By Ugoji Egbujo
In 2003 we had elections and I happened to be in Orodo, my home town. I opted to observe rather than vote. The polling booth beside my house was quiet and all seemed to be going well until two young men ‘swooped’ on the officials with cutlasses and snatched the ballot box.
While the box was “sabbatical” those who strolled in to go through the voting process could only manage mournful smiles. Their consternation was measured, weak. Where did that sense of familiarity with such an atrocity come from? Many only worried about their wasted time. And those who managed to mutter outrage were subdued by the aloofness of the official . The box returned after about half an hour. Impunity. The officials continued their duties solemnly as if the interlude was scripted. Perhaps they were ashamed of their collusion. Those who knew said the ballot box came back half filled.
PDP was the only party with any kind of presence then in Imo besides APGA which was not really interested in presidential elections. A local PDP man had promised to deliver the area and he did. Political parties surreptitiously submit names to INEC for employment as adhoc electoral staff. So It was not difficult to understand that somnambulism manifested by the presiding officer.
In 2011 Imo presented a statistical challenge. The governorship election was hotly contested . Three political heavy weights including the then incumbent governor Ohakim were literally tearing at themselves. Armed with the overreach of local incumbency and the omnipotence of federal might, Ohakim should have victory within grasps. His misfortune was that he was widely perceived as incompetent and he had a popular rival in Rochas Okorocha to contend with. He was also not helped by a recalcitrant kinsman, Ararume, who would split the votes of his home constituency, Okigwe with him.
Campaigns were at full throttle and inner recesses of the state were all plumbed for votes. Rochas won that election , scoring just about 336,000 votes , beating incumbent Gov Ohkim with 40,000 votes after supplementary elections . It was a close fight till the end. Total votes cast in that governorship election in Imo in 2011 was about 750,000, representing a 44 % voter turn out.
In the same 2011, in the same Imo state, in the same month of April, before the governorship election , the presidential elections held . The two main parties in Imo, APGA and PDP supported Jonathan. ACN was not interested. Jonathan is not from Imo state , is not an Igbo man and is not their in-law. Against a northern muslim , the average Igbo man , ‘allergic ‘ to Hausa Fulani hegemony and fearful of its return would cling to Jonathan. Igbos do not necessarily love Jonathan, they fear domination and they believe that the triumph of a minority man helps to disrupt or suspend any group’s feelings of political superiority and may help create a level playing field. So they voted Jonathan but not with passion.
Total number of votes cast in the presidential was a miraculous 1, 400,000 with a voter turn out of 83% which was the highest percentage voter turn out in the south east and the second highest in the nation just behind Jonathan’s home sate of Bayelsa. There was palpable voter apathy but reality does not matter. Figures do. And the figures showed a near total turn out for Jonathan. It was magical.
Perhaps for a better perspective, Imo’s voter turn out was 83 % in the presidential and 44% in the governorship election. Half of those who voted in the presidential didn’t care to vote in the more fiercely contested governorship election? Strange. The average national voter turn out was about 50% for the presidential elections , the average voter turn out in the south west was 32% and the average for Jonathan’s home region of south south was 67%. Imo was indeed special. Yet Imo was, in a sense, in the manner politicking is done in Nigeria, a’ third party’ in that presidential contest. How did they achieve such a turn out? Bayelsa’s 85 % can be understood, riverine areas have a way of doing these things. And with their son, an incumbent president on the ballot, it could have been higher. Ogun was 28%, Edo 37% but Imo was 83%.
The real policing on the field during elections is provided by the enthusiasm and watchfulness of the electorate and the vigilantism furnished by political rivalry amongst the parties. When these factors went missing in Imo during the presidential election in 2011 all manner of things happened.
So you can get to the booth as it happened in my local constituency in 2011 and the INEC officials sit idly. And you ask about the ballot box and you are told some youths have taken it away. A few minutes of discreet inquiry and you are told the group involved and where they were ‘working’. The stuffing of the ballot box could be going on in a private residence of a political jobber a stone throw from the polling booth. It happened during the 2011 presidential election and went unchallenged but was resisted during the fiercely contested governorship election . A military/police patrol team was called in and the perpetrators were arrested, pants down, thumbs in ink, thumb-printing and stuffing the ballot box on the election day. That episode managed to find its way into the press. Real voters had gone to the polling booth and found only yawning officials who didn’t know where the ballot box they came with was. Those who committed that crime suffered no real consequences, were granted bail the next day and have been free ever since. Fortunately, opprobrious tales of the incident have become part of the village’s market folklore .
So the Imo magic can be explained, its an abracadabra the locals understand and INEC must know something about.
The combination of the permanent voters card and the card reader if employed without hitches would , to a great extent, minimize such electoral frauds. The chip on the card has the voter’s biometric details and the card reader would authenticate the card and identify the voter before he is accredited. The card reader has a sim and so stores information of PVCs processed and so provides an audit trail. It also relays information about the accreditation process to a central server too so INEC will know how many genuine voters accredited in a particular polling unit. So my friends in the village are perhaps out of work in this election. The Card reader effectively puts them out of work. Perhaps they will have other assignments.
Now with the card reader It wouldn’t matter that other parties even have no agents. The card readers are programmed to read the cards of voters of a particular polling unit. No body can leverage on voter apathy and turn out bogus numbers. Even if the whole village conspires with electoral officers and party agents, the card reader will have details of those properly accredited and can be relied upon by INEC to disregard bogus figures from a polling unit while collating. This will reduce the volume of litigation as INEC can cancel results based on discrepancies with card reader data.
So why is the PDP hesitant about the use of card readers? You would think that the party that has labeled the opposition party leader as out dated, “analogue”, would readily welcome INECs card readers in furtherance of its cherished ‘digital’ reputation. But they prefer the “ stone age” 2011 scenario. The PDP says they are worried because the card readers have not been tested. That the card readers should have been tested in a smaller election where failure will have lighter implications. That argument has merits .
But since this election is the first fiercely contested presidential elections in Nigeria and one where the margin of victory may be very slim the advantage of employing the card readers to stem electoral fraud may out weigh any risks of tardiness flowing from the introduction of a novelty at a crucial moment. It is true that widespread hitches can precipitate a crisis but this process has been used successfully in many African countries.
What the PDP has not openly said , but which its officials have muted in so many ways, is that they are worried about the integrity of INEC. But are they worried that INEC may disadvantage them or are they worried that INEC might bungle the process and throw the country into confusion? I suspect they are worried about both. A pattern has become clear, the opposition solidly supports INEC and supports use of card readers while PDP has been cautious, hesitant and often un- approving of INEC. The PDP has right of protest but cannot engage in tarnishing the image of INEC .The PDP has advertorials disparaging Jega and INEC and that is ridiculous.
INEC must not just be seen to be independent but their independence must be respected by all parties. INEC has confidence in the card readers and has procured 152,000 of them and they have adequate redundancies- additional 26,000 units as spares and 35,000 spare batteries. And all of these will translate to a spare battery for every 5 polling units and a spare card reader for every 7 polling units. This is a reasonable back up plan. The INEC staff have been trained and are being retrained.
Whether it is in Abia or in an IDP camp in Borno, potential heavens for ballot box stuffing, the card reader will stem hitherto inevitable fraud . Our polity is extremely polarized and tense, the margins will be slim, every vote is significant. Close elections are often won by one or two percentage points and we must prevent the sort of thing that happened in Imo in 2011. It may not have mattered so much then but it may have grave implications now.