Chairman, Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, in this interview speaks on his stewardship, how the commission under him has recorded fewer elections nullified than preceding boards, among other issues. Excerpts:
What are the prospects for a free, fair and credible election under your administration of INEC?
I think it is very bright. We thought that we had opened a new page after the Edo and most especially Ondo elections, but Rivers did not turn out quite that good. I want you to note something; the most difficult elections for INEC to conduct are off-season or stand alone elections.
Reason? The political actors are trying to mobilise everybody, nationwide to focus on a particular place; the kind of things you do not see in general elections. So, frankly speaking, general elections are easier to conduct.
If we are organising an election in one state, you would see many governors going there to campaign for their parties. It is their democratic right to so do, but who would do so in a general election? Everybody is fighting for his own in his own state.
So, these stand alone elections are often very difficult for us; even media attention is focused on a particular state or a particular constituency, whereas in a general election the situation is different.
I think related to that question are the kind of things we see in smaller elections. We are equally worried about low voter turn out. Two weeks ago, we had a bye-election in Ifako/Ijaiye Federal Constituency in Lagos State. It is a federal constituency in the middle of Lagos. In one local government, the voter turnout was 2.9 percent, less than three percent, but when you deploy for the elections, you mobilise for a total number of registered voters which was over 330, 000 but just a little over 10, 000 people voted. But this is the pattern for bye-elections worldwide, they are always not as keenly-contested as the general elections.
The problems sometimes with off-season elections is that actors who are not even candidates in the elections are the ones talking (as it happened in Rivers). How many of you heard from the candidates who canvassed for votes in the Rivers elections? It was the patrons that were speaking.
The perception among some Nigerians is that you are being influenced by the president…
For those who know me, with my antecedents in the places I have worked, it is too late to be intimidated by anybody. I cannot. For what purpose? To achieve what at this stage? Nothing! There is nothing I am looking for that God has not given me.
I completed my PhD from Oxford at 29 and my father was a headmaster, so what does anybody want to give me now? The only job I prayed God to give me was to be a university lecturer and I am now a professor; any other thing I do is bonus. I do not think that there is anybody who can influence me. I headed the biggest funding agency in this country and at the end of it I went back to my teaching profession in the university.
Directly or indirectly, I have not been approached by anybody to do anything entirely other than what is in the law. The best marker is to do an analysis of all the elections we have conducted and tell me which party won what; and then you can see our neutrality or otherwise.
Look at Rivers, look at the statistics. People criticising do not look at election figures; in fact the party of the person criticising us won 70 percent of the elections and it’s an opposition party, yet they would say we are biased.
When a politician wins an election, he would say the best thing to have happened to this country is INEC and when he loses he would say the worst thing to have happened to this country is INEC.
I will give you my favourite example but I won’t tell you the state. We conducted governorship election in one of the states and on Election Day, one of the leading political actors went to vote, and unfortunately the card reader could not take the man’s biometrics. He turned to the television cameras and abused the hell out of the chairman of the commission and his management; that they told us that these machines would not work and that we keep giving the impression that we are a nation of scammers.
Well, we conducted elections and he won; we went to present the Certificate of Return at our State office a week later as required by law and the same person turned around to say the best thing to have happened to our elections was the card readers and that whatever the imperfections were, he would work with INEC to improve on it.
Very seriously, this is the way we conduct our debates in extreme terms. It is either one is extremely good or extremely bad, there are no middle grounds.
There is no influence on INEC. There will never be any influence on INEC. The best marker for INEC’s neutrality are the elections we have conducted and the outcome of those elections. I know that we have conducted some elections that were not conclusive under the law, hence the issue of inconclusive elections.
The law is very clear. There are conditions under which we can suspend elections. Violence or natural disasters. The second one is where there is over-voting, INEC is empowered under the law to suspend the process and conduct the election at another time. So, we apply the provisions of the law where we feel that we cannot in good conscience declare the outcome of the elections.
