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2019 polls: We cannot take anything for granted – Nwankwo

I think it is too early for me to state or reach a conclusion on the extent of preparedness of INEC for the February 2019 Nigeria General Elections. INEC developed an Election Project Plan (EPP), which outlined its roadmap towards conducting elections in February 2019.

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

Clement Nwankwo is Executive Director, Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC) and Convener, Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room. He told The Guardian that it is a bit early to make a forecast on how prepared we are for the 2019 general elections.

From your vantage position of interfacing with INEC and other stakeholders, as well as visiting the field to do research, are we truly set for the 2019 general elections?
I think it is too early for me to state or reach a conclusion on the extent of preparedness of INEC for the February 2019 Nigeria General Elections. INEC developed an Election Project Plan (EPP), which outlined its roadmap towards conducting elections in February 2019. Part of the plan includes achieving a credible voters register, providing well-trained staff to run the elections and delivering and deploying adequate materials to use for the elections. INEC has committed to running a credible election in 2019 and we will hold it responsible to deliver on its promises and commitment.

As a Nigerian and as part of civil society, our stated commitment is to keep an eye on what INEC and other election stakeholders are doing and to escalate concerns for resolution. I note that INEC’s budget for the elections is yet to pass National Assembly approval, but we expect this to happen as soon as the National Assembly reconvenes from its recess early in October.

At what point will you ask INEC to take another look at preparations and possibly reschedule the polls?
The Nigerian Constitution stipulates periodic elections for the country every four years and INEC has announced the timetable for the elections. As an activist who has followed the electoral process very closely, I expect that the February/March 2019 dates already announced by INEC for the elections remains and I see no reason for any talk about rescheduling the elections.

If INEC does not respect its own timetable, then we should definitely ask very serious questions. 
Apart from funds INEC needs for the polls, which seemed stalled in the face-off between the NASS and the Executive, there is the twin problem of amendment to the Electoral Act, which has valuable proposals that should enhance the elections. How much damage will it do not to have the amendment passed before elections, assuming government can find other avenue to fund INEC? Again, will funding INEC for 2019 outside what is appropriated for Budget 2018 not also be an infraction?

It is very unfortunate that the Electoral Legal Framework for the 2019 Nigeria General Elections is still being discussed at this time. It should not have been the case. I think that both the Executive and the National Assembly should take responsibility for this. Nevertheless, I expect that both arms of government will now work to ensure that all of the discrepancies that the President mentioned in refusing assent to the 3rd version of the Electoral Act Amendments Bill will be sorted out and the bill forwarded to the President for immediate assent and implementation. I do not expect that the Bill when finally assented to, will have a retroactive effect. It will however help INEC and Nigerians to be assured that some of the improvements in the electoral process introduced by INEC since 2011 will now have the full backing of the law.

On funding for the elections, we all expect the bulk of expenditure for the 2019 elections to happen this year, especially on procurements. The major problem of course is that the Executive wants to vire or re-appropriate funds from existing expenditure heads in 2018 budget to fund the elections. I am referring here to the request of the President to fund the election budget from the Constituency budget of NASS members. This will very obviously be resisted by NASS members who are now asking for the most of the funding for the elections to be taken from what is known as “service-wide” votes – a floating budget line under the control of the Executive.

We do hope that both sides will reach a quick agreement on finalizing the funding of the election budget, rather than engage in the ping-pong of blames that have characterized their relationship since this administration began in 2015.Before now, some leaders of the South-west, South-south and Middle Belt have expressed concerns over the composition of INEC, especially the presence of Amina Zakari (Buhari’s close relation) heading a sensitive post in INEC, purporting not to have confidence in the EMB’s capacity for a free and fair election. At what point should allegations of this manner have significant impact in the integrity of the election?

It is a very sensitive matter here. Amina Zakari was first appointed into INEC by the previous regime that is now in the opposition and was re-nominated by the current government. If she has close family relationship with the current President, it should not immediately suggest without credible proof, that she would be biased. I think the opposition needs to keep its eyes open in search of proof, but also INEC must ensure that her activities reinforce a non-partisan role in the elections. I also expect that on her part, she understands the concerns being raised and carries out her role with even more transparent unbiasedness.

On the issue of voters being barred from carrying phones into polling booths, in Osun for instance, should it matter what a voter does within the secrecy of a polling booth, especially now that phones are used to conduct polls in saner climes?
I think the brazenness and scourge of vote buying is a very serious one. It was a major crisis in the Ekiti governorship elections. From there, I think the consensus emerged to take steps to check it. INEC’s prescription is to stop voters entering the thumb-printing cubicle with their phones. This is just for one or two minutes, I don’t see a problem with it. The challenge is to stop smart phones being used to take pictures of the vote cast as proof to be paid money by vote-buying politicians. The ban does not stop the use of phones in the vicinity of polling units to catch evidence of the electoral process. 

What is your advice to parties and INEC regarding 2019?
The political parties in Nigeria need to take the elections seriously and prepare as such. They should prepare well-thought out manifestos to convince NIGERIANS that they will not be clueless when they get into office. The levels of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and infrastructure deficit in the country is exceedingly high and political parties must work to convince Nigerians of their capacity and capability to respond to the challenge. Simply trying to win elections on the back of blaming someone else without a roadmap for redirection and solution is no longer acceptable.

Also running an election is serious business and the parties must prepare as such. Parties and candidates must train trusted agents to police every stage of the voting process, including party agents who on the eve of voting and on voting day must police and monitor the distribution of voting materials and INEC’s logistics. Generally, we indicate confidence in INEC, but we however urge the political parties to properly scrutinize INEC’s operations to ensure that they are above board and that there are not individuals within the Commission who may want to abuse their functions or role.On the part of INEC, it must understand that expectations from it are quite high. The country spends an incredibly high sum of money on elections and we cannot afford shoddy preparations, process abuse or partisanship from INEC.