By Franklin Udofia
Despite the innovations to enhance the overall outcome of elections in this country, concerns have continued to mount on the integrity of the 2023 general elections. This should not be entirely strange given the hindsight of events that followed previous electoral contests in this clime.In a milieu where elections are fought as matter of life and death with political parties and candidates showing scandalous disregard for rules; the fear of a repeat of such infractions as another round of general election lurk at the corner should be considered a natural human response. It is a measure of this prevailing skepticism that President Buhari had for the umpteenth time sought to reassure Nigerians and the international community of his commitment to bequeath a credible electoral system. The Independent National Electoral Commission INEC has time without number sought the confidence of the public on its commitment to credible and generally acceptable polls. Ironically, each time Buhari and INEC made such assurances, they inadvertently reacted to fears that elections may not depart substantially from their inglorious pasts characterized by rigging, falsification of results, disenfranchisement of voters and unmitigated violence.
Even as these assurances come in torrents, indications are they have been of limited help in imbuing in the electorate, sufficient confidence that politicians will not explore new devious strategies to sabotage these innovations and compromise the outcome of the elections. The opposition under the aegis of Coalition of United Political Parties CUPP has been remarkably strident in drawing public attention to tendencies they consider potentially election-compromising. Shortly before the lid on electioneering campaigns was lifted last September, CUPP had addressed a press conference during which its spokesman Ikenga Imo Ugochinyere alerted the country on alleged startling compromise of the voters register. According to him, the voters register was already compromised through fictitious registrations to the tune of ten million people. Ugochinyere claimed that names were sourced from within and outside Nigeria and that several names in the register were captured from passport photographs, calendars and other event related publications.
CUPP further claimed a court process had been secretly initiated to compel INEC to stop the use of the Bimodal Voter Registration System BVAS and that the commission’s headship was under pressure to drop the hard stance on the use of BVAS or get sacked. The coalition displayed extracts from the national voters register which it claimed, were part of at least 10 million fake registrations to drive home their case. INEC responded quickly that it was still subjecting the voters’ registration exercise to a thorough cleaning with the Automated Biometric Identification System after which it will be added to the official INEC register of voters for the 2023 elections. The implication of INEC’s intervention was that the extracts on display by the CUPP were not official as the electoral umpire was yet to complete the clean up exercise of the last registration exercise. In effect, the clear picture of the extent of the padding will only emerge after the clean up exercise. But at its fourth quarterly consultative meeting with the leadership of political parties in October, INEC Chairman, Mahmood Yakubu while announcing that preliminary register of voters stood at 93.5 million, admitted that 2.7 million names were identified as ineligible registrants and invalidated from the record. Among them were double/multiple registrants, underage persons and outright fake registrations.
The commission also identified 23 registration officers involved in this unethical conduct and has commenced disciplinary action against them. This confirms the allegation of the CUPP notwithstanding that fake registration fell short of its projection by about seven million. But that is not all there is to it. The mandatory display of the voters register in the wards and local government for public view has manifested similar infractions and compromise. By the time these claims and objections are completed, the figure might further get somewhere close to that claimed by the CUPP. This has proven very conclusively that the CUPP was not just raising false alarm irrespective of how it generated its data. How the opposition generated its data before INEC’s cleaning of the register is not at issue. So it came as a surprise that instead of focusing on those responsible for the manipulations, the security agencies in Imo state were more concerned with how CUPP secured its information in some local governments in that state. That would seem to suggest official cover up. But all that has collapsed in the face of clear evidence of the monumental bastardization of that critical document. The challenge before INEC is to get at the root of the motivation of its offending staff and their collaborators in high and low places. Until the sponsors of those fake registrations and their motives unmasked, the fear that the coming polls may go the way of those before it may remain a recurring decimal. Beyond this, the real concern is the use to which those behind these fake registrations intend to make of fictitious names during elections. That should be the concern of those desirous to see our electoral process make a quick and substantial departure from its sordid pasts. That is the integrity challenge the CUPP has been championing. And that objective is noble.
There was also the allegation of clandestine attempt to compel INEC to drop the use of BVAS during the 2023 elections. Nigerians had cause to revisit this allegation last week following a statement credited to the national chairman of the All Progressives Congress APC, Abdullahi Adamu. He had at a meeting with the commonwealth pre-election delegation, said unless INEC was prepared to assure the ruling party and Nigerians that they were 100 per cent ready, its proposed use of technology would be shrouded in doubt. “INEC must assure us 100 per cent that as when due in transmitting results, they are ready because they spoke about recharging batteries. But we heard in previous elections when it said it can’t recharge, he was reported to have said.” Adamu also cited poor network coverage from service providers as further basis for his reservations. His views were corroborated by the party’s national organizing secretary, Sulieman Argungu who even claimed that the part of Kebbi state he hails from depends on networks from neighboring countries. He equally identified unstable power supply as one of the obstacles facing BVAS. Not unexpectedly, these have drawn intense criticisms from the opposition that previously raised the allegation of a subtle move to dump the BVAS. For the opposition, those reservations conform to the aphorism that ‘there is no smoke without fire’. Coming from Adamu, those views were seen as a manifestation of the discomfort of the ruling party with BVAS and electronic transmission of election results. And there are ground to sustain such claims. Apparently feeling the heat of the mounting attacks, the party through its spokesman, Felix Morka quickly clarified that Adamu was quoted out of context. He situated Adamu’s comments within the context of an advice to INEC to take steps to bridge any gaps that may be created by electricity and telecommunications network challenges in certain voting districts to ensure transparent elections. Morka sought to dispel insinuations when he argued that it is the APC government of President Buhari that midwifed the reforms of the Electoral Act that introduced BVAS and other technological innovations to enhance the transparency of elections.
Incidentally the two planks the party sought to rationalize Adamu’s statements are seriously encumbered. The claim that it was an advisory to INEC cannot stand because the electoral body was not part of the audience. So he could not have possibly been addressing INEC in that mixed audience when the party has other avenues to reach the electoral umpire on that constitutional matter. Bringing it up was totally inauspicious as it sent wrong signals to the international community. Yes, the amendment to the Electoral Act which saw to these technological innovations was achieved during the current regime. But it cannot be forgotten in a hurry the tortuous journey to it. Credit must go to the resilience of the Nigerian public that brought immense pressure to bear on the national assembly when apparently acting out a script the legislators came up with a questionable version of the amendment requiring INEC to get the approval of the telecommunication Commission before deploying technology.
They made a u-turn after adverse public reaction. The current altercation is a sad throwback to events of that episode.