By Dapo Akinrefon
Barrister Mike Igini is the Resident Electoral Commissioner of INEC in Cross River State. In this interview, he bares his mind on the operational challenges in the distributions of the Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs), INEC’s preparedness for the 2015 general elections, and subsisting cases of defections, among other issues. Excerpts:
We acknowledged some operational challenges in terms of the number of LGAs for the take-off of the exercise of the PVC distribution as there was a re-scheduling for the remaining 9 LGAs that were conducted subsequently. I can tell for a fact that nothing sinister was done to any state, and certainly, Lagos, in terms of the issue of zero polling units that was recorded in all states without exception.
There are those who registered in 2011 with temporary voters card. During the exercise of preparing their individual biometric data for use, some did not have their full biometrics, and even when the threshold for acceptance of incomplete biometric data was reduced to two fingers in each hand, that is a minimum of four fingers, some still could not meet up. Hence these were the category of people that have been asked to participate in the continuous registration exercise. So nothing like de-listing of names occurred because they are still there with the observed shortcomings.
There was also an unfortunate and regrettable situation that occurred when some of the youth corpers engaged in 2011 as registration officers in the process of back-up of the daily registration data then. Some data of registered voters were lost in trying to secure them, resulting in what is now called zero registrants in some of the polling units that will require fresh registration at the level of the polling units as we did in Cross River, while others will be done at the ward registration centres.
But how prepared is INEC towards ensuring a credible 2015 general elections?
We are preparing and it is work in progress. Between 2011 and now we have organized one general election and several governorship and legislative elections and by-elections with better outcomes than in many other instances in the electoral history of Nigeria as acknowledged by the people of this country and international observers. This is not just my claim; it is based on the assessment of the decline in the number of petitions and litigations following such elections – 1,291 cases in 2007 and 729 in 2011. This is not accidental. It is mainly because the electoral process has improved tremendously and people know that frivolous claims require more rigour, while genuine concerns can be addressed by examining the evidence which will be available.
I say this to bring to the fore what I mean when I say that we are preparing, because preparing for elections have specific generic approaches, namely pre-election, election day and post-election preparations. But because of our electoral history we need to put in more to ensure that pre-election and election day processes have high fidelity which will reduce any untoward outcomes that may emanate at the post-election phase.
Pre-election preparations involve developing a credible voters’ register which should be available for stakeholder’s scrutiny prior to election, things like voter education, a balance of media coverage for all parties and candidates as much as is feasible within the law, the possibility of debates to enhance voter information, the procurement and distribution of materials and personnel for elections and the planning-cum organization of election day and post-election activities.
Political parties as institutions will play fundamental roles before, during and after the election. What are your expectations from both the ruling party and the opposition parties?
Political parties are a very important part of a democracy. In Nigeria, the current parties are still evolving. In developed democracies, some parties have been around for years like the Democratic Party in the USA, formed in 1828 and now 186 years old; the Republican Party formed in 1854 now 160 years. There are parties like the SDP in Germany that is 150 years old. Still with that long historical evolution, they have their problems. How old are the parties here and what are the values template of those who promote and manage these parties? We should, therefore, not always regard some of our formative errors as grave. This is not to say that the parties should be re-inventing the wheel for things that are normal conventions, such as how party candidates emerge. These are fairly well established democratic practices and the only reason the parties have much challenges from that practice is because they have failed or refused to be regulated by their own regulatory processes and continued to disappoint their members.
Do you think the recurring cases of politicians’ defections from one party to another in recent times is a drawback on the polity?
Hold the judiciary responsible for its inability to deal with this situation having regards to the early defection cases since last year that appeared warehoused and lying-in-state in the courts. How does one explain a situation where matters that commenced by way of originating summons, just for the interpretation of section 68 of the constitution, which does not require the calling of any witness since last year and subsequent cases cannot be determined because lawyers are allowed to filibuster by filing all manner of frivolous applications upon applications just to ensure that these matters are not determined?
Have we all forgotten how the intervention of the court, particularly the Supreme Court brought about sanity to the gale of unconstitutional impeachments of either Deputy Governors or Governors as well as arbitrary substitution of candidates that emerged from duly conducted primaries without giving cogent and verifiable reasons? Regrettably, some of our seniors in the legal profession are the ones doing all these. If these matters have been allowed to go on, by now the interpretation of this troubling section 68 would have been pronounced upon by the apex court and there would have been sanity by now. Until the Supreme Court pronounces on this there is no end in uncertainty. This is very unfortunate. Defections have been a bane of our democratic learning and the consolidation of democracy in Nigeria.
