Imo REC loud on how to make elections free and fair
Says human involvement must be reduced for electronic machinery
Regrets effects of poverty, role of military; recalls day police almost shot him on duty
The 2019 general elections have since become history, but reactions trailing the exercise appear unending. In this no holds barred interview with our man, Chidi Nkwopara, the Resident Electoral Commissioner, REC, Professor Francis Ezeonu, recounts his experience and the way forward.
The 2019 general elections have come and gone. Can you please, give us an overview of what happened?
Well, like you said, it has come and gone, but for me, it afforded me a lot of opportunities to learn a lot of things. Definitely, the last general elections posed a lot of challenges.
Like I kept saying before the elections, it was the most deliberately planned election in Nigeria. We had a strategic plan. We had election project plan.
What about the implementation?
Well, in terms of implementation, things did not go as swiftly as we had planned. There were hiccups in some areas, especially with respect to human factor, areas where human beings had to get involved.
You would realize that what you thought was different from what others had in mind. It was a clash of interest or modus operandi of sorts, if you like to put it that way.
We wanted an election that would be very free, very fair, nonviolent, friction-less, very credible and thoroughly in the best international practice.
Would you honestly say that the Commission achieved these lofty goals?
I would say to good extent but I must also concede that there were several contending factors along the line of duty. One is the politicians themselves. There was too much desperation on the part of our politicians. This issue of desperation attained feverish peak!
There is this other point I would like to make public at this point. I call it attitudinal factor, largely because of hunger. There is too much hunger and poverty in the land. Every person sees every little opportunity, as a golden chance to make quick money. This is so much so that even some people we entrusted with some responsibilities, as adhoc staff, sadly sabotaged the Commission.
Can you please, be more specific here?
Of course, I am sure you heard the story of how we moved from using lecturers of the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, FUTO, because we felt that most politicians were already used to them. We reasoned that they may have had personal relationships, which they didn’t want to break or some other unverifiable reasons.
So, from the experience we had during the presidential election, we requested that we get collation officers from another place. Lecturers were sent from Michael Okpara University of Agriculture Umudike, Abia State.
Unfortunately again, even before they could reach the State INEC Office, they were contaminated half way. They were hijacked. They did not report to INEC the night preceding the election day as directed and in the morning, stories were all over the place that something untoward had happened. And we knew what happened. So, we had to make alternative arrangements.
That was why you could recall that the collation of gubernatorial and House of Assembly elections started very late, because we had to make alternative arrangements to save the integrity of the exercise. I must also state unequivocally that but for this prompt action, we would have found ourselves in a deep mess!
So, what next?
If we can find a way of reducing human involvement or interference in the nation’s entire electoral process to the minimum, that would be trite.
For me, the ultimate is electronic voting because when you consider a lot of things, you will realize that it is the best for Nigeria.
If you consider the army of workers that are disenfranchised on all election days, you will then appreciate where I am coming from.
The youth corp members who are engaged as adhoc staff, don’t vote. The journalists who monitor the polls, INEC staff, police, army and other security personnel do not also vote. When you check the population of registered voters who are disenfranchised on all election days, you get worried. At the end of the day, I have not ceased to ask if the people that were finally elected, actually represent the rest of us that could not vote.
So, if there is a situation when we can relieve these people of this burden and allow them to vote and of cause, allow our votes to go right, I think it will make a lot of sense. We may not be ripe for it but the ultimate will be electronic voting.
If the 2019 elections were to be repeated, are there things you will do differently?
Certainly! Lessons have been learned and we will keep learning. There were things that happened, which, with benefit of experience, I wouldn’t want. Immediately after the presidential election, you were here in the state and witnessed what happened, I had to restrategize, because it became clear to me that the strategy we put in place, did not run perfectly to our purpose. So, we had to re-engineer the process. And of course, we have to keep re-engineering the process until we get to perfection. So, there is no way you can keep repeating the same thing and expect a different result. So, if I say that I won’t do something different, it will look as if we conducted a perfect election. I know we did not and we can always improve on the system.
How do you assess the activities of the security personnel in the last polls?
Actually, this remains a problem and it was at the centre of the crisis we had in imo State.
There is this provision in the Law that you don’t move electoral materials except they are accompanied by security personnel. This means that INEC is not totally in control of the security agencies. It means that we are working at their instance and pace.
There were issues when we had delays in deploying materials to the RACs, because of the uncooperative attitude of the security agencies. It was an issue and at a point, I had to escalate it to the INEC Chairman.
In some other places, when we wanted to move materials to the local government councils to RAC centres, you didn’t see the security personnel again. It became a serious problem. Even at a particular occasion, we were unduly delayed from taking out materials from First Bank because they were not there! This is especially the lead security agency, the police. So, it was a great problem. Virtually every security agency in Nigeria got mobilized for the last election! It was worrisome.
