INEC’s Mixed Bag of Progress, 27 Years After June 12

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Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes that Nigeria’s frequently vilified electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission has made more positive contributions to the advancement of the electoral process, over the years, than its critics are willing to admit

With preparations for the Edo and Ondo governorship elections scheduled for September 19 and October 20, 2020 respectively already in full gear, and going by his current body language, Mahmood Yakubu, Professor of History and first Oxbridge graduate to head the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) appears determined to square up to any political party that may attempt to disorganise any of the impending elections.

Yakubu left no one in doubt about INEC’s resolve when he spoke on “Democracy and Elections in West Africa,” at a recent virtual meeting organized by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in collaboration with the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD). He declared matter-of-factly that the Commission would not declare the results if politicians disrupted both elections.

The INEC Chairman’s stern warning will not surprise Nigerians who have not yet forgotten what happened in broad daylight during the last Kogi and Bayelsa governorship elections. Despite the presence of over 23,000 security personnel, political thugs still managed to invade some polling units in Kogi state, disrupted activities and carted election materials away. Some 345 kilometres away in Bayelsa State where another governorship election was in progress, heavily armed militants also disrupted the process in some areas in spite of the robust security arrangement in place. Some civil society organisations argued then that INEC should not have declared the results despite what they claimed were electoral infractions. But the Commission, in response, said there was no sufficient reason to withhold the results. Its headquarters did not receive strong field reports indicating severe distress from both states to warrant the use of its sledgehammer.

The credibility of elections and the electoral system in Nigeria have consistently been a topical matter. From time immemorial, the electoral umpire has always been in the eye of the storm, due to the highly charged, do-or-die nature of politics in Nigeria. Although, Prof Humphrey Nwosu is being praised today for conducting what has been variously described as a free and fair Presidential election on June 12 1993 in which Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola emerged the winner, he was vilified at the time and forced to go underground by the military junta that eventually annulled the election. Fast forward to 1999. From that period to 2019, all the Presidential Elections but one conducted by INEC have been challenged in court. Characteristically, Nigerian politicians do not believe that they can lose an election. When they don’t win, it means the election was rigged.

Whereas, Prof Attahiru Jega, like Nwosu, is being commended today for conducting a credible General Election in 2015, the same Jega was pilloried after the 2011 General Election and it was so bad that he could not even visit his hometown for a long time after that election. Some analysts have attributed Jega’s “luck” to the fact that the opposition won in 2015. In that sense, Yakubu was not so “lucky” in 2019.

Two opposing sides have since emerged over the results of 2019 General Election. On the one side are those who insist that the elections were free, fair and credible, while the other group consists of those who are also convinced that the Presidential Election was rigged. Interestingly, majority of those in the latter group are supporters and sympathisers of the parties that lost out. In any case, the matter ended up at the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal (PEPT) and went up to the Supreme Court where the election was finally validated.

However, some questions have continued to generate interest among Nigerians: Should INEC really be blamed for the failures of the electoral system? Is the law – the 1999 Constitution and the 2010 Electoral Act (as amended) to blame? What about the political class and the voters? When INEC, for instance, prepares for an election and security challenges undermine the process on election day, who should be held responsible?

An analysis of some actions taken by the Yakubu-led Commission since 2015 offer some insight into its real intentions. A glimpse at the background shows that he was screened on the floor of the Senate in October 2015 just before he assumed office, Senators asked Yakubu several questions, bordering on what his priorities would be, the integrity of the electoral process, diaspora voting, independence of INEC, logistic challenges on election day, voter registration, distribution of Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs), the legality of supplementary elections and many others. Of all the answers and affirmations Yakubu gave on that, one of them stands out.

When asked if he would ensure the integrity of the electoral process and protect INEC’s independence, Yakubu responded: “I want to assure distinguished Senators and Nigerians that no election conducted under my watch will be won and lost at INEC headquarters. If you want to win elections, go and canvass for votes of the Nigerian people. Our responsibility is to protect the interest, integrity and sanctity of the decision taken by Nigerians. Never again will elections be won and lost at the INEC headquarters, at headquarters of the State Electoral Commissions and by the Electoral Officers at the local government areas. This will be a thing of the past.”

Has Yakubu kept his promise?

From off-season, end-of-tenure to 2019 General Elections

Upon his inauguration with five National Commissioners – Solomon Soyebi, Baba Shettima Arfo, Amina Zakari, Mustafa Lecky and Anthonia Okoosi-Simbine – on November 9, 2015, Yakubu soon realized that he had 15,558 constituencies, spread across 119,970 polling units, 8,809 wards, 774 Local Government Areas, 36 States and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in which to conduct the 2019 General Election and the FCT Area Council Elections. He also had to conduct several off- season elections along the way, the first set of which were the Kogi and Bayelsa Governorship elections held on 21st November and 5th December 2015 respectively. But Kogi presented a unique challenge, in that the leading contender suddenly died during the process, leading to some confusion because the extant laws never envisaged that type of scenario. But INEC solved it eventually.