Unregulated defections and a combination of other actions led to the fall of the first Republic. And I am willing to hazard a guess that frustrations bordering on defections also led to collaborations by politicians who initiated military interventions. When defection to civilian alliances fails, they cross over to military alliances. Hence we must be very meticulous in enacting strict regulatory laws on defections.
When people defect the provisos controlling self-dealing and prebendary motivations should be effective deterrents for unguarded defections because of the impact it has on democratic practices. Externally, there are sections within the Electoral Act which prescribes what it takes to belong to a party and how to represent its mandates. The constitutional legislation on defection has not been authoritatively tested in terms of legal hermeneutics. This is why the judiciary must act as the bastion of justice by making the law clear and unequivocal. Internally, the parties have rules which guide against such defections. I am aware, for instance, that some parties have a clause barring any new entrant from contesting under the party banner for a period. But how well they allow such laws to regulate behaviour is another matter.
At any rate, once again, the defection issue remind us of the need for a constitutional court to separate the usual legal adjudications from the regular courts. Most of the problems we have near elections have to do with inadequate regulation of political behaviour as politicians seek to retain their access to political power through elections. Elections are inherently designed to make such retention of access to power uncertain, to make politicians more responsive to the public they serve. But politicians want, and are in fact. zealous to reduce that uncertainty. Our regulatory laws should be strengthened to ensure that politicians do not dilute that check of uncertainty.
There are litigations everywhere even before the general election. Do you think the judiciary has lived up to expectations in adjudicating on these cases?
The judiciary, in my view, has not met the public expectations adequately in this regard. Although the judiciary also has its limitations. The outgoing CJN, Mrs. Aloma Mukhtar, did quite well to create a new vision for the judiciary but as you know, reforms are often not very easy to execute when the reward for deviation is huge. But we hope her successor will remain on the path of reform to ensure that our justice system is not a system that only protects the rich and influential.
There is this allegation making the rounds in Cross River that you and Senator Ita-Giwa connived to adopt Day Spring Island as electoral venue for the Bakassi people. How true is this?
INEC’s decision is not my personal decision based on the existing electoral data. Just because a people have a challenge should not give anyone the right to marginalize them. Day Spring 1, II and the Qua Islands are for the Bakassi people, and is even recognized by the United Nations as a final resettlement area for the Displaced Bakassi people. The Nigerian government, the United Nations and several international stakeholders failed them in this regard and they remain displaced in many places for these failures. The other is the resettlement centre within the Akpabuyo Local government. INEC gave all the contending parties on this issue ample room to ventilate their views, as the chief field officer of the Commission in the state, I went to these areas to see for myself, and also took national officers of the Commission along with security agents to see for ourselves at the risk of all their safeties at sea during a very challenging time with militancy in the Niger-Delta.
The Commission from the national headquarters, after several meetings, one of which was conducted at the national headquarters, wrote formally to acknowledge these three areas. We will not do anything outside the law to undermine the integrity and expectations of our office. Cross River is for all Cross River people. They should all learn to live as brothers and sisters each gaining from the other, and not to thrive by exploiting the weak.
As the REC in Cross River, what are you doing to ensure that the riverine Bakassi people are not disenfranchised in the forthcoming election?
Precisely what I have just explained above. If for instance the people of Chibok were forced out of their LGA and resettled as IDPs in another LGA in Borno state, when elections take place, should the people in the LGA where the Chibok people are located now be called Chibok because some elections are done for Chibok in the new place where the IDPs are located? That is what is happening in Bakassi, some people want all elections for Bakassi to hold in specific areas, yet the Atlas of electoral wards that l met have not been changed and could not have been changed by a state law given the nature of the subject matter. Let me tell you, I swore to uphold the constitution. I am a trained lawyer, sociologist, and of civil society background. I know the implications of the wrong action some people want me to take on Bakassi in terms of the United Nations Charter on social, political and economic rights, and I can tell you as a civil society person that I will not do what is outside the law.