Mr. Mike Igini has begun his second term as Resident Electoral Commissioner in Akwa Ibom State . In this interview with Jonatan Eze, Igini talks about progress in developing innovative electoral service in Nigeria. He recommends stiffer punishment for electoral offenders and commends the National Assembly for proposing amendments to the electoral

 Congratulations on your reappointment as a Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), what should Nigerians expect from you this time around?

Many thanks indeed and to the President and Commander-in-chief for the trust and confidence reposed in some of us in this endeavour. On the expectations of Nigerians from me, first, election management is not a one man show but a team work that requires the commitment of all citizens because election is one of the largest, administratively and logistically delicate, complex and all-involving activity that nations embark on in peace time. And so, it requires a total national effort, particularly the commitment of key national institutions and their personnel like the umpire itself and security agencies that must not and should not abuse their positions to favour one group against the other to secure dubious electoral victory.

 As for me,  Nigerians should not expect less but more until we are able to entrench a robust electoral process that can throw up only competent and credible people who understand the nuances and praxis of development and are able to run the affairs of state at all levels. My commitment in this regard is unwavering, I will be fair to all who seek to participate in elections under my supervision ensuring that established electoral laws, rules and guidelines are enforced fully, fairly and impartially to all. As part of a team, we shall ensure that INEC remains an independent and effective national institution for the recruitment of competent and committed leaders through the conduct of periodic credible elections and not a tool for electoral manipulation for victory.

We must ensure that hardworking and trusting Nigerian people are able to periodically express their desires for individual and collective development, by freely going to polling units to choose those that should lead them. It is the most cherished right of every adult Nigerian above the age of 18. This job is a call to duty to protect that right, it is a call that we must heed with respect for the peoples rights that we should never undermine, sell or destroy. Every time we ensure that an election takes place freely and fairly and the results honestly counted to reflect how the people voted, it is the greatest respect we show to them  and that is what would happen here in Akwa lbom State. This is what the task is about and it is a very important service that those called upon to undertake should never compromise but must discharge to the people.

The Senate appears determined to sanitise party primaries and convention processes to enhance internal democracy in the selection of party candidates given the proposed new amendments to the Act. Can this be achieved given the kind of politicians we have in Nigeria?

The Senate should be commended for the profound amendments it has proposed to the existing Electoral Act and as I have told a few people, it is revolutionary in terms of the context of electoral reforms because of the broad scope of changes proposed as we await the concurrence of the House of Representatives. I hope they sustain it, because if they carry it through, several of the amendments will greatly impact the quality of our elections. Political Party primaries outcomes remain one of the greatest threats to our democracy in Nigeria, these reforms will help to sanitise the process so that parties respect their member’s choices and preferences and have defined and enforceable laws guiding their conducts  not subject to multiple subjective interpretations.

 It will greatly advance the course of democracy in Nigeria. From what we have come to know, politicians do not like unequivocal definitive rules, they want to leave loopholes making it possible to swing the law as they please rather than conform.

Unfortunately, when they are the victims they cry to all ends but when they are the beneficiaries they extol it. I believe that if you make the laws definitive and practice it, everyone will behave knowing there is a standard for everyone. I say the proposed changes are revolutionary because even in advanced democracies, they also experienced hegemonic resistance of elites to electoral reforms because politicians always want the laws to be in their electoral favour.

So reluctance to electoral reforms by political elites is not peculiar to Nigerian politicians?

Of course, such resistance is not unique to us, in fact, in the case of Britain, the long period of reluctance  was despite evidence of vote buying, intimidation and abuses such as many cases of employers punishing employees who ignored their instructions on who to vote for and how to vote.

So given some of the proposals introduced by the Senate, I can tell you based on my field experience that they will positively impact the credibility of elections if fully implemented because the devil really is implementation. The work of the Senate in this respect is a great leap which is not easy for politicians to make but they have acted like statesmen and women with a consensus that indicates that sanity is required for the common good for a better polity.

It was such common consensus by German politicians that led to the German Political Party Basic Law or Article 21 that regulates political party behavior to ensure that political parties in Germany do not endanger the normative commitment of the German state to democratic practices.

