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I’m sad those who allegedly planned to bomb me weren’t investigated —Igini, INEC REC

Mike Igini is the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Akwa Ibom State. In this interview with select journalists, he narrated all that transpired in the state during the last elections and why some people wanted him redeployed. PAUL OMOROGBE was there.

You publicly declared at the presentation of certificates of return to successful candidates in Akwa Ibom State that any umpire that has a veneer of integrity should be able to give an account of how election was conducted. What did you mean by that?

Yes, l said so and truly, any umpire that has even a speck of integrity should be eager to give account of how election was conducted and returns made.

l have been very restrained since the constitution of the Election Petitions Tribunal that would hear petitions filed by those who participated in the election that l presided over in this state and l will not comment on the substance of the issues that are already being determined by the tribunal, in deference to the time-honoured tradition of our profession. But let me say here, for the benefit of the people of this state and Nigerians, that the allegation of denial of access to election materials, even when there is a valid order of the tribunal, is wholly incorrect and not true. All these lies are intended to put us in bad light, but Nigerians know better. Why should a petitioner or any party at all be denied access to election materials? Such an action can only be taken if there is something to hide, but here in Akwa lbom State, under my watch, there is nothing to hide to warrant denial of access to election materials. All requests for Certified True Copy (CTC) have been attended to. The legal team of Senator Godswill Akpabio has conducted an inspection that ended on Tuesday. That of the All Progressives Congress (APC) gubernatorial candidate commenced on Wednesday, as jointly agreed with them.

In any case, assuming there was even a denial, which is not true, the lawyers should have reported to the tribunal and not go on the social media and pages of newspapers telling lies to attract attention and sympathy from some political quarters. The allegation is simply not true.

 

There were agitations for your redeployment from the state before the election. What happened?

Let me put it like this; the constitutional mandate we have as election managers are to midwife a transparent and integrity-driven electoral process that will enable the people to make the choice of leaders through strict supervision of that process on election day and not coronations. Some politicians would rather have election managers coronate them than be elected by voters which is a complete aberration. And, unfortunately, we don’t have powers to coronate through pre-writing of election results, either before or on election day. We are only mandated to create and sustain an electoral ambiance that allows Nigerians to make a choice of who should be their leaders. This was the message we conveyed to stakeholders. We insisted in Akwa lbom State and that led to the uncommon noise you heard on the curious demand for my redeployment before the 2019 general election in this state.

 

The APC accused you of compromise and colluding with the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state. What happened?

The accusation is not only patently  and absolutely untrue, but also most unkind and unfair to my person, given that since my appointment into the commission in 2010, first by former President Goodluck Jonathan and again in 2017 by the current president, l have devoted my time, energy and intellectual resources with those in the commission that it has been my privilege to know and work with, trying to give meaning and purpose to the ballot as the best means of recruiting leaders in a democracy. And l thank both leaders for the privilege given me to serve.

l have never, for a moment, sat with anyone, or through a proxy, to initiate, entertain or engage in any conversation to rig or manipulate election for the victory of anyone or political party. A rigged or manipulated election connotes the absence of election. May such a day never come when l will betray public trust. Since my arrival in Akwa lbom State in 2017, son of man has never stepped into the home of any son or daughter of this state and so, it’s amusing to hear the accusation of holding meetings with  people l don’t even know and in places l have not been to since l have been in the state.

In life, one should stand for something and live by some principles such as that of integrity and honesty and be ready to defend them. It is the same Mike lgini who conducted the 2011 and 2015 elections and was commended for a good job; that is the same person that was posted to Akwa Ibom and was preparing the state for truly free, fair and credible election devoid of pre-writing of results. Yet, suddenly, there was a call for my removal. Why? What did l do differently from what l did in my previous places of deployment? I ensured free, fair and credible elections in all the states where l had conducted elections; in Cross River, Anambra, Imo states in both 2011 and 2015 or Edo State in 2015.

When l arrived the state on September 5, 2017, l addressed all chairmen and secretaries of political parties and engaged the public, saying that in 2019, elections would be conducted; and that all undemocratic old practices ought to pass away for embrace of values that can sustain our democracy. l commenced the process of preparing the state with the relocation of 22 polling units that were located in private premises or homes of politicians to public places and a number of them who are ‘powerful,’ by the Nigerian standard, were very bitter and unhappy with me and the commission in the state. Even the internal administrative changes undertaken based on some disturbing findings about our own personnel, to avoid the compromise of the elections, were also reason for the call for my removal, apart from the fact that l wasn’t in any way ready to give anyone or political group result sheets to write or allow outright manipulation of the elections.

 

There were also allegations by the APC of recruitment of election ad hoc staff who were card-carrying members of their opponents. How true is that?

It is an anathema, if not abomination, for candidates or a party to make immoral request and insist on determining the electoral officers that should be in their local government areas; or of recruiting for the umpire election ad-hoc personnel, such as presiding officers, collation and returning officers that would conduct election they are to participate in.

