The National Commissioner of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and chairman, Information and Voter’s Education Committee of INEC, Festus Okoye, speaks on the preparations for the governorship elections coming up in Edo and Ondo states, as well as the conduct of politicians. SUNDAY ADEPOJU brings excerpts of the interview with the Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State recently;
THE coronavirus pandemic has come to change the way we do many things in the world. How is the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) reacting to the new reality?
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) did not wait and did not sit on the sidelines when the issue of the Covid-19 pandemic started all over the world. We had what we call end of tenure elections that are constitutionally circumscribed. Based on that, we decided that it was in the interest of the Nigerian people and our democracy and in the interest of constitutionalism for the commission to begin some level of conversation on the way forward in relation to conducting election under a very uncertain circumstance in uncharted water. That was the basis for developing our own policy guidelines and code of conduct for our elections ahead, even amidst COVID-19. We have adapted this code of conduct/guidelines and these have resulted in some of the alterations and amendments in the guidelines and the way we are going to run the elections. We were thinking ahead and we believe that we are really ahead of so many commissions and agencies in terms of trying to see how we can live normal life under a very abnormal situation.
How is the INEC strategising to comply with the directives of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in the coming elections in Edo and Ondo states?
You know that the conduct of election is slightly unique and specific. What we did was that we looked at the guidelines on and the protocols issued by the NCDC and the presidential task force and adapted some of these protocols and guidelines to our own policy on conducting elections in the context of the COVID19. We looked at the pre-election activities and the election activities. We adapted those protocols of the NCDC and those of the task force guidelines to each of these phases of the electoral process. We have our own processes and procedures under control.
Pictures coming from Ondo and Edo have been showing people gathering in large numbers. How do you intend to manage this during campaigns, rallies, and elections?
The conduct of election and the management of election are what I call a ‘multi-stakeholders venture’. No single institution, individual, entity can really manage the conduct of elections in Nigeria. We are facing a novice situation and we are setting a very uncertain situation, the situation which nobody envisaged. The implication is that the political parties, the media, civil society groups and organisations, security, the commission and the electorate must engage in collective responsibility and collective action to ensure that all of us remain safe when we hold the elections. We have advised the political parties to also develop their own guidelines for rallies and campaigns. And that their own guidelines for rallies and campaigns must also conform to the protocols and guidelines released by the NCDC and the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 as well as some of the amendments to the laws made by the varous state governments. So, everybody must engage in collective responsibility and action for us to put through this particular period. Societies are moving ahead and other countries are moving on. Individual and collective responsibility is very key to containing and defeating this pandemic. So, we have encouraged and will continue to encourage both the political parties and the citizens to imbibe the culture of obeying rules, regulations and guidelines for us not to endanger the health and safety of the Nigerian people.
How do you want to ensure that people, especially the commission’s staff, will be safe in the process?
People always make mistake that the INEC has all the powers in the world. The commission, yes, has powers donated to it by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria by the Electoral Act and its own regulations and guidelines. The Nigerian Police Force (NPF) as the lead agency in charge of election security has all has its own powers and responsibilities in securing elections during the pre, main and post-election activities. The same thing applies to other security agencies that are under the umbrella Inter-agencies Consultative Committee on the election security established by the INEC. So, it implies that we have a responsibility to organise and super-indent elections. But maintaining law and order at the polling units and also making sure that people obey the laws is the exclusive responsibility of the NPF and the other security agencies in the country. What we do is to provide a framework, guidelines and regulations and insist that every other agencies and parties that have the responsibility for securing the elections do their own part in relation to the electoral process.
What do you have to say about the recruitment of ad-hoc staff? In the past, you adopted the members of the National Youth Service Corps?
Nothing is going to change. The bulk of our presiding officers are drawn from NYSC serving men and women. And then, the assistant presiding officers 1, 2 and 3 are drawn most from among the students of other tertiary institutions in the state. We do not want too much interstate movement in relation tot these particular elections. So, we are still going to rely on the NYSC to provide the bulk of the presiding officers. There are already youth corps members that have deployed to Ondo and Edo states. We also have the data base of the corps members who are resident in Edo State that we are still going to mobilise for the state poll. But, if there is a short fall, we will rely on students from state tertiary institutions. Ditto to Ondo. And then, the resident electoral commissioners in Edo and Ondo states are doing the sourcing and looking at our data base to make sure that we recruit sufficient ad-hoc staff. And from the information I have, we are on top of the situation.
What is the commission doing on the provision of essential materials for protection during the election, especially for the staff of the commission?
That is one of the big challenges created by the pandemic. We have our ad-hoc staff that we have to take care of. What we are insisting on and part of our regulations and guidelines is that when the ad-hoc that we are going to recruit are coming for training, they have to come with their own facemasks because it is mandatory. Secondly, we are going to provide sanitiser for these ad-hoc staff. Every other protective equipment that they need for them to perform their work optimally will be provided. I must say that this will increase the cost of election.
How do you intend to manage the situation in the polling units? How have you been able to adapt to COVID-19?
We have our policy on conducting elections in the context of COVID-19 pandemic. This will be given to all the ad-hoc staff that will be recruited by the commission as we prepare for the elections. Then, we have what we call “The voting in safety” which is a guide to the conduct of voters at the polling units. This will be pasted at the various polling u its. We also have code of conduct and rule of engagement for security personnel on electoral duty. This will also be distributed to all the security personnel that will be engaged in the electoral duties. We have created what we call “A two-tier queuing system at the polling units. There will be an inner cordon and an outer cordon. And people will be moved into the inner cordon in small batches to prevent a situation of overcrowding and to obey social distancing measure by NCDC. We are also going to be disinfecting and sanitising the polling units. All our equipment will be sanitised. We are taking the health and safety of everybody as our primary responsibility.
