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ELECTIONS: WE ARE ON THE RIGHT TRACK  -  INEC CHAIRMAN

( News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) Forum Interview with INEC Chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega, OFR) 

We would like you to make an appraisal of your sojourn so far as INEC Chairman. You’ve spent some 23 months in office. How well thus far and what did you meet?

JEGA: It’s been 23 months of very hectic work, very challenging work; but I must say very satisfactory work from our own point of view. We cannot underestimate the enormity of the challenges. We have done our best under the circumstances, although there are still challenges with the ways in which elections are conducted which make many Nigerians still disappointed in what INEC does. We believe that we’ve done quite a lot to lift the bar in terms of transparency and the credibility of the electoral process.

The challenge for us as we move towards 2015 is to learn the lessons of all the elections we have so far conducted, and to continue to plan and to improve upon the conduct of subsequent elections. In spite of what I said earlier on the disappointment of many Nigerians, many Nigerians perhaps want a perfect electoral system and it is possible to have near-perfection in planning elections. But unfortunately in the Nigerian context, things have been so bad for so long, as I quite often say, that it takes a lot of time and energy and resourcefulness to be able to get there. But we are moving in the right direction. We are pleased with the trend. There are still challenges, but these challenges are not insurmountable. We will keep on addressing them as we move towards 2015. So far, so good.

The last election in Edo State recorded a high level of apathy and the materials arrived the centres late. We want to know the reason for that, and what arrangements INEC is making to ensure that we don’t encounter such problems in Ondo governorship slated for October.

JEGA: I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding with regards to the conduct of the election in Edo. First of all, people talked about apathy. We have looked at the statistics: the turnout of voters in Edo in the last election was the highest since 2003. The turnout of voters in Edo was 39.1 per cent. The average turnout in Edo elections since 1999 was about 35 per cent. So by all credible standards and measures, there was a high turnout this time around in Edo State than there has ever been in elections in Edo State since 1999. So it is not correct to say that there was voter apathy in Edo State.

Secondly, yes there was a challenge in terms of late delivery of materials. There would always be delays of late delivery of materials (if the unforeseen happens). It’s unfortunate, we don’t want it. We will do our best to prevent it. But it’s usually caused by a combination of factors. And in Edo State, the delay was experienced in only two out of 18 local governments. I will not provide an excuse, but I can explain what happened.

We deployed a strategy in which we started distributing materials to the farthest and most difficult terrains and local governments first, and then we distribute to the nearest local governments last. That was why Oredo and the other local government that are within  Benin City were the last where the materials were distributed. By 3 a.m. (on the day of the election), the materials had been distributed to the  Supervisory Presiding Officers who are supposed to go to the wards and distribute to Presiding Officers who go to the polling units. But there was no security coverage and we cannot move election materials unless there is security coverage. So, there was no intention on the part of anybody – whether the security agencies or INEC – to have the delay, but these things happen. On the one hand, we all know that with very good intentions, the IGP transferred DPOs before the election. Regrettably, in some of the local governments they did not assume duty until very late, and that affected the deployment of security for covering the election. The military were also involved and, particularly, in Oredo local government when everything was ready to move, the military at the local government office said that they needed authorisation from their Commanding Officer before they could allow materials to be moved. And it took time before that authorisation was given. That also contributed to the delay.

Again, unlike what happened in most other places where we conducted elections, the Supervisory Presiding Officers in Oredo local government on the eve of the election demanded that they must be paid in full before they would proceed for the election. It’s unusual, it had never happened. But we had to pay them to ensure that materials now go to the field. As I said, these are not excuses. We cannot excuse it. We must do everything possible to ensure that materials arrive on good time. But sometimes in spite of everything you do, challenges emerge in the field and they obstruct smooth conduct of the process. Really in terms of these two local governments, that is what happened. You know, what it means is that in the future as we prepare for elections, particularly as we move to Ondo, obviously we have to ensure that there is proper coordination between the security agencies and INEC. And we’ve been having a very wonderful relationship with them. We have to ensure that the exuberance of some of the personnel that are involved is also curtailed. We also have to ensure that whatever we do, materials must arrive the polling units on time.

