We will not allow any group to subvert process —Okoye, INEC chief

Ahead the forthcoming governorship elections in Edo and Ondo States fixed for September and October, respectively, the National Commissioner and Chairman Voters Education Committee of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Mr Festus Okoye, speaks on threats of violence and incendiary remarks by political actors in the affected states which he noted could undermine peaceful conduct of polls in the two states and how INEC can chekmate the politicians with Deputy Group Politics Editor, TAIWO AMODU.

 

Can we have an update on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)’s preparations ahead of Edo and Ondo states governorship elections?

The commission is proceeding courageously and cautiously with its preparations for the conduct of Edo and Ondo governorship elections.

All the non-sensitive materials required for both elections have been delivered to the states. The training of Electoral Officers and Assistant Electoral Officers has been concluded. We have trained the trainers that will in turn train the Presiding Officers and Collation Officers and this is in compliance with our timeline.

We have also commenced the cascade training of election security personnel for the Edo governorship election and held methodology workshop on Election Violence Mitigation and Advocacy Tool. These trainings are done physically and virtually taking into consideration the global pandemic and the need to comply with all the health and safety protocols in place.

To deepen the use of technology in the electoral process, the commission deployed a dedicated portal for online submission of nomination forms by political parties. The parties in the Edo and Ondo Governorship elections used the portal to file their nominations. Civil society groups have also used the Commissions online portal to file applications for accreditation and the online portal for media accreditation will be deployed at least a month before the Edo governorship election.

Since the political parties in both states have commenced their campaigns, I think it is important to emphasise that the commission is closely monitoring and documenting the issues in the campaigns and no individual or political party is allowed to use abusive, intemperate or base language or insinuations designed to provoke violent reactions. Political parties are aware and we once again remind them that they are not allowed or permitted to arm individuals or groups to use offensive weapons or missiles at political rallies and processions.

 

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, what will the commission be doing differently this time round in the two states?

The commission is deepening the use of technology in the electoral process and this is in consonance with our resolve to limit human interface and involvement in the management of elections and the transmission of results. We are deploying non-pharmaceutical and pharmaceutical interventions in the elections and this is new to the commission but we are facing the challenge squarely.

We have created a two-tier queuing system in the polling units and its practical application will be demonstrated during the Nasarawa Central state constituency election on 8 August. Physical distancing will be emphasised and observed during the election. We have made it clear that only those with face covering will be allowed to vote in the elections. We are also providing face masks, hand sanitisers and methylated spirit for the smart card readers of the Commission. These elections are taking place at a period of global pandemic and all political actors must assist in making sure that the health of the people is not in any way jeopardised.

More fundamentally, in furtherance of its efforts to deploy technology to deepen the transparency of elections in Nigeria, the commission is introducing a dedicated portal that will enable Nigerians to view polling unit results real time as the voting ends on election day.

Although the current electoral law does not permit the commission to electronically collate and transmit results for the purpose of declaration of winners in any election, the posting of Form EC8A (Polling Unit results) for public information will increase transparency and consequently public confidence in the electoral process. This innovation will commence with the bye-election in Nasarawa State. Thereafter, it will be extended to the Edo and Ondo governorship elections as well as all subsequent elections.

 

What are the fresh challenges you are having?

We are operating in a very uncertain environment accentuated by fear and anxiety. Some Nigerians have been canvassing the postponement of elections on the basis of the global pandemic.

Unfortunately, the two ends of tenure elections are circumscribed by section 178(2) of the Nigerian Constitution and have strict and immovable timelines that must be complied with. So, the commission cannot abridge, change or in any way tamper with the timelines embedded in the constitution. We have, therefore, accepted the reality that the elections must proceed as scheduled and are determined to deliver free and transparent elections.

The commission generates its own electricity as most of the registration area centres have no light and the commission has to buy generators to provide light in these centres. The commission provides its own water as it has to buy GP tanks for its Registration Area and Collation Centres. Now the Commission is forced to provide pharmaceutical interventions on the basis of the global pandemic. But that is the reality of the situation and we cannot abdicate on the basis of difficulties and challenges.

We are creatively innovating and learning as we progress. The saving grace is that the commission has been proactive in responding to the pandemic and this led to the policy on conducting elections within the context of the pandemic. We have also rolled out Supplementary Regulations and Guidelines for the Conduct of Elections, Political Party Activities, Election Observations and Media Accreditation. The commission capped this with the Code of Conduct for Security Personnel on Electoral Duty. We recognise our challenges and are determined to surmount them.

