On Thursday, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Mahmud Yakubu, led a delegation of senior officials of the commission on a familiarisation visit to the Tribune headquarters in Ibadan, Oyo State. The Bauchi-born Professor of History, who trained at the universities of Sokoto, Nigeria; Oxford and Cambridge, United Kingdom, taught at the University of Jos, Plateau State and the Defence Academy and also served as Secretary, Tertiary Education Fund (TETFUND) and Education Trust Fund (ETF) before becoming, in his own words, “the Chief Clerk of INEC,” fielded questions from management staff and members of the Editorial Board. Excerpts:
What is your mission in INEC?
I said at the Senate screening before confirmation that my principal responsibility is to consolidate on the gains of 2015. I don’t think we have time for needless experimentation; if something worked in 2015, it is our responsibility to deepen it. And to do so, we have to continue to use and deploy technology. One of the major achievements of 2015 was actually the deployment of technology and so we need to deploy and deepen that. For our democracy to work, every ballot must count, every polling unit is important. The new commission has made that commitment and that is why we will never, ever conclude any election for its own sake. If we are going to be called an inconclusive commission to the end of time, I think we should be called an inconclusive commission. But the truth is that the votes in this country must count.
There are two things that Nigerians have yearned for, for a long time. One is that strong political parties fielding strong candidates so that our democracy will be strengthened. For the first time, we have strong political parties in Nigeria that have evolved, not decreed, like the military did with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC). This is very good for our democracy. Secondly, Nigerians have been saying that votes must count. And the votes will continue to count under this commission. So, our mission is to ensure that we do nothing that deviates from the path of credible, free, fair elections.
What have you done so far?
Unfortunately, this is a commission that had no honeymoon: we were sworn in on 9th of November, 2015 and less than two weeks later, we were faced with the Kogi election. And Kogi came with its own peculiar challenges not envisaged under the constitution and with no provisions under the Electoral Act and under our guidelines. We are all aware of what happened in Kogi. The rest, as they say, is history. But from Kogi, on November 21 to two weeks ago, this commission has conducted 137 elections. It is elections virtually every weekend since we assumed duties. In fact, the first major election came even before I took briefings from Directors. Kogi and then two weeks later, Bayelsa came. In fact, this weekend, we have two more by-elections: one in Oyo State [Oorelope State Constituency] and then one in Turata State Constituency in Sokoto; and thereafter, we go to Lagos, where a member of the House of Representatives unfortunately passed on. And then we have Edo on September 10, we have Ondo on 26th [November] and in between, we are going to hold elections in Rivers—we still have 22 constituencies to go.
These elections are categorised. You have rerun elections arising from court nullification of elections conducted in 2015. Eighty elections were nullified by the Election Petitions Tribunals and the Court of Appeal. We have virtually conducted all of them, except for the following: 22 in Rivers, one in Anambra, one in Plateau (Langtang South). That is one category. The second category of elections is end-of-tenure. We have conducted Kogi, Bayelsa, the FCT are council elections, and then, of course, we are going to do Edo and Ondo. Then we have by-elections caused by either deaths or resignation of members of the National Assembly. We have 14, and so far we have conducted 11. But this weekend, the tally will rise to 13, with Oyo and Sokoto. Then, there were elections upturned from 2015 general election. The courts nullified the elections and ordered the commission to issue certificates of return to the runner-up. We have 23 of these so far, making a total of 103. This is the highest number of elections conducted by any new commission in the history of our democracy.
What challenges have you been grappling with?
We have been grappling with different challenges, for instance, the smart card reader. Some say they are not working but we believe they are. But at the same time, there is always room for improvement. We will continue to improve on the functionality of the card reader, particularly in relation to the biometrics. And thereafter, we can see what value we are going to add to the smart card reader for the purpose of collation and transmission of results. This is one of the weaknesses of the democratic chain—from the time we collate results and then subsequently announce winners.
