Festus Okoye is a National Commissioner with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). He is also the Chairman, Committee on Information and Voter Education at the Commission. In this interview conducted by AGAJU MADUGBA on the sidelines of a one-day media workshop on, “Gender Sensitive Reporting in Elections”, organized by INEC in collaboration with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, Okoye said the electoral umpire was part of the drafting of the amended electoral bill recently rejected by President Buhari. He also raised some concerns and constraints that could affect the conduct of a credible general election in 2019.
There are insinuations that President Muhammadu Buhari’s failure to sign the amended Electoral Act may have negative impact on the scheduled 2019 general elections. To what extent can it affect the conduct of the 2019 polls?
Some of the recommendations in the amended electoral bill that has not been signed actually came from INEC and some of the recommendations were based on our observations on how we can improve on the electoral process. We anticipated some of these issues in the electoral bill and that is why we have a Plan A and a Plan B. The Plan A is based on the existing laws because INEC works based on existing law. We will execute the Plan B if the President signs the bill and what it means is that we will be able to carry out electronic transmission of results. For the Osun, Ekiti and some other standalone elections, we piloted electronic transmission of results but we can fully roll it out for the general elections if there is a law backing it. If the bill is signed, we have the capacity to transmit the results real-time. Late signing of the bill cannot disrupt preparations for the elections.
INEC started preparing for the 2019 elections in 2015 and based on that, we rolled out our strategic plans and strategic programme of action, which we have been following assiduously to make sure that we deliver credible elections to the Nigerian people. And, we have improved over the years in terms of our procedures. Based on some of the challenges of the card reader in 2015, the smart card reader has been upgraded. It is now faster in reading biometric data. In the governorship elections we have so far conducted in Edo, Osun, Ekiti states, the inability of the card reader to perform effectively has reduced to less than one percent.
So, we are comfortable with the card reader and we have also improved on logistics and delivery of materials to the polling units. There are few issues in the amended electoral bill that have even been overtaken by events. For instance, in terms of party primary elections, part of the amendment is that before a political party conducts primary elections, it has to advertise the venue and the time in two national newspapers, at least 10 days before the primary elections. That clause has been overtaken by events because the primaries have already taken place. There is also the issue of limit to campaign spending. That one is already in the law. We have our tracking mechanism for campaign spending and we have sensitised the law enforcement agencies concerning their duties. For the card reader, the law gives us the right to deploy the card reader for purposes of accreditation, identification and verification. The card reader we have now can transmit results. So, if the law is signed, we can transmit results. There is nothing in the electoral amendment bill that we cannot take care of between now and the elections. So, it does not matter whether the bill is signed or not as we are prepared for any eventuality.
What is the latest on Zamfara concerning whether the APC will field candidates or not for the polls?
The latest on Zamfara is that we did not receive any lists of candidates from that state in respect of the APC. We did inform them that we would no longer collect any lists from them because INEC had earlier informed them that they did not conduct party primary elections as envisaged by Section 87 of the Electoral Act. Since they did not conduct the primaries, that means they have nothing to submit to INEC. But there are two or three matters pending in the courts and at the end of the day if a properly constituted court of competent jurisdiction mandates INEC to collect a list from the APC in Zamfara State, definitely we will obey. But for now, we insist that there were no party primary elections in Zamfara State.
A cross section of Nigerians accuses INEC of partisanship in favour of the ruling party. How genuine is this fear?
The only assurance we can give to the Nigerian people is the assurance that we are doing our work professionally and transparently and we are going to deliver the elections based on the mandate given to INEC. There is nothing that we have done that we have not disclosed to the Nigerian people concerning our preparations. When we did not accept the APC list from Zamfara, the APC accused us of working for the PDP. When we take actions that may not be favourable to the PDP, they accuse us of working for the APC. But the truth of the matter is that we work for the Nigerian people and we are looking at our constitutional mandate and legal mandate and that is where we are going to remain.