Our people are known to be impatient, especially during elections. How feasible will it be for the commission to implement the avalanche of plans towards conducting election amidst the pandemic?
It will be presumptuous to expect 100% compliance with our rules and regulations. But, what we are doing is to engage all the critical stakeholders in relation to the situation on ground. We will do our awareness campaigns. We do not have an option in relation to the end-of-tenure elections in Edo and Ondo states. These are elections that are constitutionally circumscribed. Section 178, subsection 2 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria gives us the time frame within which we must conduct the elections in Edo and Ondo states. For the election in Edo State, whatever it takes, the Constitution states that the election must be conducted on or before the October 13, 2020. And for the election in Ondo State, the Constitution states that election must be conducted on or before January 15, 2021. We cannot conduct the election in Edo State on October 14, 2020. That means we are engaged in an unconstitutional act. And the Constitution has not really given us a guide on what to do if the commission fails to conduct these elections on the constitutionally circumscribed dates. When a constitution makes a provision, it puts dates inside that particular provision. It means that those dates cannot be moved. We have a duty and responsibility to make sure that we do all that is humanly possible to conduct the elections on the dates prescribed by the constitution.
Some people have viewed that we need to suspend the elections altogether and wait till we have a better situation when pandemic has subsided in the country. What is your reaction to that view?
Now, there are two issues involved in this. The first is this: if you look at section 180 of the Constitution, it states that “The President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria can intervene and suspend elections if the country is at war in which the territory of Nigeria is physically invaded.” The president cans suspend the election and then extend the tenure of the incumbent for a period of six months in the first instance. Here, there is a challenge. With this pandemic, can we say that Nigeria is at war? Can we say that the territory of Nigeria has been invaded? Then, we also have section 305 of the Constitution that gives the President and National Assembly the power to declare state of emergency in any state. The provisions of sections 180 and 305 of the Constitution are completely outside the control of the commission. They involve political and legislative actions and the commission has nothing to do with it.
Our position and brief is to conduct and super-intend the elections and Section 178, Sub-section 2 of the Constitution states that we cannot conduct election in Edo State earlier than 150 days and not later than 30 days to the end of tenure of the incumbent holders of the office. These provisions are cast in stone and are unmovable. The day the tenure of the governor of Edo and Ondo states ends, they will vacate the office. They are not submitting any letter of resignation. When the governor and the deputy of each of the states leave the office, there will be a vacuum. And the Constitution has provided who fills the vacuum. So, we don’t want Nigeria to get into a constitution crisis.
And the implication is that we just have to go on with the elections. If we don’t go on, it is outside the control of the commission. It becomes a political matter between the president and members of the National Assembly.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, shouldn’t Nigeria be looking to alternative methods or processes, for instance, electronic voting?
Oh yes! We are looking at that. As I stated, the commission has been thinking ahead and we have been planning ahead. We have variously done pilot electronic collation and transmission of results. But we cannot proceed with the some of these things because they have not been backed by law. We are also concluding arrangements on the use of electronic voting machine for our various elections. This informed the retreat we had in Lagos, in early March, with the Senate Committee on INEC and with House of Representatives Committee on Electoral Matters. Looking at the portions of the law and the Constitution that have to be altered and amended to accommodate the use of electronic voting machine and to alter the legal framework, we are also thinking ahead. We have made very clear for the Nigerian public that the Anambra State governorship election that is coming up in 2021, we are determined to deploy electronic voting machines for the election. And so, we are going to pilot some of our technologies as we go on.
Still, on the voting process, the United States will be going to the poll towards the end of the year and one method that has endured over the years is voting by mail. Any consideration for such?
There are challenges in Nigeria. Electronic voting, voting machines and smart card readers are really not the problem with our electoral process. Even in advanced country like Germany, they still use A4 paper for their voting. Technology will speed up the time we spend at polling units. It will make our voting process more compact and more credible. But technology does not vote in election; it is people that are going to operate the technology. So, what if you deploy electronic voting machine in a polling unit and somebody goes and shoots the machine and scare the voters away? The machine will become redundant, useless. The question is: what do we need to do to get our electoral process back on track? The political must play to the rule of the game. We must understand that sovereignty resides with the people. We must ensure that the people, in themselves, determine who gets elected. Technology will not vote in any election. Impunity must be dealt with. We must clean up our electoral process and our political parties and our political leaders must agree to play by the rules.
What is your advice to politicians and electorate in Edo and Ondo as the elections draw nearer?
I will only say as it has been popularised: “Election no be war.” We must conduct ourselves in a manner that gives credibility to the electoral process and also conduct ourselves in a manner that does not endanger the safety of anybody. Let political parties adopt the new media, new strategies in terms of their rallies and campaigns. The media has been very generous in terms of publicity in these elections. The social media is there, posters, billboards, and son can be utilized so that physical gathering will be reduced to the minimum. Electorate and electoral personnel must wear their facemasks to the polling units. Anybody, who does not wear a facemask, should not come to the polling unit. We are talking about face covering. We advise our people to obey security agencies, election officials on election days so that we can conduct these elections without endangering the health and safety of our people and this is very paramount. As a commission, we are determined to conduct good elections in health and in safety.
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