Yes, there are security challenges, but —Okoye, INEC national commissioner

MR Festus Okoye, the national commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) says the commission is focused on its mandate on elections and other related assignments, including the issue of e-voting and schism over the 2023 general election. KUNLE ODEREMI brings some excerpts:

 

To what extent have INEC’s preparations for Anambra State gubernatorial poll progressed, given the seeming distractions everywhere now?     

The commission is progressing well in its preparations for the Anambra State governorship election. As you are aware, on the 19th day of January 2021, it released detailed timetable and schedule of activities for the conduct of the Anambra governorship election scheduled to take place on the 6th of November 2021. The timetable and schedule of Activities are in consonance with extant constitutional provisions and timelines and the commission will stick to and enforce strict observance of the said timelines.  Moreover, the people of Anambra State will have on offer, new Polling Units that will emerge from the current expansion of voter access to Polling Units. New registrants will also have Polling Units that are accessible and closer to them for purposes of registration and voting. As pointed out by the chairman of the commission, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, more registration assets will be deployed to Anambra State to enable all eligible registrants to register, have their Permanent Voter Cards printed and the supplementary register integrated with the permanent voters register before the election. The commission is following its Timelines and Schedule of Activities and some of them are constitutionally and legally circumscribed.

 

If you were to appraise all these activities of the commission, what would you regard as the core challenges so far?    

Every election is a challenge. A state constituency election can pose unimaginable security and administrative challenges. Our main focus as at now is to convert the Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements to full-fledged polling units and take them to unserved and underserved areas.  We believe that the exercise will decongest existing polling units and some will be relocated to more spacious public facilities. Thereafter we will embark on the Continuous Voters Registration Exercise which will commence on the 28th day of June 2021. We appeal to all constitutionally and legally registrable Nigerians to avail themselves of this opportunity. The same thing applies to those that have previous challenges with verification and authentication and those whose Permanent Voter’s Cards are defaced. The Commission will also entertain transfers from one state to the other and from one Local Government to the other. New registrants that are internet savvy can start their registration online and have their biometrics captured in one of the registration centers. We advise the political parties participating in the election to pay close attention to the timetable and schedule of activities and to conduct valid primaries that are in conformity with section 85 and 87 of the Electoral Act.  Political parties must eschew violence and violent conduct and conduct their primaries and activities in a manner that elevates the electoral process and gives confidence to the people that their votes have value and will at all times count.

 

INEC has promised a number of reforms designed to up the ante in the nation’s electoral system. How far has the commission gone in its plan to adopt e-voting for the Anambra gubernatorial poll?   

The commission is committed to deepening the use of technology in the electoral process. As part of this process, political parties now file the list and particulars of their candidates electronically. Domestic election observers and the media apply for accreditation electronically and the commission has been uploading polling unit results in its dedicated INEC Result Viewing Portal. The Commission will continue to innovate on technological solutions that will elevate our electoral process and bring it up to speed with regional and international best practice. The commission is collaborating with the National Assembly in packaging a new electoral legal framework that will get technology entrenched in our electoral process. Moreover, the introduction of electronic voting machines involves appropriation, procurement of hardware and the software required for its operation. It involves training of officials that will operate them and Nigerians that will use them. It is also a matter of common knowledge that the pandemic slowed down production especially in advanced countries and things are just beginning to pick up. The commission will continue with its preparations for the election and will continually update Nigerians relating to new innovations in the electoral process.

 

Is the e-voting model already captured in the nation’s electoral reforms cum enactments?

Section 52(2) of the Electoral Act gives the commission the power to determine the procedure for elections. However, there are so many corresponding provisions of the Act that deals with the step-by-step approach in the voting process and collation of results. For instance, section 49(1) of the Electoral Act provides that “Any person intending to vote with his voter’s card shall present himself to a Presiding Officer at the polling unit in the constituency in which his name is registered with his voter’s card. Section 49(2) further provides that “The Presiding Officer shall, on being satisfied that the name of person is on the Voters Register, issue him a ballot and indicate on the Register that the person has voted”. There are also provisions relating to the display of ballot boxes, issuing of ballot papers, counting of votes and collation of results. The Senate Committee on INEC and the House Committee on Electoral Matters have worked so hard on the Bill to repeal and re-enact the Electoral Act and some of these issues have been extensively provided. There is a certain level of consensus among the critical stakeholders relating to deepening of the use of technology in the electoral process. The commission is proactively engaging the process and will continue to update Nigerians on the progress made so far against the shadow of a pandemic that slowed down production capacities of major manufacturers.

