Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Jega, PVC distribution and card readers

It’s some 24 days to the rescheduled presidential and National Assembly elections and among the most trending issues are the planned removal of the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Prof. Attahiru Jega, the controversies over the distribution of the Permanent Voter Cards and the use of Smartcard Readers by INEC for accreditation purpose. Another trending issue is the proposed Interim National Government in the event that elections are not held as scheduled on or before April 28, 2015 in consonance with Sections 76 (2), 116(2), 132(2), 178(2) of the Constitution.
Starting with the call for Jega’s sack, this information which started as a rumour weeks back gained prominence when the Southern Nigeria Peoples Assembly, led by a one-time information minister, Chief Edwin Clark, made the demand at a press briefing in Abuja on February 5, 2015. The SNPA accused Jega of conniving with northern leaders to rig Jonathan out of the election. News report has it that the INEC chairman may be suspended or asked to proceed on three months pre-retirement leave this week. Many Nigerians including legal luminaries and a section of the opposition parties have stoutly risen in defence of Jega. While some of the lawyers said that President Jonathan has no power to sack or suspend the INEC chairman, others saw the planned move as a ploy by the Presidency to bring in a stooge who will do the bidding of the ruling party. It will be recalled that the immediate past INEC chairman, Prof. Maurice Iwu, was removed unceremoniously in 2010 paving the way for the appointment of the incumbent in June 2010. Whatever conspiracy theorists are saying, I am opposed to the planned removal of Jega on the following grounds:
One, the exercise is a needless distraction which is already hurting our planned electoral process. Jega is not INEC’s problem and his dismissal will be counterproductive at this critical juncture. Jega, apart from the fact that he has security of tenure guaranteed by the constitution, is merely a primus-inter-pares (that is, first among the equals). The INEC board is made up of the chairman and 12 National Commissioners. This is the highest decision making organ of the electoral body. The commission also regularly consults the 37 Resident Electoral Commissioners before taking critical decisions. Has it ever been reported that Jega governs INEC as the sole administrator? When people engage in a “beer parlour” gossip that Jega plans to rig the forthcoming presidential election in favour of the All Progressives Congress candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, the question is how does he intend to do this? Is it by handpicking all the field officers who will conduct the election? How practicable is that?
For those who care to know, the INEC chairman is not in any way involved in the recruitment of ad hoc staff. INEC works through different departments and committees. The recruitment of poll workers is handled at different layers including state and local government levels. What INEC headquarters do is to set the guidelines for the recruitment. The most powerful role Jega may play in the forthcoming presidential election is that of the chief returning officer. Even at that, there are different layers of result collations starting from the ward to local government to state and finally at the Abuja head office of the commission. Jega with the support of other senior staff members will only do the final tabulation, announcement of result and declaration of the winner. If my memory serves me right, even this all-important role of returning officers has been ceded to academics from the universities. You will recall that the Vice-Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Prof. Bamitale Omole, was the chief returning officer for the August 9, 2014 Osun State governorship election.
Once again, I maintain that whatever challenges INEC is currently facing are as a result of institutional weakness. Removing Jega is not a panacea to that. There is a lot of vested political interests among the rank and file of the electoral commission militating against the success of INEC’s noble plans to deliver credible polls. It is noteworthy that whatever is the outcome of the electoral body’s conducted elections can still be subjected to judicial review via election petitions tribunals should the contesting political parties and their candidates feel aggrieved. I would rather the President wards off pressure to force Jega on compulsory pre-retirement leave and gives him the benefit of doubt to conduct the elections rather than risk international sanction and opprobrium. Removing the INEC chairman barely three weeks to the first set of elections is not ideal and may have unintended negative consequences for the polity and country at large.
There are several innovations being introduced by the Jega-led INEC. One of such is the introduction of the smartcard readers for the verification and authentication of voters. This electronic device is meant to be used for accreditation purpose only and not for voting. The objective is to enhance the integrity of the electoral process. According to INEC, some of the advantages of using the card readers include: First, once configured, they can only read PVCs issued by INEC. Second, they read the embedded microchip in the cards, not the barcode. Third, they enable authentication of the identities of the voters by matching his/her fingerprints with that stored on the chip. Fourth, they keep a tally of all cards read, all cards verified/authenticated or not, with all their details. Fifth, this information can be sent to a central server using an SMS. Sixth, the stored information on the server would enable INEC audit results from polling units, as well as do a range of statistical analyses of the demographics of voting, something INEC has never been able to do effectively. Seven, the RA/Ward Collation Officer can use this information to audit Polling Unit result sheets and determine whether accreditation figures have been altered (a common feature of electoral fraud).
Quite unfortunately, notwithstanding the aforementioned noble intendment of the commission in introducing the use of the card reader, some lawmakers and surprisingly the ruling Peoples Democratic Party and some of its cronies have been kicking against its use. Some persons and groups have actually filed a number of lawsuits aimed at getting court judgment to stop INEC from using the device. They hoe up a number of spurious claims ranging from being offensive to the electoral laws (they claim it is tantamount to using electronic voting which is prohibited by Section 52(2) of the Electoral Act 2010, as amended). They also allege that the device has not been field-tested and that there is no sufficient voter education about its usage. A card reader is not an electronic voting machine.
Accreditation is not the same as voting and under the remodified open secret ballot INEC is using; the time for accreditation is different from that of voting. It is not simultaneous as we used to have prior to 2011. It is true that one would have wished for the card readers to have been used for a small constituency by-election to demonstrate their effectiveness, nevertheless INEC says they had been tested through pilot and mock elections and that the commission was satisfied with the results and their versatility and durability.
However, it is noteworthy that INEC procured 182,000 units of card readers even though the nation has a total of 119, 973 polling units. Why INEC did this is to have sufficient quantities to be deployed to voting points as well as having extra that can be used to replace any malfunctioning ones. The commission had also procured thousands of spare batteries for the device. Should the court forbid INEC from using this device, it will be a huge waste of scarce national resources. It is funny that some of the lawmakers kicking against the use of card readers actually forgot that INEC defended its budget before the National Assembly and among the items approved for the commission was the procurement of this device. Even if the device is tantamount to electronic voting, can’t the National Assembly which is in the process of finalising the amendment of the Electoral Act expunge the supposedly offensive Section 52(2) of the Act?
As regards the distribution of the permanent voter cards which had been sloppy and tardy, it is heartwarming to note that as of last weekend, INEC announced that the figure of those who have collected their cards stands at 55, 079,365. That is 80.02 per cent. The number will rise significantly by the time the exercise is brought to a close later this month. My admonition to Nigerian politicians is that they should work to safeguard and not scuttle this democracy.
Follow me on twitter: @jideojong