The Independent National Electoral Commission’s National Commissioner and Chairman of the Information and Voter Education Committee, Mr Festus Okoye, a lawyer, has given an insight into some of the nagging and persistently worrying questions about the just concluded general elections.
He revealed this at the fortuitous event of the Catholic Men Organisation, CMO, Week and Fathers’ Day celebration of the St. Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral branch in Kaduna, where the electoral body’s spokesman was the guest speaker.
Okoye, frank to a fault, gave the real reasons the 2019 general election was postponed with graphic details of what forced the Commission to assign new timelines for the polls. Hear him:
“When I was called upon to come and speak, my greatest challenge was the topic to speak on. I rejected the topic I was given because having practiced law for over 33 years when I got to the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, I was reminded that I can only now speak on issues around elections because if I stray to other areas whatever I say may be misinterpreted. So, I decided that it was important, that it was fundamental and also crucial for me to come before you and speak a little about some of the issues around elections, some of the challenges that attended the 2019 general elections and also the way forward. So, I titled my presentation the “Dynamics and Mechanisms of Free and Fair Elections”. So, I have given what I call the 10 irreducible minimums for the conduct of free, fair and transparent elections. I have also set out the 10 challenges the Commission had in conducting the 2019 general elections. I have also given 10 ways by which we can have free, fair and transparent elections in Nigeria. And that is exactly what I intend to do.
Catholic Men Organisation should get us prepared for the rainy day
I know that today is not exactly a day for grammar, that today is a day when members of the Catholic Men Organisation, CMO, of the St. Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral, here in Kaduna, are supposed to raise funds to take care of our members who are suffering from one illness or the other because only a healthy person can practice his or her religion well. If you are not healthy there is the possibility that when you want to come to Church you may not be in a good shape to come and then we will have to invite the Reverend Father to go and see you at home. There is possibility that when you are healthy you will be in a position to run around and make money in order to send your children to school and fend for your family. You certainly will not be able to achieve that if you are not healthy and the organization you belong to has to intervene at one time or the other in order to assist you. That is why this Medical Endowment that has been initiated is very fundamental.
2019 general elections: our challenges and the irreducible minimums
Now, I want to say humbly and with all sense of humility that as a Commission we conducted a very good election this year. I also want to say that as a Commission there were significant challenges with the elections we conducted. And I want to put them in perspective so that when we debate, when we analyse, when we go out to talk about the issues of elections we will be in a position to understand some of the things that happened during that particular period that created bottlenecks, challenges or situations where some of us completely disengaged from the electoral process on account of our disappointment. Part of the irreducible minimums I have talked about for the conduct of free, fair and transparent elections is that first you must have a clear, concise, unambiguous and credible electoral and constitutional framework. There is no way you can conduct an election without a credible electoral and constitutional framework being in place at least six months before any major election so that whoever wants to go and contest election knows that a person above the age of 30 is eligible to contest so that you don’t have a situation where two months to election you have started campaigning and then you wake up and hear that the constitution has been amended; that before you can contest election you have to be 50 years old. You must also have a credible voters’ register so that if your name is not in the voters register there is no way you can vote. If you have an electoral body made up of card carrying members of political parties there is no way you can have a good voter register in the electoral process. Concise electoral time lines that are not subject to capricious and arbitrary change: If you have a timeline for doing things you must adhere religiously to those timelines. You must also have a political environment that is conducive for the true exercise by the electorate for the demonstration of their political mandate. If the political environment is polluted; if there are kidnappings and insurgency all over the place there is no way you will be confident to go to the polling unit to go and cast your vote not knowing what will befall you.
As a National Commissioner I supervise three states, Anambra, Enugu and Benue states. Before the elections I went to Benue State because Benue has a significant number of displaced persons. When I went to speak to them about registering and voting in an election they told me that is not their challenge now; that their challenge was how to go back home, feed their children and sleep with their women. You see a family of 10 living in a small tent that cannot contain two people. It is not conducive for them to talk about exercise of mandate when the issues bothering them relate to how they can go back to their community, feed their children and stop begging for food in the internally displaced persons camp. The seventh is that the lead and supporting security agencies must act professionally and ethically. There is no way the Independent National Electoral Commission can deploy personnel and materials if the security agencies are not acting ethically and professionally. The National Youth Corp members who served as presiding officers are our sons and daughters and then before you know one ragamuffin would go and kill that person just because there is no security for them. So security agencies must act professionally and ethically if we must have a good election. The other thing is that voters must be ready to take ownership of the electoral process and be ready to protect their mandate.