 

With the worsening state of insecurity in the country, including Anambra, how feasible is the November 6, 2021 election?

The mandate of the commission is to organise, undertake and supervise elections and it will continue to do this. It is a constitutional and legal duty and the commission will not shirk or abdicate its constitutional, legal and administrative responsibilities. The choices before us are limited. Section 178(2) of the 1999 Constitution provides that “An election to the office of Governor of a State shall be held on a date not earlier than one hundred and fifty days and not later than thirty days before the expiration of the term of office of the last holder of that office.” So, you can see that the period for the conduct of the election is constitutionally circumscribed and the commission cannot stop its preparations for the election. The task of securing the nation is in the hands of the security agencies and the commission will continue to collaborate with them in the area of election security.

 

As a corollary, there are growing fears in some quarters that the fate of 2023 general election is shaky and uncertain. How real and genuine are those fears? Why such increasing public apprehension? Are those fears not founded, in view of the frightening security situation that almost scuttled the 2015 elections?

The commission is not in the business of speculative deductions. It will remain true and close to its constitutional and legal mandate in terms of organising, undertaking and supervising elections. As I have pointed out, the conduct of elections in Nigeria and the timing of such elections are constitutionality and legally limited and confined and the Commission is obligated to conduct elections within the ambit and parameters of the timeframe and timelines outlined. Let me once again reiterate that it is the task of the security agencies and the political leaders to secure the country. The Nigeria Police is the lead agency in election security and the commission works with them and other security agencies under the aegis of the Inter Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security. We will continue to deepen this collaboration for the good of our people and the electoral process. Yes, there are security challenges in the country and it is a matter of public knowledge. We believe that those that have the primary responsibility of securing the nation will continue to perform their duties. All Nigerians have a responsibility to build a country that works for its citizens.

 

What is required to be done by critical stakeholders, including INEC and the National Assembly to allay the growing public fear and pessimism about 2023 polls?

We will continue to build public trust in the electoral process through comprehensive planning and robust training of our electoral staff. We will continue to deepen the use of technology in the electoral process and enhance the power and prestige of the ballot. Nigerians identify with the modest efforts and achievements of the commission. This is exemplified in the near unanimity of views and opinions on the expansion of voter access to polling units. We assure Nigerians that we shall continue in the trajectory of elevating the electoral process and building the institution of the Commission to withstand the vagaries of the electoral process.

 

What are those electoral reforms that need to be expedited action on towards improving the overall system and why?

The commission and the National Assembly have worked hard on electoral reform matters. We believe that we need urgent constitutional and electoral reforms. We have to break the logjam of uncomfortable convergence of pre- and post-election matters and dispose of pre-election matters before the conduct of elections. The commission is also working with the National Assembly on the creation of an Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal that will have responsibility for the arrest, investigation and prosecution of electoral offenders. The commission is also disposed to the removal of all impediments to the deployment of technology in the electoral process.  The commission must retain the discretion to deploy relevant technology as at and when due. It has also made proposals on breaking the cycle of endless bye-elections that are not a result of death of the incumbent. We have equally made suggestions on a cutoff period for applications by political associations to be registered as political parties and for those that intend to merge.  We believe that they need sufficient time to settle down, build structures, engage in membership drive and bid for political power.

 

Doesn’t INEC have fears over a troubled political environment, especially on the implications for the commission’s workers and ad-hoc staff deployed for the conduct of elections?

The commission will continue to fight for and protect its personnel, including ad-hoc staff deployed for the conduct of elections. Our ad-hoc staff members are not expendable commodities but the sons and daughters of people. The hopes and aspirations of some families lie with some of the ad-hoc staff. Our ad-hoc staff members are trained to be apolitical and should not be targeted and violently attacked. The commission will continue to collaborate with security agencies to protect staff of the commission on electoral duty. The commission will also continue to apply extant provisions of the law in taking such actions as suspending the conduct of elections in places where the safety of electoral staff cannot be guaranteed.

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