•It’ll be hard for riggers to manufacture votes

By Johnbosco Agbakwuru

Akwa Ibom State Resident Electoral Commissioner, REC, of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, Mr. Mike Igini, a lawyer, in this interview, speaks on the preparations of the commission for the 2023 general elections.

He says that the technological innovations introduced by the commission and the Electoral Act 2022 will make it difficult for politicians to manufacture votes. He also speaks on what is required of the electorate and political parties to ensure a credible process.

On dissemination of information that will help Nigerian people make rational choices in the forthcoming elections

We must acknowledge the fact that the sustenance of democracy depends on the kind of information that the people get that empowers them to make informed and rational choices on election day. The kind of messages and information through civic and voters education given to the people before the election is very critical because democracy in its classical traditional sense is a fragile construct, extremely vulnerable to the passion of any demagogue with populist but empty ideas.

That is why electoral democracy must be guarded and protected with continuous sensitization and emphasis on empowering information about good democratic practices because poverty and the low level of literacy remain the basic weakness and fundamental flaws of liberal democracy, based on the assumption that people will make a rational choice. If l should ask you, what kind of rational choice do you expect uninformed and hungry people to make on election day?

That is why vote-buying has become a terrible phenomenon, with commodification and devaluation of the ballot that ordinarily ought to be the best means of the expression of the will of the people in a democracy. These weaknesses are the reason behind the statutory provision under part 1 section (2) of the Act mandating INEC, as one of the key stakeholders, to educate Nigerians and promote sound knowledge of the democratic process.

How well is INEC carrying out this very important statutory function of educating Nigerians on sound knowledge of democracy so far?

May l first point out that voter education is a multi-stakeholders responsibility and not that of INEC alone. The Commission is just one and has been doing that just as we are doing now through this interview and we will continue on this trajectory as we approach next year’s elections.

Would you attribute low voter turnout in our elections to poor voters’ education?

The worrisome level of voter apathy we witness from one election to another is a cause for concern. Take, for instance, the abysmal 39 per cent in the 2011 election, 30 per cent in 2015, and a downward 28 per cent in the 2019 election, when we have over 84 million registered voters.

These are clear evidence of the growing incapacity of political parties and their candidates to mobilise Nigerians around the real issues that will improve their material condition and deliver on them. My people, the Urhobo; have a saying that, it is what the axe does for the farmer that makes him carry it on his shoulders. At the moment, democracy is only working at the level of the elites, members of their families, and friends, and not yet at the level of the ordinary people on the street.

Hence we may say that drawing from the earlier allusion, Nigerian politicians have failed to allow democracy to give the Nigerian voter the satisfactory utility that an axe gives to the farmer. Indeed, it is the law that those who have attained the age of 18 years and those who have not registered before should take advantage of the ongoing voters’ registration. But the truth of the matter is that our problem is not about insufficient registered voters, this is not the main problem responsible for voter apathy but rather, the inability of political parties and candidates to deliver on the promises upon which voters draw faith in democracy, that is what is responsible for mass disengagement and apathy of citizens.

What should the voters do differently to ensure they don’t vote in politicians who make empty promises again?

Electoral promises by politicians are as old as the art of politics itself. However, the tragedy of our electoral promises is that those who make these seductive lofty promises are never interrogated in terms of capacity. The how and means questions to accomplish these promises are never answered by those who make these good promises.

As part of voters’ education, the 2023 elections should be about who can answer the all-important questions of ‘how and the means to do it question’ of 2023 and not just mere sound bites of highfalutin promises. This is where the media’s credo of “the people’s right to know” comes in so that the electorate is guided to make informed rational choices in the forthcoming elections.

Your question is a call to the Nigerian people to use their votes to define the type of democracy they want. Their votes should therefore determine if they want a democracy, where elections are mere rituals, wherein every four years, we just go to the polls for the coronation of elites that were already chosen by powerful individuals within political parties, which is what Joseph Schumpeter describes as Elitist Democracy. On the other hand, they may use their votes to determine if what they want is a democracy where the election is a means to development and empowerment with concrete political and social rights. These are the choice before voters in the next election.

I hope that 2023 will be another opportunity for the people to renew our democracy given so many tested innovations that the Commission has initiated and secured by the 2022 Electoral Act that should alter the trajectory of election service delivery in Nigeria.

The new electoral law has given INEC the power to conduct elections using electronic means, do you think that will curb rigging and bring about rancour-free  and credible polls in 2023?

It is a welcome development that with the 2022 Act the commission will deploy several of its technological innovations that have been used in the various off-season and bye-elections for the 2023 elections. But as we all know, implementation is usually the devil. There are political elites out there that may likely fund the sabotage of every good innovation in an election. As always, the Commission, despite its demonstrable commitment to its mandate is not in control of all the actors whose actions or inactions will determine the success of the election.

What we have done so far as a Commission with these innovations is to reduce the degree of human agency and insulate the process from manipulation with the deployment of technology. For instance, unlike in the past, polling units results declared and uploaded to the cloud can no longer be manipulated or altered at Wards, LGAs, or any of the stages of collation. This is a massive blow to all places and axes of electoral evil across the country, where invidious votes are usually manufactured to change the will of the people. Certainly, the Commission’s incremental deployment of technological innovations will help largely to put the outcome of elections on a positive trajectory.