INEC is a huge institution and the 2019 elections will be the biggest logistic exercise to be undertaken in the history of this country. We are ready. We are transparent, we are not aligned to any political party and we are not partisan. But the truth of the matter is that an election is a multi-stakeholder venture. All the critical stakeholders in the electoral process must work symbiotically in order to deliver credible elections. If INEC is ready to deploy and the environment is not conducive for deployment then we cannot deploy. For instance, you know that as at today, the Nigerian military are engaged in internal security operations in almost two thirds of the states of the federation. So, despite the fact that we are ready and prepared, there is the possibility that we may not deploy men and materials to some local governments in the country, on account of insecurity, unless the critical institutions that have been mandated to maintain law and order give an assurance that our materials and personnel will be safe. So, the security agencies are a key institution in the delivery of credible elections. The political parties are also a key institution in the delivery of credible elections. If INEC works to deliver credible elections and the political parties work to undermine the delivery of credible elections, then there is going to be a problem. If we assemble young people, members of the NYSC, and we want to deploy them but political parties go and hire thugs, give them machetes, arms and ammunition and they create an atmosphere of confusion and fear, then there is no way we can deploy them. So, our assurances to the Nigerian people is that we are ready to conduct credible elections but the Nigerian people must also pay attention to the activities of the political parties and call them to order and insist they play by rules of the game. I assure you that if the political parties play by the rules of the game and the security agencies remain professional, we will conduct the best elections ever in Nigeria and that is our assurance to the Nigerian people.
At the workshop, you raised the alarm over threat to the polls by the lingering ASUU strike. How fundamental is the threat and why is it that INEC has not considered hiring ad-hoc staff from the millions of unemployed graduates roaming the streets?
Election is a very sensitive venture. In the past, we tried all sorts of models but they did not guarantee the kind of neutrality that INEC wants from its ad-hoc staff. So, what we do is to tie the harvesting of ad-hoc staff to institutions and to places where we can hold the individuals responsible. For instance, the majority of our collation officers and returning officers are lecturers in various tertiary institutions in the country. A Professor of Mathematics from the Ahmadu Bello University, for example, who is a collation officer, is tied to an institution. So, if he misbehaves, we can easily locate him and if there is election petition in relation to collation of results we can easily trace him to give evidence in court. Youth corps members are also attached to institutions. We can locate any corps member who is assigned to be a presiding officer. And, students too are tied to institutions and we can trace them. Unemployed graduates are unemployed. If there is a challenge, we will have difficulty locating them and if they misbehave we may not be in a position to trace them. If there is an election petition, we cannot locate them. It is problematic to harvest unemployed graduates and use them for such a sensitive assignment.
Now, the challenge is that INEC has slightly over 16,000 workers and we have almost 120,000 polling units in Nigeria and with this particular election, we may create additional 30,000 voting points, bringing the total to 150,000. For each polling unit we are going to deploy at least four ad-hoc staff and then all the registration areas in Nigeria will also have at least a collation officer. All the local governments will have collation officers and we are going to have a supervising presiding officer for each ward or registration area. So, it is a huge challenge in terms of logistics and students of federal tertiary institutions are the ones we identified to supplement the efforts of members of the NYSC to satisfy our ad-hoc staff needs. So, we envisage assistant presiding officers 1-3 to be students of tertiary institutions. So, it is a huge challenge and we need students on campus. If students are not on campus before the 2019 elections or at least a month before the elections, we are going to have a very huge challenge and what that means is that we are going to draw up a Plan C on where to get ad-hoc staff to fill the gap and we cannot be following them from house to house in trying to get them to work. It will create a huge confusion but we are confident that the persons negotiating on behalf of the Federal Government and members of ASUU are reasonable people to understand the quantum of money government is spending for the elections. We hope they also understand that if we do not conduct this election within the window provided by the Constitution, we will have a constitutional crisis. I think they understand this. All well meaning Nigerians should nudge the two parties to a negotiated settlement so that our students can go back to school so that the elections can hold as scheduled. The issue is that the Constitution has already fixed the elections to hold within a specified period. The elections must hold, whatever the challenges may be. If the issue is not resolved within the next couple of weeks, the INEC will go into crisis management situation and see in what ways it can handle the matter posed by this category of people not being in school.
