In this Interview with JACOB SEGUN OLATUNJI, the Ondo State Resident Electoral Commissioner, Mr Segun Agbaje, bares his mind on the forthcoming governorship election in the state and the commission’s preparations towards a hitch free poll.
HOW prepared is the Independent National electoral Commission (INEC) for the forthcoming governorship election in Ondo State?
Thank you, Nigerian Tribune, for your usual support for the commission. As expected, the commission in the state is preparing very hard for the election, in collaboration with the national headquarters in Abuja. We have done a lot of things right from early this year, meeting the stakeholders, particularly the party leaders in the state, to discuss the modalities for a very peaceful and successful poll.
Besides, we have also the continuous registration exercise in the state. Over 1,000 new voters were registered, though we are still expecting the Permanent Voters Cards (PVC) which we hope will come this month or early October. We are also getting our stores ready to accommodate materials and we believe that after the Edo State governorship election, the focus will be on Ondo. I have met with our chairman already and he promised that all we need to ensure credible election in the state will be provided and timely.
Since this new commission was inaugurated last year, we have been having cases of postponed of elections. Ondo, being a riverine area, what measures are you putting in place to avoid inconclusive elections in the state?
Let me correct that impression on inconclusive elections. Since this commission came on board last November, it has conducted about 138 elections, out of which only 16 were inconclusive. Unfortunately, the majority are what we can call rerun elections as a result of court cases. A few of them were bye-elections, either as a result of death like we had in the Osun State House of Assembly, or a withdrawal. Somebody resigned in Sokoto State, and a few others like that.
So, I will not agree that we have inconclusive elections and even if they are inconclusive, they emanated as a result of violence in most of these areas. Where card readers were not used, where you had over-voting, there have to be inconclusive elections. Like I have given examples of what happened in my state last year when we had election in Ilaje. At the end of the election in Ilaje (1),47 polling booth, about 25, 365 people were disenfranchised. At the end of the day, APC had 3870 votes while PDP had 9,764 votes, so the difference between the two leading candidates was 5874 and if you take 5,874 and then you compare the 25, 365 people that were disfranchised under our guidelines such an elections is called inconclusive.
It is not the fault of the commission when, early in the morning, you have thugs attacking electoral officials on the sea, taking about 19 card readers and dumping them in the sea, casting away all election materials, tearing them and dumping them in the ocean. I want to appeal to our politicians that they should let us play the game according to the rules. We should not worship somebody who wants to rule at all cost or to win at all costs. Nigeria is too old and too big to be seen as fighting during elections. Smaller countries around us conduct elections in a very peaceful manner. In Benin Republic, the electoral officer carries the ballot box on a motorcycle from the collation centre. If we do that in Nigeria, politicians will wrench the ballot box from the man, even with the police that are there, because the police are not armed owing to the global practice forbidding arms being carried around polling units. They are not armed and the hoodlums are taking advantage of this to attack the polling or collation centres. We are going to embark on massive voter education, especially in Ilaje area in particular and every other part of the state, to ensure that we have a very peaceful election in Ondo this year.
Are you not worried of possible violence during and after the election, based on recent developments in the two major political parties in the state?
I don’t think it will affect the election; we still have 85 days to go for the election.
Chairman of the commission, Professor Mahmud Yakubu, made it clear that where there is any threat to the life of the electorate or that of INEC staff, the election would be cancelled or rescheduled. What are you doing to prevent such a scenario in Ondo?
We have not got to that stage now in Ondo. The atmosphere in the state is very calm; the police and other security agencies are doing their best to ensure that we have a peaceful atmosphere before, during and after the election.
How far have you gone in distributing the Permanent Voter Cards?
We have been distributing PVCs since February this year, when the chairman authorised us to start it at the local government level. We have gone far but unfortunately, we still have about 300, 000 cards that are yet to be collected from us. By October ending when we start the distribution of the new PVCs as a result of the Continuous Voters Registration we did in June this year, maybe people will come to the wards again. This is because we are now going back to the ward centres where they are going to do the distribution.
What are the major challenges facing the commission?
Definitely, the major challenge is the issue of the Ilaje axis. We have discussed it at our security meeting and I believe that next month, when we meet again, we are going to discuss how to take proactive measures. One of the measures INEC is taking on Ondo is to have a very serious and rigorous voter education in that axis, if possible, to get all the people that are contesting in that election to follow us to that axis and talk to the people; let them see the reason we must have a peaceful election.
We want this election to be conclusive at the first ballot. The politicians will have to talk to their people to ensure that we have a peaceful election. If there is violence, then they don’t want us to do our job. It means they don’t want us to have a peaceful election. We are going to appeal to their sensibilities so they can also be on the same page with INEC.
In Edo State, one of the political parties is accusing the commission of recruiting party loyalists as ad hoc staff. In Ondo, how far have you gone in recruitment of staff and training?
I believe that they understand me very well because everything that we are doing, we also bring them in. They see what we do. They know what we do, and we encourage them to partner with us and ensure that all of us are on the same page. The issue of being friendly with one party or the other doesn’t exist. If you are not neutral, that is when they would start to accuse you of wrongdoing. What I do to party A that is what I do to party B and do to party C. Anytime we call them, we advise ourselves as brothers and I believe they are also watching us and I also tell them that anytime they see me or any of my staff going wrong, they shouldn’t hesitate to call us to order.
Whoever is found to have committed any offence shall be dealt with appropriately because when you talk about electoral offences, it’s not only about hoodlums, it is also about INEC staff — ad hoc and permanent staff. Even the security officers are not left out. So, all of us must work together to ensure that we have a peaceful election. In regard to your latter question about the ad hoc staff and training, we have not started training yet. Training is usually done two weeks to the election and we still have 85 days to go.
What we are doing now is partnering with the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). When the youth corps members were in camp, we went there to give them lectures and in their various local governments, our electoral officers have been encouraged to partner with the NYSC officers. On their community development days, we can also talk to them, teach them what they need to know on smart card readers and some other few things. Before the actual training will start, they must have got used to some of these things.