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Stakeholders ponder challenges, limitations of INEC ahead 2023 elections

By Sodiq Omolaoye, Abuja
13 November 2022   |   4:02 am
With exactly 103 days to the 2023 general elections slated to hold on February 25, palpable fear, anxiety and tension, have enveloped many Nigerians, especially on how the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will conduct the election without much hiccups.

[FILES] INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu. Photo; FACBOOK/INECNIGERIA

• Yakubu Tasks Political Class On Peaceful Polls
• Think Out-of-box, Hold Staggered Elections, Olurode Advises Commission
• Current Logistics Challenges Not Enough To Trigger Postponement – Ex- INEC Director

With exactly 103 days to the 2023 general elections slated to hold on February 25, palpable fear, anxiety and tension, have enveloped many Nigerians, especially on how the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will conduct the election without much hiccups.

Perhaps the most pressing public expectation from INEC relates to how the commission will deliver a free, fair and credible election without external interference.

But that cannot be guaranteed without first, ensuring safety of election personnel, voters and election materials, especially with current threats such as kidnapping, violence, banditry, insurgency and communal clashes now widespread across the nation.

On assumption of his second term in 2020, INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu enumerated some critical areas of concern and challenges before the commission ahead of the 2023 general elections.

The grey areas identified were the issue of electronic voting, Electoral Act Amendment, Continuous Voter Registration, audit of voter register, expansion of access to polling units, among others.

While most of the issues have been successfully dealt with by the commission, there has been sustained apprehension over the ability of the electoral umpire to resolve its logistics issues before election date.

The recent flooding incidences across the country have, however, added to the fears, as INEC Chairman, Yakubu, while addressing the House of Representatives Committee on Electoral Matters earlier in the week, disclosed that flood has destroyed 20 of its offices in different parts of the country,

Professor Yakubu, who was defending the commission’s budget, added that INEC was currently searching for newer offices in the affected areas, among other challenges being encountered in the preparation for the 2023 elections.

Yakubu noted that the serial attacks on the commission’s offices and facilities, especially in the south-eastern part of the country, could lead to disruption to the electoral process and undermine Nigerian democracy and destabilise the country. He called on the lawmakers to pass the bill seeking to establish an electoral offences commission and tribunal before the end of the 9th National Assembly.

But at an emergency meeting Yakubu and members of the Commission held with Inter Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES) at the Commission’s headquarters in Abuja on Friday, the INEC chairman reminded the political class of its critical role in ensuring peaceful elections, saying, “We must all rise to the occasion. Nigerians are watching us.”

A recent report by the Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD said for the 2023 general elections, INEC will experience significant logistic challenges reaching the 176,846 polling units with election materials.

The Director of the Centre, Idayat Hassan who signed the report noted that for such a far-reaching level of deployment to be successful, it would require the recruitment and training of close to 1.5 million poll and security officials which is about four times the size of the entire Nigerian military

Recall that when the 2019 presidential election was postponed on February 16, it was not warmly received by the Nigerians. It was not the first time something like that happened. In 2011, the parliamentary election was moved forward and in 2015, the presidential election was altered by two weeks.

INEC then blamed logistic problems for the postponement.

Since 2021, there have been series of accidental and coordinated attacks on INEC facilities spread across the country. The most recent, which occurred on Thursday was the simultaneous attacks on its Osun and Ogun offices, where assets including 904 ballot boxes, 29 voting cubicles, 30 megaphones, 57 election bags, eight electric power generators and 65,699 uncollected Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) were destroyed.

Apart from the coordinated attacks, there were also damages to INEC facilities as a result of fire accidents, natural disasters such as flooding or rain/windstorms.

Stakeholders believe that same scenario that led to the postponement of the national assembly election in 2011 and presidential election in 2015 are currently playing out.

Though, Yakubu said the commission was already working on alternative arrangements and assured Nigerians that the 2023 general elections won’t be postponed on account of logistic challenge, he expressed fear that damages that have been caused by flooding might lead to inaccessible road, which will in turn affect deployment of materials and displacement of registered voters.

Yakubu during the inauguration of the Electoral Operations and Logistics Committee (EOLC) said: “I urge you to commence your meeting immediately and be submitting periodic reports through the Chairman of the Committee, who is an INEC National Commissioner. In this way, we will be tracking progress and know well in advance of potential weak links in the logistics chain. We will also be updating Nigerians of progress we are making on regular basis.

“We are determined that never again should elections be postponed at the eleventh hour on account of logistics. That is why we are mobilising every national asset and starting the engagement early.”

Speaking with The Guardian, a former INEC commissioner, Prof. Lai Olurode, said INEC has found itself in a situation where it needs to think out of the box.

