Romanus Ugwu, Abuja
National Commissioner and Information and Voter Education Committee Chairman, Festus Okoye, has enumerated the teething challenges confronting the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) ahead of the two end-of-tenure elections in Edo and Ondo states.
In this exclusive interview with the Sunday Sun in Abuja, he also delved into other areas of concerns regarding the operations of the commission in the conduct of elections under the ravaging Coronavirus pandemic facing the country and the world at large.
He equally spoke on the cumbersomeness of managing the hitherto 92 political parties and comfort of deregistering the parties to a manageable size of 18, how the Nigeria political elite have contributed in the problems of trust deficit in conduct of elections, the penalty before the 18 political parties that fail to submit the annual financial dealings to the commission, among other issues.
What are the challenges of conducting elections in Nigeria under COVID-19 pandemic?
The Commission has not conducted any election since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Commission paused the conduct of some bye-elections on account of the pandemic. Presently, the Commission has 15 outstanding bye-elections. Six are Senatorial bye-elections in Bayelsa State; Cross River State; Imo State; Lagos State and Plateau State. Nine of the outstanding bye-elections are State Constituency bye-election in Abaji, Kogi State; Bakori, Katsina State; Bakura, Zamfara State; Bayo, Borno State; Isi-Uzo, Enugu State; Kasofe, Lagos State; Nasarawa Central, Nasarawa State; Nganzi, Borno State and Obudu, Cross River State. Sadly, these vacancies occurred between December and July 2020. All the vacancies except the two Senatorial Districts in Bayelsa State were caused by death. On February 6, 2020, the Commission released the timetable and schedule of activities for the Edo and Ondo governorship elections. But the moment we started preparations for these end-of-tenure governorship elections, the pandemic assumed frightening dimension, leading to panic and closure of businesses, schools, offices, public and private facilities with the consequent lockdowns, curfew and restriction on inter and intra-state movements. But the leadership of the Commission quickly rallied round considering the strict constitutional timelines governing end-of-tenure elections and developed and designed the policy on conducting elections in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. We followed it up with first supplementary to regulations and guidelines for the conduct of election. Thereafter, we developed the Supplementary Regulations and Guidelines for the Activities of Political Parties; the Supplementary Guidelines for Election Observation and Voting in Safety (Voters Code of Conduct for Elections during the COVID-19 pandemic). The Commission also empaneled a technical committee of the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security headed by the Commission’s Chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, which developed and printed the Code of Conduct and Rules of Engagement for Security Personnel on Electoral Duty. So, the Commission has proactively responded to an emergency situation with little or no precedent to draw from. We had no choice and no alternative than to move quickly, return to work when the nation was still gripped by fear and uncertainty as the alternative to not conducting the end-of-tenure governorship elections in Edo and Ondo states will leave the country in a constitutional logjam that may require extra ordinary measures to resolve. Our biggest challenge has been convincing Nigerians that we do not have the power to postpone the Edo and Ondo governorship elections beyond the period prescribed by the Constitution. For instance, Section 178(2) of the Constitution provides that an election to the office of a state governor shall be held on a date not earlier than 150 days and not later than 30 days before the expiration of the term of office of the last holder. It is fairly settled that the time fixed by the Constitution for doing anything cannot be extended, elongated, expanded, or stretched beyond what it provides. There is also the challenge of assuring our people that they can vote and vote in safety by observing all the necessary protocols and safety measures put in place by the authorities and the Commission. Coterminous to this is the challenge of getting the stakeholders in the electoral process to move quickly towards deepening the use of technology in our elections. However, we have done fairly well as the electronic filing of nomination processes for Edo and Ondo states have gone fairly well with the deployment of the Commissions dedicated nomination portal. Observer groups have done their applications using the same method and we have held virtual meetings with all the critical stakeholders in the electoral process. We have, therefore, scheduled the Nasarawa Central State Constituency bye-election for August 8, 2020 to test run some of our processes like proper positioning of polling units; physical distancing; crowd control at polling units; the mandatory use of face covering and other health and safety related protocols. It is a learning process and electoral continuity business for the Commission and the Nigerian people. We must learn how to proceed with all aspects of our lives even during difficult circumstances and the Commission is showing the way and navigating cautiously.
