By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South
THE Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) for Akwa Ibom State, Barrister Mike Igini, in this interview, relives his agonizing experiences in the 2019 elections, saying there were open and veiled threats to his life, including kidnapping for refusing to compromise and pave the way for rigging. According to him, the overall plan was to make elections in the state inconclusive with thugs recruited to throw dynamites, but he stood his grounds.
The REC gives insight into the plots to rig the Akwa Ibom elections and the measures taken by INEC to forestall the scheme, the support he got from his boss, National Chairman of INEC, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, and lots more.
You publicly declared at the presentation of Certificates of Return to successful candidates in Uyo that any umpire that has a veneer of integrity should be able to give account of any election it conducted. However, almost every week, there are reports by APC candidates that INEC denies them access to election materials. What is your response to this allegation?
Yes, l said so and truly any umpire that has even a speckle of veneer of integrity should be eager to give account of how it conducted elections and returns made and not petitioners or respondents, who were mere participants if we are to be fair to them. You see, l have been very restrained since the constitution of the Election Petition Tribunal that would hear petitions filed by those who participated in the election that l presided over in this state. Therefore, l will not comment on the substance of the issues under determination by the tribunal in deference to the time-honored tradition of our profession. Nevertheless, let me say here for the benefit of the people of this state and Nigerians that the allegation of denial of access to election materials, even when there is a valid order of the tribunal, is wholly incorrect and untrue. The lie is to put us in bad light, but Nigerians know better? Why should INEC deny a petitioner or any party access to election materials? Except there is something to hide, but here in Akwa lbom under my watch, there is nothing to hide to warrant any denial of access to election materials.
We have attended to all requests for Certified True Copy, CTC; the legal team of Senator Godswill Akpabio, for instance, has been conducting inspection that ended on Tuesday and that of the APC gubernatorial candidate commenced on Wednesday as jointly agreed. In any case, assuming there was even a denial, which is not true, the lawyers should have reported to the tribunal and not going to the social media and pages of newspapers to attract attention and sympathy from some political quarters. The allegation is simply not true.
So, why are some politicians after you in Akwa-Ibom?
Let me put it like this: The constitutional mandate we have as election managers is to midwife a transparent and integrity driven electoral process that will enable the people make the choice of leaders through strict supervision of that process on Election Day and not coronation. Some politicians would rather have election managers coronate them than be elected by voters, which is a complete aberration. Unfortunately, we do not have powers to coronate through pre-writing of election result, either before or on Election Day. Our mandate is to create and sustain an electoral ambiance that allows Nigerians make a choice of who should be their leaders. This was the message we conveyed to stakeholders and insisted on in Akwa lbom that led to the uncommon noise you heard and the curious demand for my redeployment before the 2019 general elections in this state.
APC pointedly accused you of compromise in favour of the ruling PDP in the state.
The accusation is not only wholly, patently and untrue, it is most unkind and unfair to my person. I dare say that since my appointment into the Commission in 2010, first by President Goodluck Jonathan, re-appointed in 2017 by the current President, l have devoted my time, energy and intellectual resources with those in the Commission to trying to give meaning and purpose to the ballot as the best means of recruiting leaders in a democracy. l have never ever, for a moment, sat with anyone or through a proxy to initiate, entertain or engage in any conversation to rig or manipulate election for the victory of anyone or a political party. A rigged or manipulated election connotes absence of election. May such a day never come when l will betray public that trust.
Since my arrival in Akwa lbom in 2017, the son of man has never stepped into the home of any son or daughter of this state and so it is amusing to hear accusation of holding meetings with people l do not even know and in places l have not been to. In life, one should stand for something, live by some principles such as that of integrity and honesty, and be ready to defend them. It is the same Mike lgini who conducted the 2011 and 2015 elections and was commended for a good job; that is the same person that was posted to Akwa Ibom and was preparing the state for truly free, fair and credible election devoid of pre-writing of results, yet suddenly there was a call for my removal, why? What did l do differently from what l have done in my previous places of deployment? Ensuring free, fair and credible elections in all the states where l have served – Cross River, Anambra, Imo in 2011 and 2015 or Edo in 2015? When l arrived Akwa Ibom on September 5, 2017, l addressed the Chairmen and Secretaries of political parties and engaged the public that, in 2019, elections would be conducted and that all undemocratic old practices must pass away for the embrace of values that can sustain our democracy. I commenced the process of preparing the state with the relocation of 22 polling units that were located in private premises or homes of politicians to public places and a number of them, who are ‘powerful’ by the Nigerian standard, were very bitter and unhappy with me and the Commission in the state. Even the internal administrative changes we undertook, based on some disturbing findings about our own personnel, to avoid the compromise of the elections were also the reason for the call for my removal. This is apart from the fact that l was not in any way ready to give anyone or political group result sheets to write or allow outright manipulation of the elections.