Remember, after the 2015 general elections, 80 elections were nullified by the courts; 23 elections were upturned and INEC was ordered by the courts to issue certificates of return to the right winners, making a total of 103 elections from the 2015 general elections.
So far, we have conducted 163 elections and I am happy to say that only one has been nullified by the courts. So, be looking at the figures, be looking at the statistics, because these are the markers of what we are doing in the interest of our democracy.
The political space is polluted with a lot of hate speeches. What do you think is the way forward?
What we need to do is a comprehensive assessment. I know that there are provisions under the Electoral Act for dealing with this kind of violation but INEC has been saddled with a responsibility for which it neither has the capacity nor the training to handle. The Electoral Act says that INEC shall prosecute electoral offenders and we have been trying to do that.
When our election was disrupted in Minjibir State Constituency in Kano State, we suspended the elections there and we worked with the police to identify the perpetrators. In the end, 44 thugs were successfully prosecuted and sentenced -the highest number of successful prosecutions in the history of our democracy but they were not on the front pages of the newspapers.
While we got satisfaction from that, we are not yet ‘there’ because the 44 thugs were in all probability not beneficiaries of the elections.
They were agents of some beneficiaries, so when are we going to get the big fish? We shall continue to do what we can to successfully prosecute electoral offenders. We have no capacity to prosecute; to successfully prosecute, you have to make arrests. We are not the police yet the law says INEC should prosecute. To successfully prosecute, you have to investigate.
INEC has no capacity to successfully investigate, so, how do you successfully prosecute? You can drag somebody to court but the person can be discharged and acquitted for lack of diligent prosecution.
Any nation whose laws are violated with impunity and nothing happens is doomed. So, go back to the recommendations of Uwais Connittee; go back to the recommendations of the Lemu Committee. Set up an electoral offences commission and tribunal to which every violator of our electoral law is subjected, including staff of the commission. We will continue to do what we can within the law, we have made some progress but it would not translate to what we all expect in the prosecution of electoral offenders.
Part of what we shall be doing in this respect is to partner with the National Human Rights Commission like we have always done to see, based on the evidence available, if there are charges that can be brought to bear…you know some incendiary remarks were made, unfortunately by some people, who under our constitution have immunity, but we would do our best in the circumstances.
What about the allegation that a candidate in the Rivers rerun relocated a whole polling unit to his house?
We heard about it and it is also going to be part of that comprehensive investigation.
If Polling Units were located outside of where they should be, that is clear illegality and if our investigations show that truly, polling units were located outside of where they were supposed to be, be assured that those responsible would be prosecuted but help us also and bring forward evidences that would help us.
Don’t you think that deploying more technology in our elections could help solve some of these challenges?
Let us not think that a piece of technology alone can solve our problems. Elections are ultimately conducted by human beings.
Germany, one of the most technologically-advanced countries in the world conducts elections -there is nothing to do with technology whatsoever.
There is no majority in the German election and I had the opportunity of discussing this matter with the returning officer for the state of Berlin, the equivalent of the chairman of SIEC (State Independent Electoral Commissions) in Nigeria and I discussed the matter with my colleague, the federal returning officer, the equivalent of the chairman of INEC and they laughed and said Germans don’t trust technology with their elections, but what makes the difference is the level of trust the people have in the system. Some of the worst violators of our laws are among those who accuse us of bias. You can deploy technology but technology cannot solve all the problems. We have to solve our own problems.
Some of the (national) commissioners here went to Benin Republic in February and March when they had their presidential election. What we call ‘sensitive materials’ for which we deploy helicopters and gun boats and even armoured personnel carriers in Nigeria to protect, were the same materials that were given to a presiding officer in a polling unit and they put everything in a box, into the ballot box and then the presiding officer would stop a motorcycle and carry the materials to the polling unit unaccompanied by any security personnel!
At the end of the elections, it was the party agents that calculated the votes, completed the result sheets, put them in a box and they stopped a motorcycle to take it to the collation centre unaided by any security. Why is our own experience different?
