transparency of the EMB in all aspects of preparation and conduct of elections, and accountability to the public for its actions and inactions
3. Effective engagement by the EMB with all stakeholders on all aspects of preparation and conduct of the elections
4. Strategic, as well as other forms of, planning of all aspects of, and activities in the, electoral process, throughout the electoral cycle
5. Creation, nurturing and sustaining a transparent process of peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms and processes for pre-election, as well as post-election phases of the electoral process
6. Elimination of old-fashioned fraud on election day
7. Strict legal and regulatory sanctioning, vigilant monitoring and swift penalizing of violence and use of money in elections
8. Effective sensitization and voter education for citizens, using multiple media channels, to encourage and ensure active participation, adequate knowledge of election day procedures, as well as enlightened choice of who to freely and fairly vote for on election day
9. Smooth, efficient and professional deployment and conduct of election day activities
IF / WHEN perceptions with regards to the quality of all of the above (1 – 9) is favorable, then the elections can be said to have integrity, and can be graded in percentage terms (over 100) or on a scale (1 – 5, or 1 – 10). Conversely, if the perception is negative, the election can be said to be lacking in integrity.
To ensure electoral integrity, a lot of the work has to, necessarily, be done by the EMB and its officials, who are primarily saddled with the responsibility of preparation and conduct of elections. But having free, fair, credible and popularly acceptable elections isn’t the business of an EMB alone. All stakeholders have a role to play, and all hands need to be on deck to nurture, entrench and consolidate electoral integrity.
While elections remain the primary legitimate means of electing public officials into the branches of government, they have increasingly been challenged by erosion of integrity in the West African Sub-region in particular and in Africa in general. The consequences of this, which manifest in conflict-ridden and violence prone contestations, increasing decline in voters’ turnout and even exit from the electoral arena, and heightened indicators of bad governance, are now tending towards unconstitutional change of governments by coupists, who are able to galvanize support of frustrated, disenchanted, albeit otherwise gullible citizens.
Attention needs to be refocused on improving the integrity of elections, as a panacea for quality citizens civic engagement in the electoral process, bringing about good governance and addressing the rising phenomenon of unconstitutional regime change.
Of course, Parliaments and parliamentarians have a great role to play in this, in ensuring very good legal frameworks for elections, in oversight on election related matters focusing on ways and means to expand, protect and defend the integrity of elections, and in general, in being good politicians, who are model democrats, focused on citizens aspirations for good governance and the so-called ‘dividends of democracy’.
*Contribution to a Panel Discussion at the ECOWAS 5th Legislature Parliamentary Seminar/Extra Ordinary Session, on the theme: The Challenges of Unconstitutional Regime Change and Presidential Term Limits in West Africa, Winneba, Ghana,
September 30, 2023
Professor Jega is of the
Department of Political Science
Bayero University, Kano, Nigeria