Today, we recall the interview Festus Okoye, INEC’s Information and Voter Education Committee Chairman granted us and published on Saturday, December 29. Considering what has played out in the last one week, we find it pertinent to serve this again. Okoye who is also INEC Commissioner in charge of South East spoke about three weeks after President Buhari failed to assent to the Electoral Amendment Bill on the grounds that it was too close to the 2019 elections. Okoye maintained that it was not late and that INEC was ready to implement the bill if passed into law. Refresh your memories with these excerpts from the interview with our BEN AGANDE
ON PREPARATION/ ELECTORAL BILL
The Independent National Electoral Commission started preparing for the 2019 elections in 2015 and based on that, we rolled out our strategical plans and strategic programme of action which we have been following assiduously to make sure that we deliver credible elections to the Nigerian people. And we have improved over the years in terms of our procedures. Based on some of the challenges of the card reader in 2015, the smart card reader has been upgraded. It is now faster in reading biometric data and in the governorship elections we have so far conducted in Edo, Osun, Ekiti states, the inability of the card reader to perform effectively has reduced to less than one per cent.
We are comfortable with the card reader and we have also improved on logistics and delivery of materials to the polling units. Some of the recommendations in the amended Electoral bill that has not been signed actually came from the INEC and some of the recommendations were based on our observations on how we can improve the electoral process. We anticipated some of these issues in the electoral bill and that is why we have a Plan A and a Plan B.
The Plan A is based on the existing law because the INEC work is based on the existing law. We will execute the Plan B if the President signs the Bill and what it means is that we will be able to carry out electronic transmission of results. For the Osun, Ekiti and some other standalone elections, we piloted electronic transmission of results but we can fully roll it for the general elections if there is a law backing it. If the Bill is signed, we have the capacity to transmit the results real-time. Late signing of the Bill cannot disrupt preparations for the elections.
There are few issues in the amended Electoral bill that have even been overtaken by events. For instance, in terms of party primary elections, part of the amendment is that before a political party conducts primary elections, it has to advertise the venue and the time in two national newspapers, at least 10 days before the primary elections. That clause has been overtaken by events because the primaries have already taken place. There is also the issue of limit to campaign spending. That one is already in the law. We have our tracking mechanism for campaign spending and we have sensitised the law enforcement agencies concerning their duties. For the card reader, the law gives us the right to deploy the card reader for purposes of accreditation, identification and verification. The card reader we have now can transmit results. So, if the law is signed, we can transmit results. There is nothing in the Electoral Amendment Bill that we cannot take care of between now and the elections.
So, it does not matter whether the Bill is signed or not as we are prepared for any eventuality.
ON NON-PARTISANSHIP OF INEC
The only assurance we can give to the Nigerian people is the assurance that we are doing our work professionally and transparently and we are going to deliver the elections based on the mandate given to the INEC. There is nothing that we have done that we have not disclosed to the Nigerian people concerning our preparation.
When we did not accept the APC list from Zamfara, the APC accused us of working for the PDP. When we take actions that are not favorable to the PDP, they accuse us of working for the APC. But the truth of the matter is that we work for the Nigerian people and we are looking at our constitutional mandate and legal mandate and that is where we are going to remain. The INEC is a huge institution and the 2019 elections will be the biggest logistic exercise to be undertaken in the history of this country. We are ready. We are transparent, we are not aligned to any political parties and we are not partisan. But the truth of the matter is that an election is a multi-stakeholders venture.
All the critical stakeholders in the electoral process must work symbiotically in order to deliver credible elections. If the INEC is ready to deploy and the environment is not conducive for deployment then we cannot deploy. For instance, you know that as at today, the Nigerian military are engaged in internal security operations in almost two thirds of the states of the federation. So, despite the fact that we are ready and prepared, there is the possibility that we may not deploy men and materials to some local governments in the country, on account of insecurity, unless the critical institutions that have been mandated to maintain law and order give an assurance that our materials and personnel will be safe. So, the security agencies are a key institution in the delivery of credible elections.
