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Nwankwo: No reason to spend so much on elections, given our poverty levels

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Clement Nwankwo is the Executive Director of Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC)

Clement Nwankwo, executive director, Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC) and Convener, Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room responded to questions posted by The Guardian.

Trom all that transpired in the two elections of Feb 23 and March 9, will you say Nigeria has learned from the elections of 2015?
WE did not take the needed lessons from the 2015 general election. I think that on the comparison, the 2019 General elections was not an improvement on 2015.

If anything, we did see a retrogression. 2019 was supposed to be the year to say that our elections had arrived and that the country’s democracy was on a safe path.

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Unfortunately, logistics failure on the part of INEC, unwarranted and unacceptable interference by the military and unlawful activities by politicians marred our electoral progress and it now requires that we go back to the drawing board to see what can be salvaged.

While we may all be saying that the 2015 elections was credible, there were still challenges from that election that the 2019 General elections was supposed to correct. Part of that correction was to take lessons learnt in 2015 and apply them to improve in 2019.

For instance, shortcomings in the legal framework that guided 2015 was to have been identified and translated into electoral reform and into a new law to improve the 2019 elections.

This did not happen and was allowed to be caught in politics with the President refusing assent to an Electoral Act Amendment Bill passed by the National Assembly.

The practical implementation of electoral processes that were a challenge in 2015 were not addressed, including logistics, Smart Card Reader failures, underage voting, etc. Then, add the new problem of security interference in the elections, vote buying and violence.

So it is sad to note that rather than see the challenges of the 2015 General elections being overcome in the 2019 elections, it worsened and even added newer challenges.

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INEC began preparations for 2019 pretty early, promising to deliver good elections, from the logistic challenges witnessed all over the country, will you say adequate preparation was made by INEC, or what went wrong, beginning from the postponement in the early hours of Feb 16?
INEC told Nigerians that it was ready for the elections. Unfortunately, this did not turn out to be so and we found out in a very costly way. I do not think that logistics was in place for the elections at least on the first date given.

I believe that INEC was overwhelmed with logistics challenges and it seemed like it wanted to proceed on February 16 with the elections when the evidence pointed to its unpreparedness. It was only when it realised a few hours to the commencement of poll that it was not ready, that it had to postpone the elections to February 23. I think a lot of Nigerians were very disappointed with this shoddiness and have asked questions why this was allowed to happen.

Is this not the time to ‘unbundle’ INEC, so to say, because it is now clear that it is saddled with too many activities. Civic registration alone is a huge task, not to talk of procurement. What best global practices are out there to learn from?
Two things. First, the business of building a credible Voters’ Register is a serious one and needs to be handled differently from the way we are dealing with it today.

Tasking INEC with identifying and managing the Voter Register of over 70 million persons needs to be something we look at again. There should be a way by which registration of voters should not be a stand alone, humongous and terribly expensive exercise that it is.

There are existing national agencies already collating information and data on persons in Nigeria, including the National Population Commission, NIMC and even the Drivers’ Licensing System.

Utilising and empowering one of these existing agencies to extract from its database a Voters’ Register could save the country billions of Naira and institute a routine build of a Voters’ Register for the country.

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Secondly, procurement for elections is being made unnecessarily expensive. There is no reason for this country to spend as much as N2tn to run an election. Given the poverty levels in this country, this is an unacceptable expenditure, so we need to see what the rest of the world is doing on elections to make it routine and inexpensive.

Printing ballot papers, result sheets and other sensitive election materials do not have to be done to money currency quality levels. There must be a very inexpensive way of securing the integrity and sanctity of election materials and ensuring their safety during elections. There must also be a way of automatically generating Voter’s Card or identity without the very expensive procurement exercise and activities that accompany it presently. We need to review these practices to be able to unbundle INEC and reduce the cost of elections.

The legal framework for political parties to be held accountable for internal democracy within them and make them respect processes must also need to be put in place.

Thirdly, logistics for elections does not need to be planned around State institutions. Private logistics companies could be supported to carry out the logistics of delivering and distributing election materials with adequate safeguards. There is no reason, for instance, why commercial banks in the country cannot be contracted to participate in some of the logistics, including housing and safeguarding sensitive materials.