It is a big challenge but again if you look at the statistics, you would see that frankly, in terms of the percentage of polling units that opened by 8 o’clock, we have been making progress. If you look at the first election we conducted on the 9th of April, 2011, about 50 per cent of the polling units opened by 8a.m., and then maybe it’s only by 10a.m. that we were able to achieve about 76 per cent. But by the time we did the remaining six governorship elections up to Edo, really by 8a.m. we had achieved over 70 per cent opening of the poling units in the majority: that is, 70 per cent of the polling units had opened. But, of course, the observers and the media, because every polling unit ought to have opened by 8a.m., those that did not open now became news. So, people started talking as if there was a major problem. There wasn’t a major problem. There were unfortunate delays, but those delays did not disenfranchise voters. We have heard accusations that voters were disenfranchised. In Edo State, no voter was disenfranchised. Where there were delays, the Resident Electoral Commissioner extended the time for accreditation and voting. So, there is not a single report in Edo State of anybody going to the polling unit and going back home having been prevented to vote if he was a legitimate voter with a legitimate voter card. As I said, I am not providing excuses. There were challenges. It’s regrettable that there were these challenges and delays, but we’ll keep on improving and we’ll keep on learning the lessons from this.

Accusations have been made that there was a deliberate attempt to subvert the electoral process in certain areas – an allegation that was even made by the governor himself. Those accusations are unfortunate, they are regrettable. There is no evidence of anybody trying to subvert the process and it is regrettable that such utterances were made by, particularly, somebody who is occupying the kind of position that the governor occupies.

Ondo State happens to have riverine areas. What special arrangements are in place to ensure early distribution of electoral materials in the state and other riverine parts of the country?

JEGA: In the April 2011 elections, we took a number of measures that ensured that elections took place smoothly in all the riverine areas – from Cross River State to Rivers State to Bayelsa State. Ondo is not as riverine as any of these three states that I have mentioned and you can see that we had elections in Bayelsa and there was no complaints of difficulty about the place being riverine. So, those measures are there and we intend to use them; and we are even improving upon them when we go to Ondo State. Luckily we have the full support and cooperation of the security agencies – from the Navy to the Air Force, to the JTF and the Army. Wherever there is difficulty in terms of security challenges or inaccessibility, these security agencies provide the support that we need.

Where it is necessary to lift materials by boat, the Navy provides the security assistance; where it is necessary to airlift , the Air Force also provides the necessary assistance. So, frankly we do not anticipate any challenge with regard to the riverine nature of Ondo State that we cannot adequately handle, because we have handled similar challenges in Bayelsa, in Rivers, in Cross River and other places

What are the expected reforms you desire in the electoral process before 2015?

JEGA: Our vision in INEC is to be the best election management body in Africa, and we want to achieve this if possible by 2015. That is a very ambitious vision given a history of failed elections in the past. So, in order to actualize that vision, we have to bring in substantial reforms in terms of making INEC more efficient and more effective in delivery of services which are associated with elections. Obviously, we have to do a lot reorganisation and restructuring. We have to do what we call ‘placing square pegs in square holes’ in order to ensure that we have well-trained professional people who can efficiently and effectively deliver on the electoral process. We have started this, we are doing a lot of this already. We’ve started a process of reorganisation and restructuring. The problem is that in Nigeria, anytime you talk about reorganisation and restructuring, people think you are talking of retrenchment. But it needs not to be so. It is not necessarily so, and in INEC our restructuring and reorganisation is not synonymous with retrenchment.

We are doing everything possible to bring efficiency and effectiveness and it can be done without the kind of massive retrenchment that people fear and expect. We are doing our best, and we also need to motivate people. So, a lot of the reform process we are trying to bring in have to do with what levels of motivation and adjustments in the condition of service that we can bring about in order to have a contented workforce that can keep on giving their best and making enormous sacrifices both for INEC and for our country. We have planned to do quite a lot in terms of restructuring and reorganisation. We employed some of the best management consulting firms that have given us proposals, and at the level of the Commission we have studied this and we have begun the process of implementation.In a matter of a month, maximum two months, we will have the kind of restructuring and reorganisation that we’ll be pleased with in terms of actualising that vision of having the best election management body in Africa.

