The Resident Electoral Commissioner in Akwa Ibom State, Barrister Mike Igini fields questions from Jonathan Eze on burning issues around the electoral process and the 2019 national elections
The 2019 Electoral guideline Introduced by INEC did not go down well with some political stakeholders, how do you address this controversy?
The commission has addressed much of what needs to be attended to on the matter of the guidelines for the 2019 election. In any event, it is part of the inclusive policy of the commission to engage key stakeholders prior to final decision on some matters. It’s not unusual to have observations or opinions over some provisions of the proposed guidelines especially one that is meant for election, because no policy made to influence or modify human behavior can be perfect. What happened is consistent with the policy process, which is to present policy statement, have stakeholder inputs and perfect it, even after that you will still need to evaluate it for outcome impacts to meet the best requirements to ensure that the electoral process meets the expected benchmarks. The commission decided in 2011 when it was pioneering the biometric register, the use of temporary voters card (TVC) now PVC and later card reader in 2015 to do separate accreditation and voting with the intention of reverting back to the process of continuous accreditation and voting at the same time which is best practice around the world. It was expedient then to do seperate accreditation before voting and even at that Nigerians decried the idea because many people who have been accredited don’t usually return back during voting. We are done with experimentation of that stage and since the inauguration of the Prof. Mahmood Yakubu’s commission starting with Kogi governorship election, the process of continuous accreditation and voting was reverted back to and has been the practice in over 190 elections conducted in various constituencies and there has been no problem. So, why this sudden apprehension over a procedure that has been reverted back to since 2015 elections? In any case, after the close of the poll, the presiding officer must ascertain the total number of accredited voters on the card reader and compare with the hard copy of voters register ticked and figures reconciled and recorded in the presence of party agents and duly accredited observers. Only parties that are fielding candidates entitled to party agents and so they should have their party agents in all polling units. Stakeholders inputs is good practice and an exemplary illustration of how public policy should be enacted and now we must attend to its implementation.
Some people feel that the refusal of the Presidenst to sign the Electoral Bill might spell doom for the 2019 elections. Are those fears justified?
The absence of a new electoral act should not be a basis for not having a credible elections in 2019 because the commission is one of the executive bodies created by the constitution under section 153, the same constitution donated to INEC to the exclusion of any other body under paragraph 15 of the third schedule, the power to “organise, undertake and supervise” the conduct of elections into certain offices listed in the constitution. To strengthen the commission as an independent body and deliberately so on matters of exercise of “power and procedure” section 160 of the constitution says, “….any of the bodies may with the approval of the president, by rules or otherwise regulate its own procedure or confer powers and impose duties on any officer or authority for the purpose of discharging its functions; provided that in the case of the lndependent National Electoral Commission, its powers to make its own rules or otherwise regulate its own procedure shall not be subject to the approval or control of the president” . Why we are talking of doom? INEC is the only body granted this unfettered power to determine the best operational rules and procedures that would enable it conduct credible elections by providing a level playing field. Any apocalyptic projection of doom about the 2019 election should be more about the violence that politicians are planning to use to undermine the electoral process through recruitment of thugs, importation of fake army and police uniforms some of which have been intercepted by custom service and the various security reports of arms buildup by politicians.
What are the implications of that refusal on the elections?
The immediate effect is that some desirable reforms are in abeyance and as I said earlier, the 2015 amendments of some of the provisions of the principal Act are profound and revolutionary indeed to consolidate our electoral process. Specifically, section 52(2) says, “Voting at an election under this Act shall be in accordance with the procedure determined by the lndependent National Electoral Commission”. What else do we really need again at least for now? This new amendment that was signed into law just before the 2015 election has removed the prohibition earlier placed on the use of ICT. Although, for some strange and curious reasons if any at all, this amendment that clearly allows the use of any technological means such as the smart card reader to assist our electoral process was not made available to the public even during sittings of the election tribunals up to the Supreme Court when the status of the card reader was in issue. Even without this amendment of the Act, the constitution is supreme and its provisions shall have binding force on all authorities and persons. So, the provision of section 160 of the constitution l quoted earlier which the electoral Act has now adopted is clear on the powers given to INEC to make its own rules and determine the procedure to be used in the conduct of election. This is the basis of my humble disagreement with the opinion of my learned Justices of the supreme court on the Card Reader in the 2015 election that l expressed in the various interviews l granted after its judgment.