This was what some persons were insisting on doing through their proxies as a condition for peace, because that has been the way they had been doing it in Akwa lbom since after the 1999 election. And l said no; that it was not going to happen under my watch as commissioner in charge of the state. They went violent at Obot Akara Local Government Area where a known party official tried to force the electoral officer who refused to accept their own shortlisted names of ad-hoc personnel that should be used to conduct election.

In other local governments, they also threatened to attack youth corps members, if they were not replaced with their own people. And l had to petition the police and the Department of State Services (DSS). That was the same local government where 13 buses hired by the commission for conveyance of men and materials were all set ablaze and today, the owners of these vehicles have been denied their means of livelihood because of these people.

On the allegation of ad-hoc staff being party members, here is what l have to say: The presiding officers for the 2,890 polling units were all National Youth Service Corps members. The supervising presiding officers were staff of federal agencies and not party members, as civil servants and the collation/returning officers were academics from the University of Uyo. They were shortlisted by the university authority and sent directly to INEC headquarters that in turn sent same to me in Akwa Ibom in a sealed envelope for their training.

So, all the uncommon noise about ad-hoc staff and collusion is not true and in any case, to put a lie to their tendentious claims, l invited the DSS, the police, the accusers, all other political parties and media organisations for joint vetting of the entire ad-hoc staff list and they could not point out the political party card-carrying individuals they were accusing the commission of recruiting.

 

We learned they actually tried to woo you with money. How much? Why did you refuse the offer?

Any society where everything is sold and bought threatens its moral foundation. Such a society would not endure for long. It is disgusting to equate the right of a citizen to make a periodic choice to mundane issues of naira and kobo in a democracy.

First, no amount of money can buy what is lost. If you deny voters their right to elect the leadership they desire, it amounts to a betrayal of public trust. In any case, my needs as a human being are too small and limited to be equated with such a monumental loss to society. The economists say that when you chose one thing instead of another, the one you forego is the opportunity cost of the one you chose. If that is the case, tell me how much you can compare denying the entire voters in Akwa lbom State of their choice of leaders to. As a member of the Nigerian bar, now an electoral umpire who is legally aware of the issues that may be at the electoral tribunal, I will not directly address this matter. All I can tell you is that if we want to build a better society for ourselves and a good one in which our children will live as happy people, we must be ready to make sacrifices that are bigger than the modest human needs of our comfort. People must learn to defer immediate gratification for the greater good of society.

 

Why do you think you were the target of those redeployment calls from Akwa-Ibom State before the general election?

Indeed, there were intense efforts that were not disguised and it is most unfortunate that candidates in an election wanted to pick who should be the umpire in their election. Many even boasted in the print and electronic media that they would not only do it, but even assured their followers that they should just go to sleep that it had been concluded, because that was the only way they could get a pliable umpire that would release election result sheets to them to write before the election.

The brazen way this was done even in the mainstream media shows how low people who put themselves forward to serve the public have sunk. It shows disdain for the voting public. I found it all amusing that despite my clear message severally to all that in the 2019 elections, ballot papers and result sheets would be delivered in the 2,980 polling units of the 31 local governments of the state and ought to be audited by party agents and duly-accredited observers as a condition precedent before the commencement of the poll, those who were used to writing election results were still determined to go that route and that was the reason for the call for my removal.

I must commend the chairman of INEC for standing firm to his obligations. He assured me that I should not be distracted, but concentrate on my work. His principled position reassured me of the independence and autonomy of the commission. Politicians and Nigerian must understand the powers of constitutional prescriptions. Those powers have provided strong incentives for the electoral umpire that is willing to abide by the laws to be fair to all candidates at elections. This is why we have strongly advocated for a constitutional provision followed by a legislative Act for an Electoral Offences Institution which will help to directly fumigate the impunity that currently fuels electoral offences. If we do that, we will greatly mitigate much of the electoral banditry that occurs around our elections and we can then face their sociological roots.

 

What was the reaction of the INEC chairman to the bid to remove you from Akwa-Ibom State?

l personally commend him for his leadership. Remember that in the heat of the elections, he also faced calls for his own removal. So, I am certain he had a perspicacious understanding of what some people were trying to do to undermine the elections in Akwa lbom State. What matters most for me was the fact that despite signs that some individuals within the commission were working with politicians to undermine our collective efforts to give meaning and purpose to the ballot, the chairman was resolute about defending the autonomy of the commission. I am profoundly grateful for his support and understanding. His wisdom on the matter made the religious advice, that there will be temptation but the challenge is how you respond to it, clear to me. In my view, he exuded exemplary great wisdom and responded in the larger best interest of safeguarding the independence of the commission for the good of our democratic process. And so shall he be remembered whenever the history of what happened in Akwa lbom State will be written.

 

How did you manage to deliver on Akwa-Ibom polls, despite the clear challenges?