One area that gives people a lot of concern is voter education. You discover that many votes are voided at the end of elections, and it is because the people or the electorate are not well instructed on what to do. What are doing along that line?

JEGA: I am glad you raised this point because it is true that an enlightened citizenry participates much better and much more positively in the electoral process, and we do have a challenge of ensuring that we have effective voter education programmes that can educate our voters so that they can make the right choice when they come to the field and so that also there will be minimum mistakes in terms of discharging their obligations.It is also true that in the elections that we conducted in April 2011, in many places, the percentage of voided votes were very high. But againin contrast, when you look at what happened in Edo State, we are making much progress.

In Edo State, they had the least number of voided votes compared to all the elections we have conducted since 2011, which means we are making progress. But still we want a situation where no vote needs to be voided because of lack of enlightenment of the voter,  and what we have been planning as part of the reform process is to ensure that we have a continuous voter education programme. Previously INEC used to conduct voter education as an event around the election timetable; but now we are saying that, look, voter education needs to be systematically planned so that it takes place throughout the electoral cycle rather than just around elections.

We’ve also, for example, started a programme of voter education in secondary schools. You know, those who are in SS1 now, for example, by the time we hold the  2015 elections, they would have become bonafide voters. They would have come of age, and we believe that it is  important to catch them young; and we are doing a lot of voter education in schools by promoting what we call voter education clubs, and also public and current affairs activities  which can ensure that our young men and women have adequate familiarity with the electoral process and democratisation long before they become legally defined voters.

So, we are doing quite a lot in terms of strengthening our voter education programme in partnership – not just with schools but also with civil society organizations who really do quite a lot of work in this area. I want to make a plea here: to say that, really, voter education is not just the responsibility of INEC. It is also the responsibility of political parties as well as civil society organizations. Regrettably, we have discovered that political parties in particular are not taking the issue of voter education with the seriousness that it deserves. And I want to urge political parties to really begin to pay attention to this, so that our work will be complementary: as we do our own bit, everybody does his or her own bit and at the end of it all, we will have more enlightened and more actively engaged citizens in the electoral process.

We have about 56 political parties in this country today. Some people believe that many of them are there because INEC is going to give them money as political parties to go and share. What is your assessment of these political parties?

JEGA: Well, as you rightly pointed out, we have about 56 political parties and we are still receiving quite a number of applications for registration of additional political parties. But what we really need to do is to sanitise the process of registering political parties to ensure that only those that are most deserving in terms of their programmes, in terms of their constitution, in terms of their physical presence in states and in localities are registered.The Constitution and the Electoral Act give INEC the power to de-register political parties and we have commenced that process, and it is on-going. So, until there is a change in the legislation, obviously, any political party that does not comply with the provisions of the Electoral Act, we are obligated to de-register them. It is an on-going process, it is a continuous process and we will do it.

I think there are very useful models of registration of political parties in other countries that we can learn from. So, as we commence the process of constitutional amendment, we intend to partner with the National Assembly to make certain recommendations.

You know it is good to be a multi-party system like we are, and it is possible to allow as many parties as possible to register. But being a registered political party does not necessarily mean you can field candidates, until you meet certain minimum requirements. That is the kind of reform that we are looking forward to, in which many parties can still exist but they have to meet certain requirements before they are allowed, for example, to field a governorship candidate or to field a presidential candidate. And I think if we do that, you will still allow parties to exist and to be mobilizing people and to continue to develop and to evolve into strong parties that would now be able to field candidates in national elections. So we think, perhaps, that is the way to go rather than to limit the number of registered parties to just a few.

I know too many people are saying we should either be two parties or five parties and so on.I think in principle it is good to remain a multi-party system, but we should introduce certain reform measures which can ensure that it will not be all the 56 political parties, many of which do not have physical presence and capacity in many of the states, that can go ahead and field a presidential candidate, for example, which wastes our ballot paper and create a lot of problem in the electoral process.

How many applications for new political parties are before INEC now?

As I speak with you now, I think there are about three fresh applications for registration as political parties which we are investigating.

Let’s look at the issue of delineation of constituencies, and then the inadequacy of polling stations. Politicians are expressing fears on these two issues. Maybe you may want to comment?