There was the allegation by the APC of recruitment of election ad-hoc staff who were card-carrying members of their opponents?
It is an anathema, if not abomination for candidates or a party to make immoral request and insist on determining the Electoral Officers (E.Os) that should be in their local government areas or recruiting for the umpire election ad-hoc personnel such as Presiding officers, Collation and Returning officers that would conduct election they are to participate in as contestants. This is what some persons insisted on doing through their proxies as a condition for peace. To them, that is the way they have been doing it in Akwa lbom since after the 1999 elections and l said no. It was not going to happen under my watch as the Commissioner in charge of the state. They went violent at Obot Akara local government area where a known party official tried to force the electoral officer, who refused to accept the use of his own shortlisted names of ad-hoc personnel to conduct election.
In other local government areas, they threatened to attack National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, members if the Commission did not replace them with their own people and l had to petition the police and the DSS. That was the same local government where 13 buses hired by the Commission to convey men and materials were set ablaze and, today, the owners have been denied their means of livelihood because of this group of persons.
On the allegation of ad-hoc staff being party members, I want to say that Presiding Officers for the 2,890 polling units were all NYSC members, the Supervising Presiding Officers were the staff of federal agencies and not party members, but civil servants and Collation/Returning officers were academics from University of Uyo. They were shortlisted by the university authorities and sent directly to INEC Headquarters that, in turn, sent same to me in Akwa Ibom in a sealed envelope for training. So, all the strange noise about ad-hoc staff and collusion is not true and, to put a lie to their tendentious claims, l invited the DSS and the police, the accusers and all other political parties with all media organizations present for the joint vetting of the entire ad-hoc staff list. They could not point out the political party card – carrying individuals that they accused the Commission of recruiting.
Sources said some persons made mouth-watering offers to you. Is it true and how much?
Any society where they sell and buy everything threatens its moral foundation and such a society would not endure for long. It is disgusting to equate the right of a citizen to make a periodic choice to mundane issues of Naira and Kobo in a democracy. First, no amount of money can buy what is lost if you deny voters their right to elect the leadership they desire, it amounts to a betrayal of public trust. In any case, my needs as a human being are too small and limited to equate with such a monumental loss to society. The economist says that when you chose one thing instead of another, the one you forego is the opportunity cost of the one you chose, and, if that is the case, tell me how much can you compare as the price for denying the entire voters in Akwa lbom of their choice of leaders? As a member of the Nigerian Bar, now an electoral umpire, who is legally aware of the issues that may be at the electoral tribunal, I will not directly address this matter. All I can tell you is that if we want to build a better society that our children will live as happy people, we must be ready to make sacrifices that are bigger than the modest human needs of our comfort. People must learn to defer immediate gratification for the greater good of society.
We saw the colossal efforts to transfer you to another state. What went on in your mind then?
