Few days to the presidential election, some political parties have expressed reservations over preparations for the exercise despite assurances from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that it is set to conduct Nigeria’s best elections so far.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) said it still had issues to resolve with INEC’s arrangements but promised to disclose its position before the election.
The Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) expressed caution but insists that INEC is yet to meet up with all its demands ahead of the polls.
Assessing INEC’s preparation for the election, the spokesman of CUPP, Ikenga Ugochinyere, said that out of the ten demands made to INEC, the commission only granted eight, leaving two which, he said, were very vital.
“We are still cautious because, out of the ten demands we made, INEC granted eight. For the issue of separate accreditation and separate voting, they did not and they have not been able to give us anything in alternative and show how they can secure the credibility of the accreditation process and its eventual outcome.
“He (INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu) is not in control of the police, he’s not in control of the paramilitary or anything, so all he has been saying, no matter how beautiful they look, might end up being an academic exercise if these agencies are not working on the same page with him.”
Speaking on the issue of transparency at the collation centres and how the opposition is not happy with the role of Amina Zakari, Ugochinyere said, “From what we’ve read in the papers, we are yet to be officially communicated that he has opened the coalition centres, the back end for we political parties to sit with Amina to observe, because the minimum condition we can leave the issue of Amina is that all political parties are allowed access to back end collation situation room, both we in PDP alliance and the APC.
“Everybody can be seeing the same thing at the same time, this will help to reduce tension if the commission is not up to anything. Even though we know that the result from the situation report will not be used as a collation document, but let us all be seeing the development together.”
Ugochinyere added: “I can tell you that we are still viewing the chairman with serious caution because of some of these pending issues.
“But in terms of his preparation like statutory preparation, meeting with timelines and all that, he has been doing those ones but these other two issues are really where we are having some challenges and it is also important that there’s an issue that has just cropped up, which we have raised, which is the total number of polling units where elections will hold in the IDP camp and their location, including any new voting points, because as I speak to you now, none of the 91 political parties has been given a list or a CD containing the voting points and the IDP voting locations, we don’t have it.”
Speaking on the two issues, the CUPP spokesman said that they raised the issue of the collection of Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) and the stoppage time for the collection, which he said that the INEC chairman agreed to announce and also that he agreed to give political parties a breakdown of the collection of the PVCs by their polling units.
“Then we raised the issue of you cannot allow somebody who’s name is not on the voting register to vote simply because the person came with a PVC and the voter register is the constitutional basis for election, so he agreed.
“We raised the issue of also someone coming to the polling unit and his finger print is not read but his name is on the voter register being able to vote, he made changes to it by saying that the person can vote on the condition that he will thumb print by the side of his name in the voter register, thereby keeping a record of who actually casts the vote.
“Then there was this issue that has to do with when somebody comes to the polling unit and the PVC is read with the finger print and the name is on the register but the data contained in the PVC is a different thing, then the agents that are at the polling unit working together with the INEC staff will agree whether that person is genuine.
“There’s a lot of issues, but the one that’s still pending, which has not been addressed, is the issue of separate accreditation and separate voting, the issue of the transparency and openness of the situation room of the collation where Amina is.
“These two demands go together, and if he gives us access to the situation room, we abandon the issue of Amina because now we’ll be there to see what ever she’s seeing from the back end, but if he doesn’t grant that, then we’ll insist that Amina should go.”
Recall that the PDP and its leadership have cried out over what it called the poor preparation of INEC for the election, insisting that INEC chairman should resign because, according to the party, he had been bought over, he was in the pocket of the APC and the presidency.
Despite the assurances from INEC, voices of doubts are growing more stringent.
At a recent media workshop, participants insisted that the polls had already been rigged through government’s policy.
This ‘policy’, it was gathered, is expressed in strategic action or inaction of government which impinge negatively on the electoral process and hinder advancement of democracy.
Two such actions, the workshop noted, were the non-assent to the amended 2015 Electoral Bill and recent intimidation of the third arm of government, the judiciary.
The workshop organised by an election observer group last week in Abuja disclosed that certain governmental policies that cut across issues as varied as legal framework for the elections, action of security agencies, or partisan role of judicial officers in the forthcoming poll may have comprised the process before the opening of ballot.
This, the participants said, raised serious questions about the supposed independence of INEC ahead of the general elections.
A clear, unambiguous set of rules are a precondition for a free, fair, credible elections but participants at the workshop noted that that was not the case with the Electoral Law that would guide the conduct of the forthcoming election.
