With the conclusion of the 2019 Nigeria presidential election which has yielded another 4 years to President Muhammadu Buhari, all attention has been turned to the Governorship elections which are scheduled to hold on 09 March 2019 following the postponement of same by the Independent National Electoral Commission from 02 March 2019 when it was previously scheduled to hold. One would recall that President Muhammadu Buhari had, prior to the presidential election, issued a controversial statement wherein he warned every intending ballot box snatcher of dire consequences of such action. Whilst the statement has been greeted with mixed reactions, it is important to state that snatching of ballot boxes before, during or after elections is condemnable as it runs contrary to the ethos of free and fair elections in any civilized society. Unfortunately, it has become an expected manifestation at polling stations in Nigeria due to the frequency of its occurrence. Against this backdrop, it becomes apposite to consider the provisions of the law in relation to such offence of ballot box.
The Electoral Act Cap E6 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2010 (as amended) (“Electoral Act”) which is the principal Act regulating the conduct of elections and matters incidental thereto in Nigeria, prescribes the sanctions for all electoral offences including the offence of illegally snatching ballot boxes or election materials. For clarity, Part VIII, Section 118 (1) (j), (2) and (5) of the Electoral Act provides as follows:
118(1)(j): “A person who without authority destroys or in any other manner interferes with a ballot box or its contents or any ballot paper or result form then in use or likely to be used for the purpose of an election, commits an offence;
(2): “A person who commits an offence under subsection (1) of this section is liable on conviction to a maximum term of imprisonment for 2 years;
(5): “An attempt to commit any offence under this Section shall be punishable in the same manner as the offence itself.”
The import of the above quoted provisions is that any person who perpetrates or attempts to perpetrate the act of interfering with a ballot box or its content (which could be by snatching or interfering in any other way howsoever) or any ballot paper, even a singular paper or result form which is in use or likely to be used for an election commits an offence and if convicted would be liable to imprisonment for a term not less than 2 years.
Furthermore, Section 128 of the Electoral Act provides for the sanction for disorderly conduct at elections. It provides thus:
“Any person who at an election acts or incites others to act in a disorderly manner commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a maximum fine of N500,000 or imprisonment for a term of 12 months or both.”
Although this Section does not expressly sanction the offence of snatching of ballot boxes, it could however be inferred that snatching of ballot boxes or attempted snatching of ballot boxes at an election is a disorderly conduct at elections under the said Section 128 which would, if proven, make the suspect liable under the provisions of the Section.
Section 129(1) (j) of the Electoral Act further provides that:
“No person shall on the date on which an election is held do any of the following acts in a polling unit or within a distance of 300 metres of a polling unit, snatch or destroy electoral materials”
Further to the above, Section 129 (4) specifically provides for the sanctions which would apply to anyone who is convicted of the offence of snatching ballot boxes under Section 129 (1)(j) of the Electoral Act as follows:
“Any person who snatches or destroys any election material commits an offence and is liable on conviction to 24 months imprisonment.”
From the above section, it is clear that the punishment for snatching and/or destroying ballot boxes or papers or any electoral material is 24 month imprisonment upon conviction. It is important to state at this juncture, that the provisions of Section 129 (1) (j) and (4) as regards the term of imprisonment for the offence of snatching ballot box are in tandem with the provisions of Section 118(2) which prescribes the sanction of 2 years imprisonment for any person convicted of the offence of interfering with ballot boxes, papers or any election material.
It therefore suffices to state that the offence of ballot box snatching is not a capital offence which is punishable by death. It is a different thing, if the offender is armed and in the course of committing the offence commits an act which leads to the death of another. In such a scenario, the capital offence must have been committed. Under section 36(8) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended):
“No person shall be held to be guilty of a criminal offence on account of any act or omission that did not, at the time it took place, constitute such an offence, and no penalty shall be imposed for any criminal offence heavier than the penalty in force at the time the offence was committed.”
In the same vein, section 36(12) of the same Constitution provides that “Subject as otherwise provided by this Constitution, a person shall not be convicted of a criminal offence unless that offence is defined and the penalty therefor is prescribed in a written law, and in this subsection, a written law refers to an Act of the National Assembly or a Law of a State, any subsidiary legislation or instrument under the provisions of a law.”
Given the varied interpretations that have characterized the President’s speech, it is hoped that the above provisions of the law should guide the security agencies in dealing with cases of electoral violence particularly ballot box snatching. As we have noted above, the sanction for the offence of ballot box snatching alone is imprisonment for a maximum term of 24 months. However, if in the act of snatching ballot boxes, the act of murder or other capital offence or even non-capital offence is committed, then the offender will be charged accordingly under the appropriate laws.