From our records of deployment so far in the various off-season elections, these innovations eliminated and minimize the human elements that lead to electoral irregularities, malpractice, and fraud. However, it should be stated clearly that these innovations are not self-implementing. They work best if all stakeholders are willing to play by the rules but unfortunately, except for a few, many politicians are out to rig elections, they prefer chaos to orderly conduct of election by engaging thugs to disrupt the process.

Do you know that just as we have an association of people whose business is to hire or rent people as the crowd for politicians to swell up venues of campaign rallies, so also there is a network and association of thugs in each state of the federation engaged and funded by politicians whose sole purpose is to unleash violence, maim or kill people in opponents’ perceived electoral strongholds? They are even hired to do inter-state thuggery service during elections, ‘imported’ from one state to another to carry out dirty election thuggery work. What kind of people and branch of the human race are we really and what type of society are we building that we now have violent groups across the country for different purposes. This is how democracy dies according to Levitsky.

The moment politicians begin to deny opponents and citizens their legitimate participation by curtailing them with the use of violence when they reject and deviate from the norms and values on which democracy is practised, democracy dies.

What is your take on the court’s nullification of Section 84(12) of the Electoral Act?

Until there is a pronouncement by the apex court, if the matter gets there, opinions particularly among those of us who are lawyers will remain divided and diverse. But as an umpire whose remit is to provide a level-playing field at all times for a fair electoral contest, l will rather raise some posers for contenders on this volatile issue to ponder about; namely, whether it is fair that in a situation where there are several aspirants in a party primary election, whether a sitting governor on his second term should have thousands of his appointees as automatic delegates when the governor has interest in one of the aspirants? Should this scenario be called a fair process?

I think that the main objective of the law is to create a level- playing field for all aspirants by mitigating unfair and unjust processes that do not give equal opportunity and a chance to all contestants. We should hopefully embrace an interpretation that ensures the goal of fairness without unduly restraining political rights.

What are the real issues that should define the choice of the 2023 election?

The Nigerian people should know that the ethnicity and religion that political elites have always used to divide the electorate to secure elective offices will not put food on their table, certainly not. Unfortunately, a few months ahead of the 2023 elections, there are no conversations and debates around the real issues that matter most in our practised democracy, the political elites are not focusing on the real issues that matter most to the people that should define the path to the 2023 election.

The forthcoming election should be about the capacity to deal with issues of security, economy, job creation, education, health, and infrastructure. Nigerians need to ask simple questions about what has kept us all these years from living peacefully, and securely, and prevented our economy from moving beyond a potential giant by remaining a basket case in most spheres of development indicators?

In all that you have said about the absence of debates around issues that matter to the Nigerian people as we approach the 2023 election, what actually should be the role of the political parties?

Irrespective of the weak and attenuated state of political parties in the country, modern democracy is inconceivable without political parties. However, and to your question, it is difficult to say at the moment what the parties we have represented due to what is called in Warri parlance up and down movement of politicians. But ideally, political parties are essential organs of the democratic praxis and as a pillar of democracy, must stand for a distinct vision, an idea of a common good for which they are known and referenced as a party. Beyond being organs for contesting elections, and creating a broader community of commitment around common issues of interest to citizens, political parties should be platforms for mobilising citizens for the interpretation of the common good.

On fears that insecurity may hurt 2023 polls

The election is an all-evolving, complex, and massive activity that nations embark on in peacetime, that is why the state of insecurity is not only worrisome but very disturbing and all hands of security agencies must be on deck to deal with the issue as we approach the 2023 election. But the more concerning election is the issue of neutrality or compromise of security personnel in the build-up to the election itself starting with political primary elections. Is it right and fair for security to be under the control and direction of an aspirant for abuses and intimidation against other opponents of the same party? Is it also proper that during the inter-party general election that security personnel should be for one party against others in a very partisan manner? As a Commission, we will remain neutral as an umpire but very concerning is the neutrality or otherwise of security agencies.

In the various off-season governorship elections that were conducted recently, security agents were exemplary in their conduct and neutral. If  they continue on that path to compliment the Commission to deliver a credible election as a common mission, that would be good for our democracy but to do otherwise and be partisan will be a disservice to the nation and against the spirit of global democratic norms and standards to which Nigeria has committed.

What do you think are the possible technical or administrative issues that had made it impossible for both the police and members of the armed forces to succeed in dealing with insecurity in the country, yet they are often exceptional in foreign security missions?

Security is a binary subject, it’s either there is security or none. Also, safety and security are both technical and administrative. More often, failures of security and safety happen long before the incident. Our security architecture is such that even though every security breach happens within a local government area and within a state, these two levels of government have no control over security to deal with such local issues promptly except the central government, this is the tragedy of our security situation.

There is a hierarchy of control measures that are standard for ensuring safety and security, beginning with how to eliminate sources of security threats. But the bigger question begging for an answer is how can we police and secure our vast nation from a central command and control without devolving some responsibility to the grassroots through community policing? What modern technologies are we using and also ensuring that human elements do not undermine them? We honestly need to address these issues and the gaps security authorities acknowledged a few days ago in the wake of the killings of some soldiers in Kaduna. We need to tell ourselves inconvenient truths to deal with the insecurity in the country.

Disclaimer

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