Voting Amid Pandemic: Interrogating INEC’s safety strategies
Within the next two months, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will be conducting series of elections in many states of the federation. Aside from the Edo State governorship election, which will hold in a fortnight, the Commission will also conduct the Ondo State governorship election on October 10.
It has also fixed October 31 for the conduct of the 12 pending constituencies bye-elections in the country. These include bye-elections into the Bayelsa Central Senatorial District and Bayelsa West Senatorial District in Bayelsa State; Nganzai and Bayo Constituencies in Borno State; Cross River North Senatorial District and Obudu Constituency in Cross River State. Others are Imo North Senatorial District, in Imo State; Lagos East Senatorial District and Kosofe II Constituency in Lagos State; Plateau South Senatorial District, in Plateau State; Bakura Constituency in Zamfara State and Ibaji Constituency in Kogi State.
These elections will be conducted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which necessitated the shutdown of various sectors of the Nigerian economy at some point. In fact, even as the Federal Government and various state governments gradually ease the lockdown, many sectors are still considered unsafe for reopening. But the conduct of election in a democracy is a constitutional matter that must be strictly followed to avoid the eruption of a constitutional crisis.
Speaking recently, INEC’s National Commissioner and Chairman of Voter Education and Information, Mr. Festus Okoye, affirmed that any attempt to move the Edo and Ondo governorship elections outside the stipulated dates would amount to inviting a constitutional crisis.
Citing Section 178 (2) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), Okoye stated: “The two elections must be conducted between 150 and 30 days to the end of the tenure of the sitting governors. The provisions of these two elections are cast in stones and are, therefore, unmovable. These elections will just have to go on as planned.”
He explained that INEC was strictly following the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 guidelines and protocols, adding: “Political Parties and all the critical stakeholders in the electoral process must see the conduct of these elections as a national project that must be executed in strict compliance with all the safety protocols.
“There is no alternative to the peaceful conduct of these elections as the alternative will leave the people of the two states with a constitutional logjam that may be difficult to resolve.
“On our part, we are determined and resolved to proceed with the conduct of the Edo and Ondo governorship elections and all the outstanding bye-elections. In doing so, the Commission will not compromise the safety and welfare of its staff, ad-hoc staff as well as the voters…”
But what exactly has the Commission done in this regard? How really prepared are they to ensure that the country does not witness a resurgence of COVID-19 cases at the end of the elections? What are the political parties and other critical stakeholders doing to ensure the safety of the electorate? The following reports bare their strategies
Ondo Guber: Apathy Looms As INEC, Parties Intensify Sensitisation On Safety Protocols
From Oluwaseun Akingboye, Akure
AS the October 10 governorship election in Ondo State draws closer, there are concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic may result in the disenfranchisement of a huge number of voters. Many people believe that this would ultimately happen if critical stakeholders in the election, especially the Independent National Electoral Commission, (INEC) and the political parties do not take proactive measures.
The fear is premised on growing voter apathy in the state as the results of recent elections indicate.
In the November 26, 2016, governorship election that produced the incumbent Governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, only 584,997 voters were accredited to vote out of the total number of registered voters of 1,647,973. In the 2019 general elections, there were 1,812,567 registered voters but only 598,586 were accredited and a total of 586,827 votes were cast. The recently conducted local councils election in the state also witnessed very low turnout of voters.
For the forthcoming election, INEC has declared that out of 1,822,346 registered voters in the state, only 1,478,460 Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs) have been collected, which is an indication of poor enthusiasm toward the election by the people.
The state chairman of African Action Congress (AAC), Mr Alex Adeniyi, lamented that INEC and government agencies saddled with responsibilities of educating the masses, were not doing enough.
“The bulk of the work lies with the National Orientation Agency (NOA) and INEC that is conducting this election. They should do more sensitisation. They should not leave it to the political parties alone. The parties will do their bit but INEC, NOA, other government agencies and NGOs can join them,” he said.
Adeniyi, however, stated that his party has also been up and doing in the area of educating the electorate on the COVID-19 safety protocols as it affects the election.
“We as political parties have been doing that. When people come to our political meetings, we maintain strict compliance to social distancing; people are made to wash and sanitise their hands while people without facemask cannot enter the venue. So, we have been trying to comply.”
The AAC chieftain said his party was popular among the youths, adding, “it is one of the very few parties that are digitally compliant. Most times they refer to us as social media political party.
“So, it makes it a bit easier. We have been making use of video conferencing, zoom and others to sensitise our members. Of course, it is very difficult in rural areas where we don’t have network. We are doing these so that we don’t flout any of the COVID-19 regulations and protocols. We have greatly sensitised our members across the 18 Local Government Areas (LGAs) of the state, telling them what to be done so that they won’t be disenfranchised on election day,” he added.
Governorship candidate of Accord Party (AP), Mr. Rotimi Adeleye Akindejoye, also stated that residents have started adjusting to the new realities occasioned by the outbreak of COVID-19.
“The coronavirus issue is a global threat to both socio-economic and political developments of which Ondo State is not left out. Medical experts have laid down some guidelines and rules to curb the spread of the virus. We have been complying with the rules by observing physical distancing at social gatherings, wearing nose mask and using hand sanitiser. As long as all these laid-down rules are strictly adhere to, I don’t think any voter should be disenfranchised,” he said.
The state chairman of the African Democratic Congress (ADC), Adetokunbo Adeturo, also said the party and its candidate in the election, Prince Dapo Adelegan, were seriously educating the people on the need to strictly comply with COVID-19 protocols, adding that they were working hard to dislodge the incumbent governor.
According to him, there was considerable consciousness by members of their party not to run foul of the guidelines and extant measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic.
“Our people and supporters know that they have to be alive and safe after the election. So, no one is treating the deadly COVID-19 pandemic with kid gloves. Everybody is at alert and wants his/her votes to count,” he said.
The state chairman of Zenith Labour Party (ZLP), Joseph Akinlaja, said the party has been on top of the situation despite some noticeable inadequacies of some government agencies.
“When we had our primaries, we ensured that we complied with COVID-19 protocols; only delegates were invited. We had it peacefully and there were no incidents. This time around, we are conducting our campaign at ward and unit levels. That is why you have not been seeing mammoth crowd at our events. We are complying with the protocols.”
Akinlaja, who is a former federal lawmaker, allayed fears that some people could be disenfranchised on election day for failure to observe COVID-19 safety protocols.
“We have been sensitising them through delegates; we employed the training the trainer tactics. When you train the trainer, the trainer trains the trainees; that is exactly what we are doing. We have been meeting our leaders at the local government level to take the message to their wards and to the polling units and it is working effectively. The responses we are getting are terrific,” he stated.
The state PDP Publicity Secretary, Mr Kennedy Peretei, also pointed out that the party complied with the COVID-19 protocols when it had its governorship primaries and state congress.
“We have also ensured that public gatherings are deliberately reduced in terms of number of persons. COVID-19 is real so we must protect ourselves. We must also not be the agents for its spread. So, all hands are on deck,” he emphasised.
The Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) in the state, Mr. Rufus Akeju, told The Guardian that the commission has been training its staff towards the successful conduct of the election.
Akeju noted that the commission would not flout any of the COVID-19 protocols and safety measures put in place by the Presidential Task Force on the pandemic during the election.