Ahead of the off-cycle governorship elections in Kogi, Imo, and Bayelsa states, GIFT HABIB writes on the need for credible polls in the three states to boost the image of the Independent National Electoral Commission after its controversial outing in the 2023 general election
A total of 5,409,438 registered voters will be heading to 10,510 polling units spread across 649 electoral wards in 56 local government areas to cast their ballots in electing the governors of Kogi, Imo, and Bayelsa states on November 11, 2023.
The off-cycle governorship elections are crucial because they are coming after the conduct of the controversial 2023 general elections with Bayelsa and Imo governors seeking re-election, and the Kogi State Governor, Yahaya Bello, seeking to install a successor.
The Independent National Electoral Commission is at the concluding stages of its preparations with less than two weeks to the off-cycle governorship election.
This is the first time that the commission will be conducting three off-cycle governorship elections simultaneously across different geo-political zones. This is made possible by the coincidence of the end of tenure of the current holders of the offices which fall within the constitutional timeframe of not earlier than 150 days or later than 30 days before the expiration of their terms of office as enshrined in Section 178(2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended).
The commission has delivered all non-sensitive election materials to the three states. The training of various categories of ad hoc staff is ongoing. INEC has conducted the mock accreditation of voters and the upload of results to its INEC Results Viewing Portal, using the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System. INEC’s state offices have concluded the readiness assessment of its facilities as well as the movement of critical facilities to its 56 local government offices across the three states.
Equally, political parties and candidates have commenced full electioneering in what is expected to be keenly contested governorship elections in the three states.
Yet, can INEC prove once more that it can conduct credible, free, fair and transparent elections as many believe the 2023 polls did not meet the minimum standards of being a credible exercise?
The country’s dire economic situation over the past few years, particularly the past few months, has triggered and compelled people to participate in the electoral process. People now see the polls as the viable way to make their agitations known, and their voices heard.
The 2023 elections presented Nigerians with numerous challenges and controversies, leading to enormous challenges in the electoral processes. The preliminary report of many domestic and international observer groups noted that the 2023 election failed to meet the expectations of Nigerians.
The 2023 general elections were not different from previous elections as it was marred by violence in some states, widespread delays in the commencement of polling units, late arrival of election officials, snatching of the Bimodal Voters Accreditation System machines, and intimidation of registered voters by thugs, technical difficulties in using BVAS, and delays in uploading results to the results portal.
With the approved N305bn for the conduct of the 2023 general elections and several assurances by INEC for credible, free, and fair elections, the electoral process could not be delivered without a hitch.
During elections, polls were scheduled to open at 8:30am and close at 2:30pm, the same day. However, a report released by Yiaga Africa showed that election officials had arrived at only 27 per cent of polling units by 7:30am.
Also, a think tank, the Centre for Democracy and Development, observed the late arrival of election officials in most of the polling units its observers visited.
Similar delays were also reported in the Federal Capital Territory, Bayelsa, Lagos, Rivers, Taraba, Edo, and Cross River states. However, the INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, claimed that the late arrival of officials was due to the “perennial insecurity in the country.”
Also, in some parts of the country, issues relating to logistics delayed the arrival of election materials and officials, which marred the voting exercise. Some voters lamented that INEC officials brought the wrong BVAS to their polling units.
INEC received backlash from political parties, observers, individuals, and various interest groups for failing to immediately upload polling unit results to the portal prior to the collation. Notably, Paragraph 38 of the INEC regulations and guidelines for the 2023 elections makes electronic transmission of results and their upload to IReV mandatory.
The paragraph requires that when voting and announcement of results have been completed at a polling unit, the Presiding Officer “(1) must electronically transmit the result of the polling unit to INEC’s collation system; (2) must use the BVAs to upload a scanned copy of the EC8A result sheet to the INEC Result Viewing Portal; and (3) [must thereafter] take the BVAS and the original copies of all forms in a tamper-evident envelope to the RA/Ward Collation Officer in the presence of security agents. Polling agents may accompany the PO to the registration areas or ward collation centres.”
Again, INEC claimed that technical challenges with its system were responsible for the delay in uploading the election results. The delay caused opposing parties to reject the electoral process that made the APC presidential candidate, Bola Tinubu, the President-Elect, as declared by INEC.
Some political parties and individuals relied on the glitch to demand the cancellation of the results.
The INEC Chairman admitted after a review of performances with his Resident Electoral Commissioners from the February 25 elections that there were hitches. He noted that the elections were painstakingly done, but they came with issues ranging from technology to delays by election officials to the attitudes of the agents of political parties, among others. Yakubu stated that a lot of lessons had been learnt from the presidential elections ahead of the governorship and state Assembly elections.
