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After 2019 Polls, rethinking the INEC architecture

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An electoral umpire and its many tasks

At last, Nigerians went to the polls on February 23, 2019 to elect a president and members of the National Assembly.

In doing so, the electorate had to brave the odds posed by the last minute postponement of the elections by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which gave problematic logistics deployment as reason for the postponement.

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Although the rescheduled elections have been won and lost, leaving the commission with state elections to conduct next week, a lot of questions remain about the nation’s electoral architecture.

Concerned interlocutors of the democratic process are already conducting a post mortem; observer groups have been documenting their findings through reports focusing on the processes, as well as pointing at the immediate, medium and long-term steps to take to strengthen the nation’s democracy.

INEC is featuring prominently in this conversation because it is the major institution superintending the country’s leadership recruitment process.

Some of the faltering steps it exhibited, especially with respect to key questions of logistics have been explained not to be results of willful neglect, but inevitable outcomes of an overburdened and over-tasked agency.

The commission has also been in the spotlight given the central role it played in the twists, turns and dramatic moments, which shaped the perceptions of its roles in the electoral process.

The postponement of the elections is just one of the clear manifestation of the structural problems, which have brought it so much flak from political actors, who have themselves also been active contributors to the challenges being faced by INEC.

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As the central institution saddled with the task of managing the elections, INEC has received flaks, including the unflattering position of the President Muhammadu Buhari in the aftermath of the postponement of the election, wherein he described the commission as “incompetent.”

Any attempt to have a complete picture of some of the inadequacies and challenges faced by the Commission would have to grapple with the multiplicity of roles it has had to play in the entire electoral system.

INEC was established in accordance with Section 153(f) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

As stipulated in Part I of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution, the function of the commission are listed to include to organise, undertake and supervise all elections to the offices of the President and Vice President, the governor and deputy governor of a state, and to the membership of the Senate, the House of Representatives and the House of Assembly of each state of the federation.

INEC is also mandated to register political parties and monitor their organisation and operation, including their finances, just as it is equally saddled with the responsibility of arranging for the annual examination and auditing of the funds and accounts of political parties, and publish a report on such examination and audit for public information.

In the area of voter registration, the commission is similarly required to conduct the registration of persons qualified to vote, as well as prepare, maintain and revise the register of voters for the purpose of any election.

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It is also within the purview of the commission to monitor political campaigns and provide rules and regulations, which would govern political parties. In practice, these roles require a lot of human, financial, technical resources, which one commission may not be able to muster.

2019 Elections In Context
ON the strength of national resources wasted as a result of rescheduling of the elections, there is a consensus amongst close watchers of the democratic process on the need to interrogate the place of INEC, as well as other institutions superintending the process.

Interestingly, it is from within the commission that calls for a strategic re-evaluation of its roles in the handling of elections, emanated.

This call from within INEC was made by no less a person than the Chief Electoral Commissioner of the Federation/Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, who is leading a commission that is expected to deliver so many tasks, with little control over key assets and variables, which would determine success or failure.

For the 2019 polls, INEC had to firstly update the voter register, and it ended up capturing a total of 84, 004, 084 voters.

After collecting this massive trove of voters’ data, the commission had to go on to print Permanent Voter Cards for each, with 72, 775, 502 voters picking up theirs.

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Then in the area of logistics, INEC had to make arrangements to deploy materials to 119, 973 polling units across the federation.

This was the final stretch of the massive logistics, which proved too heavy to handle, leading to the process falling short in terms of time.

INEC, faced with the stark reality of materials not reaching several parts of the electoral terrain, had to make the nationally embarrassing call for a shift.

Importantly, as the commission stretched itself to meet with the demands that were internally imposed, it was equally on the receiving end of a barrage of attacks from political actors, who do not have the slightest respect for any institution in the democratic process.

INEC therefore became a soft target as politicians aimed their potshot at a commission, which is expected to turn the other cheek in order not to appear partisan.

As politicians put out messages to de-legitimise the commission and the outcome of the polls, they care less about the impact of their recklessness.