JEGA: Our Constitution says that constituencies should be delineated at least every 10 years, at least after every census exercise. It is regrettable that the constituencies that we have now were actually created before the 1999 Constitution came into being and, obviously, the last census was conducted in 2006. To be fair, the previous Commission, our predecessor, attempted to do fresh constituency delimitation and got very far; but unfortunately, it was not finalized when the Commission was reconstituted.And when we came in, we were too busy preparing for the April 2011 elections that there was no time really to devote to constituency delimitation. Now, a major activity that we would do before the 2015 elections is constituency delimitation. We have already started the groundwork and before the end of this year (2012) we will accelerate the commencement of the process, and we would have sufficient time. We would take at least a year to two years to be able to do a very thorough, very professional and very credible job.

As you are aware, constituency delimitation is a politically charged issue. Sometimes, because of population movements, it may be required that certain constituencies are either merged or split, and you know that politicians don’t want their constituencies to be split or to be merged. But there are rational ways of doing this, where you engage stakeholders, where all the issues would be ironed out to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. That is what we intend to do. God willing before the 2015 elections, we would have been able to have fresh constituency delimitation.

We could still create additional polling units before the constituency delimitation. But since we do not have any major election until 2015, we feel that it is rational to wait until we do the constituency delimitation before we embark on the creation of additional polling units. So, definitely, these are very important issues that we intend to deal with before the 2015 general elections.

How many election offenders have been successfully prosecuted and / or convicted so far?

JEGA: Let me start with a context. If you look at the records, between 1999 when we embarked upon this transition to democracy in Nigeria up until 2011, you would not find any evidence in the records of a single person prosecuted for an electoral offence. So for over 10 years – we had elections in 1999, we had elections in 2003 and we had elections in 2007 – there was no record of a single person being prosecuted for electoral offences. This INEC which I am privileged to chair has successfully prosecuted over 200 electoral offenders. So, in comparative terms, that is progress.

There are many cases in court that are still pending, but a successful prosecution is predicated not only on INEC prosecuting, but the Police doing the investigation and providing the necessary reports and the evidence, and thirdly the courts hastening the process of prosecution. And there are tremendous delays on all sides.

I think the most important point that I need to make is that although we can say that we have prosecuted more offenders than any other election management body in the history of Nigeria, it is still a drop in the ocean. The number of electoral offences committed is really profound.  For example, even on voter registration alone there are about 870,000 offenders. So, it’s the level of the offence that you look at. The fact of the matter is that INEC does not have the capacity to do successful prosecution of this large magnitude of offences. That is why we were very pleased – in fact, we’ve been calling that the Electoral Offences Tribunal should be established – we  were very pleased when the government made the announcement that the Electoral Offences Tribunal will be established.I think this is what the Justice Uwais Electoral Reforms Committee recommended, and I was a member, and it makes a lot of sense, you know, so that you have a separate body that will now be handling prosecution while INEC is freed of that responsibility so that we can devote all our time to the conduct and management of elections.

So, on the one hand I am saying that we’ve done our best to prosecute electoral offenders. On the other hand I’m saying that we ourselves are not satisfied with the number that we have prosecuted but it is not our fault. You know, it is a systemic challenge and it is better that we have a separate agency that can be handling the prosecution of electoral offenders.

What would be your recommendation on the trend whereby politicians lose at primary elections and then defect to another party?

JEGA: I think it is a moral issue, I think we all know that. I think that is unacceptable and, luckily, a recent amendment to the Electoral Act has addressed it: that is when somebody gets elected on the platform of one party,and after he has been elected he now defects to another party. But I think it is part of politics, that members of a party will become aggrieved and when they are aggrieved, sometimes they think the only option available to them is to actually leave that party and move to another party. I think we have to look at the circumstances and the factors which compel people to leave one party for another before we can make a moral judgment as to whether what they are doing is right or wrong.