According to him, logistics challenges during elections, especially in developing countries, are not new. “Most democracies, especially in third world countries are going through difficult times. Organising elections in most of these countries is an ordeal, like a punishment. In the context of other challenges, elections become a luxury but even then, elections have to be held because there is no other way of resolving challenges rather than through dialogue, debate and through participation and politics. So whether a country is at war or peace, politics must go on. The issue, therefore, is what are the options left for INEC.”

Inspector-General of Police, IGP Usman Alkali Baba

First, Olurode, a professor of sociology, suggested that INEC must not hold the elections simultaneously in all parts of the country.

Noting that Nigeria already have standalone or off-seasons elections in about eight states, he said INEC have the option of conducting staggered elections in 2023 to surmount some of the logistic problems.

He said: “For instance, let us assume that in a worst case scenario, all sensitive election materials like ballot boxes, voting cubicle were to be burnt in Osun and Ogun states, and they have governorship elections to hold, INEC can alter its timetable and hold governorship elections in those threatened states first by deploying materials already in place in few adjourning states where their office has not been burnt.

“The other option which may be more expensive is for INEC to go to neighbouring countries to source for those materials, because even most of those boxes perhaps are not produced in Nigeria.

“Also, it can also be contracted to Nigerians to produce. The materials don’t need to meet the same standard of the ones burnt or stolen as long as the credibility of elections would not be threatened. There is no law that says you can’t source for those materials or improvise for them. We can use local materials like the ordinary boxes.

“We can use temporary materials like carton boxes, plastic or basket. What is important is that voters should have where to drop their ballot papers. The boxes don’t have to be sealed.

“Our neighbouring countries also hold elections and fortunately, elections in all West African countries follow same procedures. Let’s even assume that the BVAS deployed to the field are destroyed, we can ask friendly African countries from the ECOWAS sub-region to come to our aid. We have assisted them in the past when it comes to election administration.”

While lamenting that Nigerians display so much sense of apprehension during election, which he said shouldn’t be so, Olurode maintained that what should matter during elections should not be quality of materials used but the confidentiality and strict adherence to the procedure

“We cannot withhold elections. What we need to do is to strategise and think out of the box and the INEC I know is capable of doing that,” he stated.

Olurode also said the electoral umpire erred when it stopped storage of sensitive electoral materials in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).

He maintained that the Central Bank is a national asset, adding that an individual cannot alone influence the outcome of elections. He insisted that that the apex bank is still the best environment to store sensitive election materials, especially now that INEC offices are being attacked.”

He said: “I think what INEC did by bypassing the Central Bank is a mistake, it was uncalled for. The Central Bank is a national asset and I don’t believe that by keeping sensitive election materials there like ballot papers and papers, the CBN governor would go in there to thumbprint for a particular party.

“We are stretching the confidentiality of electoral process too far. The central bank governor cannot alone influence the outcome of elections simply because elections materials are kept there.

“Let us even assume that he is contesting in an election, are you also telling me that the INEC chairman, national Commissioners don’t have political preferences? It will be stupid of anybody to assume that.

“I had my political preference, former INEC Chairman, Attahiru Jega had his, some of the national Commissioners I worked with also had their political preferences, but at the end of the day, the training is such that you pocket your political preferences and allow a winner to emerge without undue interference.

“The best INEC could have done which they used to do when it comes to delivery of election materials, was to request political parties to monitor delivery of election materials at the central bank.”

A former INEC Director of Voter Education and Publicity, Oluwole Osaze-Uzzi, said the current logistics challenges faced by the commission are not sufficient to cause a disruption in the overall planning for the elections.

While condemning attacks on the commission’s facilities, he said INEC will always have alternatives in time of crisis.

“What usually happens is that the unfortunate situations add to the cost of the elections. When a facility is damaged for any reason, they move unto alternate facilities. It is a terrible thing but fortunately, most of the sensitive materials have not been deployed to the state. I don’t see that adversely affecting the elections, it just makes it a lot more challenging.”

In the area of storage, he said: “I think it will be very difficult to store all the sensitive materials in the INEC premises because it does not have sufficient storage space for sensitive materials. Definitely, it would have to seek other secured alternatives for storage of materials.”

Executive Director, Resource Centre for Human Rights & Civic Education (CHRICED), Ibrahim Zikirullahi said INEC alone cannot walk itself out of the situation it currently finds itself.

He told The Guardian that the government and security agencies also have a duty to protect the sanctity of the electoral process.

According to him, apart from the logistics challenges that might arise from flooding and other natural causes, the recent attacks on the commission’s facilities, which may cause more logistic problems for the commission, were preventable.