August 29, (THEWILL) – Barrister Festus Okoye is the INEC National Commissioner in charge of Voter Education and Information. In this interview with AYO ESAN, he speaks on the forthcoming Anambra governorship election, among other issues. Excerpts:
The Anambra governorship election is coming up on November 6, 2021. How is INEC preparing to make it a free and fair election?
We are prepared for the election. As you know, we have released the time-table of the activities for the conduct of the election scheduled for November 6, this year. And out of the 11 items on our time-table, we have already met eight. All the political parties have conducted their primaries. We have also published all the personal particulars of the candidates in the election. Political parties have started their campaigns. So we believe we are on top of the situation and our plan of activities is going on well.
How is INEC coping with pre-election litigations and conflicting court orders on the candidacy of the parties in the election?
You know the commission is not a court of law. So what we do is that under Section 287 of the Constitution, we are bound to give respect to the decisions of the court and we are also bound to implement such decisions. And that is exactly what we have done. We have adopted the principle of the latest in time. And so we obey the latest in respect of court judgement, even if they are conflicting because we are not permitted to interpret the law. Also we are not permitted to adjudicate or even disagree with the judgements given by various courts of law. Ours really is to obey and we have always done that. We can only appeal if we feel really aggrieved by a particular decision or if a particular decision is so fundamental to the electoral process, then we can appeal to such decision. But we believe that with the special panel set up by the Court of Appeal on the decisions of these conflicting judgements, that very soon, the coast will be clear. Then the commission can get on much more properly and let the people know who these candidates are in relation to this coming election.
Last year INEC conducted two governorship elections in Edo and Ondo States. The commission received kudos from Nigerians on its performance in the two elections. What is the commission doing to improve on its performance in the forthcoming Anambra governorship election?
We keep improving with every election and we are also going to improve with the Anambra governorship election. We have brought the polling units nearer to the ordinary people. We have expanded the polling units nearer to the ordinary people. Voters will vote more easily and persons with disabilities can vote more easily and people who are elderly can vote more easily because the polling units are near to their houses and the polling units are also close to their places of work.
Secondly, we have started the registration of voters online throughout the federation. And we are going to deploy more equipment and more resources to the Anambra election to make sure that we register as many people as possible. We are also going to get the supplementary voters register integrated with the main register and issue voter cards before the election. After the election, we will recommence the voter registration exercise in Anambra.
So we are on top of the situation and we believe we are going to conduct a good election in Anambra.
The online registration exercise is very novel. How successful has the online registration exercise been throughout the country?
Well, the online registration exercise has been on for quite some time. At the last count, we have recorded a lot of success, in terms of the number of people who are using our online registration portal to register. If you look at the online portals, you will see that as of Monday, August 16, 2021, a total of 1,963,725 people have been registered. But in terms of those who have completed the online registration, we have a total of 315,791. Now in terms of the figure of completion, you can see that out of 315,791, youths between the ages of 18 and 34 make up 225,995. So you can see that the online registration exercise has been very well received, especially by the younger generation of Nigerians. And we hope that Nigerians will embrace technology more. This is because technology is the way to go.
We also learnt that the issue of double registration is the main feature of the current online registration of voters. How will the commission resolve this?
You know those who are doing online registration must go to INEC’s state or local governments offices to capture their biometrics. Aside the registration, we will still display the voters register for claims and objections. At the of end of the processes, we will do what we call due unification to remove double registration and remove those who are not eligible to be registered in the first place.
What is the commission doing to bring an end to attacks on its facilities, especially in the South-East?
You know we are not law enforcement agents. What we have been able to do is to report to the law enforcement agencies. And we have also taken proactive measures to move away our sensitive materials from some of these facilities. But as you can see, we have started our continuous voter registration exercise, even in most of these places. We do hope that as the situation improves, we will continue to review our situation and deploy further to the registration areas, depending on the feedback we receive.
What assurances did you get from the security agencies, regarding the safety of these facilities?
The security agencies are doing their best. You know the situation in all the parts of the country. But within the ambits of their power and the facilities available to them, I think they are doing their best. We have the assurance that they will continue to make sure nothing bad happens to our facilities.
What is the position of INEC on the electronic transmission of election results? Is the commission capable of transmitting election results electronically?
We have said yes, we have the capacity. We have the will and we have what it takes to partake in the transfer of election results electronically. The only thing we are now awaiting is the amendment to the legal framework that will enable us to abide with the laws.
Section 93 of the 1999 Constitution instructed political parties to render accounts of their campaigns, not later than three months after the release of election results. We have discovered that many political parties are not following this directive by the constitution. What is INEC doing to enforce this law?
I think the electorate and INEC should hold political parties accountable in terms of their own processes and in terms of their own procedures. They don’t have to wait for the commission to push them around before they do what is right in relation to the electoral process. But within the ambits of our own power, we are going to activate the machinery of law to get the political parties to comply because we have the responsibility to enforce the law and we are going to enforce the law to get those who have not complied to obey the constitution.
Some people believe that INEC is being saddled with too many responsibilities, including the task of conducting election, monitoring even party primaries and prosecuting election offenders, among others. Don’t you think INEC should be unbundled by relieving it of some of these tasks?
We don’t have any objection to INEC being unbundled. We are even the one that has canvassed that we should have Electoral Offences Tribunal that should handle the issue of investigation, arrest and prosecution of electoral offenders. And if that is removed from the Commission, that will be part of the unbundling that you are talking about. So we don’t have an issue with that. Let us take them one after the other. Create the Electoral Offences Tribunal and hand over the issue of investigation, arrest and prosecution of electoral offenders to it as a different agency. Then we would see whether there are other tasks that can be removed from the control of the commission.
Nigerians are full of praises for what INEC is doing, especially the deepening of the use of technology. What improvement is in the offing as we move towards 2023 general election?
Well, technology is the way to go. Technology reduces human interference in electoral process. It also makes the conduct of election much more transparent and much more accountable. So we apply technology, in terms of party ‘s nomination process. We are applying technology, in terms of application of election observers and of the media. We will apply technology, in terms of electoral processes because that is the way to go. We will keep on deepening the use of technology in the electoral process.
What is your advice to politicians and the electorate?
I believe politicians should embrace democratic ideals. When they embrace democratic ideals, they will operate within the confines of rule of law and due process. They will conduct themselves and their campaigns in such a manner that benefits the electoral process. Party nomination processes must also be done as accountable and transparent as possible. And only validated nominated persons must be presented to the election management body as the candidates by different political parties.
On the part of the electorate, democracy is a work-in-progress and we must continue to grow it, we must cultivate it, nurture it and we must continue to protect it. We must also continue to guard it because if we don’t do that, anti-democratic forces will be in the ascendancy. I believe all the stakeholders must stand firm with democracy for it to succeed.