The commission has said it expects campaigns by candidates to be issues based.  But what we are getting from Edo gives cause for concern. It has been threat of violence from the ruling and the main opposition party.

 

Is there nothing INEC can do beyond mere appeal to whip them back to line?

We have made it clear to the political parties and the candidates that the commission will not allow them to create an atmosphere of fear, silence and mayhem. We have drawn their attention to the strict timelines in the Constitution relating to the conduct of end of tenure elections and the danger of constitutional logjam if there is threat of or actual breakdown of law and order.

The election is about the people of Edo State and making their votes to count. The election is not anchored on the desperation of political parties and their candidates. The election is about keeping the people engaged in the electoral process and allowing them to exercise their sovereign democratic right of choosing those that will govern them.

Individuals and groups will not be allowed to subvert this democratic right.

It will amount to regulatory cowardice to allow political parties and their candidates to hold the electoral process to ransom. It will be unconscionable for the commission to deploy young men and women to a war zone to participate in low intensity warfare in the guise of elections. No form of insurance cover or compensation can replace human life. Therefore, the commission will scale up its stakeholder engagement and impress on the parties and the candidates the need to conduct issue-based campaigns and step back from inflammatory rhetoric and incendiary comments with the potential to create fear, tension and anxiety.

The political parties must not test the resolve of the commission in these end of tenure elections. The commission will not proceed with any election in the face of cogent and verifiable reason of threat to or actual breakdown of law and order. The commission will also suspend the conduct of elections or the announcement of results in the face of threats or actual threats. The choices are clear and any disruption of the process will be a recipe for constitutional crisis.

 

The commission has said votes or entire election could be cancelled if violence marred the processes. In Edo state, the PDP has since faulted INEC declaration.  It argued that a party that knew it was about to lose could instigate violence to frustrate or spoil the joy of the winning party. What is your take?

The commission will not share with or consult any political party before exercising its regulatory powers. The primary determination of what constitutes serious breach of the peace or whether same is likely to occur resides with the commission and this can only be made based on cogent and verifiable reasons.

Political parties must commit to free and fair elections as the commission is documenting serial infractions to the law and the Constitution and will not hesitate to impose sanctions or abdicate its responsibility of enthroning clean elections in the polity.

We still insist that the National Assembly should pass the Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal Bill that will enable the creation of an independent commission that can handle arrest, investigation and prosecution for electoral offences. We must break the cycle of impunity to restore sanity in the electoral process.

 

In every election even before the last general election, you have always cautioned against vote buying, but desperate politicians aren’t relenting.  What will you be doing differently to checkmate vote buying?

In vote buying, there is a willing seller and a willing buyer. The buyer may cash in on the poverty of our people or the greed of some people. Some people may also sell their votes based on their assessment of their place and role in a democracy. More fundamentally, it is against the law to induce or influence voters to vote or refrain from voting. We have recalibrated the polling units to provide for additional secrecy for the voters. It is still illegal to go into the polling cubicle with a mobile phone. We shall continue to work with the security agencies to arrest any individual that desecrates the sanctity of the polling units.

 

Finally, the number of political parties fielding candidates in both states, to the average Nigerian, appears too unwieldy. As the National Assembly sets machinery in motion for Constitution amendment, what will INEC be asking for: Two party system or the status quo of multi party democracy?

Our duty and responsibility are to organise, undertake and supervise elections. The conditions for the registration of political parties have been laid down in Sections 221-229 of the Nigerian Constitution as well as in Sections 78-83 of the Electoral Act, 2010(as amended).

The commission is under a constitutional and statutory obligation to register any association that meets the constitutional and statutory threshold for registration. It is not the responsibility of the commission to use administrative discretionary powers to increase or peg the number of political parties in Nigeria. That is the responsibility of the Nigerian people and the National Assembly and the commission will not usurp these powers.

However, Section 225A of the Constitution gives the commission the power to deregister a political party that falls off the constitutional window for continued existence. We have exercised this power and will continue to exercise it. So, the commission is not making any recommendation relating to the number of political parties in Nigeria. The Nigerian people through their elected representatives should determine the number of parties that should exist.

