Tuesday, February 10, 2015

X-raying INEC’s Preparedness for the 2015 Elections

The countdown to the 2015 general elections has begun and it is a few days to the presidential and National Assembly polls scheduled to hold on February 14, 2015. The Independent National Electoral Commission had released the timetable for the elections on Friday, January 24, 2014 so that all actors and stakeholders in the electoral process will have ample time to prepare for the polls. As at today, there are 28 registered political parties but only about half of that number will be contesting the presidential elections. Even at that, many perceive that 12 of the 14 contenders are pretenders while only two; the Peoples Democratic Party and the All Progressives Congress are the real contenders.
Quite a few things are unique about the forthcoming elections.  For example with the merger of three political parties to form the All Progressives Congress and the approval of the merger by INEC on July 31, 2013, the unprecedented had happened. It was the first time political parties had merged in Nigeria. Hitherto, what has been happening is political parties going into working alliances and forming governments of national unity after the polls. The formation of the APC with about 16 governors at inception prepared the stage for the current de facto two party system even though de jure, we are a multi-party state. Another unique thing about the elections is the unpredictable outcome of the presidential election. Barely a few days to the polls, no one can say with utmost certainty where the pendulum of victory will swing.
At INEC’s end, it is also the first time a permanent voters card which is bar-coded (machine readable) will be used for the elections. Hitherto, INEC had grappled to have an electronic voters registration exercise which contains the biometric information (picture and fingerprint) of the voter. INEC is advancing in achieving that and had procured over one hundred thousand Card Readers for the verification and authentication of the voters. All these are meant to check electoral fraud. Other novel ways in which INEC is preparing for the forthcoming elections include the appointment, training and deployment of Political Finance Desk Officers to track campaign finance of political parties and contestants. Prior to that, INEC in 2013 published “Guidelines and Regulations for Political Parties”. It is the first time since inception that INEC will be tracking the campaign finance of political parties and in addition, that of candidates.  I took part in the training of these monitors on December 22 and 23, 2014 in Abuja.
As part of the Commission’s plan for the forthcoming elections, it had done the following: Develop a strategic plan 2012 – 2016 with timelines and milestones. This was done by the staff of the Commission with some technical support from the donor community; restructuring of the Commission into about nine departments from the initial omnibus structure of over 20 departments it had in 2011. The restructuring was aimed at better productivity and to professionalise the election management body. INEC has also developed a voters’ verification platform; online application for accreditation of observer groups; customisation of ballot papers to reflect only the names of contesting political parties; there is also enhanced security features on the sensitive election materials such as result sheets and ballot papers. Not only are the ballot papers and result sheets going to have serial numbers, the ballot papers are going to be color coded such that they are useless to riggers who may want to snatch the papers to use in other Wards, Local Governments or States.
INEC in November 2014 launched a gender policy aimed at mainstreaming gender considerations into its electoral planning, programmes and policies. In an unprecedented manner, INEC on July 9, 2013 appointed its first female Secretary to the Commission, Mrs. Augusta Chinwe Ogakwu. In order to encourage female participation in the electoral process, one out of the three poll officials will be a woman. Even the voter education programmes of the Commission targets women and will mobilise them to participate in the electoral process. INEC has also institutionalised and sensitised election stakeholders to embrace the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution. It has upgraded its ADR Unit into a Directorate after its restructuring in 2012. Thus, the Commission has trained capable hands to handle political and election dispute as well as carry out work place mediation. In addition, INEC has launched a robust citizen communication contact centre and on May 16, 2014 has set up a National Inter-agency Advisory Committee on Voter Education and Publicity (NICVEP). This was done for effective dissemination of electoral information and enlightenment of the electorate. The Commission has also institutionalised the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security.
INEC is currently training over 750,000 poll workers that will conduct the February 14 and 28 General Elections; has published the names of candidates and have generally assured Nigerians of its readiness to conduct free, fair and credible elections. However, a couple of things have been unsettling with INEC preparations. One is the late release of the election fund to INEC by the Federal Government. It can be recalled that as at the first week of January 2015, about N75 billion required for the conduct of the election had not been released to it. Furthermore, while the decision of the Commission to allow only voters with Permanent Voters Cards to vote is praiseworthy, however, the tardiness that greeted the production and distribution of the cards is worrisome. Millions of potential voters are yet to get their cards and that has made a section of Nigerians clamour for a shift in the polls. Well, INEC has extended the collection of PVCs till February 8 and followed this up with intense publicity, it is hoped that by the new date, only an insignificant number of people will not have collected their voter’s card. I am in full support of the Federal Government declaring a day or two public holidays to enable Nigerians working in formal sectors to obtain their cards. Alternatively, INEC should consider distribution of the PVCs at the Polling Units level. This will lessen the stress voters are going through because they want to collect their cards at the Ward level.
My other major concern is the use of Card Readers. That is also desirable to check fraud but the fact that these CRs have not been field tested bothers me. In Ghana and Kenya where this device had been previously used for elections, there were significant glitches recorded.  INEC therefore must have a Plan B which the poll workers can resort to in the event of manifest failure of the Card Readers.  This Plan B must be communicated to the poll workers as part of their training so that it can be uniformly applied across the country.
The political parties are having a swell time dazzling the electorate with music, dance and sartorial elegance but the content of their campaigns have been shallow.  The candidates are hardly speaking for more than   10 minutes while a lot of time gets wasted on protocols, invectives, innuendoes, shadow-boxing and rhetoric. I would have expected them to print and share their manifestoes at such political rallies. These manifestoes are supposed to have been translated into local languages and should have clear timeless and milestones which they can be held to. I am also worried by the scale of pre-election violence recorded across the country. There have been snatching of permanent voters cards in states such as Rivers and Edo.
Deaths have been recorded and properties worth billions of Naira destroyed. This large scale violence prompted the signing of the Abuja Peace Accord by the presidential candidates on January 14, 2015. However, this peace accord has been observed more in breach. On February 2, unknown persons allegedly bombed three separate High Courts in Degema, Isiokpo and Port Harcourt areas of Rivers State. This in my own estimation is to intimidate the judges from adjudicating on some pre-election matters arising from the flawed party primaries. It can be recalled that between November and December 2014 when all the political parties held their party primaries, the exercise reportedly witnessed a lot of underhand dealings including imposition of candidates, wrongful substitution, parallel primaries and other sharp practices. This made many aggrieved aspirants seek redress in courts. Unfortunately, judicial workers were on strike for about two months and only resumed last week.
It is equally worrisome that some Nigerians are trying to use the courts to scuttle the forthcoming elections. Some wanted the courts to make a pronouncement directing INEC to postpone the elections while some others are trying to get the main contenders, Major General Muhammadu Buhari and President Goodluck Jonathan disqualified from contesting. While the call for disqualification of Buhari is hinged on lack of the requisite academic qualification and perjury, Jonathan’s is based on points of law that he cannot rule for more than eight years (out of which he has done six) and has also taken the oath of office twice. It remains to be seen how the courts will decide on the pre-election matters before it. It is also saddening that the National Assembly is yet to conclude work on the amendment of the 1999 Constitution and the Electoral Act. Hence, for the first time in this Fourth Republic, general elections might hold without a new Electoral Act.
This piece was published in the Law Report of Thisday of today, February 10, 2015. It was written before INEC postponed the lections to March 28 and April 11, 2015.