We could have done better, if amended Electoral Act was signed into law —Okoye, INEC National Commissioner

Mr Festus Okoye is a National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voters Education Committee of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). In this interview with Senior Deputy Editor, TAIWO AMODU, in Abuja, he appraises the performance of the electoral umpire in the last general election, giving the commission a higher rating, speaking on challenges facing the commission. Excerpts:

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has appraised its performance in the last general election and commended itself as having done well. How do you reconcile that with the litigation trailing the outcome of the entire process?

Well, the conduct of credible elections is a multi-stakeholder venture, involving the electoral management body, in this case, INEC. It involves the security agencies; it involves the political parties; it involves the media, civil societies and organisations. It involves the legislature and also involves the executive branch of government, as well as the judicial arm of government.

It is when these agencies and these organs of government work in harmony that credible elections can be delivered.

So, to that particular extent, we believe that we did well with the 2019 elections.

Now, there are what we call pre-election and post-election matters. The litigation you refer to are mostly pre-election matters. As of today, INEC has 809 pre-election matters and these are the products of opaque party primary elections. Section 87 of the Electoral Act obligates every registered political party wanting to field candidates for elections to conduct direct or indirect party primaries and for you to conduct that direct or indirect primaries also presupposes that you have to have a venue; you have to fix a time, and you also have to fix a date for the same primaries.

Section 87 clearly states in unambiguous terms that the political parties shall only submit the name of the aspirants who scored the highest number of votes in the party primaries as the candidate of the political party.

It is this candidate of the party or it is that aspirant of the party who has won majority of lawful votes in the party primary election that transforms into a candidate whose name shall be submitted to INEC, under Section 31 of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended0.

So, many of the political parties didn’t conduct valid party primary elections.

Second, on January 9, 2018, the INEC released the timetable and schedule of activities for the conduct of the 2019 elections, detailing everything relating to the conduct of party primary elections and also all stages of the elections. Some of the political parties didn’t conduct their party primaries within the time-frame allotted to them under the timetable and schedule of activities of the commission. That’s the reason we have over 809 pre-election matters as of today.

So, these pre-election matters have nothing to do with INEC; it has everything to do with the failure, in some instances, of the political parties to abide by their own party constitution relating to how party primary elections should be conducted. It has everything to do with their failure to abide and recognise the fact that in the conduct of party primary elections, they must conform to Section 87 of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended).

It also has everything to do with the level of impunity exhibited in some of the political parties, where people, who clearly won party primaries, were unconscionably substituted with people who, in some instances, didn’t participate in party primaries; and their names were submitted to INEC as candidates of the political parties.

So, these pre-election matters have really nothing to do with the performance of the INEC, in terms of its mandate of conducting elections.

Now, as of May 22, 2019, the commission has been served with a total of 799 post-election matters. These are matters that are before the various election petitions tribunals, and in most of these matters, the INEC is just a respondent. Some of the matters have to do with the qualification of candidates; whether the candidate that was sponsored by a particular political party had the requisite educational qualifications to contest election. That has nothing to do with whether INEC did well or not in the conduct of elections. Some of the matters deal with whether INEC conducted genuine elections, whether the proper political parties were those that were returned in the elections.

Some of them also have something to do with whether officials of the commission that conducted elections were intimidated; whether the security agencies compromised the elections. It is a combination of all these that has led to the combination of 799 post-election matters that we have in courts.

Now, as a commission, we believe that we have done well in the conduct of the elections. But the law also recognises the fact that INEC is a human institution and that in our desire, in our determination to conduct credible elections, something might go wrong and when something goes wrong, the framers of our constitution and framers of our laws have provided remedies for people who are aggrieved to go and ventilate their grievances and that is why we have election petitions tribunals established for the purpose of people ventilating their grievances in order for them not to engage in self help.

So, I believe that we did well with the elections. There is still room for improvement; we have learnt some requisite lessons and in the next few weeks, we are going to engage our electoral officers, our collation officers, our heads of departments in various states and the Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) in series of retreats, so that we can properly situate our conduct, our performance and evaluate what we did during the 2019 elections and spell out where we recorded successes, where we didn’t do well or where we failed completely; and the mechanisms of how we can prevent future occurrence.

We are also going to engage civil society groups and organisations; we are going to engage the political parties; we are going to engage security agencies; we are going to engage the media and all the critical stakeholders in the electoral process and also get feedback from them on how we performed during the elections. We will also evaluate how we can make things right, so that at the end of the day, the Nigerian people will be the major beneficiary of good elections.