It was team work and the staff of the commission and I stayed on the course of fairness, professionalism and impartiality. When people realise that you are doing the right thing, they will follow your lead, regardless of how much noise and influence others bring to bear. When l arrived Akwa-Ibom, a very controversial politician made a false claim against me that I was deployed by the APC to dethrone the PDP. But after August 2018, following this gale of defections, the same individuals, now in the APC, lied again that l was against the party and suddenly, this party members were all over the place shouting that I was against them and in support of the PDP; that I ought to be removed from the state to pave way for their own kind of REC.

If the commission acted the way heads of key security agencies were changed at will, based on the political interest and dictation of politicians, INEC would have had up to seven RECs before the 2019 election. How would such a situation engender voters’ confidence, trust and independence of the commission? At all times, my main preoccupation, as an umpire, is the process that must be transparent and credible; that would enable voters make their choices as the principal decider.

In giving the voters voice through the ballot, my duty is to ensure that all parties had equal opportunity and equal chance for competition and participation. That was all we did in this state and nothing more.

 

It was alleged that while you played hide and seek with Akpabio, it was not so with Governor Udom Emmanuel. In fact, APC alleged that you are a PDP sympathiser. How do you react to that?

That is far from the truth. If you followed my antecedent in Cross River State, you will recall that the PDP also alleged that I was an Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) sympathiser and even led protest to my office, just as they did in Akwa lbom. They accused me of grooming opposition, whatever that meant, simply because l maintained that there ought to be equal opportunity for all the political parties. At the rally they organised before the 2011 elections, when former President Jonathan came to the stadium, one after the other, they accused me of supporting the then opposition party, now the ruling party, without concrete evidence other than my insistence that only the might of the people would determine the outcome of election in that state and not federal might. And as God would have it, on that day, Jonathan ignored all of them, just as President Buhari also shunned those who were after me instead of wooing voters to ensure victory at the polls.

You know, in our environment, usually, the incumbent party does not want any opposition party to be strong enough to compete against it. l was accused of encouraging opposition parties in Cross River. It is an irony that the same opposition then is now in power in the state. And l must clarify here that it was just a few individuals and not majority of the opposition members who now want election to be manipulated in their favour through pre-writing of election result. Emphatically, l said no, it was not going to happen under my watch. And that led to the uncommon noise and shouts for my redeployment from Akwa lbom. It’s funny in this instance that the party with the federal leverages now thought I had sympathy for the opposition incumbent in the state.

Why do people think that when you say no to an invitation to do what is wrong and unethical, there must have been yes to their opponent? My sympathy, in all instances, is to the unfettered freedom of the voters, a free and fair electoral process and a legitimate outcome. I have no reason to play hide and seek with any party. What is expected of them is firm commitment to a free, fair and credible election by allowing the people of Akwa-Ibom, and not INEC or selected proxies who repress voters, to determine that outcome.

 

We heard some persons threatened you over the last polls. Are you still under threat?

Indeed, there were many instances when open and veiled threats were made to my life, sometimes, including planned to kidnap, so that l would not preside over the election in the state. The lowest point for me was the leaked audio tape that went viral of how a governorship candidate planned to bomb my car and get me off the way to enable him and his team to rig the election. Life is so cheap in our country today that people could sit down to plan how to eliminate other human beings in the quest for public office that is transient. Is that how bad our society has degenerated? The fact that these allegations were not put under investigative scrutiny and those involved questioned and made to face criminal prosecution is a sad commentary. Lies and innuendoes were circulated, including the absurdity that l had a son-in-law who collected some huge amount of millions for me, whereas my daughter is a small girl in secondary school and so, l don’t have a son-in-law.

It was on the basis of all these lies that they tried to move the state against me for doing nothing and painfully, those l thought knew me well enough, having worked in their states and they never asked me to give them result sheets or recruit ad hoc personnel for them, surprisingly led my persecution unjustly and others kept silent because of their new political friends. Worst still, they never bothered to hear from or consult with me on such groundless accusations. They moved against me by merely hearing from one side.

If there is any, just one politician who can come forward publicly that l sat with him or her to do anything for him or his party to win election, he should tell Nigerians. All those who won election in Akwa lbom, l don’t know them personally and l don’t have to know them, except where in recent times, in public places such as the airport, a number of them introduced themselves as people who won elections. l don’t have their contacts nor do they have mine through which we had communicated either before, during or after the elections.

All that was required of us is providing equal chance and opportunity to all and that was what we did.

 

What are your prescriptions for better elections by INEC in Nigeria?

I have constantly advocated that we ensure there are legal consequences for electoral offences in the form of jail terms, fines and even periodic ban from participation in elections. I have suggested that we should create a threshold for participation in state and federal elections for political parties without proscribing them. There is also the need to ensure that political parties submit a certified copy of their membership list and their guidelines for party nominations not later than 30 days before any intra-party contest.

These are my principal prescriptions. Others I will reserve because they require more in-depth explanations and they are better proposed after the election tribunal matters have been finally disposed of completely.

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