I think by the time our political party system reaches a certain level of development and maturity, and where for example there is substantial internal party democracy, I think we would see a reduced tendency of people exiting and moving to other parties. There is no doubt that the level of internal democracy in our political parties leaves much to be desired, and we are doing our best to improve on our engagement with political parties so that we can encourage them to be more democratic in their own outlook internally and so that they can reduce tension and conflict within the parties, so that the grievance redress procedures and mechanisms within political parties are improved upon. And when people are confident that there are systems in place that can address their grievances, they are no longer compelled to leave the party for any minor excuse. So, really, that is where we hope that the country will move into. But certainly, it is unhealthy that we see people moving from one party to another. In fact, in the months leading to the April 2011 elections we saw how people moved from one party to the other. They seek to be a Senator and when they don’t get it, they move to another party; and when they don’t get it, they move to a third party. And obviously that is doing it to the extreme.

What would be your suggestion on how the issue of money politics can be addressed, because the vote of the average Nigerian now is still for sale?

JEGA: You are right. Obviously it is unfortunate that in Nigeria, there is much use of money in politics. It is unhealthy, it is illegal and we have to do quite a lot to minimize the role of money in politics. And for us in INEC, this is one of the reform measures we hope to introduce long before 2015.In terms of how we can curb the influence of the use of money in politics, we are strengthening, as part of the reform process, our political parties monitoring and liaison department to ensure that we have a unit that actually monitors campaigns, the use of campaign finances, the use of advertorials, and the contributions that individuals and organizations make to political parties to ensure full conformity with the limits that has been established in law.

Most countries take the issue of use of money in politics serious and it is important that in Nigeria we also do so; and we in INEC are committed to ensuring that by 2015, we would have even more effective mechanisms in place to be able to monitor campaign financing, to be able to monitor candidates’ expenditure, and to also be able to monitor parties’ expenditure. Right now, all we do in INEC is an annual audit of the finances of political parties which, as you pointed out, many of the parties are even opposing. But it is a constitutional responsibility and we will continue to do it. A few months ago, we published the results of the last audit and we pointed out parties that were in default and so on. So, really, parties are also not serious about accountability,and we have our responsibility to keep on pushing them so that they become more transparent and more accountable in the way they keep their finances.

There is a proposal by INEC that electronic voting system should be adopted in 2015. Is this feasible?

JEGA: Technically, there is no proposal by INEC that it should be adopted in 2015. What INEC has done is that we have recommended that the National Assembly should remove that provision in the Electoral Act which prohibits electronic voting because it is a major hindrance right now. If we are to introduce electronic voting in this country, we have to do a lot of piloting. We have to do a lot of sampling of existing machines all over the world. Right now because of that prohibition we can’t even attempt do it, and the whole world is moving in the direction of increasing the use of technology in order to have credible elections. So what INEC has recommended is that when the legal framework is now being reviewed, that provision about prohibition of electronic voting should be removed. That would now give INEC the opportunity to begin to legally explore the possibility of using electronic voting. Now if that is done in good time, and we are able to explore the possibility and it seems feasible, then obviously at that time we will tell Nigerians that it is feasible and then maybe we should try it. But right now, we haven’t gotten to that stage. Right now, what we want is the removal of a major hindrance, for INEC to even begin to explore the possibility of electronic voting.

But what INEC is trying to do – and then, we are really again improving the use of technology in elections – is that, as you know, we did biometric data registration. Before the end of this year, we will start issuing permanent voter cards; and this permanent voter card that we are going to issue are chip-based, just like many of our bank cards. So they carry all the information on a microchip, which is imbedded in the card of the voter. What we believe we can achieve at the minimum by 2015 is that we can achieve 100 per cent voter authentication at the polling units. If a voter comes to the polling unit and brings out his or her card, we will be able to determine 100 per cent whether he is the legitimate holder of the card.

So the issue of people using other people’s cards to go and vote, the issue of stealing cards or even buying cards will be squarely dealt with; and that we believe we can achieve, God willing, by 2015. We already have all the data in our database. We are now going to issue the permanent voter cards. All we need to do between now and 2015 is to buy what I called card readers, in which we will store all the information, so that in each polling unit there will be a card reader, and when a voter comes, you would swipe the card, and then you put your finger prints, and then your photograph would be seen and it would verify whether you are the legitimate holder of that card and that would go a long way in terms of improving the credibility and the transparency of the electoral process. END

 

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