Also, the responsibility of voter awareness does not need to lie with INEC. Proper planning of elections will mean that political parties would play a greater role in creating voter awareness and taking responsibility for the cost. In addition, several other Civil Society Organisations could be involved in voter awareness at no cost to INEC, and this will be one more current responsibility shelved.

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Some have canvassed full electronic process, from registration to voting. How soon can we engage that and what challenges do you envisage?
The use of technology for elections helps reduce the human element in elections. We may yet get there, that the country achieves electronic voting. What is however important to do now is to make the current technology more effective.

What the Electoral Act Amendment bill that the President failed to sign stipulates is the use of Card Readers and electronic transmission of results. Were we to fully put this in place and faithfully implement it, there will be a significant improvement in our elections.

On actual electronic voting, we will need to be more prepared as it could actually be complicated by the challenges of literacy, poor telecommunications infrastructure and the human element.

A lot of work needs to be done before we get there. What needs to happen at this stage is for the President to ask the National Assembly to send back to him for assent, the amendment of the Electoral Act that he vetoed just before the elections.

The President had refused assent to this bill on the excuse that it was passed too close to the elections. Now that the elections are over he needs to have it assented to.

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The international community is reacting to over-militarization of the electoral process and the excessive deployment of force in the elections. You have always argued that INEC owns the day and whatever assistance it needs from the security community should be dictated by actual situations and not those determined by government and its advisers.

From what we saw, INEC could not have ordered the heavy deployments in Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Kwara, Delta and Kaduna. What went wrong with the light deployment pattern we were used to, which this government and its party criticised while in opposition?

It is not just the international community that has expressed worry about military involvement in Nigeria’s elections.

Nigerian Civil Society groups, including the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, have for a very long time been worried that the military’s preparations and deployment plans for the elections were far more extensive than envisaged under the Electoral Act. It was therefore not surprising to see this reflect in their election day interferences.

Our laws do not envisage that the military be involved in elections at all. The intention captured by section 29(3) of the Electoral Act was for the military to be involved only at the invitation of INEC and for the purpose of securing sensitive materials and officials for the elections.

It is therefore unclear where the military gets these powers from, that it is exercising to interfere with our elections and to the detriment of Nigeria’s democracy. Reports of observers showed active military interference with the elections.

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This is unacceptable and it will be important for these to be investigated and measures taken to bring persons to account and forestall future occurrence. The most scandalous of this involvement was in Rivers State of course.

What we had over several months told INEC was for it to produce the template for security deployment for the elections and demand that the security services comply with it. INEC failed to do this; at least, nothing exists in the public domain on this.

The Uwais report is still lying idle and dusty. Isn’t it high time it was dusted and put to use?
I think that the Uwais report and indeed several other reports recommending electoral reforms need to be revisited for possible implementation. One of the key reforms that need to be put in place is the recommendation for the creation of an Electoral Offences Commission.

Even the President Buhari’s own Constitution and Electoral Reform Committee proposed an Electoral Offences Commission, which the President approved and promised to send a bill to the National Assembly for passage. This is yet to happen. There are also other recommendations on the registration and regulation of political parties, on voters’ registration as well as civic education that remains unimplemented.

The recommendations of the Uwais Committee need a revisit for possible implementation.

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What will be your charge to the 9th Assembly in that regard?
I would begin by charging the current 8th Assembly to revisit the Electoral Act amendment vetoed by the President, especially now that the elections are over; pass the bill again and send back to the President for his assent.

For the 9th National Assembly, there will be an important need for it to carry out a comprehensive review of what happened with the 2019 elections, produce lessons learnt and decide on what, if any further amendments need to be made to the Electoral legal framework. It was particularly challenging for the country to be implementing a law that makes it an all comers affair that any person could contest for the office of President.

72 candidates running in a Presidential contest and 50 or more in some State Governorships at the last elections would be a challenge even for the most efficient election management body.

So we need to go back to the drawing board and take a hard look at our electoral legal framework, including Constitution and make the necessary changes to radically alter the way elections are conducted in Nigeria.

Incumbency and partisan political interests and calculations that interfere with honest and transparent conduct of elections in Nigeria must be checkmated and eliminated. Government institutions and public resources at national and state levels, including the military and security services must be insulated from negative use and abuse by politicians.

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