Indeed, there were intense efforts, which they did not disguise and it is most unfortunate that candidates in an election want to select who should be the umpire to conduct their election. Many even boasted in the print and the electronic media that they will not only do it, but even assured their followers that they should just go to sleep, that it had been concluded because that was the only way they could get a pliable umpire that will release election result sheets to them to write before the election. The brazen way they did it even in the mainstream media shows how low people who put themselves forward to serve the public have sunk. It shows disdain for the voting public. I made it clear that in the 2019 elections, INEC would deliver ballot papers and result sheets in the 2,980 polling units of the 31 local government areas of Akwa Ibom. I also stated that party agents and duly accredited observers must audit the materials as a condition precedent before the commencement of poll. Therefore, I found it amusing that despite my clear message before the elections that those used to writing election results in the past, were still determined to go that route. That was the reason for the call for my removal. I must commend the Chairman of INEC for standing firm to his obligations. He reassured me that I should not be distracted but rather concentrate on my work. His principled position re-assured me of the autonomy of the Commission. Politicians and Nigerians must understand the powers of constitutional prescriptions; those powers have provided strong incentives for the electoral umpire that is willing to abide by the laws to be fair to all candidates at elections. l personally commend him for his leadership. You must remember that during the heat of the elections, he also faced calls for his own removal. So I am certain he had a perspicacious understanding of what some people were trying to do to undermine the elections in Akwa lbom. What matters most for me was the fact that despite signs that some individuals within the Commission were working with politicians to undermine our collective efforts to give meaning and purpose to the ballot, the Chairman was resolute about defending the autonomy of the Commission. For that, I am profoundly grateful for his support and understanding. His wisdom on the matter made it clear to me about the religious advice that, there will be temptation but the challenge is how you respond to it. In my view, he exuded exemplary great wisdom and responded in the larger best interest of safeguarding the independence of the Commission for the good of our democratic process. Therefore, he shall he be remembered whenever the history of what happened in Akwa lbom will be written. This is why we have strongly advocated for a constitutional provision, followed by a legislative Act, for an Electoral Offences Institution, which will help to fumigate the impunity currently fuelling electoral offences. If we do that, we will greatly mitigate much of the electoral banditry that occurs around our elections and we can then face their sociological roots.
Is it true that there were attempts to compromise INEC officials after the lobbyists failed to buy you over?
Again, mindful of proceedings at the Election Tribunal and the long-established tradition of our legal profession, let me be restrained by saying that lobbyists were not in short supply; the period was indeed a test of character for those who have not settled the challenge between wants and need. However, I am glad to say that in the end, we have all learnt useful lessons on what can make the Commission resilient and what can make it weaker.
How did you manage to deliver on Akwa-Ibom polls despite the clear challenges?
It was teamwork and, in the main, the staff of the Commission who stayed on the course of fairness, professionalism and impartiality. You see, when people realize that you are doing the right thing, they will follow your lead regardless of how much noise and influence others bring to bear. When l arrived Akwa-Ibom, a very controversial politician made a false claim against me, that I was deployed by the APC to come and dethrone the PDP in Akwa-Ibom, but after August 2018, following this up and down gale of defections, the same individual, now in the APC, lied to them again that l am against the party. Suddenly, these members were all over the place shouting that I was against them and in support of the PDP. They insisted I must go to pave the way for their own kind of REC. If the Commission had acted the way they changed heads of key security agencies at will based on the political interests and dictation of politicians, INEC would have had up to seven RECs before the 2019 elections. How would such a situation engender voters’ confidence, trust and independence of the Commission? At all times, my main preoccupation, as an umpire, is the process that must be transparent and credible that would enable voters make their choices as the principal decider. In giving the voters voice through the ballot, my duty is to ensure that all parties had equal opportunity and equal chance for competition and participation. That was all we did in this state and nothing more.
Let us talk about a particular high profile politician in the state who many believed only wanted you to be a friend but you read another meaning to his motive.
My office is a public one to render services to all persons irrespective of their political parties. There are no enemies or special friends because I must do the correct thing to all manner of persons in accordance with the oath of office I swore to under the Constitution. With allegations in a leaked audio video that were intended to put my life and those of others in danger because of political office, I wonder if one can call my experience acts of friendship. What many politicians have not come to appreciate is that if you create a culture of political thuggery as a means of survival and there is a change, you are bound to have the dinosaur experience with the evolutionary forces of change. The dinosaur was so adapted to a particular ecosystem condition that made it survive for years, but when there was a change in the ecosystem and the environment that it depended on, it could not survive and it went extinct. That was the dinosaur experience that l advised against when l arrived this state, but like Noah in the Bible, who warned the children of God about the great flood to come and they dismissed him, so l was treated and, today, we know better. The electoral ecosystem has changed with better voter accreditation and other factors, while adaptation towards voter satisfaction through service delivery by INEC officials is imperative for political survival.
Again, APC purported that while you were hostile to them, you cavorted with Governor Udom Emmanuel and, in actual fact, that you are a PDP sympathizer
That is far from the truth. If you followed my antecedent in Cross River State, you will recall then that the PDP also alleged that I was an ACN sympathizer because usually the incumbent party does not want any opposition party to be strong enough to compete against them. They accused me of encouraging opposition parties in the state. It was, therefore, funny, in this instance, that the party with the federal leverages now thought I had sympathy for the opposition incumbent in the state. My sympathy, in all instances, is to the unfettered freedom of the voters, a free and fair electoral process and a legitimate outcome. I have no reason to play hide and seek with any party, what is expected of them is firm commitment to a free, fair and credible election by allowing the people of Akwa-Ibom and not INEC or selected proxies, who repress voters, to determine that outcome.