But we aren’t saying that all went well; what we are saying is that given the context in which we operated, given the challenges we had, given what was available to us at that material time, we did well; that we could have done much better than we did and that is why we are trying to engage in these series of retreats.

 

Using your own words, “we could have done much better than we did,” if you look at post-election matters, where INEC was accused of having connived to rig elections, do you think the narratives could  have been different and the litigation reduced, if President Muhammadu Buhari had assented to the amended Electoral Act?

My position and our position is that one, the INEC is a creation of the constitution; the INEC doesn’t have legislative powers. The power to make laws for the federation is exclusively reserved for the National Assembly and the Presidency. So, the INEC works with what we call the existing laws as of the date of the conduct of election. And the existing law as of the date of the conduct of elections was sufficient to enable the INEC, all the political parties and all other stakeholders to have a good election.

I completely agree that if the amended Electoral Act had been signed into law, it could have strengthened the hands of the commission in the conduct of good elections. But the biggest challenge in the conduct of elections in this country isn’t the law; it has nothing to do with the law. The biggest challenge we have resides with the refusal of the political elites to accept the consent of one man, one vote; one woman, one vote and one youth, one vote.

The second challenge has something to do with the trust deficit in our elections. We don’t trust the process and because we don’t trust the process, we look for ways and means of undermining it.

I will give you an example. For the 2019 elections, the INEC recruited over a million ad-hoc staff to conduct this particular election, because for each polling unit, we have, at least, four ad-hoc staff conducting the elections and we have 120,000 polling units in the country. We also created so many voting points.

Now, for the voting points that we also created, we had to also post ad-hoc staff to those polling points. We also had 8,809 registration areas. For the registration areas, we had to recruit two collation officers per registration area for the presidential election. One collation officer collated presidential election results, while the other one collated senatorial and House of Representatives election results.

We also recruited two collation officers each for the 774 local government areas in Nigeria. So, these are the quantum of collation officers we used. Some of these collation officers were recruited from federal tertiary institutions. The challenge we had was that the politicians now know where we sourced our ad-hoc staff from and where we sourced our collation officers from. They moved ahead of us and went into some of these federal institutions to go and compromise some of our collation officers and, in some instances, they also compromised some of the presiding officers and other ad-hoc staff. And that created some of these logjams we had in some of the states.

But other than that, I believe that the number of political parties we have in the country also contributed to the challenges we had. There are 91 political parties and 73 of these political parties fielded candidates for the presidential election. That increased the quantum of time people spent at the polling units and also created problem in filling the ballot papers and form EC8A, the result sheets.

 

Is that not an indictment of INEC? You knew there could be logistic problems and you registered that unwieldy number of parties. Isn’t it?

No! It isn’t an indictment of the commission. The responsibility of INEC is to pay attention to the intendment of the law. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria obligates the INEC to register any association that meets the condition prescribes in the constitution. And if you look at the constitution, the only tough condition for being a political party is the condition that says that a political association wanting to be registered must have an office in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). That’s the only tough condition. Every other thing is paper work. So, a political association can put in its documents today and after 30 days, it isn’t registered, it is automatically deemed registered. And if we refuse to register, we have to give conditions why we aren’t registering. And if a political association has met those conditions, it will simply go to court and insist that it ought to be registered and that is exactly what is going on.

So, we register political parties that meet the conditions prescribed by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The flip side of it is that if Nigerians aren’t happy with the number of political parties we have, the logical sequence, logical outcome and logical thing to do will be to go back to the National Assembly and  insist on a constitutional alteration that tightens the conditions for the registration of political parties, other than the conditions we have and I am telling you that as of today, the commission has over 200 requests for the registration of additional political parties. And if those political associations meet the constitutional requirements, we are under a constitutional obligation to register them. So, the number of political parties will keep on increasing in this country.

 

You are painting a picture of helplessness on the part of your commission, giving the constitution as your encumbrance. But we are aware of the fact that you have a regulatory role over these parties, to ensure that they keep to terms and conditions of their existence as political parties. Is that not true?

Yes, that is true.

 

We have parties that don’t have visible national secretariat, substantive National Working Committee (NWC); no access to audit of their accounts. But you only complain. Is it that you can only bark and not bite?

The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria didn’t prescribe the type of office a political party must have, in order to be registered. So, a political party may rent a duplex as its national secretariat, a political party may rent a bungalow as its national secretariat, a political party may rent a room and parlour as its national secretariat!

The constitution didn’t prescribe where the party secretariat should be located within the FCT.  So, you can locate it in Maitama, you can locate it in Asokoro, you can locate it in Kuje, you can locate it in Gwagwalada, so far as it is in the FCT, Abuja. So, these are parts of the issues.

