By Gabriel Ewepu
THE Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, Monday, unveiled possible on conducting elections under the current ravaging novel Coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic ahead of Edo and Ondo governorship elections.
The document which was made available to Vanguard was signed by the Chairman of INEC, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, where the Commission explained that the purpose of the policy is to enable officials and staff of the Commission to understand and respond adequately to the challenges of conducting elections in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and its health and financial implications, and to provide a guide for engagement with stakeholders during elections.
According to the policy document Section 160 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) empowers INEC to by rules or otherwise, regulate its own procedure or confer powers and impose duties on any officer or authority for the purpose of discharging its functions. The Commission is also empowered by Section 153 of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) to issue regulations, guidelines, and manuals for the purpose of giving effect to the provisions of the Act.
It further stated that the policy shall apply to all elections and electoral activities of the Commission during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It reads in part, “The COVID-19 pandemic has had an extensive impact on the electoral process in Nigeria. Not only has it led to far-reaching disruptions in the electoral system, but it has also specifically led to the postponement of elections and created uncertainties about scheduled ones.
“The Commission, cognizant of the profound impact of the pandemic on the electoral process, extensively deliberated on how best to respond to the impact of the pandemic on election administration. The situation is made worse by the global economic impact of the pandemic and its knock-on effect on the Nigerian economy, which has seen a decline in funding for government activities.’
On health issues the Commission allayed fears of electorates about the rampaging virus in the states the elections and assured that will hold disclosed that Infrared thermometers will be supplied and used at the Registration Area Collation Centres, the Local Government Area Collation Centres and the State Collation Centres including the use of face masks will be mandatory for all involved in the election process and must be worn at all election locations as well as sanitizers.
“The most immediate challenge that COVID-19 poses to the electoral process is health-related. In order to protect voters, election officials and other stakeholders in the electoral process, the Commission shall implement the following: Infrared thermometers will be supplied and used at the Registration Area Collation Centres, the Local Government Area Collation Centres and the State Collation Centres; The use of face masks is mandatory for all involved in the election process and must be worn at all election locations; The Commission shall provide face masks for all election officials.
“Alcohol-based hand sanitizers will be provided for election officials at the polling units. Methylated Spirit and cotton wool will be provided for the disinfection of the Smart Card Readers (SCRs) after the fingerprint of each voter are read; The rules of physical distancing shall be enforced at all election activities including stakeholder engagements, training, queuing at Polling Units, etc.
“All protocols issued by the NCDC, Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, State Committees on COVID-19 and other relevant health authorities shall be observed by election officials and all stakeholders; The Commission shall work with the PTF and health authorities to have in place a system of voluntary COVID-19 testing for INEC staff before and after deploying for elections.
“Voters and Election Officials Showing Symptoms of COVID – 19; The Commission shall work with the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 and health authorities in the States having elections to develop a protocol for dealing with persons who show symptoms of COVID-19 at election venues.
“Where an election official, a voter or any other person present at an election venue shows symptoms of COVID-19: the prevailing protocol shall be observed; the person must be isolated.”
The Commission also noted that “Expectedly, this trend will also affect the work of the Commission. Conducting elections in a pandemic such as COVID-19 is yet uncharted waters. Only very few jurisdictions have any experience with this.”
However, the Commission assured the electorates of its commitment to conducting the elections despite the pandemic.
“That notwithstanding, the Commission is committed to conducting all elections that are due within the extant legal framework. However, in so doing it will put a premium on public safety and mitigation of health risks from COVID-19. Citizens must be assured that they will be safe while participating as voters, candidates, and officials.
“The Commission remains committed to raising public confidence in the electoral process in spite of the challenges posed by the pandemic and to regularly communicate its actions and challenges to the public. This would from time to time occasion alterations in its procedures, rules, and regulations, as is the case with the present policy.
“The broad objective of this policy framework is, therefore, to prepare the Commission to respond to the effects on the electoral process of the twin challenges of COVID-19 pandemic and looming cuts in government spending and to communicate these to its stakeholders”, it added.
On adequate planning towards the successful conduct of the elections the policy statement from the Commission made it known that it has taken into full consideration and cognizance of the raging COVID-19 pandemic as measures are put in place to tackle it.
“Reflect and take full cognizance of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on election service delivery. All election activities shall be evaluated on the extent to which they recognize the likely effects of the pandemic on their timely and successful execution.
“Update and strictly implement an Electoral checklist of indicators that mainstreams COVID-19 for use in monitoring and tracking performance over time and space; Undertake strategic consultation and consensus-building with stakeholders on key changes in its procedures due to the COVID-19 crisis; R e s p o n d to t h e g r o w i n g demand for deepening the use of technology in the electoral p r o c e s s e s, i n c l u d i n g t h e introduction of electronic voting.
“Develop a new election budget template to reflect the likely impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the funding profile of electoral activities; Constantly re-evaluate planned electoral activities in the light of COVID-19 and the health risks it poses for voters, stakeholders and staff during elections, and implement mitigating measures in consultation with health authorities; Integrate its various planning and monitoring tools – Election Risk Management (ERM), Election Management System (EMS) and Electoral Operations Support Centre (EOSC) into a robust system for delivering electoral services during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
“Undertake risk mitigation strategies, including innovative ways of conducting election activities that will mitigate risk to health and safety of voters and election officials; Continuously update election readiness assessments and regularly share information from them with stakeholders”, it added.
On the use of Information and Communication Technology, ICT, the Commission explained that there will be a commitment in that regards in order to conduct a free and fair election.
“The Commission recognizes the critical role that ICT will play in an electoral process that is being vastly reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the growing demands by Nigerians for the deepening of the use of technology in our elections. Consequently, the Commission shall continue to apply relevant, value-for-money technology in all aspects of the electoral process and election management.
“Regularly validate and clean up the biometric Register of Voters by removing multiple registrants and deceased persons. iii. S u s p e n d t h e Co n t i n u o u s Registration of Voters (CVR) for the time being to prevent the health risks associated with it in the context of COVID-19.
“Continue to make available its electronic channels for voters to check their registration status. And pilot the use of Electronic Voting Machines at the earliest possible time (not Edo and Ondo), but work towards the full introduction of electronic voting in major elections starting from 2021”, it explained.