Will INEC consider recruiting teachers from secondary schools across the country as replacement for students of tertiary institutions?
When we get to that bridge we will see how to cross it because it is a decision that INEC as an institution has to take. The Plan C may involve a certain level of juggling in terms of the institutions involved. You know we have state-owned tertiary institutions but we do not draw ad-hoc staff from them and also secondary school teachers but if we get into a crisis mode, the Commission may re-engineer its processes to make sure that the elections go on without any hitches.
How do you track campaign funds of political parties and politicians?
The Constitution has provided for a limit for campaign spending but you know that Nigeria operates a cash economy. Some people carry their money through unorthodox means and other means that you cannot trace. Sometimes they spend money through proxies who place advertisements for candidates and you cannot attribute such projects to the candidate. Solidarity groups place advertisements and organize rallies, among other activities. So, it is very difficult to track campaign funding and financing. But we have a monitoring group in INEC and they have certain processes and procedures through which they keep tabs on campaign financing but I assure you that it is a very difficult task.
How is INEC tackling the issue of vote buying during elections?
INEC does not buy or sell votes. It is the politicians who buy votes. The media should direct the question to the political parties and the politicians. The media should ask them when they are going to stop vote buying and they are the ones complaining. They are the ones corrupting the voters. They should tell us when they are going to stop vote buying so that we can sanitize the process. But the Commission has actually designed a method of dealing with the issue and part of it is that no voter should access the voting cubicle with a smart phone or with any device that can take photographs and we are going to enforce that vigorously. We have also configured the ballot papers in such a way that the presiding officer will pre-fold the ballot paper before handing it over to the voter. If the ballot paper is pre-folded, when the voter is ready to cast his vote, he has to also pre-fold the ballot paper. The third thing we have done is that we are training the presiding officers on proper location of the voting cubicle to ensure secrecy of the vote. We have also had meetings with the DSS and other security agencies, asking them to do their job discreetly to prevent vote buying, at least within the vicinity of the polling units.
Is it possible for any INEC staff to sway the results of the elections in favour of a particular political party?
INEC is configured in such a way that the 12 national commissioners and the Chairman are only engaged in policy and strategic planning. The real managers of elections in Nigeria are the 774 returning officers in the local governments. They are the managers of the elections. On an election day, an INEC national commissioner has no power. Going by the Electoral Act, as amended, each polling unit is sovereign on an election day and the presiding officer is the Head of State. He is the Inspector-General of Police. On an election day, a presiding officer can order an INEC national commissioner out of a polling unit and a presiding officer can order the arrest of a national commissioner who he believes is trying to interfere with the electoral process. That is the way the Electoral Act has been programmed. It is next to impossibility for a national commissioner to sit in a place and know what is happening in 120,000 polling units and 130,000 voting points.
To what extent can governors influence the outcome of an election?
The challenge with the governors is that some of them use the paraphernalia of office and resources at their disposal to campaign and that is why some of them have a slight advantage over their opponents, in terms of resources and they also finance the party in their states. Some of them may actually attempt to corrupt the electoral process but with what INEC has on ground now, it is difficult for anybody to corrupt or manipulate the electoral process. This is because, on an election day, at the close of election in a polling unit, you are transmitting the result immediately and we see it. If the result does not come from Kaduna North, for example, we will know here in Abuja. If somebody decides to run away with the result sheet, he may not know that the presiding officer had already transmitted the result. And, at a particular time, the smart card reader will shut down. If there is any problem in any part of Nigeria, we will know at the situation room and we have the telephone numbers of all the presiding officers. If a presiding officer is not transmitting, we will call him and ask why he is not transmitting.