INEC has reportedly said that it would conduct the 2019 polls with the existing Electoral Act and continue with piloting of e-transmission that some interest are opposed to for fear of manipulation
For those who doubt it, I urge them to read section 52 (2) l quoted earlier and take note of the word “shall” in relation to the power of INEC. Do people realize that in the entire constitution and the electoral Act, you will not find the word “accreditation” yet it is a common and popular word used by voters but only found in INEC guidelines and manuals that it has power to issue under sections 73 and 153 of the Act for the conduct of election. Without any doubt, both the constitution and the Act provide ample legal ambit for INEC to determine the procedures for elections. What we have been doing in Nigeria is different from the Kenyan situation of 2013 that people wrongly refer to. Electronic transmission of election results legitimizes the manual step by step statutory recording in section 73 of the Electoral Act from polling units to the last point of collation and has been in pilot stage since the 2012 Governorship election in Cross River state when l was the commissioner and has been used in several elections since then as pilot.
You said in a recent interview that INEC would ensure that the votes of the Nigerians count. How does it hope to do that this time around, going by recent accusations alleged rigging during manual collation of results?
The commission despite all the challenges besetting election is putting in place systemic safeguards to make it difficult for reprobate election riggers to undermine the system. The use of the card reader has brought a tremendous energy of hope and integrity to the accreditation process and enthrone the principle of one-person-one-vote to make multiple voting impossible, redesigning the voting booths to mitigate vote-buying is another measure, as well as steps taken to ensure that the results are not tampered with after polling unit results have been declared on the way to or at collation centres. In any case, we are making steady progress in our electoral process as evidenced by the 2011, 2015 and the various off-season elections that we have conducted which are of remarkable departure from previous elections in terms of significant improvement of process, outcome and legitimacy. Sadly, elections have become a zero sum game and this largely accounts for the heightened tension around the 2019 elections arising from over-zealousness of candidates and competing political groups to win at all cost. We need a whole of society reset to correct these anomalies by creating beneficial opportunities in society beyond enrichment from political participation or we will continue to find people who are desperate to beat the system as we try to improve it.
How bad is the issue of vote buying to the success of the 2019 general elections and the development of Nigeria’s democracy?
Vote buying is inimical to development because once votes are sold to the highest bidder elections which are meant to hold elected officials accountable for their actions and promises will lose its utility. I have said previously and I will say again that the best response is enforcement of sections 124 and 130 that clearly spelt out these electoral offences in the Act. As long as there are no consequences and people flout electoral laws with impunity, whatever we say is worthless talk, every wrong doing that is not punished or that is rewarded would be repeated. There should be consequences such as jail terms, outright ban from participation in politics and possibly life ban for some people after conviction.
You have expressed concern over alleged plans by the political class to perpetrate violence in the elections. Can you explain that, in the light of the recent peace accord signed by some of the presidential candidates?
We have read several reports of arms catches found in imported containers, accumulation of arms and trained thugs by some groups, all these have informed reports by some international security institutions about Nigeria. Why would people employ such means to win election? Have you seen our political elites fight over matters that have direct bearing on the common people such as secured streets, better housing and better healthcare? No rather these high stake fights in which people employ hired killers, thugs and so forth only occur because elections have become an investment for reaping high rewards. That is why l have been calling on embassies and high commissions in Nigeria to map and identify key political actors who are planning this violence as a means of winning elections, suspend their visas, deny them and their families of any exit to their countries until after the 2019 election, so that whatever they create here they should also salvage it here with their families.
