Time to enforce campaign finance laws

Image‘There are two things that are important in politics. The first thing is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is’ – Mark Hanna.

With the just concluded merger of opposition parties and reaction to the development sure to dominate political commentary for some time, it is safe to say that the 2015 election season has unofficially begun. 

As we once again contemplate elections, it is worth remembering that elections cost money. Democracy costs money. Campaigns cost money. Lots of it. Anyone who knows anything about the way politics is done in Nigeria, knows the huge cost of a campaign for public office. This cost is so high as to be prohibitive to all but the richest men, or those who have rich benefactors, or those who have their hands in public funds.

The figures are truly shocking. In the PDP, for example, to pick a nomination form for the State House of Assembly, you must part with the princely sum of N1m. Yes, N1m. For a form. If you wanted to be a House of Representatives candidate, you part with N2.5 million. For the Senate, N3m. Governorship, N5m. And for the Presidency, it is N10m. This is not counting other fees like the ‘expression of interest’, ‘formalisation of intent’, administrative charges, and all such levies which combine to make elections a game won by the highest bidder.

It can therefore not be surprising that after being elected, a public official’s first port of call could be to recoup all the investments made in his campaign, replenishing both his own funds, and those of his benefactors. The prohibitive cost of seeking public office in Nigeria, is a major reason why corruption continues to thrive.

This cost is actually enshrined in our laws. The Electoral Act in 2010 doubled the campaign spending limits in the 2006 Act. Someone running for the Presidency can spend up to N1 billion, a Governor can spend up to N200 million, N40 million for Senate, 20m for House of Representatives, N10 million for State House of Assembly and local government, and N1 million for ward councillor. Even with these limits, there is no enforcement of them from INEC, which has powers to monitor campaign finance, audit the accounts of political parties, and make that information available to the public, as enshrined in Section 153 of the Constitution, as well as Part 1 of the Third Schedule.

The lack of attention paid to this crucial area is of grave concern, because the unchecked influx of money into politics will produce governance that has been captured by a tiny minority, to the detriment of a majority. The result is a political process captured by special interests, resulting in an undue influence on government policy, distortion of political discourse, and a reduction in political participation. Whenever a waiver is granted, or foreign goods are banned, it is often to pay back a generous donor and wet the ground for the next cycle.

Another of the main dangers in money politics is that it becomes an arms race. The other party is doing it, so you have to do it too, or risk falling behind. In the run up to the last US elections, Barack Obama initially rejected donations from SuperPACs, groups who were recently allowed to use unlimited funds in support of a presidential candidate by the US Supreme Court, but he later accepted their support because Mitt Romney, his challenger, was already profiting from the organisations which backed him.

With just over 2 years to go till the next general elections, civil society groups need to impress on INEC the urgency of putting in place measures to track campaign expenditure in all political parties, at all levels, and enforcing the spending limits contained in Section 91 of the 2011 Electoral Act. Limits should also be placed on how much any one person can donate to a candidate, and information on donors to political parties should be in the public domain.

There is little hope of stemming the tide of corruption, while the stakes for public office in Nigeria remain so high. In the end, it will not matter whether an election is free and fair or not. He who plays the piper dictates the tune. If only those who are rich or have rich benefactors can run for office, the electorate is deprived of new faces and fresh ideas. That cannot be a good thing. 

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