The chairman of the commission, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, will lead a delegation of the commission to the public hearing to be convened by the National Assembly and will unveil the bold and forward-looking innovations proposed by the commission for the purpose of constitutional alteration and amendment of the Electoral Act. We want to stop deregistration recidivism and the exploitation of liberal registration procedures to further personal and commercial interests.

Can we have an update on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)’s preparations ahead of Edo and Ondo states governorship elections?

The commission is proceeding courageously and cautiously with its preparations for the conduct of Edo and Ondo governorship elections.

All the non-sensitive materials required for both elections have been delivered to the states. The training of Electoral Officers and Assistant Electoral Officers has been concluded. We have trained the trainers that will in turn train the Presiding Officers and Collation Officers and this is in compliance with our timeline.

We have also commenced the cascade training of election security personnel for the Edo governorship election and held methodology workshop on Election Violence Mitigation and Advocacy Tool. These trainings are done physically and virtually taking into consideration the global pandemic and the need to comply with all the health and safety protocols in place.

To deepen the use of technology in the electoral process, the commission deployed a dedicated portal for online submission of nomination forms by political parties. The parties in the Edo and Ondo Governorship elections used the portal to file their nominations. Civil society groups have also used the Commissions online portal to file applications for accreditation and the online portal for media accreditation will be deployed at least a month before the Edo governorship election.

Since the political parties in both states have commenced their campaigns, I think it is important to emphasise that the commission is closely monitoring and documenting the issues in the campaigns and no individual or political party is allowed to use abusive, intemperate or base language or insinuations designed to provoke violent reactions. Political parties are aware and we once again remind them that they are not allowed or permitted to arm individuals or groups to use offensive weapons or missiles at political rallies and processions.

 

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, what will the commission be doing differently this time round in the two states?

The commission is deepening the use of technology in the electoral process and this is in consonance with our resolve to limit human interface and involvement in the management of elections and the transmission of results. We are deploying non-pharmaceutical and pharmaceutical interventions in the elections and this is new to the commission but we are facing the challenge squarely.

We have created a two-tier queuing system in the polling units and its practical application will be demonstrated during the Nasarawa Central state constituency election on 8 August. Physical distancing will be emphasised and observed during the election. We have made it clear that only those with face covering will be allowed to vote in the elections. We are also providing face masks, hand sanitisers and methylated spirit for the smart card readers of the Commission. These elections are taking place at a period of global pandemic and all political actors must assist in making sure that the health of the people is not in any way jeopardised.

More fundamentally, in furtherance of its efforts to deploy technology to deepen the transparency of elections in Nigeria, the commission is introducing a dedicated portal that will enable Nigerians to view polling unit results real time as the voting ends on election day.

Although the current electoral law does not permit the commission to electronically collate and transmit results for the purpose of declaration of winners in any election, the posting of Form EC8A (Polling Unit results) for public information will increase transparency and consequently public confidence in the electoral process. This innovation will commence with the bye-election in Nasarawa State. Thereafter, it will be extended to the Edo and Ondo governorship elections as well as all subsequent elections.

 

What are the fresh challenges you are having?

We are operating in a very uncertain environment accentuated by fear and anxiety. Some Nigerians have been canvassing the postponement of elections on the basis of the global pandemic.

Unfortunately, the two ends of tenure elections are circumscribed by section 178(2) of the Nigerian Constitution and have strict and immovable timelines that must be complied with. So, the commission cannot abridge, change or in any way tamper with the timelines embedded in the constitution. We have, therefore, accepted the reality that the elections must proceed as scheduled and are determined to deliver free and transparent elections.

The commission generates its own electricity as most of the registration area centres have no light and the commission has to buy generators to provide light in these centres. The commission provides its own water as it has to buy GP tanks for its Registration Area and Collation Centres. Now the Commission is forced to provide pharmaceutical interventions on the basis of the global pandemic. But that is the reality of the situation and we cannot abdicate on the basis of difficulties and challenges.

We are creatively innovating and learning as we progress. The saving grace is that the commission has been proactive in responding to the pandemic and this led to the policy on conducting elections within the context of the pandemic. We have also rolled out Supplementary Regulations and Guidelines for the Conduct of Elections, Political Party Activities, Election Observations and Media Accreditation. The commission capped this with the Code of Conduct for Security Personnel on Electoral Duty. We recognise our challenges and are determined to surmount them.

The commission has said it expects campaigns by candidates to be issues based.  But what we are getting from Edo gives cause for concern. It has been threat of violence from the ruling and the main opposition party.