We have continued to improve on logistics—remember the complaints by Nigerians: “INEC “polling units open at 8:00 a.m., no voting materials, no INEC officials.” A major challenge is logistics. Sometimes, it is logistics plus security, but the major challenge is logistics. But there have been tremendous improvements since 2015 and we have continued to improve on that. In Kogi, 92 per cent of the polling units opened at 8:00 a.m. and when we conducted election in Kano two weeks ago, 100 per cent of the polling units opened at 8:00 a.m. The logistics go beyond what people think, because of the nature and complexity of the country itself. There are places in this country that are not motorable. There are places you can only reach by boat, depending on the topography. When we conducted the elections in Bayelsa, we not only had to hire boats, we also, for the safety of staff and materials, had to hire gunboats: one in front, one behind. When we conducted the area council elections in the FCT, we had to make an arrangement with the National Union of Okada Riders because people assume that the FCT is all about Maitama and Wuse and Garki, but there are parts of the FCT that aren’t motorable. And sometimes, it takes two hours to reach the last polling unit in the FCT.
How can the media help?
I think we have, as much as INEC, a responsibility to deepen our democracy. Quite often in Nigeria, you hear people on television who are experts in everything and debates are conducted in terms of extremes: you are either extremely good or extremely bad. No middle ground. That’s the way we conduct our debates unfortunately in this country. You hear somebody who is an expert in legal matters today, tomorrow they are discussing Southern Sudan politics and he comes and claims expertise. Another day they are talking about aviation; he’s also there (laughs) to claim expertise. I think the media can help by putting some of these issues in context. Let me use an example. Take the case of inconclusive elections. I have read some comments in other outlets associating this commission with inconclusive elections.
What is an inconclusive election? It is an election in which a winner has not emerged at the first ballot, and there are provisions in our Electoral Act, Sections 22/23 for what to do in the event that a winner has not emerged at the first ballot. When did we experience our first inconclusive election? So many people have forgotten; it was in 1979, with the mathematics of two-thirds of 19. It wasn’t resolved at our ballot box; it was resolved in court. And then subsequently, we had a number of inconclusive elections. In 2011, in my state (Bauchi), because of the post-election violence, the governorship election was inconclusive. INEC had to rerun the election after two weeks. Also in 2011, Imo was inconclusive. The election had to be rerun after two weeks. In 2015, Taraba was inconclusive. Imo again was inconclusive.
In 2013, there were difficulties in Anambra. We have all forgotten about Idemili in Anambra, and then Abia too, in 2015. But when you have an inconclusive election in the contest of a general election, it is hardly noticed. But unfortunately for this commission, we have conducted 137 off-season elections, when the attention of the whole nation is one small constituencies or, in the case of governorship elections, larger constituencies. The most difficult election for the commission is off-season election, where the political actors mobilise state-wide or nationwide and descend on a small constituency. And the media also descends on that constituency. The best example here is Ekiti in the last governorship election. You all know the story of people trying to move in and some people stopping them from moving in. So, we need informed analysis which can only come by most difficult elections are those conducted off-season. We need informed analysis and this can only come about with information, which we are always ready to provide and share with the media.
It is always good to talk about what has been done and what have been the achievements, but looking at the Nigerian electoral process, what have you seen as major shortcomings?
I think that, in terms of challenges, the first one is the spectre of violence in our elections. Virtually all the inconclusive elections were because of violence. You see, the quality of your election is a direct reflection of the quality of your politics and the character of your political actors. If the political actors decide that there will be no free and fair elections, there is not much that INEC can do. I will give you a couple of examples. When we mobilised for the Bayelsa governorship election in December last year, we couldn’t conduct the election on election day in Southern Ijaw local government. Southern Ijaw is virtually on the Atlantic ocean, just like many local governments in Bayelsa State. There is only one place you can drive to from Yenagoa; that is Amasoma where the university is located, Wilberforce Island, where the late former Governor DiepreyeAlamieyeseigha came from. We couldn’t mobilise as a result of the sheer mobilisation for violence by the politicians. As we were mobilising for election, the politicians were actually mobilising for war. And the first thing we do in every election is the welfare of our staff and the safety and protection of electoral materials. You know that we rely on ad-hoc staff, who are mainly youth corps members. Some of them have never seen the sea; if you have somebody from Sokoto and he is serving in Yenagoa, on election day he is going to see the sea.