What adverse and complementary roles did security agents play in Akwa-Ibom elections?
Well, they played their part within the ambit of control that they had. They were with us at the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, Uyo, for long hours when we were sorting out the sensitive materials for the elections. You know INEC customizes ballot materials by state, local government area by local government area and Registration Area by Registration Area, RA by RA, and we sort them out in the presence of political parties, security agencies and duly accredited observers at the CBN. We took all these measures to make rigging of election difficult and to prevent swapping of ballot papers and result sheets. That was why we were able to ensure that, for the first time after the 1999 elections, INEC delivered ballots to all polling units in Akwa Ibom, votes counted and taken into account. Of course, there were areas that we had challenges, where people fomented violent attacks on voters, permanent and ad-hoc staff. For instance, a university lecturer, who was a Collation Officer was beaten, forced to hide in the forest until the morning with a bleeding nose and he managed to crawl out the next day to report his ordeal to us. These were instances where the security failed us. It grieves my heart that anyone can do that to a person, who is representing the authoritative orders of our Constitution and such persons who flouted our laws disdainfully are walking around freely. Aside from such failings, there were many instances where the security agents did their jobs excellently. A few compromised. I personally wrote a letter of commendation after the elections to the Army commending the troops led first by Brigadier Jega and later Major Ahmed Mohammed for the job they did in protecting our staff and maintaining law and order. There are others, who acted commendably too, but this space is not enough to mention all of them.
Some powerful persons reportedly threatened you over the polls in the state. How true is this allegation?
Indeed, there were many instances when people made open and veiled threats to my life, including planned kidnapping so that l will not preside over the conduct of elections in the state. The lowest point for me was the leaked audio tape that went viral of how a governorship candidate planned to bomb my car and get me off the way to enable him and his team rig the election. Life is so cheap in our country today that people could sit down to plan how to eliminate other fellow human beings in the quest for public office that is transient. Is that how bad our society has degenerated? The fact that appropriate security agencies did not put the allegations under investigative scrutiny and those involved questioned and made to face criminal prosecution is a sad commentary. Lies and innuendos were circulated, including the absurdity that l have a son-in-law who collected some huge amount of millions for me, whereas my daughter is a small girl in secondary school and so l do not have a son-in-law. It was on the basis of all these lies that they try tried to move the state against me for doing nothing and painfully those l thought knew me well enough, having worked in their states and they never asked me to give them result sheets or recruit ad-hoc personnel for them, surprisingly led my persecution unjustly. Others kept silent because of their new political friends. Worse still, they never bothered to hear from or consult with me on such groundless accusations, but moved against me by merely hearing from one side. Why do people easily come to flimsy conclusion that because you refused to compromise with them, it then means that their opponents have compromised you? If there is any, just one politician, who can come forward publicly that l sat with him or her to do anything for him or his party to win election, he should tell Nigerians. All those who won election in Akwa lbom, l do not know them personally and l do not have to know them except when, in recent times, in public places such as the airport, a number of them introduced themselves as people who won elections. I do not have their contacts nor do they have mine through which we had communicated either before, during or after election. All that was required of us is providing equal chance and opportunity to all and that was what we did in Akwa Ibom.
Situations like this make honest people stay away from government appointment. Do you not think so?
Of course, it is situation like this no doubt, but how do we really leave a country for bad people to take over total control? In every society, there are bad people, but the point is not to replicate them in numbers or abandon society for them, we will continue to have bad people around. When l left the university, travelling abroad was the in-thing then, but it was a conscious and deliberate personal decision not to leave Nigeria, that we will make the country a better place for ourselves and for future generations. I have kept and shown abiding faith in the country, but I am certainly not sure if this country believes in some of us, given my very painful experience in the 2019 elections. I literally came out of the jaw of death for simply saying we should do the right thing, not rig election, and confer authority and power on individuals in the name of election for the people. What l went through for doing nothing wrong has shaken my faith about the country, many people have no book of remembrance, and so truth, honesty, integrity is endangered and this is a tragedy for our nation.
There was a very curious incident of bombing in one of the local government areas in Akwa Ibom before the elections. What really happened?