  What do you make of the fact that nothing is done in the area of election petition management as to whether a petition should be disposed of before swearing in of winners and ‘burden of proof’ whether it should be on INEC and the issue of need for electoral offences Commission?

The question of litigation when people have been sworn into office is a fundamental one that needs to be addressed. This is despite efforts made in reduction of time with the amendment of Section 285 of the constitution. We should go back to the practice in 1979 and 1983 when all election petitions are resolved before people are sworn-in to avoid the use of public funds to prosecute individual political aspiration litigation and to avoid distraction of office holders from governing.  On the question of burden of proof, I have always maintained and have demonstrated by personal field example that the burden of proof of how well an election was conducted, if challenged, should first be placed on the umpire that conducted the election; made the return and also was in custody of the entire materials used for the election in line with the provision of the Evidence Act sections 136 subsection (2) in particular and section 140. This burden of proof is not static and would shift to the petitioner who has petitioned, but first the umpire should place all relevant material evidence before the tribunal before it is shifted to the petitioner. Election matters are sui generis and of a special class that are usually treated differently in terms of practice and procedure.

Recourse to section 131 of the Evidence Act provision that whoever asserts has the onus of proof on the basis of which petitioners are placed with the back-breaking burden of proof should not be extended to election matters like other civil proceedings.

Election Managers have both legal and moral duty to explain to the tribunal in rebuttal of the claims of the petitioner that they complied with the electoral legal framework in the conduct of the election and that the evidence trail  substantially conforms with the election result as declared. On the question of what appears to be a loud silence over the general call since 1999 for the establishment of an Electoral Offences Commission, l wish to say that, every commendable efforts made so far to reform the electoral process will amount to nothing if electoral offenders are not tried and sent to jail.

 In effect, you are calling for punishment of electoral offenders to stop election rigging and manipulation?

Absolutely, l’m calling for increased targeted deterrence because it is trite criminal axiom that a rewarded and unpunished wrongful act would be repeated. This is the problem and the tragedy of our country seeing people who have been engaged by highly placed individuals to undermine elections, walk freely and beneficiaries of patronage that should be in prison, occupy exalted public offices in the land. For me, rather than go for a permanent Commission with all the problems of another bureaucracy, corruption and the politics of who should head such Commission and mode of appointment and such Commission becoming another national headache, l propose that  some carefully selected judges be made to constitute an Electoral Offences Tribunal with units across the country, like the election petition tribunal to be inaugurated from the time of commencement of voters registration when the act of rigging election begins with politicians colluding with registration officers.

If the Tribunal is able to convict as many offenders as possible, many people would be restrained and afraid to violate or allow themselves to be used during the main election for rigging. We can also adopt the practice of other countries like U S and even in Kenya  where all divisions of court are on standby on Election Day to deal with cases brought before them over electoral violations.

For example, in the Kenya general election of 4th March 2013 that l was part of the observer team, the Campaign Manager of a Member of Parliament was arrested by the police over money-for-votes bribery of voters. Several envelopes containing cash were found on him, he was immediately arraigned, tried, convicted and sentenced a day after for three years imprisonment while the election was still ongoing. It was a significant message sent by the Court as a deterrent to others who want to indulge in such conduct; that electoral manipulation is unacceptable. That is the kind of thing we should see happen here in Nigeria rather than reward electoral offenders and those who sponsor them to undermine the electoral process.

You have been very critical of your constituency, the judiciary and the role of lawyers over the 2015 Election. How can the Judiciary help to stem the tide of electoral irregularities and fraud?

Yes, I have been critical of my constituency in many respects borne out of  my love for the noble profession, as one calling that is not only to earn a living but as one profession that has a special place in a society for the maintenance and preservation of social order. Lawyers either in the bar or bench are supposed to be trusted and that is the reason why people go to lawyers  to solve their problems but we are today losing the trust and relevance because of the collapse of values and professional ethics. We have jettisioned and sacrificed integrity and honour hitherto associated with lawyers because of politicians who are ever ready to buy their way to keep power not minding the damage to our institutions as we have witnessed in this country. But see what our colleagues in the bench at the level of the Supreme Court  did in Kenya annulling a presidential election for failure by the IEBC to adhere to what it called the “dictates of the constitution” even though we are still awaiting for the detailed reasons of the court.

