‘Edo will prove INEC has capacity to conduct polls in difficult circumstances’
Festus Okoye, a National Commissioner and Chairman of Information and Voter Education Committee of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), in this interview with SODIQ OMOLAOYE in Abuja, provided insight on INEC’s preparedness for the Edo State governorship election amid COVID-19 pandemic and deployment of e-voting machine from next year.
Barely two weeks to the Edo State governorship election, is INEC really prepared and ready for the exercise?
The Commission is ready for the Edo State governorship election. Out of the 14 items on the docket of our timetable and schedule of activities released on February 6, this year, we have implemented 12. The two remaining items are the end of campaigns and the election itself.
We have batched all the non-sensitive materials according to the registration areas or wards and delivered all to the various local government offices of the Commission.
We have trained our Electoral and Assistant Electoral Officers, as well as Supervisory Presiding Officers. We have trained nominees of security agencies who will in turn cascade the trainings to the personnel that will be directly involved in the election.
We have harvested and are recruiting Presiding Officers and Assistant Presiding Officers through our dedicated portal. The Chairman of the Commission has carried out readiness assurance visit to some of our local governments offices in Edo State.
As you are aware, all the 14 political parties contesting the election filed and uploaded the list and personal particulars of their candidates through our dedicated nomination portal. Civil society groups involved in election observation filed their applications in our dedicated portal and the media are currently doing the same time.
The end of tenure governorship election in Edo will be the first major outing of the Commission in a pandemic. Consequently, the Commission developed and designed its policy on conducting elections in the context of a pandemic.
We have also amended our regulations and guidelines to align them and respond concretely and practically to the challenges of conducting elections in a pandemic.
So, we are ready for the election and our sensitive materials will be ready ahead of the September 19 election.
Due to COVID-19, INEC released a policy on conducting elections in the context of the pandemic. What has the Commission put in place to ensure these guidelines are strictly followed such that there will be no spread of the disease in the state during and after the poll?
As we pointed out in the policy, the pandemic has led to far-reaching disruptions in the electoral system and led to the postponement of elections in over 70 countries. On the basis of this, the Commission will put premium on public safety and mitigation of health risks from COVID-19.
In the context of general protective measures, the Commission will collaborate with the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 and provide infrared thermometers in all the polling units, registration area collation centres, local government collation centres and the state collation centre in Edo State.
The Commission shall provide facemasks, as well as alcohol-based hand sanitisers for all election officials. Methylated spirit and cotton wool will be provided for the disinfection of the Smart Card Readers after the fingerprint of each voter is read.
On the part of voters, the use of facemasks or face covering is mandatory and must be worn at all election locations. The rules of physical distancing shall be enforced at all election activities and all protocols issued by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), PTF on COVID-19 and other health authorities shall be observed and enforced.
We are in partnerships with health authorities and the PTF on COVID-19 has assigned a liaison officer to the Commission. We have printed posters and handbills outlining Voter Code of Conduct in the election.
We have revved up our publicity and voter education activities using the conventional and new media and we are confident that the people of Edo State will cooperate with the Commission in delivering on the election.
On August 8, this year, we conducted the Nasarawa Central State Constituency election in health and safety. The smooth conduct of the Edo governorship election will show the world that we have the capacity to conduct elections in difficult circumstances.
The people of Edo State are enjoined to cooperate with the Commission in delivering a good election in the context of COVID-19.
What difference(s) would these new regulations impact on the voting time on Election Day? Should voters expect late voting and announcement of results in their respective polling units?
Surely, the pandemic will impact on the delivery of the Edo governorship election, but we are determined to deliver on our mandate. We have no illusion regarding the challenges and challenging COVID-19 environment.
We have factored all the challenges into our planning for the election. In any case, elections in Nigeria have always been challenging, even under normal circumstances.
It is a notorious fact that the Commission generates its own electricity during election by providing generating sets and wiring the registration area centres and local government centres.
The Commission is a mini-water board and buys and deploys (GP) water tanks in its registration and local government centres before election.
The pandemic has also added pharmaceutical interventions in the docket of the Commission.
The election in Edo State will start at 8.30am and end at 2.30pm. We are working assiduously to make sure that we deploy to all the polling units at the first light on September 19. We are carrying out fit-for-purpose and readiness-assurance in all the polling units.
We are profiling and documenting all the drivers and boat owners that will be used in the election. We are confident that political parties and the security agencies will cooperate with the Commission throughout the election period.
The polls will open on time and we are confident that the measures we have in place will lead to the speedy conclusion of the polls and the announcement of results.
What are the changes voters should expect at polling units in view of the pandemic?
The Commission has introduced changes to the electoral architecture of the country through the deepening of the use of technology and recalibration and reconfiguration of the polling units.
We have redesigned the polling unit layout to ensure substantial compliance with the protocols established by health authorities. Social distancing, general hygienic conduct and enforcement of COVID-19 prevention protocols have been emphasised in the redesign.