Now, every registered political party must submit its constitution and its guiding principles to the commission and it is in those guiding principles that the period for the election of members of the NWC are prescribed. The only thing the law says is that every registered political party must, at least, have democratically elected structures within four years. So, a political party that has operated within a period of four years has operated for a long time. I think that while some of the political parties haven’t done well, in terms of keeping to some of the requirements for their registration, I want to say that if the conditions for the de- registration of political parties is so ambiguous that in concrete terms, it is very difficult to deregister a political party and even if you deregister a party today, the party can still reapply and become a political party within a period of 30 days. So, it is just a cyclical venture that isn’t dignifying to the electoral process at all.

 

Moving forward, how do we instill sanity and ensure that they keep to the rules?

One of the things we have said is that the Nigerian people need to engage in a big national conversation on whether we need the number of political parties in existence as of today; second, whether we need new conditions for party registration, other than what has been prescribed in the constitution. This is because constitutionally, the main role of a registered political party is to sponsor candidates for elections. So, the moment a political party is unable to or ceases to sponsor candidates for elections, it ceases to be a political party and relegates itself to a political association.

Third, if 40 political parties would come together to adopt a candidate of another political  party for an election, the implication is that they have realised that their ideology, their modus operandi and their principles accord with another political party’s. So, the question will be, why are you still existing? Why can’t you merge with that particular political party that you agree with? So, I think that we shouldn’t just keep political parties as a thing to fall back on or as a backup, because it seems to me as if some persons in the big political parties also register political parties as a backup, in case there is a problem, they could use that particular political party as another platform, or as a vehicle to still get to power. And that doesn’t augur well for the growth of our electoral process and our democracy.

What this country needs are political parties that are well-structured political parties that can vie for political power and political parties that are based on solid ideology with the requisite national presence and spread that the people can identify with. It doesn’t make sense for the Nigerian people, as of today, to go to the polling units and still can’t identify the logo of their political parties. It means that some of the political parties are really not doing what they are supposed to do and not canvassing for votes the way they ought to.

 

The INEC chairman has consistently expressed concern over vote buying. Why is it so difficult a menace to tackle?

You know vote buying takes different forms and has different varieties. Sometimes, vote buying occurs even before election day. You may have a situation where a particular political party, a particular candidate or a particular individual goes about in different communities distributing bags of rice, distributing other food items, so on and so forth. It is a form of inducement. Sometimes, you also have a situation where certain individuals, certain political parties and certain candidates go and buy up the voters cards of people to prevent them from voting because the party or the candidate perceived that a particular place isn’t his or her stronghold and that if there is less voter turn-out in a particular place and there is high voter turnout in another place, that favours him or her. So, the individual buys up the voter cards from those places.

There is also voter inducement that takes place in a very weird manner. Some of these people do that on election day. If the national commissioners are 12 in number, plus the chairman, making 13, and then, we are deploying over a million ad-hoc staff, it is next to impossibility to police or know what this one million ad-hoc staff are doing. We also give them oath of secrecy to swear to; we give them oath of allegiance and so on, but sometimes, some of these aren’t adhered to.

So, some of the political actors also go and induce staff of the commission. Some of them carry money to the polling units and distribute to voters. Some of them do it outside the polling units and still induce the voters. So, there are willing buyers and there are willing sellers in the electoral process.

The commission has tried to reconfigure and rejig the structure of the polling units to make for more secrecy, in terms of the voting process. It has worked in some instances; it hasn’t worked in others. We have also insisted that voters shouldn’t go into the voting cubicle with their smart phones, in order to snap their ballot papers. Sometimes, some of these things need enforcement.

If a presiding officer doesn’t enforce it, it won’t work; if the security agencies that are at the polling units don’t enforce it, it won’t work. We have also tried to work with security agencies to make sure that plain-clothe security operatives are posted to the polling units to prevent vote buying, but in a situation where the security agencies are also willing to be compromised, it creates its own challenges.

So, there are various serious problems with stopping the menace of vote buying. But the issue is: Who are the vote buyers? It is the political parties; the candidates and their supporters. So, if the political parties don’t go to induce voters, the issue of vote buying won’t even be in place. It is a multi-stakeholder venture. All of us must agree that it undermines the electoral process; it undermines the sovereign will of the people; it undermines the people’s free choice and the secrecy of the votes.

 

You have identified distrust towards INEC as part of the challenges facing your commission. Why do you think the main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is always cynical towards the motives and intention of the electoral umpire?