At a time, we had people from National Intelligence Agency, the Defence Agency and all sorts of agencies, coming and wanting to be part of the exercise and we tried to resist this, because some of these things impinged on the touted independence of the Commission.
And until we control what happens in the field 100 percent, we will not get it right. The law is that actually, the security personnel should be handed over to the Commission, for the purpose of prosecuting the election, but in practice that is usually not what happens. It must also be said that because of the command and control within these security agencies, they don’t take directives from you. They take instructions from their bosses. On one occasion, a police officer almost shot me!
He refused me access to the office. This was on an election day. I was well kitted, had my identification card and official vehicle and they refused to let me pass!
Well, I got infuriated and did something in security parlance that I almost committed suicide, because I came down and removed the barrier, so I could gain access to my office and they cocked and pointed their guns at me. They almost shot me! And it was a very terrible experience. Unfortunately, I lodged a formal report to the police authorities but nothing happened. Things like this, give room for serious worry, as to what you meet when you go for election. So, if a Resident Electoral Commissioner can be handled that way, you can then imagine what happens to people out there.
There were also instances where vehicles conveying election materials and personal were intercepted and conscripted, because there were no security persons. A vehicle is supposed to take materials to polling units and at the material time, you have no security to accompany them. You don’t have to keep waiting for security agencies because at the end of the day, INEC takes the blame for late arrival of voting materials and adhoc staff.
So, when I get such information and I make contacts with the security agencies and I feel that they are not prepared to do anything fast, I direct my staff to move the materials to the polling units. In one or two places, these things were conscripted by the police!
You reported your experience with police formally and nothing happened?
Well, it was what happened in battle front. The most important thing was that I was able to overcome the incident and delivered on the election. It is not an isolated case. There were a lot of such incidents in many places in the state, and this is part of why the Commission is having a review of the last outing, because we have to document such incidents. I also have a feeling that it didn’t happen only in Imo State. I shared my near ugly experience with other RECs and they told their own stories. There is no doubt that this is very worrisome. I think that with time, these things can be ironed out.
Imo now holds the ace for announcing result under duress. Does this not prove that our Electoral Law is insufficient?
Sure. I won’t go deeply into this issue because the Commission has assured Nigerians that it is going to appeal the judgment. There is no doubt that there are some aspects of our laws that need to be properly reviewed or interpreted.
It is just like the issue of party primaries. There is this law that INEC cannot refuse names submitted by the national headquarters of any political party. But they do this in isolation, forgetting that Section 87 of the Nigerian Constitution provides the condition for somebody to emerge. It is only when somebody has emerged that the name should be forwarded to INEC.
So, I am happy with what happened in Zamfara and Rivers States. The ruling about the two states clearly defined it.
Also, this idea that once a declaration is made, nothing else can be done, gives ample room for worry. I looked at some aspects of the last judgment over that but because I am a referee,it is not proper for a referee to start commenting on the quality of a player or team.
We did our job to the best of our ability. The law is there. INEC is going to appeal and at the end of the day, all these things will help to develop the law. There is no doubt that there are some loopholes in the laws that we need to plug.
The sad thing is that the people who are supposed to plug these loopholes are the politicians who are beneficiaries of the same loopholes. It is clear that sometimes, they don’t want these things done.
Are there INEC or adhoc staff that were penalized for being on the wrong side of the law?
Well, yes. We have internal mechanisms for dealing with people we had issues with, especially dereliction of duty. At one instance, I had to relieve an Electoral Officer, EO, of his responsibilities. He didn’t do anything criminal but there was dereliction of duty and I felt sabotaged on the election day. I handed him over to the security and I took over his job as the EO. He was thoroughly investigated and later given a clean bill of health. There was nothing criminal about his act and was released. It was just a case of dereliction of duty, which we have handled internally.
There were a number of other incidents, which we reported to the police but I do not know how the cases stand now. There was the case of a corper that sold our smart card reader. I handed him over to the police and I didn’t hear anything about it again. Sometimes, you want to follow things up, but you get told that they were not documented and this becomes a problem.
What is your advice to Nigerians?
If we must tell ourselves the simple truth, a system is as good as those who participate in the system, operate it and benefit from it. If the citizens of the country are not committed to having a good election, we cannot have it. If the government in power is not committed to having a good election, we cannot have a good election. If the electoral umpire is not serious about having a good election, we cannot have it.
If you look at what has happened, INEC is the most improved public sector organization in Nigeria. There is no doubt about that but the people you are working with are only looking for a way to thwart the efforts. By this, I mean the politicians and even the electorate.
This is not a one sided affair. Today, vote buying has sadly come into the nation’s political lexicon. INEC did its best to deploy men and materials, but in the field, we are not totally in control, because we were battling with politicians who were trying to buy votes. We were battling with some security personnel, some of who were bought over and were already working for some particular persons. This is the simple truth.
It is not about what an individual can do but it is about how to reform the entire system, so as to do things better.