That was what the Supreme Court should have done here with the 2007 presidential election conducted seriously in breach of both the constitution and the Act when ballot papers were not serialised and some ballot papers for the same election where still in South Africa. Standards and ethical values are falling in our society. Our colleagues, especially a few celebrated senior ones that should show good examples are not doing so but have abandoned long held and cherished legal traditions and practices for short term expedient benefits at the expense of core value of professional integrity. We now see Lawyers in court fighting over representation of litigants, when they have not been briefed, Lawyers instituting multiple suits on same matters and parties in different courts or Judges of concurrent jurisdiction literally sitting on appeal over decision of sister courts, cases of lower court judgments that defied precedents laid by the Supreme Court, cases of illogical legal hermeneutics and corruption related problems. If you love the profession, you cannot help but be concerned by these ugly developments and the devastating image crisis, even for the many respected and upright members of the profession in both the bar and the bench. High profile election petition matters since 1999 created a nursery for these issues to breed by fertilizing them with gargantuan rewards. We have a professional obligation to see the inherent dangers and to stem them.

Are you attributing most of the failure of performance to structural gridlock as the advocates of Restructuring maintain?

We should be honest enough and be able to tell ourselves inconvenient truths by acknowledging the genuine and patriotic argument of those you referred to as advocates of re-organisation or restructuring, which is necessary for self-discovery, for the attainment of the potentials of the country instead of stagnation. More governments would come and go and we will not make real progress with this kind of gridlock that we find ourselves except we return to the original template of 1960 independence federal arrangement that brought about the phenomenal competitive developments in the first Republic.

Recall our excitement for  independence and the lofty aspiration then about the potential and greatness of Nigeria, which led to the declaration by United States President J.F Kennedy then that, ”a great child had been born in Africa that would be like America in twelve years’ time”. Today how old is Nigeria as an independent country ? l’m asking you . Almost 57 years and here we are still grappling with the intricacies of how to even live together as a people. American greatness and prosperity is inconceivable if every Secretary of the Treasury of the 50 states in the US or commissioners of finance as  will have them here, will have to be going to Washington DC at the end of every month to collect allocations to run those states. The counties and states are centres of development in the US but in Nigeria states are castrated by laws that took control of all resources and so do nothing and at the end of the month commissioners go to Abuja to collect allocation to run the states. It is illogical to operate with this assumption, that the federal government can address the multifarious problems of localities from a central point and here lies the burden of expectation from a tier of government far away from the people.

Are you saying that progress will be difficult if not impossible if states are not given more autonomy on several matters?

Let me give you an example from Delta State, where there is a federal road from Amukpe/Agalokpe through Eku down to Agbor, that has remained impassable for years since when l was in secondary school till date. To go to my place, that normally would have been less than 30 minutes from Amukpe through Aghalokpe, Oviore, Ovu Okpara down to kokori, now you have to go round and round through Warri for over an hour which is  a circumvention of the route.

Why should we have a federal road that no federal official of significance go through and the owner is not even aware that such a structure has become a death trap, whereas that road ought to have been the responsibility of the state which has tried to maintain it over time ?  This is why we must re-examine exigently the case for restructuring, it must be seen from the point of view of how to unburden the federal and state authorities from many needless obligations that the constitution has erroneously concentrated to them, and therefore we need to have a bottom-up participatory development model for our democratic efforts, otherwise government may expend much efforts but not much impact will be felt. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote glowingly of American federalism, it was because of the significant bottom-up model where counties and towns had an effective structure for addressing local problems locally. Tocqueville said that Federalism enabled  national government to focus on primary public obligations “a small number of objects,” he stressed, “sufficiently prominent to attract its attention”, leaving society’s countless “secondary affairs” for the local governance structures.