Between August 15, 2016 when the Katsina Central Constituency bye-election was conducted to November 17, 2018 when the Ekiti/Irepodun/Isin/Oke-Ero Federal Constituency bye- election was held just before the 2019 General Election, INEC had conducted elections into 195 constituencies at the Federal, State and Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Area Council levels to fill executive and legislative seats. The categories include end-of-tenure elections, those resulting from nullification by judgments of election petition and appeal tribunals, and those occasioned by the deaths of incumbents. Significantly, only two results of the 195 elections were over-turned by the courts.

As at today, the Commission is preparing for elections into 11 constituencies comprising Edo and Ondo governorship, National and State Assembly elections involving 62 Local Governments Areas, 687 Registration Areas, 9,149 Polling Units and 6,454,950 registered voters. A total of 62, 697 election staff will be needed for the various exercises.

A source at the Commission observed that while this onerous task of conducting multiple elections which had kept the Commission constantly busy all year round in each of the last four years is often overlooked, it is capable of derailing democratic rule if not properly handled. “For a Commission having less than 16,000 staff overall, this can indeed be burdensome,” the source said, adding, “we have lost some our staff in the line of duty arising from these elections.”

The seven off season governorship elections held in Kogi, Bayelsa, Anambra, Edo, Ondo, Ekiti and Osun states have been also described as a mixed bag. However, Bayelsa and Anambra governorship elections were special. It was in Bayelsa that the Commission introduced the concept of Simultaneous Accreditation and Voting which significantly improved voters’ experience at the polling unit on election day. The concept was introduced following the discovery that the previous method whereby the voters were first accredited, sent home and required to come back and cast their ballots hours later, resulted in the loss of over two million votes during the 2015 General Elections. This figure represented the number of persons that were accredited but never returned to the polling units to vote for various reasons.

The Anambra governorship election was also significant because the Form EC60E or People’s Result Sheet, in which results of the election were recorded and pasted at the individual polling unit level was introduced for the first time. This enabled political party agents, election observers and other interested persons to tabulate and calculate the number of votes cast at each polling unit, collate the results and compare with the official results released by the Commission.

The Zamfara Quagmire

In the last four years, INEC has taken some courageous decisions. When the All Progressives Congress (APC) failed to hold its primaries in Zamfara State within the period of August 18 to October 7, 2018 slated for the conduct of party primaries as contained in the Timetable and Schedule of Activities for the 2019 General Election released by INEC on January 9, 2018, the Commission told the APC that it would not be in the position to present candidates for the election. But several interest groups, including the APC went to court to challenge INEC’s decision. Just before the election, the subsisting court judgment at the time ordered INEC to include APC on the ballot for the Governorship, National Assembly and State Assembly elections which the Commission complied with. However, after the elections, a Court of Appeal judgement and later a Supreme Court judgement agreed with INEC that the APC did not conduct valid primaries and declared that the votes cast for the party in all the elections were “wasted”. INEC was then ordered to recognize the runners-up as winners.

Rivers: Zero Tolerance for Interference

Following widespread disruptions that occurred during the collation of results of the Rivers State Governorship election held on March 9, 2019, INEC suspended the entire process the next day, set up a Fact-Finding Committee which submitted its findings within 48 hours. The Commission declared on that occasion that it would not condone any interference with its activities by soldiers and armed gangs. The process was eventually concluded in April and the winner was announced.

Deregistration of Political Parties

In compliance with the provisions of the extant laws, INEC registered five political parties in June 2017, 21 in December 2017, 23 in August 2018 and by the time the Commission conducted the 2019 general election, the number had risen to a record 91. A total of 73 candidates contested for the office of President, 1,068 for Governor, 1,904 for Senate, 4,680 for House of Representatives, 14, 785 for State House of Assembly and 806 for the Federal Capital Territory.

So, 23, 316 candidates vied for 1,558 positions. Instructively, according to the 2019 Presidential Election Result, only two political parties scored a whooping 26 million out of the 27.3 million valid votes cast. The implication is that 89 others shared the remaining 869,000 votes. In fact, one political party scored 732 votes. Yet, the sheer number of political parties (91) significantly increased the cost of the last general election.

The Commission invoked its powers and deregistered 74 political parties that did not fulfill the statutory requirements in the national elections held in February this year, leaving only 18. While some of the deregistered parties promptly challenged INEC’s powers in court, three court judgements delivered recently have affirmed the Commission’s powers and correctness in deregistering them.

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Should INEC really be blamed for the failures of the electoral system? Is the law – the 1999 Constitution and the 2010 Electoral Act (as amended) to blame? What about the political class and the voters? When INEC, for instance, prepares for an election and security challenges undermine the process on election day, who should be held responsible? An analysis of some actions taken by the Yakubu-led Commission since 2015 offer some insight into its real intentions