We can introduce technology but technology cannot be all, but that is not to say that there is no place for technology in elections. There is a place for technology and I want to assure you that as part of the new initiatives we considered only just yesterday in our weekly commission meeting was this idea of introducing e-collation and e-transmission of results. Already, we have a pilot scheme.
When we conducted state-wide elections, the results were uploaded. Each time such elections are conducted I observe the results in our Situation Room and we follow the results from every polling unit, but you know INEC does not declare any result in Abuja, only the presidential election. So, we have reached a point where we are prepared to deploy (the technology) and I am very happy to say that the senate in amending the electoral act is also going to empower the commission to introduce e-collation and e-transmission. If you noticed, much of the violence in recent elections do not take place in the polling units; it is in the course of transmitting the results.
Now, once we introduce electronics to the transmission of results, we then have to take other measures to protect the polling units because violence will now turn to the polling units, but these are not accidental matters; they are deliberate matters and for as long as we do not punish criminality in this country, this will continue. I want to give you my word and on behalf of the commission, we will never waver. There has never been any pressure brought to bear on me and to the best of knowledge on any of the commissioners.
How about diaspora voting? Do you subscribe to it?
Yes, I believe every Nigerian has a right to vote, the issue is the modality. This is our opinion, but the law says you must vote where you registered.
Parties will be allowed to organize in those countries and even raise funds but the law says where they do so, the money must be warehoused by INEC and the parties would write INEC to state what they want to do with the fund before it is disbursed.
Thirdly, we need to think about the modalities and it is a huge challenge for a country like ours. How many Nigerians live in the diaspora? Sometimes, people think that diaspora means Europe and America and ofcourse, there are Nigerians in Ghana, Benin Republic, Niger, Sudan and even in the Middle East. These are all Nigerians, and there are so many issues to consider.
We were visited by the Senate Committee on Electoral Matters, we had a lengthy discussion on this and it is one of the initiatives we will conclude, not that we have not started. Nigerians living in other countries, in my opinion, have a right to vote and all encumbrances to that should be removed. We have hosted other countries, less endowed like Nigeria here, where they gave their citizens the right to vote. Niger Republic for instance had their presidential election in February, we provided the ballot boxes, the voting cubicles and security in about seven or eight places in Nigeria where they citizens voted. Senegal conducted a referendum in cutting short their presidential time limit from seven to five years and their citizens voted in Nigeria and we provided assistance.
What is most interesting in other countries is that they have even gone beyond diaspora voting, they are even allowing their citizens the opportunity to participate in their national parliament from the diaspora. They call them “Overseas Constituency”. Niger Republic has one representative in every continent of the world. I think in most French-speaking countries, that is the reality. So, when you are talking about diaspora voting to this commission, honestly, it is like preaching to the converted, because we have already accepted that reality but the truth is that our laws have to be amended, but we are all on one page on this reality. Citizens that make contributions to the governance of their country must also have the right to determine who governs their own country. The commission is very keen on this. It is worthy, it is desirable, it is necessary but all encumbrances have to be removed, then we work round other obstacles. When the legal encumbrances are removed, we go full blast.
What can be done to reduce the financial inducement of voters?
Financial inducement of voters is an offence, it is a crime but of late, something is happening. Sometimes, we do realise that before our own eyes how our country is changing. Our elections are getting better, parties have become strong and our votes are increasingly counting. Gone were the days when politicians would use a lot of money before the elections and in all the recent elections, some politicians that spent money saw that the outcome was not what they expected. So, the next thing they are doing now is what we may call ‘pay as you go’. Some unscrupulous persons would go close to the voting cubicle as agents of parties and discuss with prospective voters to vote for their parties but that they (agents) have to be sure you vote for their party before you are paid.