How will reducing the number of political parties in Nigeria help INEC in the conduct of future elections, especially as it concerns litigations?
The registration and de-registration of political parties are constitutional issues. The Commission is under a constitutional duty to register any political association that meets the qualifying threshold in Sections 221-229 of the Constitution, as well as Section 78 of the Electoral Act, 2010(as amended). The de-registration of political parties is also guided by the provisions of Section 225A of the Constitution and the courts have said that the Commission is eminently qualified to de-register any political party that falls outside the constitutional threshold for existence. However, the existence of 92 parties and all getting on the ballot has been quite challenging for the Commission and the Nigerian people as well as the courts and tribunals. The size of ballot papers got longer and bigger and some Nigerians had challenges navigating through them. The Commission was always under the pressure of not mixing up, switching or making the slightest mistake with names of political parties, their logo and the names of their candidates to avoid the cost of unlawful exclusion. The Commission monitors their activities, party primaries and all other activities undertaken by them. The existence of 18 parties currently and with 14-17 fielding candidates means that ballot papers will become more manageable and the Nigerian people can locate their parties easily. The Commission is also more positioned to respond to litigation challenges from 18 rather than 92 political parties. Fundamentally, the Commission is to organize, undertake and supervise elections while it is left to the Nigerian people and the national and state Assemblies to determine the threshold for the registration of political parties and their deregistration. Our responsibility is to conduct elections and make provision to accommodate all parties that are registered.
Is the Commission concerned about the level of violence, rancorous campaigns going on ahead of the September 19, 2020 Edo State governorship election?
We are in a new normal and this new normal presents the country with existential uncertainty. There is fear, there is apprehension, and there is anxiety and death. The Edo and Ondo governorship elections are packaged under health and safety challenges and the Commission has the herculean responsibility of assuring Nigerians and especially the people of the states that they can vote in safety. The political leaders in Edo and Ondo states are aware that the Commission will not compromise the health and safety of its permanent and ad-hoc staff and that of the voting population. The Chairman of the Commission has made it clear that the Commission will not deploy and or conduct elections if there is spike in the level of violence to the extent that we can no longer assure and ensure the safety of our permanent and ad-hoc staff. Although Section 26(2) of the Electoral Act gives the Commission the right and power to postpone an election if there are cogent and verifiable reasons to believe that a serious breach of the peace is likely to occur, such postponement cannot go beyond October 13, 2020 for Edo and January 25, 2021 for Ondo State. The political parties know, the candidates know, the National Assembly and the Executive know that the tenure of the incumbent governors cannot be extended by a day except the country is at war necessitating the activation of Section 180(3) of the Constitution by the President and the National Assembly. The main gladiators know that Section 305 of the Constitution can only be activated when there is a determination of an emergency. They also know that the Speaker of the state Assembly can only take over under Section 191(2) of the Constitution to complete the unexpired term of office of the last holder of the office. The choice is between allowing a peaceful atmosphere for the conduct of credible elections and a constitutional crisis. The spirit of the constitution is to provide certainty in the policy and avert instability. On our part, we are determined to work with the political parties and all stakeholders to conduct the elections in safety. We cannot act unconstitutionally by conducting elections outside the constitutionally prescribed timeframe and timeline as any attempt to do so will be unconstitutional and may lead to a chaotic constitutional situation and political unrest.
With many already expressing fears that the Edo poll may be the most violent election in Nigeria, what are the measures INEC is putting in place to curtail this and the truncation of the election?
We are working collaboratively with the security agencies to downgrade threats of violence in the two end-of-tenure elections. As I pointed out, we have a robust Code of Conduct and Rules of Engagement for Security Personnel on Electoral Duty. We will partner with the security agencies in training their personnel on how to approach security issues during this difficult period. It is in the interest of the political parties to rein in their supporters. We are determined to conduct a good election and will work towards peaceful elections. But, we will not compromise the security of our personnel and we will not proceed with or announce results in a violent atmosphere.
What are your fears concerning the two governorship elections?