In Osun State, we conducted a by-election into the Ife Central state constituency; Deji, the national commissioner from this zone, was there. We had an almost-perfect election. We had a large voter turnout. Unknown to us, some of the politicians were targeting the bigger polling units. And I will never forget this: Ogedengbe street polling unit and Moore street polling unit. Something happened; the politicians specifically targeted these two polling units. What did they do? After ballots were cast, before we could start collation at the polling unit level, some people mobilised and stole the two ballot boxes. As they were being chased by police, they had bottles of ink in their pockets.
They brought out the bottles, poured the ink into the ballot boxes and violently shook the ballot boxes, and later they dropped them. We recovered the ballot boxes but we couldn’t use the ballot. But they knew what they were doing; the total number of registered voters in that particular polling unit affected the outcome of the election. Remember that under our guidelines. we said that where the margin of lead is lower than the margin of cancellation of places where election did not hold, we cancel the election in the affected polling unit and appoint another date to conduct the election because every vote must count. That was why Ife Central was inconclusive. Fortunately, we had enough ballot papers, so we re-mobilised the following day, conducted the election and declared the winner. If people don’t understand what we go through, they will never understand why elections are inconclusive.
Let me give you another example from Nasarawa State. We had a by-election in a constituency caused by the death of the member of a state federal constituency. After conducting the election, we discovered something that happened in the course of collation and a report was made. We declared the election inconclusive in specific registration areas. What did we see? This is the Form EC 8 B. (Professor Mahmud holds the form aloft) in which we collated the results in Akum area of the state. In Akum polling unit, total number of registered voters was : 1, 181, total number of accredited voters was 200, while total number of valid votes cast was 729. (laughs). We had another one in Agum polling unit: total number of registered voters was 1, 113, total number of accredited voters was nil, but the total number of valid votes cast was 1030. Nobody was accredited but over a thousand people voted. We have similar examples from other places. There is nobody even with the smallest iota of credibility that can approve this kind of result. The level of violence determines the speed with which we go back to conclude the elections. In Bayelsa, the election was conducted in December 2015 but we couldn’t go back to Southern Ijaw until January.
Now, what can we do? This is again one area where we need your support. Any nation which does not penalise violators of its own laws is doomed. And then you look at an agency like INEC and hang the blame on us. Who is supposed to punish electoral offenders under the Electoral Act? It is INEC. But we cannot and I will tell you why. The first step towards successful prosecution of electoral offence is arrest. INEC has no power under the law to make arrest. Secondly, you investigate so that you have the evidence that you can tender in court for successful prosecution. INEC has no capacity to conduct investigation. But we are expected to prosecute. Even worse, some of the electoral offenders may be INEC’s own staff. How do we prosecute ourselves?
The solution is this: in 2008, Mohammed Uwais chaired the Political Reform Committee and made a recommendation that this nation should establish an Electoral Offences Commission or Tribunal. That hasn’t been done. In 2011, we had a major post-election violence. The government of the day had the Lemu report. Lemu wrote the same recommendation but nothing has been done. Are we waiting for the next violence to set up another committee and nothing is done? People must know that if they violate the law, there will be consequences, from politicians to the staff of the commission. For as long as that does not happen, it will be very, very difficult to stem the tide of violence in our elections. What are we doing to achieve that? We have been engaging with the National Assembly. The last time we went to the Senate on electoral reform, the Senate President assured us that before the end of this year, the Electoral Act will be amended, and that the Senate was seriously considering the establishment of the Electoral Offences tribunal. In fact, most interestingly in the case of the Lemu report, the government of the day accepted the recommendation, issued a White Paper and directed the Attorney General to liaise with the commission, but nothing was done.