Yes, they planned to disrupt elections in a number of local government areas such as Uyo, the capital that has the highest number of voters, on Election Day with dynamite thrown over the places, as was successfully carried out in lbesikpo Asutan on the eve of the governorship election. The overall plan was to make the election inconclusive, but our emergent plan defeated that evil design and, up until now, they apprehended nobody. When the Commission requested security to declare the results in one of the senatorial districts, some security officials insisted they could not guarantee security in the area. I was so miffed because how can the state with all its coercive powers say it had ceded the powers of coercion to unknown elements. Well, INEC, on its own, does not provide security; so we had to resort to adaptive legal means to manage that situation. I state these experiences for the public records so that constitutional and administrative interventions can be made to attenuate the vulnerabilities that our security forces are exposed to during elections. I do not think it is healthy to allow politicians to push around Police Commissioners during elections. These are supposed to be disciplined men and women, who know their jobs and society very well. We cannot allow a situation where they cannot take decisions professionally on behalf of the people in accordance with the dictate of their mandate in the Constitution because of partisan control over their deployments.
What really prepared you for the no-nonsense way you are performing your duty in Akwa-Ibom?
Primarily, I am profoundly grateful to my parents, my first role models, and uncles, who instilled the virtues of fairness, rectitude and truthfulness, as part of family ethos. This is why I have been pushing that our nation must do everything to rescue the family through a return to embracing and teaching of the virtues of honesty, integrity and trustworthiness. We must rescue the family from destruction by economic challenges, the country we shall have in future will come from the aggregate of the family experiences of today. If we create deprived families, we harvest desperate and unethical citizens. The South -West where I grew up in my early years also endowed me with a cultural environment of respect and tradition of resistance or opposition to what is unjust and unfair. Combining that with the experiences of Sapele and Warri, Benin and back to South West, all have tremendous impact on my worldview and on so many things l do in life. Finally, I also have to thank President Goodluck Jonathan and President Muhammadu Buhari, both of them did not know me personally, but they appointed and re-appointed me from the first judgment they made about my character and record to serve our country to the best of my ability. I cannot betray their trust.
You made a famous statement that you came to Akwa-Ibom to count ballot, not money. Do they not count ballot and money together where you come from?
That is indeed a funny dimension. Well I am sure they count ballots in Delta State where I come from, but how well they do so is for voters in the state to say. I can only speak for myself and, as I have repeatedly assured the people of Akwa-Ibom, I am here to count their ballots as delivered in elections and not to count money delivered to buy votes by politicians. This terrible idea by some folks that they can buy everybody with money is simply not true. If you put one in a position of honor and he decides to compromise it for money, where will he see honor to buy?
Why did you say that the electoral umpire cannot do favour or be seen to render assistance to political groups during elections?
It is a travesty of public trust and indeed an anathema for an umpire to help or assist a contestant and, worse still, for pecuniary reason. The reason an umpire should not do favors to any candidate, even if it is his father or mother, is that the process is meant to determine the verdict of the people and not the whims of the umpire. In retrospect, l will say that much damage has been done to the democratization project in Nigeria by people, who see and have taken their appointment as election managers as avenues for dispensing patronage and favors for personal ends. While this may have helped to empower their friends and enriched them materially outside the legal expectation of the system, it has resulted in leadership aloofness, because the so-called ‘elected’ office holders, who used such route, do not feel responsible, accountable or obligated to the people, resulting in the regression of our country in many developmental spheres. As a corrupt judge is the greatest danger to the society, so also is a compromised election manager the greatest danger to democracy. An election umpire is like a judge, he performs a quasi judicial function, he presides over those who compete for power, who, in turn, preside over the values of society; therefore, such people should not compromise the system. In fact, the mere perception that such persons are corrupt is damaging to public confidence in the electoral process. The golden rule is absolute and unqualified neutrality so that citizens do not lose confidence in the institution of state.
What are your prescriptions for better elections in Nigeria?
I have constantly advocated that we ensure there are legal consequences for electoral offences in the form of jail terms, fines and even periodic ban from participation in elections. I have suggested that we should create a threshold for participation in state and federal elections for political parties without proscribing them. There is also the need to ensure that political parties submit a certified copy of their membership list and their guidelines for party nominations not later than 30 days before any intra-party contest. These are my principal prescriptions, others I will reserve because they require more in-depth explanations. It is also better to propose them after the election tribunal matters are finally disposed off completely.