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‘Reforms, technology vital to guarantee credible electoral system’

By Eno-Abasi Sunday and Seye Olumide
27 September 2020   |   3:13 am
Since the country’s return to democratic rule in 1999, hardly has any election held within the period, be it general or an off-cycle poll, been adjudged to be free, fair and credible. Going by the response of the Edo State electorate, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), election monitors, as well as civil society groups,…

Since the country’s return to democratic rule in 1999, hardly has any election held within the period, be it general or an off-cycle poll, been adjudged to be free, fair and credible.

Going by the response of the Edo State electorate, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), election monitors, as well as civil society groups, the 2020 Edo gubernatorial election appears to have gone down in history as one poll that had some ingredients of fairness and credibility.

Barely 48 hours after it was concluded, positive reviews resonated across the country all pointing to the fact that the exercise was a huge improvement of the country’s electoral process, and a step in the right direction.

For instance, the Coalition of Accredited Civil Society Domestic Observers (CACSDO), in its remarks at a press briefing in Benin City, said the conduct of the election demonstrated that the electoral process has improved in the country.

According to the spokesperson of the coalition, Victor Kalu, the result of the election declared by the INEC reflects the will of the people.

“We, the INEC’s duly accredited observers for Edo State governorship election adjudge the election to be free, fair, credible and transparent.

“The election met required international standards for a credible democratic election. The result should, therefore, be accepted by all as a true reflection of the will of the people of Edo State,” Kalu said.

While the coalition commended President Muhammadu Buhari for giving the electoral umpire and security agencies free hands to conduct the poll, it called on INEC, stakeholders, especially civil society groups, and political parties to engage more on voter education and mobilisation so as to scale up voter participation.

While monitoring and sundry groups restate that the credible outcome of the election was due to the activities of various strategic stakeholders, particularly the INEC, the peace-keeping efforts of the Abdulsalam Abubakar-led National Peace Committee, and the Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare, the United States government joined in showering praises on the INEC and security personnel for their respective roles in the successful exercise.

A statement issued by the US Mission in Abuja, last Wednesday, which recognised the critical roles that Governor Obaseki and Pastor Osagie Ize-Iyamu, of the All Progressives Congress (APC), played in promoting peace during the exercise, however, expressed concern over reports of vote-buying, sporadic violence, and intimidation of voters and civil society domestic observers.

“The United States remains concerned with reports of some violence that did emerge during the election, and by reports of vote-buying and intimidation of both voters and civil society domestic observers.

“We thank the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), and the Nigerian security services on the positive role they played in the election and commend their work in strengthening Nigeria’s democracy.

“We will continue to encourage all stakeholders, including INEC, political parties, and the security services, to improve the electoral process in the upcoming Ondo State governorship election,” the statement read.

The much-trumpeted efforts of the INEC, security agencies, and other key stakeholders in the Edo 2020 guber poll notwithstanding, technology played a silent, but key role in ensuring a credible and transparent election, especially at the contentious level of collation of result.

Thanks to the INEC Result Viewing (IRV) initiative, the real-time posting of election results, which entails the posting and uploading photographs of PDF versions of EC8A/EC8A(VP), EC60, 40H forms from polling units to the platform.

For a long, elections’ results management has always been shrouded in secrecy, and the introduction of the IRV by the electoral body remains a welcome development.

This was acknowledged by the winner of the poll, Governor Obaseki, in an interview on News At 10, a news bulletin programme of Channels Television, when he noted that INEC needs to embark on more reforms in the area of technology so that the country would, for once, but behind it, the jinx of flawed elections.

He pointed out that the singular act of transmitting results from polling units to a platform where many kept track of and followed what was going on in real-time was clearly a game-changer.

Three days to the Edo poll, the Civil Society Situation Room had called on INEC to reinforce the usage of its result-viewing portal to guarantee transparency in the Edo and Ondo states gubernatorial elections.

Convener of the Situation Room, a coalition of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), Mr. Clement Nwankwo, who spoke at a press conference, in Abuja, commended INEC’s trial of the portal where voters could see electoral unit-level results within a few hours of voting.

“Situation room welcomes INEC’s trial of a portal where voters and the public at large can see the polling unit level results online within hours of voting.

“We have seen the poll at the weekend for the Nasarawa State Assembly, where voters and observers were able to view polling results from online the same evening that the election held.

“This is a significant step forward for transparency in Nigerian elections that should be reinforced and applied rigorously in upcoming polls in Edo and Ondo states.

“This proves that it is possible for every voter to have better access to the record of what has happened in their polling unit,” the convener said.

The INEC Result Viewing (IRV) introduced on August 6, is part of the electoral umpire’s continuing efforts to improve its deployment of technology in conducting elections.

During the general elections, the IVR would display results from all the 119, 973 polling units, as well as 57, 000 voting points across the country.

At the conclusion of voting at polling units, presiding officers are expected to sort and count ballots and record votes of candidates in both figures and words in the appropriate forms EC60E, EC8A, EC 40H(I).

The EC60E, a poster version of the primary result sheet posted at polling units for the general public to view is mandatory, and failure to do so amounts to dereliction of duty.