What I am saying simply is that given the right federal technical assistance, the rice farmers in Kebbi, Asaba, Southern Plateau and Ebonyi local governments can plan and implement a more sustainable rice production strategy and we can extrapolate this to many other spheres.

But some public officials claim that they rely on metrics such as the consumer price index, employment rate and economic growth, in fact some elected governors are claiming that they have until 2019 to demonstrate their impact believing that even when they start slowly they can finish strongly; are they wrong in this assumption?

First, they do not have until 2019. Between now and the general election in February 2019, they actually have only about four effective months for actual governance free of distraction now that we are in September . Next year 2018 is election preparation year, filled with activities such as party primaries, nominations, conventions and the expected fallouts of these exercises in form of litigations and more such as politicians jumping from one party to another coupled with campaigns. So, next year is out for meaningful business of governance regrettably. Then the general election is in February 2019 that office holders are erroneously referring to as enough time, but which is not available at all.  In fact, between September 2017 and February 2019 you have basically four months of what is left of this year only for effective governance and by the time you comply with the  6 weeks adverts required by the Procurement Act and another 5 months for the entire due process before embarking on the execution of significant projects, they basically have no meaningful time left for real governance. This means that they must either have begun whatever they plan to do in this first two years to finish strongly, otherwise they must have trustworthy and effective delegates to hand the task to in the intensely political period that is left. On the metrics you referred to, yes they can impact on some of them, if they take steps to increase productivity, but not all the factors are fully under the control of the public sector. We need clear quantitative and qualitative indicators for public sector performance to measure progress towards desired outcomes.

 What will be the expected desired outcome for measuring the service delivery of INEC for instance?

Here in Akwa lbom state under my watch, credible, transparent and acceptable election would be the key metrics for INEC performance. We are not where we should be yet but Nigerians could attest to the fact that since 2011, 2015 up till date, the Commission has made steady progress in developing innovative electoral service delivery templates, starting with the successful nationwide compilation of biometric voters register, followed by the production of the PVC and the introduction of the Smart Card Readers that marked a paradigm shift  as well as brought about tremendous hope of electoral integrity and credibility. With all sense of modesty, some people have also argued that the progress made so far is unequalled in our prior quest to build an electoral system that would sustain our democracy. Unlike the 2003 and 2007 era, now no more pre-writing of election results in Government Houses, announcement and declaration of governorship  election results in INEC Headquarters in Abuja instead of the states where the elections were conducted and other forms of organised electoral fraud  supervised by the State in the name of election. The steady incremental progress made so far by the Commission can be measured as evidenced by the elections conducted since 2011 and as we look forward to the 2019 elections for further improvement, especially with the proposed new amendments by the Senate to strengthen the card reader, instead of a reversal of the thresholds that we have crossed. Furthermore, periodic, credible and acceptable elections is the key expectation from INEC to meet the minimal goal of democracy while those elected and appointed must fulfill  the maximal goal of democracy through well thought out  policy options and priorities to deliver development to the people.

 Given the concern many express with our educational system, should INEC be concerned because of its reliance on NYSC for most of the Ad-Hoc personnel used during General elections?

Beyond the needs of INEC we should all be generally concerned. Quality education is the nursery of a nation’s future, not to pay attention to the quality and outcome of the public and private education  at offer in the country is like  a specie eating its own eggs; It will go extinct. Take  the recent JAMB admission cut-off point  dropped to 120 out of 400 marks; that is quite a regression. The way I see it, if you want to improve education you can’t do it by lowering standards, if the scores are low, it should mean that fewer people qualify or meet the standard. There was a time in this country when only 10 people in a school of 80 made WAEC, the standards were not dropped to give more students good grades, they studied harder to make up. I guess the point is evident that we are not educating our people for their utility in Society but mainly to earn grades or earn paper certificates. We should have a strategic approach to education based on our needs and the aspirations of our people. We need a complete 360 degrees on   the purpose of our education. What are our critical human resource needs for development, how are we working towards those targets from our education policies? We cannot just be going through the motions, if we seek genuine answers to such questions, we will not need to worry about the quality of NYSC Corpers we will get for future elections.