By Gabriel Ewepu
In this interview, the Executive Director of YIAGA AFRICA, Samson Itodo, said the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, can conduct credible elections amidst COVID-19 in Edo and Ondo States respectively with strict enforcement of guidelines while speaking on his organization’s preparedness ahead of the elections, clamour for electronic voting, and young people to shun all forms of violence, but ensure a peaceful process.
As an election observer over the years, what do you think can be differently done to improve Nigeria’s electoral process and where should that start from?
Improve on election planning and logistics, early release of funds for election activities, stop commercialization of the candidate selection process, commence electoral reforms processes early, sign an amended electoral act to incorporate suggestions and recommendations from electoral stakeholders, a truly independent INEC imbued with financial and administrative autonomy, a legal process that would ensure election disputes are concluded before the inauguration of the newly elected representatives, etc.
Now, there is clamour for use of electronic voting, which INEC also is alluding to come 2021, do you think it would change the narrative in Nigeria’s electoral process and redeem the nation’s image in the comity of nations?
Nigeria has introduced some measures of the electronic process to shore up the integrity of our elections; biometric registration of voters, the introduction of the smart card readers, pilot electronic transmission of results during the 2018 Edo and Ondo States elections, and others.
Whilst electronic voting can improve citizens’ confidence in the process, it is not 100 per cent fail-proof. Some countries that have tried electronic voting have reverted back to manual voting or are practising a mixture of the two. Nigeria will first need to deal with trust issues and improve on infrastructure before full-scale electronic voting, we may pilot in a few states, but I don’t think we will be ready for full-scale electronic voting.
The Edo and Ondo governorship elections drawing closer, and INEC said definitely it would hold despite the COVID-19 pandemic. How prepared is YIAGA AFRICA for the elections?
Yiaga Africa is a dynamic organization and has adjusted to what may be the new normal even before the decision by INEC, Yiaga has hosted a number of virtual meetings and will adopt that in our engagements in Edo and Ondo to limit the number of physical interactions.
Where physical interactions are necessary, we have made it a policy that until the situation improves, no physical meeting or training will have more than 20 participants, and most participants must observe all the safety rules, such as physical distancing. We are also reviewing all our documents and tools of engagements to ensure they conform to the prescribed safety rules.
What will be the approach of YIAGA AFRICA for these elections as far as the pandemic is concerned?
At Yiaga Africa, we understand that COVID-19 offers opportunities to press the reset button for addressing some of the noticeable contradictions in Nigeria’s electoral and governance architecture.
In specific terms, the prevailing period as testing as it might seem offers the opportunity to rethink how to become more prudent in the allocation and management of financial resources in the context of dwindling oil revenues; establish solid foundations for revitalisation of the country’s critical national infrastructure, amenities, and social services; revamp governance at the grassroots, bringing it closer and effectively to citizens; improve public trust/confidence in the electoral processes and outcomes; promote sustainable electoral reform, and generally deepen the consolidation of democracy.
These aspirations can only be brought to fruition if pursued with sincerity to deliver the dividend of democracy and good governance to citizens, within a human rights perspective to governance and development.
Do you envisage voter apathy or electoral violence and manipulation in the forthcoming elections?
No, we do not envisage voter apathy or electoral violence and manipulation, however, we expect eligible voters in Edo and Ondo States to come out and exercise their franchise peacefully in the forthcoming elections.
While we are conscious of the abysmally low level of voter turnout in recently, conducted elections under COVID-19, for instance, Mali (7.2%). In some places, poll workers refused to turn up at their duty posts on Election Day for fear of being infected.
In the face of widespread public distrust in electoral institutions (INEC) and key actors involved in elections (such as politicians, ad-hoc staff and security agents, others.), the risks of unprecedented low turnout may be considerable if elections are to be conducted under the prevailing COVID19 conditions in Nigeria.
Even without any major emergency, it is important to recall that the 2019 general elections had the lowest voter turnout in the country’s history.
The implementation of INEC’s ‘Policy On Conducting Elections In The Context Of The COVID-19 Pandemic’ will go a long way in building trust among voters such that they come out to vote and do so peacefully.
What is your confidence in INEC conducting credible elections?
COVID-19 has far-reaching impacts on elections and electoral cycles. In the wake of the pandemic, over 40 countries across the world have postponed elections due to COVID-19.
A number of African countries have had to postpone their general elections (Ethiopia for example), some others have gone ahead to conduct elections (Guinea and Mali), while some have not made a decision on whether or not elections would be held as scheduled.
However, I am confident that INEC is posed to ensure that there are credible elections in Edo and Ondo in September and October 2020 respectively. INEC has also built the confidence of stakeholders with the release of their ‘Policy on Conducting Elections in the Context of COVID-19’.
What is your view about the recent policy document released by INEC over the conduct of the elections?
INEC’s ‘Policy On Conducting Elections In The Context Of The COVID-19 Pandemic’ is a reflection of the Commission’s responsiveness conducting elections in the context of the pandemic and this must be commended.
The Policy was a result of wide consultations with stakeholders and INEC is meeting with stakeholders to ensure the policy framework guides all the stakeholders in the electoral process.
The implementation of the Policy will go a long way in building trust among voters such that they come out to vote without fear as well as ensuring a peaceful and credible process.
What do you have as advice for INEC ahead of the elections?
INEC must sustain stakeholder engagement on the impact of COVID-19 on elections, particularly on how INEC and other stakeholders can work towards building consensus on emerging issues is an urgent imperative.
What is your advice to the youth before, during, and after the elections?
My advice is simple, do not let the pandemic prevent us from participating actively in the electoral process. Before the election, ensure you have collected your voter card, vote peacefully on Election Day, and do not engage in electoral violence either before, during, or after the elections.
We are aware that with the pandemic, the level of trust in any electoral process may sink further; especially among youth who ordinarily show apathy in such matters. We must disrupt this mindset and ensure our active participation does not dent the legitimacy of any electoral process and outcome.