…Says violence threatens polls in Nigeria
By Willy Eya
Many reasons account for the challenges facing the conduct of elections in the country and the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof Mahmood Yakubu believes that a major solution to the problem is the establishment of an Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal. In this interview with journalists in Lagos, he spoke on how to improve the nation’s elections among other issues. Excerpts:
Since you came on board, there had been so many inconclusive elections, what is the cause?
In 2011, two governorship elections were declared inconclusive. One is in Imo State in four local government areas and Bauchi in two local government areas. There were supplementary elections in the two states before a winner was declared. In 2015, we had inconclusive elections in Imo again for the second time, in Abia and in Taraba states. The elections were concluded after supplementary. But in between, we also had another inconclusive governorship elections in 2013. Anambra State was inconclusive. In fact, the INEC had to run supplementary elections in 16 local governments in Anambra State before the election was concluded. So, there is a context in which these things happen. But why are more recent elections inconclusive? Elections are getting better in Nigeria, there is no doubt about it.
I am not saying that that is what we should expect but I am saying elections are getting better going by experience in 2015 particularly with the introduction of technology. Votes are also counting today more than ever before. Political parties are also getting stronger. We now have two strong political parties and in almost all cases fielding strong candidates and the stakes are becoming definitely higher. For that reason, winning by landslide is fast disappearing because we no longer have a dominant political party and smaller parties. We have two strong parties fielding strong candidates and we can see this from the results of the recent elections we conducted. Take the first election conducted by the commission when I was only 11 or 12 days in office. Even before the directors finished briefing the new commissioners, we went straight into the Kogi election. In Kogi State, we have two strong parties and two strong candidates –an incumbent governor plus a former governor.
It was the same thing in Bayelsa State and to some extent, it was the same experience in Rivers State; an incumbent governor and a former governor even though none of them was a candidate in the election but they dominated the air waves on behalf of the candidates because we conducted basically constituency elections. None of them was a candidate but you could see the competition. And in some of these elections, if you simply compare the outcome of previous elections with the ones we conducted recently, you can very clearly see how the elections are getting better and how the margin is getting even smaller. Take the case of Bayelsa, when the present governor was elected four years ago, the margin of lead between him and the runner up was over 417,000 votes. In the last election, it was only a little over 40,000 votes. So, the votes are counting and elections are getting better and you could see that it is across all the elections including the 2015 presidential election.
The margin between the candidate who won and the runner up was 2.5 million. This is the slimmest margin since 1999. But it is even more interesting if you compare all these with the recent Federal Capital Territory (FCT) elections we conducted. Yes, we could not conclude in four area councils at first ballot but there is a reason. Take the Abuja municipal area council, that is the biggest area council in the FCT.
Out of the over one million registered voters in the FCT, 520,000 reside in the area, and the condition for return for a council chairman in the FCT is similar to the condition for return in presidential or governorship election. To become a chairman, you must get the majority of lawful votes but in addition, you must also secure a quarter of the votes in 2/3 of the area council wards. There are 12 wards in the FCT and 2/3 of 12 is eight but we had disruptions in five wards. Therefore, under the law, there was no way we could declare a winner. And because the elections are getting better, the disruption in one polling unit may affect the outcome of the elections. So, we quickly mobilized and conducted the elections the Wednesday after the Saturday in which we conducted the council elections and a winner was subsequently declared.
But what was the turnout in the FCT? Ninety per cent of the electorate did not even care to vote. And that has been the pattern in the FCT because the elite hardly care to vote in the local elections; and quite a number of them live in the high brow areas. They hardly came out to vote. One of them visited me and I told her that we have elections in the FCT and she said which election, we are not aware that we have elections in the FCT. I said may be you are not interested in the election and she said how can you say we are not interested in the election and I now said, tell me the name of your councilor.
She said do I know. And incidentally, two weeks later, I met the same person and I was being sarcastic and I said, I saw you in one of the polling stations on Saturday and she said for where, I travelled to Kano for a wedding. In fact, after the last elections, some people congratulated the commission by saying that we recorded the highest percentage turnout in the FCT Area council election ever and what was the turnout- just 20 percent. Eighty percent of the voters did not turn up. And one polling unit can make or mar your elections. That is the experience at present. And when I analyzed the result, I took Gwagwalada for instance where the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) won. It was a keenly contested election.