I think that both the PDP and the APC had, at one time or the other, accused the INEC of working for the other one. The APC had accused the commission of working for the PDP and the PDP had accused it of working for the APC. And I believe that all these accusations are coming from these big political parties, because they know that we are doing the right thing.

We have done things that nobody expected us to do and what I think is that the big two political parties should be honest with themselves. When we do well, even if it is against them, let them acknowledge the fact that the commission has done well, when we do the ‘wrong’ things, let the political parties, whether they are in PDP or APC, point out that the commission hasn’t done well, whether it is in their interest or against their interest. I think that is where we should stand.

In relation to Zamfara, from the beginning, the commission had written to the APC, telling it that since it didn’t conduct primaries known to law, the commission didn’t expect it to forward a list of candidates for the elections. It was the decision of the commission that was challenged in court up to the Supreme Court and that was what led to the verdict of the Supreme Court; and that was how the PDP came to power today. The PDP hasn’t congratulated the commission for standing on the constitution, for standing on the rule of law and for making sure that the right thing was done.

When the commission does well, every registered political party should say that it has done well. We have withdrawn certificates from certain political parties and handed them over to other political parties. They should also acknowledge that we had done what was right.

So, I think that all these accusations are just based on the fact that when a political party wins, the rule of law has been complied with, when the thing goes against it, that means INEC has been compromised. We don’t believe in that. Here, we believe that it is between us and God. We have sworn to do what is right, within the limits of our own abilities; within the limits of our own power and I believe that given the context, the landscape and the cynicism of the Nigerian political elite, and given their penchant for cutting corners, we have done well with the electoral process. Some of them didn’t believe that we were going to implement to the letter, the decision and judgment of the Supreme Court. And when we did, they just hid their heads in the mud.

 

There was an incident that confounded Nigerians on the eve of last election and that was the sighting of bullion vans at the Ikoyi residence of a leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Senator Bola Tinubu. INEC was silent on it, leaving Nigerians to conclude that you are only after the small fries when you raise the alarm over vote buying. What is your take?

The INEC is a creation of the constitution and the law. There is no section of the constitution and there is no section of the Electoral Act that gives INEC the power of arrest. There is no section of the constitution and there is no section of the law that gives the commission the power of investigation. These powers are given to different agencies; the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) has the power; the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has the powers; the police have the power to do some of these things. The only thing the law has given to the commission is the power to prosecute.

So, if nobody is arrested and nobody is investigated, we can’t prosecute. The power of arrest and the power of investigation are completely outside the purview of the commission; completely outside our control and we can’t really do anything about it. We cannot, on the basis of newspaper reports or on the basis of speculations or rumours, assume power that hasn’t been donated to us and then, we go to exercise those powers. That will be arbitrariness and this commission is a creation of the constitution and the law and we believe in the rule of law.

 

Finally, the INEC chairman did say, when the election timetable was adjusted, that there was need for the unbundling of the commission. But people are cynical that you aren’t willing to walk that talk, because there are functions you don’t want to divest. What is your take? Is INEC’s call for decentralisation sincere?

No member of the commission has legislative powers. If today, the National Assembly and the Presidency pass a law, or the National Assembly passes a law and the president assents to it that the only work the INEC would do for now is voter registration, of course, we don’t have the power to say no.

If you say no, you resign and go and face some other challenges. So, I believe that the political parties, the National Assembly, the executive and the other stakeholders should lead the way, in terms of looking at the powers of the commission as dictated to it by the constitution, to see whether there are one or two things that can be removed from the commission, in order to make it more effective. But even the one we say they should remove hasn’t been removed. How is that our problem? You say we are overburdened; why not take this and give to someone else; a different commission or a different agency. It has been in the works for a long time and nobody has done that. So, we don’t have any vested interest in amassing powers; our interest is to see in what ways and what means we can conduct credible elections.

I was a member of the electoral reform committee set up by the late former President Umaru Yar’Adua in 2007, headed by Justice Mohammed Uwais and I was part of all those recommendations. I was also a member of the National Conference set up by former President Goodluck Jonathan and I was in the Political Parties and Electoral Matters Committee. Even in that committee, we did recommend that we should have what is called ‘Political Parties and Electoral Offences Commission’ as one entity to deal with the issue of registration and regulations of political parties and also deal with the issue of electoral offences. We made that particular recommendation and it went to the National Assembly.

So, the commission has no interest in amassing powers. Any law that is amended, in relation to INEC, we work within the confines and ambit of that existing constitution and existing law and we proceed. Our vision and determination is to conduct credible elections that Nigerians will be proud of and that’s the only thing we are interested in.

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