In this interview with Professor Jideofor Adibe and The News Chronicle (TNC), National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, INEC, Barr. Festus Okoye harped on the commission’s preparation for the November 6 2021 Anambra governorship election.
JA/TNC: Thank you for granting us an audience: First, I will want you to explain to readers INEC’s preparations for the Anambra State governorship election which has been slated for November this year. In particular, I will like you to explain your readiness in terms of voter registration, logistics, voter education, security and protecting the votes.
BFO: Well, you know the Anambra governorship election is one of the off-season elections we have in the country. The tenure of the current governor will expire on the 17th day of March 2022 and by the provision of section 170 subsection 2 of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended, the earliest date we can conduct that particular election is October 18, 2021, and the latest date is February 15, 2022. So it is on this basis that we started preparations early and we have released the timetable and schedule of activities for the election. The primaries for all the political parties will commence on the 8th day of June 2021 and also end on the 1st day of July 2021.
Based on the law and also based on our own processes and procedures we are going to send monitors to go and monitor those primaries as part of our constitutional responsibilities. Also, by the provisions of section 87 of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended), all political parties are required to conduct either direct or indirect party primaries. If you are going to conduct direct party primaries, all registered members of the party are going to vote in the primaries. If you are going to conduct indirect primaries, you are going to base it on a delegate system.
Section 87 of the Electoral Act makes it very clear that only candidates that emerge from valid party primaries are qualified to be submitted to the Commission. What the Commission will do invariably is that after the conduct of these party primary elections, the Commission will give an access code to the national chairman and national secretary of all the parties that conducted primaries, who then will use these access codes to submit the list and particulars of the validly nominated party candidates to the INEC.
As at present that is where we are. So in the coming weeks, we are going to send out monitors to these party primary elections. Most of the parties have given us indications of when they are going to conduct the primaries.
JA/TNC: What of the voter registration- or revalidating the earlier registration, where are we in that exercise?
BFO: This Commission has done what no other Commission has done before. For 25 years the number of polling units in Nigeria remained at 119,973. The last polling units were created in 1996. So for 25 years, we didn’t add even a single polling unit. What this Commission has done was that we decided that it was in the national interest and electoral process and democracy to break the jinx. Based on this expansion, we are going to have additional polling units in Anambra. The state currently has a total number of 5,720 polling units; we are going to add 1,102 polling units.
The next stage of what we are going to do is to conduct continuous voter registration exercise which we have slated to begin on the 28th day of June this year.
We are going to deploy additional registration equipment and extra officials to go and conduct voters’ registration in Anambra.
JA/TNC: You did mention monitoring the party primaries and that most of them are starting around June. We do know about the state of insecurity in the state, in which security agencies and even INEC itself are all targets of those who have come to be known as ‘unknown gunmen’. How feasible do you think these party primaries will be and INEC monitoring in this wave of insecurity? Another thing is that in the current spate of insecurity or what some call the ‘Somalisation of Southeast’, what specific measures are being taken by INEC to ensure that scheduled elections are held and those who go to vote are assured of being protected?
BFO: As you are aware, the office of INEC in Anambra was attacked on the 3rd day of May 2021. In that particular attack, we lost a total of 376 generating set; we also lost 7 utility vehicles and 50% of the non-sensitive materials for the Anambra elections.
Now in the context of the insecurity challenges going on, we have stated that it may be difficult to do the continuous voter registration in the manner we have designed. What is going to happen therefore is that this commission will decide in the next few weeks on the methodology and mechanism for rolling out the CVR.,
1, The first step is that there will be a dedicated online portal where people who are internet savvy, who have laptops and other gadgets can log in and begin their registration. The second stage is that such people can go to our registration centers or local government offices to complete their biometrics.
In terms of the general insecurity we have in Anambra, what we intend to do is to engage all the stakeholders in the place – the political parties, traditional and religious leaders, civil servants and also with the media – and explain to them the importance of the exercise, and, the importance of not disrupting the electoral process because the consequences of such disruptions will be very great.
JA/TNC: So, are we suggesting that INEC is not contemplating rescheduling the primaries, given the state of insecurity in the state?
BFO: No, we are not contemplating shifting the primaries as of now, and no political party has suggested that we should shift the party primaries. Governorship elections are constitutionally circumscribed, and section 178 subsection 2 of the constitution has given a window within which we must conduct the election, and this particular window is fixed, static and cast in stone.
JA/TNC: So even if the insecurity escalates, such that there is a total breakdown of law and order in the Southeast, the election will still go ahead?