We are proceeding confidently and cautiously towards the elections. We are learning and adjusting our processes and procedures as we proceed with the election. We are determined to succeed as we must learn how to operate under the new normal that the world is experiencing. We are definitely worried about crowd control at the polling units and the Collation Centres and this accounts for the test-run that will take place in Nasarawa Central State Constituency on August. We will closely document the successes and the challenges and make necessary adjustments from the lessons learnt. We are also worried about the prospect of violence and will keep up our engagement with stakeholders, civil society groups and the people of Edo and Ondo states. We assure the people of Edo State that the Commission will do all it takes to make them vote in safety.
Why has it been difficult for INEC to activate its legal responsibility of auditing the finance of the political parties?
There are different levels of activities and timelines involved in the auditing of the accounts of political parties. Section 225(1) of the Constitution makes it mandatory for political parties to submit to the Commission a statement of their assets and liabilities and publish the same. They are also obligated to submit to the Commission a detailed annual statement and analysis of their sources of funds and other assets together with a similar statement of their expenditure in such form as the Commission may require. So, the parties have a responsibility to submit and the Commission has the responsibility to prepare and submit to the National Assembly a report on the accounts and balance sheet of every political party. The Commission has made it clear to the 18 registered political parties that it will no longer wait for all of them to submit their annual statement before the Commission fulfils its obligation to the Nigerian people and the National Assembly. It was challenging waiting for 92 political parties to do the right thing, but that impediment is no longer there. We expect political parties to cooperate with the Commission as we are determined to remain within the ambit and confines of constitutional and legal timelines in relation to the accounts of political parties.
The tenure of the Commission’s chairman will soon come to an end, what will he be remembered for if he didn’t get a renewal?
The Chairman continues to provide robust intellectual and courageous leadership to the Commission. The Chairman is focused on delivering the two end-of-tenure elections in Edo and Ondo states and the 15 outstanding bye-elections. He is focused on positioning and repositioning the Commission to respond creatively, innovatively and courageously to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is also focused on deepening the use of technology in the electoral process.
There is still problem of trust deficit by Nigerians on the elections conducted by the Commission, what is INEC doing to correct this?
The conduct, management and delivery of elections is a multi-stakeholder venture. The constitutional mandate of the Commission is to organize, undertake and supervise elections. Different organs of government appropriate the funds required for the conduct of elections. The security agencies have responsibility for securing the environment for elections to take place. The political parties have an obligation to play by the rules. The Commission has been improving on its processes and procedures. It is unfortunate that we print and deploy ballot papers with multiple security features and accord them the movement accorded to national currency purely on account of the trust deficit in our electoral process. Our commitment is to rave up the use of technology in the electoral process and eliminate as much as possible human interference in elections. Ultimately, the Nigerian people will protect their votes and prevent unconstitutional usurpation of their mandate.
What are the fresh changes Nigerians should expect from the Commission for the 2023 general elections?
The Commission has already deployed a dedicated portal for the filing and receipt of nomination by political parties. This was deployed for the Edo governorship primaries; the Nasarawa Constituency and the Ondo governorship primaries. The Commission will fully deploy electronic collation and transmission of results as soon as the legal and constitutional framework is finalized. The Commission will carry out electronic accreditation of the media for the coverage of elections. Elections Observers for the Edo governorship election have applied for accreditation electronically. Most of the stakeholder meetings for both elections will be done virtually while Electronic Voting Machines will be used for the 2021 Anambra governorship election. We are confident that the necessary alterations and amendments to the constitution and the Electoral Act will take place this year to enable us finalize procurement and carry out trainings and test run of the machines.
Has INEC attained an institution of your dream and target when you joined the Commission?
Democracy is not a finished product. We must continue to work on and nurture our electoral process. Incremental changes are taking place in the Commission and we are courageously deepening the use of technology. We have what it takes to be one of the leading electoral management bodies in the world, but the refusal of the political elite to play by the rules of the game has led to the trust deficit in our electoral process. However, with the determination and resilience of the Nigerian people, the electoral process will not suffer from any form of regression. I am confident that the Commission will continue to improve and deliver on its mandate.
Which election will you consider the roughest since you resume in INEC as a National Commissioner?
Every election, no matter how small, poses its own unique challenge. National Commissioners work as a team and we leverage on the strength, courage and intellect of each other. At the appropriate time, I will reflect on such issues, but presently, we have two end-of-tenure elections to run and 15 bye-elections to conduct.