By Eric Ojo, Abuja

Ahead of the 2019 general elections in Nigeria, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) joint pre-election assessment delegation has urged the Federal Government to ensure that illegal activities such as vote buying on election day, is frontally tackled and eradicated from the country’s electoral process.

The joint IRI-NDI Delegation in Nigeria said the government should address the increasing menace of vote buying by ensuring that the electoral law is strictly enforced, adding that such unlawful practice undermines the legitimacy of elections and weakens representative democracy.

Nigerians, according to the group, expressed concerns to them about an increase in the level and visibility of vote buying during the just concluded July 14 gubernatorial elections in Ekiti State.

“The Watching the Vote (WTV) group deployed citizen election observers to a representative sample of polling sites across the state and recorded that 8 percent of sampled polling units experienced incidents of vote buying or bribery on election day”, the delegation said.

The delegation which is led by Dr. Pauline Baker, president emeritus of the Fund for Peace, United States of America (USA), gave the charge at a press briefing on Friday in Abuja after concluding its International Election Observation Mission to assess Nigeria’s preparation for the 2019 General Elections.

In addition, the group also called on the government to ensure that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is given sufficient time to implement electoral changes by signing into law the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill before August 16, in accordance with the ECOWAS Protocol to which Nigeria is a signatory.

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The delegation equally added that the government should urgently approve and obligate INEC’s requested budget in a timely manner and ensure that other government agencies involved in the election process receive sufficient and timely funding.

“The Federal Government must ensure that agencies such as the National Orientation Agency (NOA) that have responsibilities for civic and voter education receive adequate and timely funding”, the delegation further explained.

Moreover, the group also urged the government to establish the Electoral Offenses and Political Parties Registration Commission as soon as possible in order to enhance the accountability of political parties with regards to the funding of campaigns and other activities.

The election monitoring team, harped on the need for the government to intensify its efforts to address insecurity in many parts of the country, adding that government should reiterate and impress it upon all security services their constitutional obligation to be professional and impartial in guaranteeing election security for all citizens and political contestants.

The delegation urged INEC to increase its efforts aimed at encouraging voters to register before the close of continuous voter registration on August 17 and undertake an extensive campaign to raise voter awareness on the need to collate Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs) before the next elections.

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The group further recommended that INEC should pursue technological advances that could allow for the issuance of PVCs upon registration, adding that Commission should continue to improve the card reader technology and inform voters of its efforts.

The delegation urged INEC to release sample of ballots early enough in order to facilitate its voter education efforts, adding that the Commission should fully implement its People with Disabilities (PWDs) framework to ensure that the voting process is more accessible to PWDs.

For the political parties, the delegation, challenged them to conduct transparent and democratic candidate selection processes that adhere to their by-laws and policies, adding that the parties should initiate issue-based campaigns that address national priorities, such as security, the economy, and governance.

The group also wants the parties to conduct voter education campaign and disseminate messages of peace and tolerance among their supporters as well as make concerted efforts to encourage and support women, youth, and PWD candidates beyond providing free nomination forms

The delegation further called on the parties to respect the rule of law, including INEC guidelines for political parties, especially provisions against the use of violence and of speech that could incite violence.

Similarly, the group advised the civil society organizations (CSOs) to continue monitoring the election process, disseminating impartial findings and advocating for improvements to election integrity. They also urged the CSOs to work closely with the media, explore avenues for monitoring, exposing and countering disinformation and hate speech.

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The delegation harped on the need for the CSOs to educate voters on their civic responsibilities and the value of their vote, emphasizing that vote buying can be tantamount to vote rigging, adding that they should endeavor to begin voter education efforts early in the election process.

The group further recommended that the international community should therefore provide timely support to Nigerian civil society to enable groups to begin voter education, citizen engagement, citizen election observer and violence mitigation campaigns early in the election process.

They also stressed the need for the international community to send messages regularly to the main political actors and parties, urging them to uphold the rule of law and commit to the holding of peaceful elections.

The delegation equally urged the media to report accurately, responsibly and professionally in line with the media code of conduct in order to foster civil discourse, adding that the media should organize candidate debates in conjunction with civil society to enable information sharing with voters and policy discussions.

They also cautioned the media to fact-check and verify information before publishing and avoid supporting or republishing outlets that spread disinformation.

The group equally encouraged Nigerians to continue their efforts geared towards enhancing citizen confidence and participation in elections and also mitigate violence before, during and after the polls.