BFO: The truth of the matter is that the governor of Anambra State must leave office on the 17th day of March 2022. He does not need any letter of termination to leave office. If for any reason the Commission is unable to conduct the election, there are only 3 possible scenarios available:
The first is, under section 180 subsections 3 of the constitution, the president, acting with the National Assembly, can extend the tenure of an incumbent by 6 months in the first instance if the nation is at war in which the territory of Nigeria is physically attacked.
The second one is for the speaker of the State House of Assembly to take over. The third option is that the president can declare a state of emergency and then through a proclamation decide what will happen.
JA/TNC: The late Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana said “seek ye first the political kingdom and everything else will be added unto you”. Nigerian politicians or Nigerians generally seem to take this literally such that politics becomes anarchical or winner takes it all, in which politics is seen as a major means of prosecution. Based on this, I will like you to rank the challenges facing INEC: we know that in this country there is no institution that is regarded as being truly independent, including the INEC; there also the issue of what some people call ‘stomach infrastructure’ determining how people vote; you also have problems of political thugs, insecurity, compromised INEC officials, judicial rascality (where it is believed that some apparently ‘elected’ governors or members of the legislatures owe their offices to judicial judgments etc.
BFO: One of the things INEC has done is to reduce as much as possible, the human element in the electoral process. That’s why the Commission is deeply committed to using technology in the electoral process. Before now, when political parties complete their primaries, they bring the list of their candidates and their particulars in ‘Ghana must go’, trucks and so forth, flooding the Commission. Sometimes there are scuffles as different levels of the party come with their own list; this Commission has done away with the ghost of that scenario. What we now do is that the moment they complete their primaries, we give them access code, and this code is given only to the national chairman and the national secretary of the political party, who will now upload details of their candidates to a portal dedicated to party nomination processes, so we no longer have any direct contact with the political parties. We set up a helpline, if any of the political parties is having trouble logging in, they call in and we tell them what to do.
The second is that both the media and civil society organizations can now apply for accreditation online so we don’t have any direct contact with them anymore.
The third is to make sure we have INEC result viewing portal. So our officials at polling centers can upload results as they come in, and anyone who logs in online can see the results in real-time. So the issue of changing results from the polling unit to the collation center no longer arises.
Nigerian politicians have their own challenges, sometimes we prepare well, but no matter how you prepare, if the environment at the polling unit is not conducive, there is very little you can do. The do-or-die politics of our political elites in the country also create its own challenges, because we use peoples’ sons and daughters for these elections, and the moment harm befalls them, it creates problems. Another thing is, some of our polling units are in unimaginable places.
JA/TNC: You are a well-respected human rights lawyer before your appointment, and as you are aware I am also a critic of INEC. I recall that we had that Channels TV interview in which I was critical of the conduct of INEC in the 2019 election. I understand that there are security issues that may be beyond your control, but now, what about the internal lapses, like the payment of Corps members, how are you resolving this recurring decimal?
BFO: The Commission has a memorandum of understanding with the NYSC, and what we do is that once we determine the number of people needed for the conduct of election, say in an area, we meet NYSC and harvest the names of the Corps members that are available. We also collect their phone numbers and account numbers, because we don’t handle cash, so once the elections are over, those phone and account numbers are handed over to the appropriate authorities for payment.
But like with other things in this country, some people will be trained for the election, but on Election Day, they may decide to hand over the duty to others, with different names, , so when it’s time for payment, the CBN has names and account numbers that do not match. We have made arrangements with the NYSC directorate that only names of serving Corps members should be given to us, and in a case where it is not enough, we should get the names of those who graduated in not more than a year before.
JA/TNC: People talk about stomach infrastructure and how it undermines politics of principle. From what I have been reading, some people say it is mere economic rationality by voters because after the politicians are voted into office, the voters rarely see them again, n, so the voters want to get what they can at the moment. We had a funny incident in one of the gubernatorial elections where one political party was offering a plate of jollof rice to voters in addition to some cash for those who voted for them and showed them that they did so. When the main rival political party discovered this, it decided to add extra meat to their own offer of jollof rice, another party upped the game by offering more quantity of the jollof rice, two pieces of meat and some cash. What do you think will be a way out of this vote trading?
BFO: As an electoral management body, we have been dealing with these issues. Sometimes people go and vote after which they show their vote to some persons who then pay them.
We even banned the use of cell phones at the voting cubicle but it didn’t work as those involved in the buying and selling of votes changed tactics. There are few saints in the business of buying and selling of votes.
These are very serious issues and I believe a new electoral amendment should address such issues. I believe that the moment people start voting electronically, it will be difficult for vote buyers and sellers to be in business.. Before most of the vote traders were middlemen, but the politicians discovered that what gets to the polling unit for vote-buying is not actually what they have provided, so they decided to take the loot to the polling unit to do business there.
The Commission is working assiduously to make sure that the votes of the people count.