The political parties are also a key institution in the delivery of credible elections. If the INEC is working to deliver credible elections and the political parties work to undermine the delivery of credible elections, then there is going to be a problem. If we assemble young people, members of the NYSC and we want to deploy them but political parties go and hire thugs, give them machetes, arms and ammunition and they create an atmosphere of confusion and fear then there is no way we can deploy them. So, our assurances to the Nigerian people is that we are ready to conduct credible elections but the Nigerian people must also pay attention to the activities of the political parties and call them to order and insist they play by rules of the game. I assure you that if the political parties play by the rules of the game and the security agencies remain professional, we will conduct the best elections ever in Nigeria and that is our assurance to the Nigerian people.
ON WHY INEC DOES NOT ENGAGE THE UNEMPLOYED AS ADHOC STAFF
Election is a very sensitive venture. In the past we tried all sorts of models but they did not guarantee the kind of neutrality that INEC wants from its adhoc staff. So, what we do is to tie the harvesting of adhoc staff to institutions and to places where we can hold the individuals responsible. For instance, the majority of our collation officers and returning officer are lecturers in various tertiary institutions in the country.
A Professor of Mathematics from the ABU, for example, who is a collation officer, is tied to an institution. So, if he misbehaves, we can easily locate him and if there is election petition in relation to collation of results we can easily trace him to give evidence in court. Youth corps members are attached to institutions.
We can locate any corps member who is assigned to be a presiding officer. Students are tied to institutions and we can trace them. Unemployed graduates are unemployed. If there is a challenge, we will have difficulty locating them and if they misbehave we may not be in a position to locate them. If there is an election petition, we cannot locate them. It is problematic to harvest unemployed graduates and use them for such a sensitive assignment. Now, the challenge is that the INEC has slightly over 16,000 workers and we have almost 120,000 polling units in Nigeria and with this particular election, we may create additional 30,000 voting points, bringing the total to 150,000. For each polling unit we are going to deploy at least four ad hoc staff and then all the registration areas in Nigeria will also have at least a collation officer.
All the local governments will have collation officers and we are going to have supervising presiding officer for each ward or registration area. So, it is a huge challenge in terms of logistics and students of federal tertiary institutions are the ones we identified to supplement the efforts of members of the NYSC to satisfy our advocacy staff needs. we envisage that assistant presiding officers 1-3 to be students of tertiary institutions. So, it is a huge challenge and we need students on campus. If students are not on campus before the 2019 elections or at least a month before the elections, we are going to have a very huge challenge and what that means is that we are going to draw up a Plan C on where to get ad hoc staff to fill the gap and we cannot be following them from house to house in trying to get them to work. It will create a huge confusion but we are confident that the persons negotiating on behalf of the Federal Government and members of ASUU are reasonable people to understand the quantum of money government is spending for the elections. We hope they also understand that if we do not conduct this election within the window provided by the Constitution, we will have a constitutional crisis.
ON TRACKING CAMPAIGN FUNDS OF PARTIES
The Constitution has provided for a limit for campaign spending but you know that Nigeria is a cash economy. Some people carry their money through unorthodox means and other means that you cannot trace. Sometimes they spend money through proxies who place advertisements for candidates and you cannot attribute that to the candidate. Solidarity groups place advertisements and organize rallies, among other activities. So, it is very difficult to track campaign funding and financing. But we have a monitoring group in INEC and they have certain processes and procedures through which they keep tabs on C ampaign financing but I assure you that it is very difficult.
ON VOTE BUYING
The INEC does not buy or sell votes, it is the politicians who buy the votes. the media should direct the question to the political parties and the politicians. The media should ask them, when they are going to stop vote buying and they are the ones complaining. They are the ones corrupting the voters.
They should tell us when they are going to stop vote buying so that we can sanitize the process. But the Commission has actually designed a method of dealing with the issue and part of it is that no voter should access the voting cubicle with a smart phone or with any devices that can take photographs and we are going to enforce that vigorously. We have also configured the ballot papers in such a way that the presiding officer will have the ballot paper before handing it over to the voter. If the ballot paper is prefolded, when the voter casts his his vote, he has to also prefold the ballot paper. The third thing we have done is that we are training the presiding officers on proper location of the voting cubicle to ensure secrecy of the vote. We have also had meetings with the DSS and other security agencies, asking them to do their job discreetly to prevent vote buying, at least within the vicinity of the polling unit.