When I read the White Paper, something struck me. There was a tabular presentation of all the cases of electoral offences and the state that recorded the highest number was Kaduna, in 2011. Over a thousand people were killed in Kaduna. But the number of arrests made was nil. Prosecution: nil. You lose over 1,000 souls and no arrest was made? And you said you are okay? No, something has to be done. Recently in Kano, some thugs disrupted an election on April 30, we cancelled it and several arrests were made. One day, I received a report from the Kano office through the Nigeria Police that they wanted our legal department in Kano to collaborate with the police legal department to prosecute those arrested in connection with the electoral violence in Kano. And we did. And I was pleasantly surprised that we successfully prosecuted 42 electoral offenders. This is the highest number of electoral offenders prosecuted in the history of the commission at any given time. But we need to go beyond the thugs who snatch ballot boxes because, in all probability, they were not candidates in the elections. Who are their sponsors? Unless and until you target and prosecute the sponsors of violence, this will not end.
What are the takeaways from your experience in other states in the South-South that you are going to avoid in the Edo governorship election?
Yes, we have learnt a lot of lessons from the elections that we have conducted. The whole approach to Edo election, learning from the experience in Rivers, has actually considerably changed. In Edo, there are 18 local governments, 192 wards, 2627 polling units, and 4011 voting points. Total number of registered voters as we speak today is 1.9 million, specifically 1,925, 105. In Edo, 48 per cent of the registered voters so far are of the female gender, 52 men. In terms of occupational distribution, with the benefit of the voter card and the smart card reader which has a VIN number that captures the information that the prospective voter provided at the point of registration, the majority of registered voters are students.
Now, this may give us a clue to what happened in Ogun State before the 2015 general election. Ogun is the only state in this country that has more tertiary institutions than many states combined. The argument of the students at that time was that many of them registered but they were not at the institutions at the time of voting. Secondly, in Edo, we have those who completed the forms and told the commission that their occupation is business. This will include traders. Then, the third category is fishermen and farmers, while the last category, about five per cent, is where the voter described herself as a housewife. We have given opportunity to people who want to transfer from other places to Edo. The figure is 106. But those who transferred out of Edo are just 56. One of the benefits of the smart card reader is that it can provide information for politicians to use in planning.
What we have been doing is to analyse the risk per local government. We have been doing the election risk analysis. Increasingly, the local governments that we thought were high risk are becoming either low risk or medium risk. We have the Inter-agency Consultation Committee on Election Security; they have been meeting at the level of the state, co-chaired by the Resident Electoral Commissioner and the Commissioner of Police. But I also co-chair the National Inter-Agency Consultative Committee with the National Security Adviser (NSA), so there are steps that we have taken (to ensure hitch-free elections). We are conscious of the possibility of infiltration from neighbouring states into Edo during the election because it is a stand-alone election, and we are also aware of all the antics of the politicians.
In Ogun State in 2011, politicians prepaid voters, but because there was no means of checking how they voted, they voted according to their consciences. But in 2015, the politicians had learnt their lessons and so, instead of pre-paying voters, they positioned party agents strategically near the ballot boxes, so that people could show who they voted for, and then they were paid. This was called post-paid or see-and-buy. Now, what is INEC going to do about this because it makes a mess of secret balloting?