 

Is there nothing INEC can do beyond mere appeal to whip them back to line?

We have made it clear to the political parties and the candidates that the commission will not allow them to create an atmosphere of fear, silence and mayhem. We have drawn their attention to the strict timelines in the Constitution relating to the conduct of end of tenure elections and the danger of constitutional logjam if there is threat of or actual breakdown of law and order.

The election is about the people of Edo State and making their votes to count. The election is not anchored on the desperation of political parties and their candidates. The election is about keeping the people engaged in the electoral process and allowing them to exercise their sovereign democratic right of choosing those that will govern them.

Individuals and groups will not be allowed to subvert this democratic right.

It will amount to regulatory cowardice to allow political parties and their candidates to hold the electoral process to ransom. It will be unconscionable for the commission to deploy young men and women to a war zone to participate in low intensity warfare in the guise of elections. No form of insurance cover or compensation can replace human life. Therefore, the commission will scale up its stakeholder engagement and impress on the parties and the candidates the need to conduct issue-based campaigns and step back from inflammatory rhetoric and incendiary comments with the potential to create fear, tension and anxiety.

The political parties must not test the resolve of the commission in these end of tenure elections. The commission will not proceed with any election in the face of cogent and verifiable reason of threat to or actual breakdown of law and order. The commission will also suspend the conduct of elections or the announcement of results in the face of threats or actual threats. The choices are clear and any disruption of the process will be a recipe for constitutional crisis.

 

The commission has said votes or entire election could be cancelled if violence marred the processes. In Edo state, the PDP has since faulted INEC declaration.  It argued that a party that knew it was about to lose could instigate violence to frustrate or spoil the joy of the winning party. What is your take?

The commission will not share with or consult any political party before exercising its regulatory powers. The primary determination of what constitutes serious breach of the peace or whether same is likely to occur resides with the commission and this can only be made based on cogent and verifiable reasons.

Political parties must commit to free and fair elections as the commission is documenting serial infractions to the law and the Constitution and will not hesitate to impose sanctions or abdicate its responsibility of enthroning clean elections in the polity.

We still insist that the National Assembly should pass the Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal Bill that will enable the creation of an independent commission that can handle arrest, investigation and prosecution for electoral offences. We must break the cycle of impunity to restore sanity in the electoral process.

 

In every election even before the last general election, you have always cautioned against vote buying, but desperate politicians aren’t relenting.  What will you be doing differently to checkmate vote buying?

In vote buying, there is a willing seller and a willing buyer. The buyer may cash in on the poverty of our people or the greed of some people. Some people may also sell their votes based on their assessment of their place and role in a democracy. More fundamentally, it is against the law to induce or influence voters to vote or refrain from voting. We have recalibrated the polling units to provide for additional secrecy for the voters. It is still illegal to go into the polling cubicle with a mobile phone. We shall continue to work with the security agencies to arrest any individual that desecrates the sanctity of the polling units.

 

Finally, the number of political parties fielding candidates in both states, to the average Nigerian, appears too unwieldy. As the National Assembly sets machinery in motion for Constitution amendment, what will INEC be asking for: Two party system or the status quo of multi party democracy?

Our duty and responsibility are to organise, undertake and supervise elections. The conditions for the registration of political parties have been laid down in Sections 221-229 of the Nigerian Constitution as well as in Sections 78-83 of the Electoral Act, 2010(as amended).

The commission is under a constitutional and statutory obligation to register any association that meets the constitutional and statutory threshold for registration. It is not the responsibility of the commission to use administrative discretionary powers to increase or peg the number of political parties in Nigeria. That is the responsibility of the Nigerian people and the National Assembly and the commission will not usurp these powers.

However, Section 225A of the Constitution gives the commission the power to deregister a political party that falls off the constitutional window for continued existence. We have exercised this power and will continue to exercise it. So, the commission is not making any recommendation relating to the number of political parties in Nigeria. The Nigerian people through their elected representatives should determine the number of parties that should exist.

The chairman of the commission, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, will lead a delegation of the commission to the public hearing to be convened by the National Assembly and will unveil the bold and forward-looking innovations proposed by the commission for the purpose of constitutional alteration and amendment of the Electoral Act. We want to stop deregistration recidivism and the exploitation of liberal registration procedures to further personal and commercial interests.

 

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