While noting that the present administration had no hand in the birth of the 2015 Electoral Act (as amended), they were, however, unanimous that the confidence level in the poll would have taken a nudge up had President Muhammadu Buhari assented to the amended 2015 Electoral Bill.
The amendment, if passed, would have strengthened the use of the card reader, full deployment of technology in result collation, and a reduction of physical handling of the ballot, which has remained the albatross of previous elections in the country.
The current law, they argued, was replete with ambiguities that could be exploited by unscrupulous electoral officials to upturn results, cancel, or declare it inconclusive, as witnessed in Osun State recently.
The legal framework, according to them, is fraught with loopholes that exacerbate conflicting judgments in the courts.One of such ambiguities was the issue of “over voting” defined by the subsisting legal framework as “when total number of votes cast exceeds the number of registered voters.”
This ambiguity, according to the workshop, was corrected in the amended bill where over voting was defined as votes cast in excess of accredited voters. Herein lies the benefit of the smart card reader, a valuable tool that has remained outside the provision of the law.
In addition, INEC has recently listed conflicting judgments by courts of coordinate jurisdiction as one of the biggest challenges facing it.
The participants were of the view that the failure by President Muhammadu Buhari to assent to the amended Electoral Act left a gaping hole that could be exploited to undermine the credibility of the entire process.
Despite the expressed misgivings, the commission has at various fora maintained that it was sticking to its timelines for the polls and that the February 16 presidential and National Assembly polls and other election dates remained sacrosanct.
Evidently, stakeholders are worried over the likelihood of staff of INEC compromising the process.
Going by findings, fears persist that the electoral body might be intimidated or compromised by the political machinery of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
The fears have partly been fuelled by the refusal of President Muhammadu Buhari to assent to electronic voting which would have recognised IT incorporation in the polling process.
Stakeholders are agitated by the development which, they believe, has created loopholes for rigging.
INEC has promised to deploy the card reader, introduced in 2015 to check electoral breaches such as underage and multiple voting, and the device was globally lauded, but the electoral body may have ruled out electronic transmission of poll results in the present exercise.
The use of card readers has not yet been incorporated in the Electoral Act.
In the circumstances, stakeholders are afraid that the electronic process would have little weight in election dispute resolution at the tribunal.
“Already, our laws are a bit ambivalent on electronic evidence. What this means is that evidence of electoral cheating or manipulation made available by the IT components might be ignored by a tribunal judge,” explained Abraham Pius, Secretary, Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Ota branch, Ogun State.
According to him, the fear of possible consequence for electoral infraction was effectively removed by the president’s refusal to approve the bill proposing the use of electronic voting in 2019 and beyond.
“What happens if the incumbent forces the umpire to declare him winner knowing that his opponents only hope of upturning his victory is via evidence gathered by e-voting? What then?” Pius asked.
This thinking is believed to be what has sparked global outrage at the recent suspension of the Chief Justice of the Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, a few days before he was set to inaugurate the panel of tribunal judges to adjudicate on election dispute.
The NYSC Coordinator in Kwara, Mrs Esther Kupolati, is of the opinion that corps members must be protected both from harm and influence of politicians to compromise election.
According to INEC, corps members constituted more than 50 percent of the estimated one million ad-hoc staff INEC would use for the elections.
Her fears may well be founded given a testimony by a former polling agent of a political party in Kwara. According to him, party agents in 2015 election had sought out and compromised corps members during the election.
“What they simply did was to raise fingers after sighting each vote cast by a voter; a single finger means the ruling party while the two fingers in a ‘V’ sign means the main contender. No finger is raised when other parties apart from the first two contenders is voted for by voters,” explained the former party agent.
According to the source, the intelligence by the corps member at the polling unit helped them reward voters with cash. In other words, the corps members assisted in vote-buying in the past.
But speaking at a recent stakeholders’ forum put together by INEC in Ilorin, Kupolati begged the commission to help protect corps members from undue influence from political agents.
Regardless, the APC said it was still confident that INEC would deliver on its promise to Nigerians.
It has, therefore, urged other stakeholders to extend same level of trust in INEC and other related organisations vested with roles in the coming general election and not pillory them.
National Publicity Secretary of the party, Lanre Issa-Onilu, said such expression of trust and confidence in what the commission was doing would be for the benefit of all in the long run.
He added that the state of readiness of the commission in the coming polls could only be assessed from what the commission had said.
He said: “We can only assess INEC by what they told us. INEC has said it is ready. They addressed the Council of State meeting… and told them they are ready in all aspect of the process.
“All we can do is to trust them. Our trust can be a way of encouraging them. We don’t have to vilify them. We don’t want to start harassing them, if we are truly interested in credible election.”