Introduction
The Presidential, National Assembly, Governorship and House of Assembly elections were recently conducted and concluded in Nigeria by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Certificates of Return have been issued to the winners of the elections while some of the candidates who lost the elections have filed petitions contesting the outcome at the respective Election Tribunals.

Elections are important as they constitute the process for choosing leaders in a democratic system of government. Elections carry greater significance not only for the stability of a democratic government but also for the social and economic well-being of a society. It is therefore important to ensure that members of the public are allowed to exercise their civic right to elect leaders in a free and fair manner.

The benefits attached to elective offices in Nigeria heightens the stakes for elections and sometimes motivate attempts at subverting and sabotaging the electoral process. INEC reports that out of over 125 electoral offence cases filed in various courts by INEC since 2015, only about 60 convictions have been secured. This conviction rate is rather low in comparison to the incidences of election malpractices reported in the media.

In the recently concluded 2023 general elections, there were reports of harassment of electoral officers, ballot box snatching, destruction of electoral equipment, violent disruption of voting at polling units, manipulation of results, voter suppression and intimidation, assault and battery on voters. Similar occurrences were reported in previous election cycles in Nigeria. The difference is that those acts have now been specifically designated as electoral offences and there should be consequences for contravening the law.

The Electoral Act 2022 penalizes acts or omissions which are done by persons to hamper the free and fair conduct of elections. The electoral offences contained in sections 114 to 129 of the Electoral Act are wide-ranging and include offences in relation to voters’ registration, political parties’ meetings and offences committed on election day. The Electoral Act also stipulates stiff penalties for persons convicted of those offences.

Prosecution of Electoral Offences The Independent National Electoral Commission is charged with the responsibility of prosecuting electoral offences under the Electoral Act. Section 145 (2) of the Electoral Act provides that prosecution of the offences shall be undertaken by legal officers of the Commission or any legal practitioner appointed by the Commission. The Commission, in line with this responsibility, has put together a team consisting of lawyers for the prosecution of electoral offences allegedly committed during the 2023 general elections. The Electoral Act does not give INEC the power to investigate electoral offences and this power therefore resides with the Police. The Police needs to rise up to its responsibility of investigating reports of electoral offences and also work with the legal practitioners appointed by INEC for prosecution. Effective prosecution can only take place when the facts are thoroughly investigated. One of the critical factors that will facilitate effective prosecution of electoral offences in Nigeria is the strict application of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 (ACJA) and the Administration of Criminal Justice Laws in the States. The ACJA has set the stage for the speedy trial of electoral offences. INEC lawyers prosecuting electoral offences should take maximum advantage of the provisions of ACJA for day-to-day trials, restrictions on unnecessary applications for adjournment, prohibition of stay of proceedings and trial in absentia for absconding defendants. (Section 396 (3) (4); Section 352 (4) and (5) of ACJA). Application of the Sentencing Guidelines to electoral offences will also help in establishing strong precedents that will deter persons from venturing into the electoral offence terrain.

Conclusion
To stabilize our democratic government, it is important to ensure that the will of the people prevails through free and fair elections. The prevalence of electoral offences in the conduct of elections in Nigeria has the potential of truncating the democratic process. There is therefore a need for the effective prosecution of perpetrators of election offences. Pending approval of the proposal for the establishment of an Electoral Offences Commission, for the investigation and prosecution of electoral offences, INEC will continue its prosecutorial responsibility of all electoral offences. Effective and speedy prosecution of electoral offences will serve as deterrence to future and further occurrences and safeguard the electoral process and democracy in Nigeria.

by Ada Nwosu Esq. Legal Practitioner resident in Abuja

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