You seem critical of the political elite, whom you have described as a threat to Nigeria’s democracy. Why do you think they have continued to have a huge influence in the country?
They are the real problem of the country and that is the truth. The whole tension around 2019 election is created by them as they continue to de-market the country as unstable. I am critical of the elite because the progress of society emanates from the quality of decisional choices made by the ruling political elite. No nation can rise and progress beyond the value orientation of its political elites. We have been independent for over 58 years and we have been making excuses for our limited development because of elite separatism, we can’t keep making these excuses. Having accepted to have a democratic state we should aspire to democratic values and not indulge in undemocratic practices. You can see from the party primaries that we have just witnessed, the bitterness and the in-fighting as example of the type of values the political elite indulge in, none wants to follow any laid down rules except they are forced to do so, everyone wants to act by his own prescriptions. If you ask me why they have continued in the country, I will say, it is only because the Nigerian people have not reached the point of self-actualization, majority are poor and not enlightened, standard of living is still very low and so the PVC is now an instrument to satisfy immediate needs of the stomach and this is what our political elites are taking advantage of at the moment, when Nigerians reach the point of self-actualization, they will hold everyone in public office to a higher benchmark and insist on better service delivery in all spheres.
What should young Nigerians do to put things right and save the country’s democracy?
It is not just young Nigerians but all Nigerians as a collective, because even among the young, we still see some of these aberrant behaviour of self-aggrandisement, overzealous craving to please the self at the expense of the collective, l am even more worried that the younger ones might be worse than those we are complaining about who were bad role models. We need to define what benefits every Nigerian is entitled to and how to judiciously work towards providing it equitably. We cannot sustain this Hobbesian system we are currently cultivating.
Should Nigerians count on the promise by INEC that there would be no use of the incident form in 2019 elections?
In the recent elections conducted by the Commission, incident forms were not used and that is a clear confirmation of the question that you have asked. The Commission has re-designed the register of voters to record or incident failed authentication by collecting such voters’ biometrics. When the polling officer see that they match with the individual in terms of looks, age and the only issue is the biometric, it is collected there so that should if there is need for forensic analysis later, it can be determined. This process has consigned the use of incident forms to the dustbin of infamous electoral history.
Will the cancellation of that option not raise the issue of disenfranchisement of voters whose voter cards could not be read by the card reader?
All genuine INEC printed PVCs are 100% read by the Card Reader. In all the elections that l have conducted there had been no incident of failure of SCR to read genuine PVCs of the Commission. The challenge as at 2015 apart from the deliberate sabotage of the card reader was the issue of authentication of biometrics and that has been fixed.
All eyes are on Akwa Ibom State, where you are the REC. PDP has alleged the planned use of federal might and the drama in that state is endless. Are you worried about what is to come?
I have made it known to all that we will provide a level playing field for all. I am resolute to ensure that the people of Akwa-Ibom state only will determine the outcome of the elections by their votes and only through their votes as cast in the ballot, we are focused on the endeavour to give meaning and purpose to the ballot as the best and only legitimate means of acquiring power in a democracy. Under my watch, original results sheets and ballot papers shall be delivered to the entire 2,980 polling units in the 31 LGAs and these original result sheets would be audited and verified by duly accredited party agents and observers before commencement of the poll by 8am.
On the so-called might that you journalists keep talking about, INEC elections are not local government so-called “elections” conducted by states where all contested offices are won 100% by the party in government where they use what you call might. The damage that the states are doing to our democracy in the 774 LGAs is terrible and if replicated in INEC conducted elections, there will be widespread disruption of public life and an end to this democracy. So, no such might in the commission’s conducted elections except the voters donate that might by their free choice. We should be careful because any might that is not right in a democracy is not sustainable. We might be federal but should be seen and regarded like a cock in the community that belongs to one man but its early morning crow is for the entire neighborhood. INEC will work for all Nigerians contesting elections and provide a level playing field for all. l urge all the competing political groups to remember that they are like candidates for examination and the voters are the examiners, no examination candidate behaves badly before their examiners.