There are 10 wards, so we elected 10 councilors. The councilor for one of the wards in the FCT, won by a margin of 11 votes and now determined the difference between victory and defeat. And the case of the FCT is not a one off thing. That is how our elections have become in this country. And because the elections have become competitive, the parties are also strong. But the do-or-die mentality of the political class has not changed and that is what has been affecting our elections. Anywhere, where there was no violence, our elections were conclusive. The spectra of violence are a threat to the conduct of our elections. I went to one of the poorest countries in the world, Niger Republic to monitor elections in February. I arrived on a Friday and avoided meeting with their chairman of electoral body, an equivalent of INEC and he called me in the afternoon to come and see their offices and I said no, let me not come and add to your pressure. He said I should still come and when I went there, only five security guards were there and there was no tension at all. It was as if the nation was not on the verge of a major national election. And I told him that in Nigeria, you can never see the chairman of INEC two days to the election and he said well, here is different. But he overheard me call Nigeria because I arrived on a Friday and the following Saturday, February 20, we had 22 elections, court-ordered rerun elections in six states. And he kept asking me, what business do you have about elections again, have you not finished your elections since last year? I told him that we have rerun elections ordered by courts. He looked surprised and then I asked him, what do you do if a member dies, resigns or is removed from the office. He said in Niger, they do not hold bye elections. Then I asked, how do you replace a deceased member of your National Assembly? He said it is very simple and that on the ballot for a general election, each party fills a candidate and a supplementary candidate. So, if the member elected dies, the supplementary candidate steps in to complete the tenure of that member. That is simply what they do. And he went further to say that in their country, the election management body is not permanent but ad-hoc.
As someone who has gone to different countries to monitor elections, what is your view on electronic voting?
The ultimate aim of the commission is for the nation to go electronic but there must be steps. Technology in itself would not solve your problems. In fact, technology may compound your problems and so, we need to do a lot of thinking as a nation before we go electronic. Remember you need infrastructure. We have 120,000 polling units. As we speak, there are parts of this country, where we have polling units and voting points where we do not even have mobile telephone signals. So, we use the card readers and then they transmit on their way back to base where there is a signal.
So, that is an issue. If you are going to introduce E-voting nationwide, you have to be mindful of that. And in this country, you cannot introduce a two-tier voting system where you use electronic and manual. It simply would not work. Remember the JAMB exams that is basically conducted in urban and suburban areas and you still have challenges let alone where you conduct elections in the remotest parts of this country. Let me use the example of the FCT, some people think that the FCT is all about Wuse, Maitama, Asokoro and then the suburbs.
You made a passionate plea for an election offences tribunal; what are you doing to realize this?
To do that is entirely the responsibility of the National Assembly but I am approaching the matter in two ways. Yes, it is the National Assembly and you can also help us to popularize it. The National Assembly responds to the wishes of Nigeria. If we are convinced that that is the way to go, it becomes an agenda and the National Assembly would simply respond to the agenda.
But I am also seeing the possibility of taking the matter up with the Attorney General of the federation based on a white paper already approved by government and in the White paper, he is saddled with the responsibility of taking action to ensure that the tribunal is set up under the recommendations of the Lemu committee. I argued elsewhere that I know that this nation may not wish to establish another parastatal but if it is a parastatal that would make our democracy work and if you consider the relationship between a functional democracy and national development, that is the way to go.
It is worthwhile establishing just one parastatal for that purpose. Yes, we have the police, security agencies and they can prosecute cases of corruption in public service but I have not come across any Nigerian who in good conscience thinks that it is a mistake to have established the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Yes, there are other agencies that can do that too. In any case, the Lemu committee put up a suggestion that the Electoral Offences Tribunal needs not be permanent. You only set it up in the aftermath of an election; thereafter, the judges revert to their roles in the judicial system. It is not a court that is going to sit 365 days in a year. It is just for the purpose of prosecuting electoral offenders after elections just like the existing tribunals and appeals. You know after their job, the judges go back to their other roles. This is all we are doing but we need the support of all Nigerians to succeed.
You said the commission spends 86 percent of the budget for election on allowances of personnel, is there a way technology could take some part of the budget by cutting down the involvement of human beings in the process of the election?
Yes, technology can help but for the same reasons I gave earlier, we also need to be careful about putting too much hope in a piece of equipment. This is because something small may happen for instance, the polling stations open between 8 am and 2 pm, what happens if the machines do not work within those hours? Anything can happen for that to be affected like rainy seasons in a part of the country and excessive sunshine in another part. So, we need to think about the deployment of this technology but I believe that technology can actually help.