Somebody stands in another corner, after you vote, they would say see him in a corner, but it is even instructive that they would ask the voter to show them their ballot paper before they are paid because they no longer trust their money alone to do the job for them. Those who want to subvert the process are those who resort to these desperate extreme measures but it is an offence and the solution is the enforcement of our laws and to also implement some of the recommendations of previous panels like this electoral offences commission. We should not think that the agencies in the country are too much. I have never seen anybody fault the establishment of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission EFCC. Part of what we shall continue to do is voter education. If you allow your vote to be bought, then don’t expect good roads and other services because they had been paid for at the polling units on the basis of pay as you go.
How about disqualifying some potential trouble-makers from participating in an election? Don’t you have such powers?
INEC has the power to disqualify candidates nominated by political parties on the basis of the law because there are qualifications under the electoral law for contesting an election, for instance you have to be of a sound mind, certain age and all that. You shouldn’t be an ex-convict but the law has been amended. Now, the parties have the sole power to nominate candidates to INEC for an election.
Whatever or whoever they nominate, the law says INEC has no power to disqualify them. So, sometimes you see a candidate nominated by a party but who is an ex-convict and there is nothing you can do. The only thing you can hope for is that somebody would go to the tribunal and the election would be nullified like it happened in one of the states. It is a state constituency. We saw, not underage voters, but an underage candidate. I never knew we had underage candidates in Nigeria. He was under 30years of age.
INEC monitors party primaries and we tender reports. Even after a party primary, we know that you mistakenly won the primary, we will accept you. Even if the party submits the name of someone who never participated in the primaries, the law says INEC must accept it. So, maybe as part of the electoral reforms, we would now look at that proviso. Once the parties nominate, we have no power to reject, only the courts can make a pronouncement. And some of them are protracted cases because nomination of candidates is a pre-election matter and therefore it goes through the normal court processes up to the Supreme Court and the most recent, and a ridiculous one at that, was what happened, I think in Enugu state.
Party primaries were conducted before the 2011 elections and a member of the party who was defeated was not happy. He dragged the incumbent governor to court and it went through the high court, the court of appeal and the matter as we speak is before the supreme court – a matter that happened in 2010. Meanwhile, the man dragged to court has finished his term and even retired from politics but the matter is still in the supreme court. And you know ofcourse, the celebrated case in the old Niger state. I think it was the NPP then.
In 1983, elections were conducted and the NPP candidate was adjudged the winner. The matter dragged on in the courts and 20 years later the supreme court finally ruled in favour of the appellant, 19 days after he had died! That he won the election 20 years ago. That is the reality. The power to disqualify candidates was taken from the commission. Now, the solution for yesterday’s problem has now become today’s problem. So, we have to find a solution to today’s problem again.
What are you doing about the high rate of uncollected Permanent Voter Cards PVCs?
It is a big issue. I have been receiving monthly returns from the state offices, but sometimes there would be 400,000 PVCs uncollected in a state and the monthly return would show only 30 as having been collected. People don’t want to collect. It has to be tied to something, maybe, election is around the corner and they wish to vote, there is an incentive for them to do so. The Director of ICT was telling me that the issue of cards is always tied to something. You want to drive, you go for a driver’s licence, you want a bank account, you go for your BVN or you want to travel, then you go for your international passport. There is always a need; it has to be tied to something.
E-registration of voters
This one (PVC) is only tied to an election coming up once in four years and so if elections are not around the corner, most people don’t bother about collecting them, but as part of the innovations that we are going to unveil early next year, we are going to make the process easier and you can even register, transfer or relocate and then you can check if you are a registered voter online, but we are being careful so that we don’t reveal all the fields. In other words, we won’t reveal people’s date of birth, telephone numbers, email addresses and other personal information.
Each PVC will have a voter identification number called VIN which you can use to check where you were registered. We are going to provide a tracking mechanism; if you have a PVC and you don’t know where it is, you can track online using something like Google map; it can even direct you to the place where you can pick up the card. But this would also only apply to people in the urban areas, my grandmother in the village would not be able to access that service and so we have to continue to get the cards down to the levels they are supposed to be collected.