‘Electronic transmission of poll results will curb rigging in 2019’
Professor Francis Chukwuemeka Ezeonu, formerly of the Department of Applied Biochemistry of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, is the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) for Imo State. In this interview with LEO SOBECHI, he examines challenges to credible election in Nigeria. Excerpts:
As the REC, how do you hope to reduce post-election recrimination in Imo?
One advantage I have is that I am Igbo; and Imo State is an Igbo state. So I think I understand the psychology and thinking of our people. There is no doubt about that. At inception I realized the quantum level of apathy towards the CVR (Continuous Voter Registration) exercise and other INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) related activities.
We did wide consultations trying to reach out to the major stakeholders in a bid to restore the people’s confidence. I think we are achieving that right now, given the level of participation in the exercise. In the past we used to register between 1,500 and 2,500 eligible voters on a weekly basis. Right now it is above 7, 000 every week. In the last two weeks I think it is 22, 900 registered voters. And in our consultations we kept assuring people that we are going to do things right, we had consultations with IPAC (Inter-party Advisory Council), civil society organizations, traditional rulers and religious leaders. I believe what we owe our people is to do things right and make sure that the people’s votes count. For me, that is the most important thing. That is one way to change people’s attitude and apathy towards INEC’s activities.
As an activist from the Ivory Tower, how will your experience bear on this assignment?
Well, I have always been an activist in the university, so it is not just about theory. I was a student union president in my time at the then Anambra State University of Technology. I have served as secretary of ASUU (Academic Staff Union of Universities). I attended quite a number of platforms. I am a civil society person. And since 2011, I have been part of the electioneering process in Anambra State. Precisely, in 2012, I mobilized over 50 lecturers and we went to Edo to execute the election that brought (Comrade Adams) Oshiomhole into office.
So, it is what I am already used to. I understand the rules of the game. I have acted as Electoral Officer (EO) severally in Anambra and I have never been found wanting in any of the processes or elections. If I did it in Anambra I can do it in Imo. I am bringing my field experience into what we are going to do in Imo state.
The first thing I did on arrival was to find out from the people that have been here previously the flashpoint areas, what are the things that usually cause confusion? And, luckily for us also, the commission has identified what is called Election Risk Factors (ERF). So, it is easier for us now. There is no doubt that we are tightening up on areas of leakages. As you know, today it is no longer in vogue to go and snatch ballot boxes, because nothing will come out of it. If you watch what happened in Anambra governorship election, the card reader has a role to play.
The chairman has informed everybody that we are improving on the processing power of the card reader and the thumb print surface, so that this time around, we are going to have better working card readers. Of course, if you followed up the last senatorial election in Anambra State, I don’t think we had any complaint about the card readers.
With the card reader you can now identify the individual. It is no longer a question of somebody trying to get into a polling booth and keep on thumb printing. Also, results would be transmitted electronically. I think that is the last line of defense for now. When politicians see they can’t beat you in other areas, what they will try to do is between the polling booth and the collation centres, they try to cajole and hijack some of these young corps members we use as ad hoc staff. But if you transmit results from the polling booth you are just using the hard copy to validate what you transmitted. And when two of them don’t agree, then you are in trouble. So I think this time we are employing technology to better the entire electoral process.
Can you itemize some of the ERFs?
Quite a lot of them have been identified. There are some that are associated with real elections on the Election Day. Things like late arrival of materials, not getting the logo of a particular political party. Once a party discovers that its logo is not there, it creates tension. We also have those that have to do with absence of security.
Sometimes you are ready to deploy, the security personnel will tell you they have not been given directives to move. So, everything is not totally within your control. That is why we are trying to see how we can smoothen the relationship between all the agencies involved in the electoral process. Recently, the chairman of the commission led a delegation to the Chief Judge, because we have courts of concurrent jurisdiction giving conflicting judgments and putting us into confusion as to which one to obey. So these are extraneous factors that keep on interfering with our activities.
But critics point to the shortcomings of technology.
There are usually claims. Let me tell you one thing about politicians. When they win elections then that election is free and fair, when they don’t win like in every aspect of life in Nigeria, they will always find reasons. They should learn to play politics as a game. When you lose, you lose honourably and concede. Having said that, there is no technology that is 100 percent perfect. From time to time we have incidences of plane crashes. It has not kept people away from traveling by plane. There are some times you go to ATM (Automatic Teller Machine) machines to get money, it debits you, but doesn’t release your money. Are you going to suggest that we throw away the use of ATM?
The point I want to make is that technology has its failure rates, but if it is within a manageable margin of error, that is when statistics come into play. The last gubernatorial election in Anambra, yes, we had incidences of card failure, but at the end of the day when you check it is less than one percent, which is within acceptable error limit.
But, we are trying to improve more on the technology. I know that the commission is also working hard towards ensuring that the issue of result transmission is made possible, because it is again dependent on network. I am aware the commission is meeting with NCC (Nigeria Communications Commission) and service providers. If we want to be where other countries are, we have to move along.
We cannot keep on complaining and keep away from technology. We are talking about electronic voting and people are still complaining about card reader. We don’t have to stop election, because of card reader. Now let me tell why politicians are against card readers. Like I have warned people in Imo State, because we are aware that some politicians are pretending to be doing empowerment programmes and mobilizing youth and women who they ask to complete forms attach a photocopy of their voter cards.
What are they doing with that? They want to clone these cards and when these cards are cloned, they don’t have sensors, so card reader cannot read them. And they give it to their agents and thugs to move from one place to another. The card reader will reject them. And we want to go round and explain to them so you don’t go to waste resources on something that will not work. They should concentrate effort on convincing the people to vote for them and selling their ideas.
Between INEC officials and politicians, who do you think should be blamed for election malfeasance
It tilts to the part of the politicians. I can say that with every authority, because I have been involved. The only language the typical Nigerian politician understands is winning. And they are ready to do anything possible to win, including compromising and causing confusion in the system. I will not want to totally exonerate INEC.
But what usually happens, like some of the people you call INEC personnel are ad hoc staff that we hire, because in real elections the real INEC staff are not deployed in the field. We deal with ad hoc staff, get youth corps, public servants to help us run the elections and lecturers to help in result collation.
It is a matter of the character of the person you are dealing with. If there is a special way to screen characters, we will use it, but there is none. So, you recruit from the pool you have. What we are trying to do is that with this technology, we would put checks to some of these things. There is no doubt that it tilts to the part of politicians and their desperation.
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