Thereafter, forms EC8A are released to security operatives, party agents, and other election monitors present at polling units, while the EC 40H(I) is for information and statistics for persons with disabilities.

Recently, the INEC National Commissioner for Voter Education, Festus Okoye, while shedding light on the commission’s avowed determination to heighten transparency in the conduct of elections, especially in the process of releasing the results of elections, stressed that no stone would be left unturned in making elections credible.

INEC’s strides, disposition, and body language notwithstanding, many still believe that the president and lawmakers are paying lip service as far as the issue of bequeathing transparent and credible elections to the country is concerned.

According to them, President Buhari claims that bequeathing free, fair, and credible elections to the country remains one of his main concerns is not in tandem with his decision to serially decline assent to the 2020 Amended Electoral Act due to reasons they consider puerile.

Specifically, the Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike, in 2019, alleged that Buhari was not committed to free, fair, and credible elections. In December of the same year, the president declined to assent to the amended electoral bill after rejecting the bill on three previous occasions.

For the former president of Aka Ikenga, Goddy Uwazurike: “The fact that the government has been more interested in the National Water Resources Bill currently before the National Assembly, and the Petroleum Industry Bill, as against deepening the involvement of technology in the conduct of elections in the country is a crying shame to this country, and to Nigerians that have waited endlessly for the government to do so.

“The president refused to sign the last electoral bill sent to him into law, and up till now, government people can see and hear no evil in the day-to-day running of the government because they are more comfortable with doing things manually… Transparent and realistic election management was apparent in Edo State…” 

He described the Edo gubernatorial poll as an eye-opener, which reveals that INEC can conduct a credible election if it wishes to, adding that, “many people expected the usual way of conducting the election as was witnessed in Kogi State. However, some of us saw the delayed two LGA results as a joker by the INEC as it did in the last Osun State governorship election. So, let’s wait for Ondo State governorship elections to know whether the Edo State election was an exception, rather than the rule.” 

One organisation that is confident that INEC is on the path to sanitising the election process, and keen on ensuring that elections are credible and transparent is Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth, and Advancement (YIAGA Africa).

Its executive director, Samson Itodo said: “In my estimation, INEC is on the part of revolutionising the entire results management regime in our elections with the introduction of the results viewing portal. In previous elections, INEC insisted that polling officials must use the form EC 60E otherwise called the People’s Results Sheet to post polling unit results for the public to see. This was the practice before the results viewing portal was introduced. Introducing the portal has contributed to deepening the transparency of the results process; it addresses two fundamental weak links in the results management process. They are public access to polling units and collation at the ward.

“But the concerns displayed regarding the speed of results upload in real-time is a valid concern. There is a measure of inconsistency in the procedure for uploading the results on the portal, and INEC needs to clarify at what point the results sheet should be uploaded. Is it at the polling units or ward collation centres? This should be emphasised during training for polling officials. For the purposes of transparency, the upload should be processed at the polling units, and not at ward collation centres.

“Also, INEC needs to provide more information and data on the portal, such as the number of polling units, where elections were canceled or where elections didn’t hold due to violence, or disruption. This will enable stakeholders determine the number of results sheets to expect on the portal.
He stressed that the fact that INEC deployed the results viewing portal within the very tight legal window available to the commission is commendable. This proactive action should spur the NASS to accelerate the amendment process of the Electoral Act. Nigerians should continue to call on their legislators in the NASS to pass the amended electoral act by December 2020. This timeline is crucial given the fact that the 2023 elections are two years and five months away. Secondly, the president and NASS have made commitments to pass electoral amendments in record time. This is a legacy question for both the president and the 9th NASS to answer.”

Since election results’ management has always been contentious, Itodo says electronic voting and electoral transmission of results should be integrated into the electoral act, just as he wants voter registration process decentralised so that voters can register to vote remotely and complete the process after fulfilling certain conditions that may include physical appearance. Transfer of voter registration details should be processed online without requesting voters to show up at INEC offices, or polling stations. Additionally, INEC needs to improve on the electronic accreditation of voters. The NASS should make electronic accreditation compulsory by amending relevant sections to the electoral act.”

On how important electoral reform is for the country as she turns 60, he said: “After 60 years, Nigeria is in dire need of reforms that must address five key issues namely; strengthen democratic institutions like INEC, political parties; judiciary; guarantee electoral justice; reform political behavior and practice; sanitise candidates’ nomination process, and protect the integrity of the process. Achieving these goals requires a mindset shift in conceptualising electoral reforms, facilitating a consensus among key political actors, and building on a consultative process to aggregate the needs and preferences of society.

“Electoral reforms must not be limited to legal amendments as they extend to administrative and political reforms. The jurisprudential basis for reforms must also be established for wider public acceptance of proposed amendments. Electoral reforms also need to take place outside key election periods if they are to be completed. To ensure successful electoral reforms, stakeholders and advocates must effectively manage the dilemmas of democratic reforms, which include political will on the part of decision makers like the president, the National Assembly, and INEC, the timing of the reform process, and lastly the perception that electoral amendments could potentially limit chances of future electoral victory for politicians who won elections based on existing electoral laws and hold the key to change the rules of the game. To manage these dilemmas, electoral reforms should be conceptualised as a democratic reform project that promotes the common good, social stability, and national development,”Itodo summarised.

The Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Idayat Hassan is upbeat that the country would gradually get it right with elections, especially now that the electoral body is making conscious efforts to deploy Information Communication Technology (ICT) in result management process.

Speaking specifically on the concerns raised by many over the speed of uploading election results in real-time, she said: “We should also remember that this is an all-new process and there is room for improvement, as we expect something better in the forthcoming Ondo election. This would make room for corrections and a review of the process ahead of the 2023 general elections.

“We don’t think that there should be any cause for alarm because a lot of challenges could have contributed to the slow speed of uploading election results in real-time, including a stable network that could delay the upload of the result forms. What is important is that the results announced at the polling units are uploaded, and everyone who voted at the polling units knows that the results announced publicly tally with the ones posted. If anything changes, voters would then raise the integrity question and call attention to the difference.

“Beyond uploading results in hard copies, there is a need to urgently transmit soft data unto a portal, or system that allows for digital collation of results in a dashboard for public viewing. While waiting for an amendment to the manual collation of results from polling units to the ward; to local governments; to state and finally to the nation as the case may be, it is important to ease the tension by allowing online collation of result on the result viewing portal,” she stated.  

While stressing that electoral reform is “very important at this stage of our national life,” she added, “beyond this, there is need to also address propaganda that delegitimised the election management board, like we observed in the Edo State governorship poll.”   

The CDD West Africa chief said, using the Edo election as a baseline, INEC has considerably made conscious efforts to ensure that election results are at the fingertips of Nigerians and all those interested in the nation’s democratic process… The introduction of IRV, which is expected to ensure Nigerians view results from various polling units in real-time, and the introduction of the Zip and Z-file for capturing polling units Form EC8A are remarkable developments…

“However, the Z-file was not fully deployed in the Edo elections, a move applauded by the CDD as we believe that we have to pilot technology to an extent that the use is perfect. And importantly too, in a contentious election like the Edo governorship, its deployment could have led to a free for all. But the Result viewing platform was properly deployed and that successfully deterred the ability to falsify, or change results. The CDD wants INEC to ensure these results are uploaded in real-time compared to the delay occasioned during the just concluded elections. All these efforts made by the commission are conscious steps aimed at ensuring that things work and constitute a commendable improvement on the level of transparency and accountability in the release of the election results. The CDD believes that this innovation will greatly reduce the number of tribunal cases if sustained.”

On claims that lawmakers and the Presidency appear to be lethargic regarding the deployment of technology to improve the electoral process considering their roles in the country’s delay in having an Electoral Amendment Act, she begged to disagree saying: “Just before the Edo election, President Buhari declared support for improved electoral laws. The use of technology will ultimately lead to a win-win situation for all, politicians inclusive. In any case, the Nigerian people are in support of the deployment of technology in the electoral process. The CDD and other like-minded civil society groups are working with the Constitutional Amendment Committee of the National Assembly to pass the provision contained in several reports, like the Uwais report, which is aimed at improving the country’s political landscape.”

Fouad Oki, a chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), who is also optimistic of free, fair, and credible elections in the country soon, want the electoral umpire to be applauded for its efforts so far in that direction.

“Let us give kudos to INEC for the efforts made so far. The organisation is moving in the right direction, even though much is still desired. The only way to delivering a free, fair, and credible election lies in applying ICT, which will make the process seamless with little human involvement, or interference. This should be given legal backing by the NASS amending relevant sections of the constitution and the electoral act.”

Oki, a former director-general of campaign organisations for Akinwumi Ambode and Babatunde Fashola, both former governors of Lagos State, added that the deployment of the Z-pad was the best thing that has happened to the electoral process in Nigeria thus far. We all should know that the process of uploading results is sequenced. So, once a result is uploaded, it queues on the portal and drops one after another. Therefore, we must naturally expect some delay especially when it involves network and the strength of these networks is also dictated by other factors. I am sure that INEC will continue to improve on it…The 8th National Assembly made efforts to enact amendments to the constitution and the electoral act, I believe that the current assembly is determined to get it done. The president has promised to clean the Augean stables, and give to Nigerians an electoral system devoid of discrepancies.” 

Oki, who pointed out that there is nowhere in the world that its electoral process is fully digitalised, it is important for us to make efforts to do the necessary amendments first. I am sure that all these yearnings are enshrined in the proposed amendments…Since no legislation is perfect, they will from time to time need amendments.  Obviously some sections of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution need amendments and the NASS would have no reason not to do so because it is in the best interest of these representatives to reform the electoral process, if not for anything, but to take them away from the shackles of impostors called godfathers. The stumbling hindrance to our democracy and electoral process is the godfather syndrome, and we must all come together and build on the Edo State experience. All hands must be on deck, wherever there is an imposition. Nigerians need to come out and say no with their votes against such candidates. This is the only way to go and not just demanding reforms or amendments of the laws. The people must rise up to say no to godfatherism. It is only then that we can have an electoral process that is just and fair.”