Therefore, INEC in addition to the huge work it was saddled with, had to cope with or manage the proclivities of the usually unpredictable politicians when they fail to meet with electoral deadlines. Most times, INEC would bend backwards to accommodate late entrants.

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It is the politicians who would never agree that they lost an election that were responsible for nearly 640 court cases, several of which constrained INEC preparations.

Very close to the elections, there remained uncertainty as INEC grappled with the reality of over 40 cases in court focusing on determining, which particular party candidate should be on the ballot.

Even during the elections, it is politicians that sponsored or mobilised thugs to attack polling units, kill or chase away INEC ad hoc staff.

In one particular case, a sitting governor contesting in a senatorial race made it clear on national television that he would use any means possible to achieve his political objective.

It was in the race involving this governor that an INEC Returning Officer was held hostage.

The said officer in announcing the election results had to preface his announcement with a statement that he was making the announcement under duress.

INEC could not move in to save its captive returning officer because it was not in control of the security architecture.

The idea of an Inter-agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES) has apparently not worked because security forces only take directives from partisan interests.

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As such, INEC will always be at the mercy of the security agencies, thereby ensuring the balance of power would remain tilted to favour the ruling party.

INEC And The Imperative Of Reform
APART from the latest debacle, there are historic perspectives to support the push for an interrogation of the place of INEC and what exactly it should be doing in the context of elections management.

In 2011, the scenario with respect to elections postponement was much worse because voters were already on queue when the commission then led by Prof. Attahiru Jega made the call to halt the elections and push it forward.

In 2015, INEC insisted it was ready to go ahead with the polls, but the Nigerian Armed Forces, through the service chiefs said they could not vouch for the safety of electoral personnel and materials, leading to a six-week shift in the polls.

It is clear that it was upon reflection on these challenges that the incumbent INEC chair talked of the need for a national conversation on the electoral architecture.

The goal would obviously be to streamline INEC’s roles in order to make it efficient and save the nation from very terrible national moments like what happened in the wee hours of February 16 when the nation’s hopes were dashed.

Such process of interrogation would have to revisit the previous recommendations and suggestions focusing on the need for reform in the electoral system.

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Particularly, the Justice Uwais Committee Report, which as far back as 2008, called for the unbundling of INEC so that there would be separate entities for such tasks as voter registration, electoral offences investigation and prosecution, and political party monitoring, remain very valid.

The push to consolidate democracy, and make the outcome of elections reflects the supreme will of the Nigerian people has inspired several discussions around reform, which cannot be simply ignored.

In looking forward to the future and reforming INEC, considerations would have to be given to the current expansion of the democratic space, especially the proliferation of political parties.

Although the further opening up of the electoral space has promoted the constitutionally-sanctioned right of freedom of association, it has however created administrative challenges, which in turn have implications for the process.

For instance, the 2019 presidential election recorded over one million rejected votes, which is partly attributed to the size of the ballot paper bearing logos of 73 political parties that fielded presidential candidates.

With the presidential contest won and lost, especially after Buhari defeated former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, part of the major tasks before the governing party would be to take the lead for the sort of reforms, which would place the electoral system on sound footing.

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This is important because citizens braved the odds of the earlier postponement of the elections, and the corresponding apathy to ensure that one of the parties gets the mandate.

Given the tension in the land, and the militant rhetoric from the political actors arising from the uncertainty in INEC, citizens and friends of Nigeria would be hoping that the next time out, the electoral process achieves stability and solidity on account of reform.

The reform of INEC and other agencies involved in the electoral process, especially security would have to be holistic.

In terms of procurement for instance, INEC would have to do a lot more towards cost efficiency. In fact, some analysts have pointed out that INEC is saddled with too much procurement, meaning that is also part of the distraction it faces.

When eventually the commission is restructured, its current over-centralised mode would have to give way. As it stands, and given the challenges, INEC operations tend to be having too much semblance with Nigeria’s over-centralised federation.

In the minds of those routing for a leaner INEC, one of the way out is to reduce the over-centralisation by devolution and diffusion of some of INEC’s roles.

This way, the current behemoth would become free of the excess burden, and the entire democratic process should be better for it.


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