•To spend N2bn on voter registration, Anambra election
By Chuks Okocha
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is ready for early and Diaspora voting if the 1999 Constitution as altered and the Electoral Act 2010 as altered are amended to allow for them, the Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, told the Senate yesterday.
Speaking while defending the commission’s 2021 estimates, he said the agency was eager to have Nigerians living in foreign countries participate in the electoral process.
Yakubu explained that early voting would enable essential service providers like the police, members of the armed forces, INEC’s ad hoc staff, journalists and others to exercise their franchise either before or during the elections.
He said diplomatic staff in foreign missions as well as participants in the Technical Aid Corps (TAC) will also be able to vote when the relevant legal instruments are put in place.
He said: “The commission is desirous of giving Nigerians living abroad the right to vote, after all, all our neighbouring countries do so. But it requires the amendment to the constitution and the Electoral Act for that to happen.
“And we have already worked out the document. Once the law is amended today, we can roll out. We are ready. We have had several meetings with the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) but we can’t go beyond what the law provides.”
On some groups who are often disenfranchised during the election, the INEC boss said such essential workers can either vote before or on election day when there is a relevant legal provision to support the idea.
According to him, “It is not just those in the armed services, the police involved in election duty, journalists, INEC ad-hoc staff and some INEC staff don’t vote.
“The reason is that you are posted for election duty to places other than where you are registered, and the law says you vote where you are registered.
“So, if you pass some amendments to the Electoral Act to enable people to vote, there are two solutions perhaps: Early voting, so that those involved in election duty can vote early or major reform of electoral legal framework to allow people to vote wherever they are.”
He said 20 months after the conclusion of the 2019 general election, INEC is still battling with about 1,700 cases filed by aggrieved parties.
He unveiled plans by the commission to spend N1 billion each for the conduct of the forthcoming Anambra State governorship election and the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR), respectively.
However, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on INEC, Senator Kabiru Gaya, challenged the election management body to urgently work out a special remuneration package for its staff in view of their enormous responsibilities.
Yakubu said that the CVR would commence in the first quarter of 2021, adding that the exercise will last for 18 months, which is six months to the 2023 general election.
He said INEC was spending between N3 million and N4.5 million to prosecute each pending case.
He explained: “Each time anyone goes to court, INEC is joined, but we have to hire lawyers to defend us. We are not paying a fantastic fee, we are applying the Federal Ministry of Justice scale of fees.
“If for instance, you have a case for governorship election before the Supreme Court, it’s a maximum of N4.5 million but others could be as low as N3 million. We are almost getting close to 1,700 pre-election and post-election cases in 2019 alone, and every day you hear people going to court and joining INEC. We will continue to do what we can within available resources.”
According to him, the legal department of the agency has about 860 pre-election and 807 post-election cases, adding that the figure is rising.
Yakubu told reporters that the commission has resolved to draw N6.2 billion from its N10 billion INEC Fund, which was established in 2010 to augment its 2020 budget shortfall.
He said: “The commission cannot be independent unless it is financially independent. There are some activities that happen that are time-bound or bound by some specific provisions of the constitution that the commission has to undertake.
“So, the fund was established to allow the commission to discharge those responsibilities.
It was established in 2010 but there was no cause to spend from it, and from the last five years, this commission did not spend from it.
“But what has happened now is our budget for 2020 dropped to N40 billion from N45.5 billion in 2019. And as a result of the 10 per cent COVID-19 cut, it further dropped to N36 billion in the middle of the year when we had already made preparations for expenditure.
“Therefore, since that fund is made for the rainy days, I informed the committee that the rainy day has come. So we are taking part of the fund to balance our budget for this year.”
He added: “For the Continuous Voter Registration, the commission intends to resume voter registration in the first quarter of 2021. And once we resume, it will be continuous for one-and-half years, at least until six months to the next general election.
“In other words, the commission is not going to resume voter registration for a week, two weeks or a month but we are working out the details.”
On the request by the committee that the INEC should urgently implement an enhanced salary structure for its staff, Yakubu said: “I remember when this matter was discussed last year, you specifically tasked the committee to come back with suggestions and ideas on how we can enhance salary remuneration.
“We promised to discuss with the National Salaries Income and Wages Commission and we will come back to see what can be done. We have not gone far on this matter mainly because there were many distractions.
“Essentially, COVID-19 came in and the nation was shut down and after COVID-19 we were confronted with two major elections – Edo and Ondo governorship.
“I assure you we will resume our discussions with the relevant agencies to see how we can get a totally different salary structure for INEC for the kind of work the commission staff are involved in. It is work in progress.”
In his reaction, a member of the committee, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, said the National Assembly in carrying out electoral reforms, would ensure that the people that INEC relies on to be able to do their work as an umpire are also immune or sanctified against unnecessary temptations.
Bamidele said: “We believe this issue of enhanced remuneration must be addressed. It is something that should be addressed because it is important.
“We will appreciate it if you can report back in the next three months specifically on this issue and if it requires any form of legislative action on our part this committee would be happy to work with the Senate Committee on Establishment and other relevant committees that can sit down with both INEC and relevant authorities to address the issue.”