Planning in uncertainty and the waiting game
I am going to speak from the heart and I am going to be very honest in relation to some of the things I am going to say. The first challenge we had was what I will call the challenge of the waiting game. We have a Constitution in place and we have an Electoral Act in place. But we were also aware that there was an amendment to the Electoral Act that has been passed by the National Assembly and waiting for presidential accent. We were also aware that that Electoral Act made significant changes to the electoral framework and if we did not prepare for it and the president accents to it we were definitely going to be in trouble because that Electoral Act makes provision for the electronic transmission of results which is a big issue in the electoral process. I say it is a big issue because 20 per cent of the Nigerian geographical space is not covered by any major network. So, if we are going to do electronic transmission of results we must make a determination of what to do with that 20 per cent that is not covered by any major network in the country. There is also the significant issue of cyber crime and hacking of the Internet. If we are going to transmit electronically we must also take into consideration some of the challenges we may likely have in terms of the electronic transmission of results and also taking into consideration the type of challenges they had in a place like Kenya. We must also take into consideration the fact that we must also train people to master some of these new technologies before we deploy them. So, by the time we realized that there was a possibility that the Electoral Act may not be signed it was slightly late. The other issue is procurement. Mr. Chairman, as a lawyer when I want biro I go to post office (an area where stationeries are sold in Kaduna) to buy biro and go home. But I got into government only for me to find out that to procure biro takes six months. So, some of us couldn’t understand it; so procurement of both sensitive and non-sensitive materials for the 2019 elections became a burden.
Real reason 2019 election was rescheduled
Now, there was also the issue of the rescheduling of elections or what we call postponement. Let me just say this and I am going to make three points relating to that. The first one is that if anybody tells you that anybody, any individual, any group, any organization pressured us to postpone the 2019 elections tell the person that Barrister Okoye said it is not true. The second issue is whether we were justified in postponing the elections. My answer is yes and I am going to say why. Mr. Chairman there is what I call critical assets that must be in place for you to conduct a good election. Before I come to the issue of critical assets, let me say this. We don’t print ballot papers and result sheets in Nigeria, time and the place where we print ballot papers and result sheets because we are afraid that if we come to Kaduna and give the contract to one security printer here a politician is likely to go and give that person up to N200 million so that on election day they will be deploying and we will also be deploying. And our ballot papers are also customized to currency standards. Our ballot papers have more security features than the Nigerian currency. It has water marks, six security features, sometimes eight and some of them are customized to each polling units or each registration area or each local government to prevent Nigerian politicians from hijacking and cloning them. And when you print these things outside you have to bring them in; so you will also hire aircraft to bring them in. Yes, we postponed elections. Mr. Chairman we sent an aircraft to one of the airports that was supposed to service four states. After 24 hours the aircraft returned to Abuja without ballot papers and result sheets. Why did it return to Abuja? He returned to Abuja without the items I have mentioned because there was no forklift at the airport. No forklift. So, we sent the aircraft to Kano. The aircraft offloaded in Kano and then we hired trucks to begin to distribute and one of the trucks broke down in the middle of the night. Not only that; some of the political parties were also having serious challenges. For Zamfara and Rivers states because we did not know what the Supreme Court would decide we waited and waited and waited without printing their ballot papers because the courts said we should remove the logo of the APC from the ballot papers and the matter was before the Supreme Court and getting to a few days before elections. We had to go back to where we were printing ballot papers to ask them to print one with APC logo and another without APC logo. So, a day to the election we met as an electoral management body and asked the question: are we ready for this election? Because some trucks have broken down we toyed with the idea of starting the polls at 8 O’clock in some states, 10 O’clock in others and 12 noon in others. We came to the conclusion that political meaning would be read into it. So, we abandoned that idea. At the end of the day we agreed that we would do the elections on Monday. After this resolve as I went to my office to write the press statement I saw our IT people marching in. They said Barrister Okoye you said you want to do election when? I said we have agreed on Monday. They said ehen; that they need two weeks. We asked what they needed the two weeks for. They told us that the smart card readers have been customized for that Saturday the 15th and that it has been programmed to take its time and location from the network that Saturday and that they have 15,000 smart card readers in Lagos and 11,000 smart card readers in Kano. It was through begging that they agreed that we can postpone for only one week. So, what was before us was go ahead with the elections, bungle them and create mayhem, breakdown of law and order or postpone the election, apologise to the Nigerian people, take the blame, take the shame and allow the country to remain one. These were the two options before us. So, we were surprised that with this kind of situation people can still insinuate that they saw Federal Government vehicles moving in and out of the Commission on the night we postponed the election. The truth of the matter is that half of the vehicles we use in the Commission bear Federal Government numbers. So, that some of our vehicles moved out of the Commission and moved back does not mean that only the people in Aso Rock use Federal Government vehicles. Half of the vehicles that are in the Commission still use Federal Government number plates. So, there was no external influence whatsoever in the rescheduling of the 2019 elections.
How a Collation/Returning Officers’ family was almost wiped out and declaration of unintended winner
There was a particular Returning Officer who refused what was offered. Political thugs went to his house, entered his parlor and sat down. The family members were alarmed. They called him while he was at the collation centre preparing to announce results; they put the phone on speaker and then asked the wife and children to come. The man heard the voice of the wife and children and they told him we give you five minutes to make that return or declaration or else your family will no longer exist. And a man was being told that his family will no longer exist because of N70,000 that they are going to pay him as a Collation and Returning Officer. And some security agents also carried some ballot boxes and papers and ran away. But I must be sincere that some security personnel performed creditably, but others jumped into the muddy waters of partisan politics and assisted their preferred candidates.