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2023: INEC in Eye of The Storm

Mahmood Carricature
THEWILL APP ADS 2

…Chairman Assures on Credible Polls

…Dismisses Allegations of Underage Voting in North

…Says New Biometric ID System Prevents Identity Theft

…Attitude of Politicians, Poverty, Major Headache to Conducting Successful Polls

September 18, (THEWILL) – In 10 days, all eyes of the estimated 95 million voters in Nigeria, including 28 state governors and their deputies, 109 senatorial candidates, 230 House of Representatives candidates and 993 state assembly candidates, would focus on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) after it might have officially announced the kick-off of electioneering campaigns on September 28, 2022.

Before that date, on Tuesday, September 20, 2022, INEC will publish the final list of candidates for the presidential and national assembly elections, to be followed on October 4, 2022 by the list of candidates for the state assembly election.

In an apparent dress-rehearsal as the D-day approaches, Nigerians from many walks of life are knocking the Commission and calling to question its preparedness to deliver free, fair, transparent and verifiable polls in 2023.

In the last few days, many Nigerians have been worried about certain governance and management issues, such as the possible hacking of the Commission’s server facilitated by ‘insiders’, the alleged inclusion of millions of fake voters on its register, political implication of appointing politicians from the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) as Resident Electoral Commissioners by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Responding to the mounting fear over INEC’s capacity to deliver a credible election in 2023, the Chairman of the commission, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, contextualised the worry on the role that elections play in the lives of Nigerians.

“The importance of elections in Nigeria is not difficult to understand,” Prof Yakubu said last Friday in Lagos, adding, “The lives and livelihood of 200 million Nigerians will be impacted upon for better or for worse, and whether it is for better or for worse is a decision that will have to be made by Nigerians in 2023.”

Prof Yakubu, who was a guest at a media dialogue hosted by the Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE), expressed understanding about worries being expressed by Nigerians over INEC’s commitment, just as he elaborated on its preparations and challenges ahead of the upcoming elections.

FEARS OF NIGERIANS

Prof Yakubu Ochefu, who is one of those commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to write a position paper on the electoral management body for the retired Chief Justice Mohammed Uwais Commission on Electoral Reforms in 2009, said the public fears over INEC’s capacity to deliver a free and fair poll has a historical root, right from 1955 when the first electoral commission was formed to the present.

THEWILL recalled that late President Umaru Musa Yar’ Ardua, who confessed that the 2007 election that he won was flawed, had set up the Justice Uwais Commission to make recommendations on a clean electoral system that would guarantee the future conduct of free, fair and credible polls.

However, Prof Ochefu told THEWILL last Friday, “From historical data at my disposal, there has not been any point in time when our electoral system did not have credibility questions because he who pays the piper dictates the tune. One of the consistent issues we found in our research was credibility problems. It was clear that our electoral management system was affected by how the officials were recruited. It is almost like what obtains with our state electoral system, where there is no independence and no transparency. That is why the opposition parties always express fears about credible polls because the electoral bodies are not independent as they claim. The officials owe allegiance to the powers that be.”

He nonetheless thinks that correct use of technology in the electoral process can bring in some transparency into the system and improve the conduct of elections.

WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?

Two primary incidents occurred last week to give credence to some of these governance, legal and management allegations being made against INEC. First is the allegation by the Coalition of United Political Party, that the voter register for the 2023 polls is not authentic because fake names have been uploaded in the register.

CUPP alleged that the governing APC was planning to remove the INEC Chairman to pave the way to rig the 2023 polls.

Responding swiftly, INEC debunked the allegation and warned the group to desist from making statements that fan the embers of public mistrust.

Second was an attempt by a lawyer to institute a suit at the Federal High Court in Owerri, the Imo State capital. The suit, with No. HOW/OW/CS/144/2022, between Nwankwere Morale Chinwe Vs Independent National Electoral Commission and 1 ANOR, was to stop the defendants from deploying the Bimodal Voter Registration System, BVAS, AS in the conduct of the 2023 general election, in violation of section 50 (2), 60 and 62 of the Electoral Act, 2022.

Coupled with the appointments of the four ‘political RECs’, which further raised public doubts in the INEC impartiality, the commission found itself in the eye of the storm. Third is the continued fears expressed over the collection of Personal Voter Card, PVC, by new registrants said to be close to 10.48 million.