Well, in 2011, I wasn’t in the commission. But what you have mentioned goes back to what we have been talking about. As we are thinking about how to strengthen the electoral process in this country, the politicians will come to the stakeholders’ meetings and listen to us attentively, with a view to finding mechanisms by which they can beat the system. But there is a limit as to what the commission can do. We can’t secure the environment. In Rivers for instance, we had 4,442 polling units, each manned by four adhoc staff. Then we had adhoc staff as collation officers, returning officers. We had our own supervisors and monitors from the headquarters. We engaged over 24,000 staff for the Rivers election. You have to provide for their security, take care of them. Election day is like a mad house, very difficult to maintain focus on what INEC is supposed to do and, at the same time, maintain propriety on the part of the political class.
In one of the states where we had election, I watched a governorship candidate on television. He said that INEC was creating the impression that we are a nation of scammers, simply because the smart card reader could not pick his biometrics at the first attempt. He said: “This machine is not working!” Lo and behold, the election was conducted and he was declared winner. When we went to present the Certificate of Return, he said the best thing that ever happened to our elections is the card reader! (laughs) and that, whatever the imperfections, he would work with INEC to make sure that we improve on the card reader.
So, you know, INEC is always the whipping boy when politicians lose. And when they win irrespective of what, it is their own handiwork. In fact, sometimes, they expect that where we see gross violations of the electoral rules, we should just look the other way and declare them winners. And they will complain and complain. And then if you declare the elections inconclusive, they would then go on television and say “INEC would have declared the wrong people winners but for the vigilance of our members!”
So, I think those who are practical politicians know a lot more than many. You should also advise the commission on what we can do. Our doors are open. The problem of the commission is that you are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t.
Can you further clarify the issue of card readers, particularly during the 2015 general election when CNN showed under-aged people, 10-year-olds, brandishing card readers and voting during the election? We also have multiple cases of people with different voter cards.
I think I have touched on this slightly but let me say this. The fingerprint that we use for registration on the direct data capturing machine does not recognise the fingerprint of an infant, and then no under-aged person would register as an under-aged person. They will give you the universal suffrage age of 18. Sometimes, we eliminate them but some unfortunately slip through. When they turn out to vote, citizens should also help the commission. They should be vigilant. Where you see under-aged people voting, you raise the alarm. But I hope also that you are cognisant of the fact that in some parts of the country, because of certain factors, there are some people who look 15 when they are actually 18. Secondly, in some states, there are some people who hold the queue for their aged parents or pregnant mothers on election day. They are not there to vote. But where it is so obvious, please, help us, so that we can also help the system.
I know that it is a big problem in Ghana, especially as they will be holding elections in December. We are going there also to hold discussions with the chairman of the electoral commission.But let me say this about Ghana, Niger and other countries. I n many situations, they envisage that their elections will be inconclusive. Since 1999, no presidential election in Niger was conclusive at the first ballot. If the elections are not conclusive, they round off after one month. The same thing in Ghana. They give one month’s notice to conduct elections in case it is inconclusive. Under our constitution, it is envisaged that a presidential election may be inconclusive. But if that happens, INEC cannot conduct election within the time frame allowed by the Constitution. Unlike Niger or Benin Republic which has a total population the size of Lagos State, Nigeria with over 70 million registered voters—and the number is going to be higher by the time we do continuous voter registration—has only one week to organise a run-off between the two leading candidates in case the presidential election is inconclusive. This is one of the areas where we are working with the National Assembly to see if we can amend the Constitution and have more time.
What is INEC doing on party spending and statements of accounts, particularly given the revelations from the 2015 elections?
Party finance has two dimensions: the party spending and campaign spending. You know that parties have their own spending limit and candidates have their own. My understanding is that accounts were audited in 2014 and published in some newspapers; that is the requirement of the law. I don’t know whether this is still on our website; I will find out. The parties, after publishing their accounts, are then required to submit them to the National Assembly. We haven’t had the National Assembly inviting the political parties over their accounts. In fact, under the law, they are supposed to submit their audited accounts to the commission six months after election. Some of the parties would say “We have received next to nothing, so we have virtually nothing to declare.” Well, given the revelations that came out during the 2015 election, most of the spending did not even go through the party accounts. So, it is always very difficult to track the political parties but we will continue to do so.