In the context of COVID-19 pandemic, there shall be a two-tier queuing system at the polling unit- one outside and the other in the voting area. Voters will be brought into the voting area periodically to prevent overcrowding. Tags and twines will be used to ensure crowd control and maintenance of social distance.
To accommodate additional activities in setting up the polling units due to COVID-19, polls shall now commence at 8.30am and close at 2.30pm. Anybody on the outer queue by 2.30pm shall be allowed to vote, in line with the Commission’s regulations.
Prior to the commencement of polls, the presiding officer or assistant presiding officer shall ensure that the contents of the Voter Code of Conduct (VCC) are read out loudly to voters and that the VCC Poster is pasted at the polling unit.
What is the staff strength needed for the Edo governorship election?
The Commission will deploy 20, 974 election officials to Edo State. The state has 18 local government areas, 192 registration areas, 2, 627 polling units and 2,210,534 registered voters.
The Commission will recruit and deploy one returning officer, 18 local government collation officers, 192 registration area collation officers, 263 supervisory presiding officers and 2, 627 presiding officers (NYSC).
INEC will engage 13, 557 presiding officers I, II and III and 3,259 presiding officers (voting points). We shall also engage 841 reserves, one governorship constituency supervisor, 20 LGA supervisors and reserves and 195 registration area supervisors and reserves.
The conduct of a governorship election is a massive electoral operation.
There are allegations that some staff and ex-staff of the Commission are conniving with politicians to rig the election. What is your reaction to this?
Some of the Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) and staff mentioned have responded to the allegations. The Chairman of the Commission, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, has weighed in and responded to the allegations.
The Commission is a public trust and we accept criticism based on our work. We don’t really expect accolades for carrying out our constitutional and statutory duties, but we expect that we should be given credit when we do well and criticised when we perform below expectation.
However, any individual or group that levels criminal allegations against appointees of the Commission or staff of the Commission should be ready to prove such allegations. You cannot level and justify criminal allegations on a member of the Commission in the name of politics or campaign.
It is unconscionable to viciously attack and de-market critical staff and RECs. Our oath and our brief are to conduct elections and any staff that breaches the oath of office is handed over to the Police for investigation and possibly prosecution.
Therefore, any individual or group that levels frivolous criminal allegations against staff of the Commission and its commissioners must be ready to face criminal and civil prosecution. I am not sure that playing politics is a defence to libel and defamation of character.
INEC recently introduced a dedicated online portal – INEC Result Viewing (iRev). Would this also put an end to the issue of fake result sheets circulated on Election Day in the past?
The INEC Result Viewing (iRev) is an additional mechanism to guarantee transparency in the result transmission system. The uploaded result goes to a portal where it can be viewed by the public. We are simply uploading results from the polling units for public viewing purposes only. The main drive is to further strengthen our result management processes and procedures and enhance transparency of the system.
The collation of results from the polling units to the registration area collation centres will be done manually and in accordance with existing law and the Commissions Regulations and Guidelines.
The iRev falls within the ambit of Form EC60 E that is displayed at the polling units for public viewing and any member of the public can snap and post same on any platform.
We will continue to deepen the use of technology in the electoral process. The iRev might not completely eliminate electoral malpractices, but it will impute and domicile Nigerians in the vortex of the electoral process. Nigerians will become citizen poll agents and can on their own collate the results as uploaded.
However, no Nigerian is permitted to announce the result of elections; it is the exclusive responsibility of the Returning Officer to declare the winner of an election and return a person as duly elected.
Following threats of violence by political actors, which also led to INEC’s threat to discontinue the process, do you think the environment is now safe for the election to go on as scheduled?
We are committed to the conduct of the election and finalising our processes and procedures. We have carried out procurements and gone very far in our trainings. We have reached out to the critical stakeholders and urged them to be strong voices for peace in the state.
We are working with security agencies to neutralise threats and incidents likely to jeopardise the smooth conduct of elections. Security agencies must place known political thugs and their sponsors under watch. Those that use incendiary language likely to provoke violent reaction must be arrested, investigated and possibly prosecuted.
We must, as a people and a nation, break the cycle of violence in our electoral process. Merchants and purveyors of violence must be identified, named and shamed and proceeded against as criminal elements.
A country that values its sovereignty and the power of the vote cannot cuddle “skull crackers” and those that snatch the voting power and right of the people through violence.
INEC has ruled out e-voting in the forthcoming governorship elections in Edo and Ondo states, but indicated that it would pilot e-voting in the Anambra governorship polls next year. Does the electoral body still stand by that commitment, considering that the election is a year and few months away?
We are irrevocably committed to the deepening of technology in the electoral process. We have gone very far in the quest to introduce electronic voting machines in the electoral system.
The Commission has a robust ICT base and most of its activities are ICT compliant. We are working with the National Assembly to amend the relevant laws to allow the Commission deploy technology in the accreditation, voting and collation process.
We are confident that electronic voting machines will be deployed for the Anambra State governorship election next year.
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