The suit over BVAS has however been laid to rest though not after it had sowed doubts in the public mind. An Imo-based lawyer, O.J Abazie, whose chamber was cited in the suit, has since disowned it. He disclosed during the weekend that his official stamp used in the authentication of the suit, was taken by his colleague named Blessing, under the pretext that she wanted to use it for one of her clients.

Responding to these disturbing issues, the Executive Director of International Press Centre, Mr Lanre Arogundade, told THEWILL in a brief interview, “The willingness of politicians to abide with the rules of the game and the political will of the government of the day to allow for free and fair elections are some of the major challenges facing the commission as it prepares to conduct the 2023 polls.”

Arogundade, whose centre has been working closely with INEC, for over five years, separately though, under the European Union Support to Democratic Governance in Nigeria, EU-SDGN project, however, thinks that the electoral umpire and its Chairman, Yakubu, “is convincing enough in his promise to deliver one of the best elections, which is free, fair, credible and verifiable,” in 2023.

But the Secretary-General of the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties, Chief Will Ezugwu, stands on one end of the discussions.

He told this newspaper: “As long as the President appoints the INEC Chairman, just as he does with the Chief Justice of the Federation and the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, there are grounds to be worried. When he goes ahead to appoint members of his party as Resident Electoral Commissioners, as he did recently, elections in Nigeria can never be free.”

INEC’s RESPONSE TO ALLEGATIONS AND CHALLENGES

To Prof Yakubu, some of the allegations being made against the commission as well as fears over the credibility of the 2023 poll, are either unprovable or will be met with firm response and resolved when found to be genuine.

Arguing that credible polls in the country will be achieved incrementally, he gave the assurance that Permanent Vote Cards (PVCs) would be ready for collection in October after the commission might have cleaned up the register of ineligible registrants, publishing the updated register for seven days for scrutiny by the public for objections and complaints.

“Finally, it is only after the cleanup and claims and objections have been completed that the final register will be published. For distribution of PVCs, we have the emails and phone numbers of voters. For those who live in the rural areas, they will be reached by voice calls or text messages.”

He said the Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS), which carries the photograps of voters and their fingerprints for the purpose of authentication will prevent identity theft and ensure transparency in the voting process.

Dismissing the social media clips indicating that PVCs were found dumped in gutters in some states as unfounded as investigation by Commission has found no such thing, he also said allegations of hacking into the Commission’s website were farfetched.

“When I made a statement on hacking into the INEC website, I said so within a context. I said only when the system is consistently attacked that we can say it is threatened. But there are maintenance workers constantly fortifying the system. There were attempts by hackers but they failed. We have conducted 105 off –season elections so far using the website and it is safe,” the INEC boss said.

On underage voting, particularly in the North as reported, Yakubu said the commission found the allegation baseless after investigation and urged whomever found such behavior, which violates sections of the Constitution and the Electoral Act, to report to INEC.

Listing the challenges facing the Commission to include environmental factors like poverty, political culture, communication-social media- and infrastructure like bad roads, he held that “election cannot be better than the environment in which it is conducted”, and blamed the attitude of politicians as a major headache in the successful conduct of election in Nigeria.

He said, “You cannot have a flourishing democracy without democrats. Imagine a situation when someone loses an election and then turns around to say his mandate has been stolen.”

Prof Ochefu supports his view about politicians’ attitude. “We found out from our research that changing the wrong mindset of political actors was more important than what happens in INEC.”

WAY OUT?

“INEC has consistently tried to improve the conduct of elections and with the use of technology, they will improve faster,“ Prof Ochefu said, adding “For those of us who understand technology a bit, they are yet to deliver as they ought to do. They have to do so. They have the opportunity to begin to do so during the 2023 election.”

Prof Yakubu however agrees. “We have started with the BVAS which has been a great improvement on the card readers, which often malfunctioned and forced us to use incidence form. That is gone now. With biometric accreditation before voting, we would soon move from electronic transmission of results to electronic voting by which time we would have been able to get a biometric register and collapse everything into a portal for electronic voting machines.”

For Arogundade, the government should ensure that INEC has enough resources and support to meet the huge logistics needs of conducting the general elections in 2023.

“I also think that from the point of view of the media there should be regular and proactive disclosure of information especially as we march towards 2023,” he said.

Yakubu is however optimistic about INEC’s capability to deliver a free poll.

“Our view of the 2023 election is to conduct one of the best elections which is going to be free, fair, transparent and verifiable. People can see the voting online from the comfort of their homes. Once people see voting online, we would have taken a bold step,” he said.