The late Gani Fawehinmi used to say that politicians usually rigged election before, during and after elections. Talking of pre-election matters where politicians begin their manipulation of the process through voter registration, what mechanisms has INEC put in place to ensure that people can register once they turn 18, and not have to wait till election period?
As we speak, continuous voter registration is ongoing in all the local government offices nationwide. But we have done special continuous voter registration in places where we have state wide elections: before the elections in Kogi, Bayelsa, and then Edo and Ondo. I know that there are complaints that we should have allowed more time. Allowing more time is related to the cost of the elections. When we did it before the FCT area council elections, we had cause to extend it by one day. That one-day extension cost the commission over N8 million. But there is going to be a scheme for continuous voter registration, probably down to the ward level. But even so, the ideal thing to do is to go down to the polling unit level. But we are dealing with a reality here. How many people living in urban areas, let alone our poor uncles and mothers and nieces, would leave their villages to go to the local government headquarters simply in order to register, before the onset of the general election? We have been receiving the returns on monthly basis from some of the states. I saw the figure for continuous voter registration in Ondo for last month (July): 162. Maybe what we need to do is to intensify voter education and media engagement. But again, doing so means spending.
You recognise the evolution of two major political parties as being in the interest of our democracy. But we now see a situation in which one of the parties is in serious crisis. Are you not worried about this situation? Secondly, INEC issued a certificate of return to Dr Samson Ogah in Abia State even when Governor Okezie Ikpeazu had gone on appeal. How are we sure that INEC will be impartial in the coming elections.
As the registrar of political parties, we are worried. But what do we do? Courts of law and their judgements must be obeyed. Within three months, we received as of yesterday (Wednesday) 11 court judgements and orders [on the PDP issue] almost all of them conflicting. All of them were from courts of coordinate jurisdiction, all of them from the High Court. In fact, in two days, 15th and 16th of this month, we received one judgement and three court orders, from courts of coordinate jurisdiction operating from different parts of the country. We had two from Port Harcourt, two from Abuja.
And as we closed from work yesterday, a Federal High Court in Abuja came with another judgement. And it is a court of coordinate jurisdiction. So, it is really a very big challenge for the commission. But again, it goes back to what my brother from Ogun said. The politicians all operate at the level of the High Court, none of them has gone to the Court of Appeal. So, it becomes a really big challenge for us. But for the commission, strong political parties are very good for our democracy. This nation has strong political parties and whatever the challenges are in the management of elections, we will continue to soldier on. Honestly, , strong political parties are good for the growth of our democracy and nobody can be happy when you have all these factions in political parties.
Now, on Abia, I know that some people said we were hasty in issuing the Certificate of Return, and I have listened to commentaries and read some of the opinions on the pages of newspapers. To me, two things were confused: the legal provision for post-election litigation and the legal provision for pre-election litigation. So, in post-election litigation, there is a provision for 21 days after a court of first instance, in this case the Tribunal, has issued whatever judgment, to allow whoever has lost to appeal. I know that there is provision for appeal through our regular courts.
The case with Abia was a pre-election matter and the judge said that we should issue Certificate of Return immediately. I know that something was filed in court, a motion for stay of execution and what have you. But if the court has not granted a stay of execution, there is no legal basis, on the basis of the advice that we received, for INEC to stay action. So, we went ahead and complied. Two weeks before Abia, there was a similar situation in a federal constituency in Enugu State, we went ahead and complied. But we also issued a statement to say that whatever the court decides, we would obey if tomorrow a court of superior jurisdiction overturns the judgement of the High Court, just as it has happened today (Thursday) in the case of Ikpeazu. As we speak today, the Court of Appeal has upheld the election of Ikpeazu. I’m sure the other person will not go to the Supreme Court. For as long as there are valid court judgements and we are asked to comply, our responsibility as a commission, honestly, is to comply.