Going into the March 18 governorship elections across 28 states, INEC said that its result-viewing portal which suffered glitches during the presidential and National Assembly elections was up and running and would be deployed in the governorship polls.
Unlike what happened during the presidential and National Assembly elections, officials of INEC and security personnel arrived early at polling units in Kwara, Nasarawa, Plateau, Oyo, some parts of Lagos, and the Rivers, not to mention but a few.
Also, BVAS functioned optimally in most states across the country, especially in Ogun, Bauchi, and the FCT, among others. INEC began immediately uploading the election results via its IReV portal.
However, many reasoned that their votes did not count during the governorship polls and also eroded the gains recorded and the transparency brought to the election management process through the introduction of technology like BVAS. Political parties and their candidates shifted their battle to the courts. Disputed election outcomes waiting for judicial resolution in this year’s polls are alarming.
Out of 1,280 political offices contested in 2023, 1,209 petitions are before the judiciary for adjudication, according to the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem. This represents a whopping 94.453 per cent of the positions where votes were cast.
Giving a breakdown of the petitions, she said five were filed at the Presidential Election Petition Court; 147 at the senatorial election tribunals; 417 at the House of Representatives elections tribunal; 557 at the Houses of Assembly election tribunals and 83 focusing on the governorship elections.
One of the core grounds the opposition political parties were seeking the annulment of the February 25 presidential election, for instance, was the inability of the commission to upload election results from the polling units to the IReV portal.
Two major opposition candidates, Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party and Peter Obi of the Labour Party unsuccessfully challenged the outcome of the presidential poll at the Supreme Court in Abuja after rejecting the victory of the All Progressive Congress presidential candidate, Bola Tinubu, as the President of Nigeria.
There is no doubt that INEC is showing its best efforts in its preparations ahead of the November 11 polls, but Nigerians are trying their best to perceive that the governorship polls would be different from the election norms in the country.
Speaking with Saturday PUNCH, the Executive Director, the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, Auwal Musa, said INEC must conduct the November 11 governorship elections in strict adherence to the Electoral Act 2022 as amended in order to regain public confidence and reclaim its credibility.
Musa noted, “The upcoming elections present the opportunity for INEC to address the gaps recorded in the general election of 2023 by ensuring it sticks to the laid down rules instead of shifting the goalpost in the middle of the game.
“Now that assurances have been made about electronic upload of polling results using the IReV, the commission must take note that any excuses about glitches or whatever technical inability for real-time electronic upload of results will simply be viewed as an act of sabotage and institutional malpractice by INEC.
“Citizens are also looking towards improved logistics deployments throughout the elections. This is expected to be a lot easier for the commission as it is not an election across the entire country, hence, prompt arrival of sensitive and non-sensitive materials as well as election officials are expected. This is critical for early commencement of voting and a pointer to the level of preparedness of the commission for these elections.”
The CISLAC Executive Director stated that INEC must prevail on its staff and ad hoc staff to represent the commission in the best light.
“Punishments must be seen to be quickly dished out where an employee of the commission is seen to engage in acts that promote malpractice. The off-cycle elections, if conducted successfully and seen to be free, fair and credible, would go a long way in regaining citizens’ trust in INEC and the electoral system in Nigeria,” he analysed.
Also, a former Director of Voter Education and Publicity at INEC, Nick Dazang, advised that the commission must grab the off-cycle elections with both hands, adding that INEC must be guided by its Standard Operating Procedure.
Dazang explained, “What is key, however, is for INEC to conduct some of the best elections in our annals in these three states. It will be uphill, but it is a feat INEC has to achieve in order to bring itself into the reckoning and to begin the urgent tasks of earning the trust of Nigerians and burnishing its already besmirched image.
“The November 11 off-cycle governorship elections thus provide an auspicious opportunity. INEC should enthusiastically grab it with two hands. In addition to its latching onto these off-season governorship elections to embark on its journey of redemption, the commission will do well to carry itself cognizant that it is in the eye of the storm and that it must be proactive. It should also be guided and underpinned by its Standard Operating Procedure. It should be upfront with information at all times. It should give periodic updates/statements as the elections proceed apace on Election Day.”
Speaking recently at the last quarterly meeting with political parties and INEC in Abuja, the National Chairman of the Inter-Party Advisory Council, Yabagi Sani, challenged INEC to work diligently in persuading security agencies to play by the rules of engagement and resist the temptation of being used by desperate politicians.
“The involvement of security agencies in the electoral process must be based on professionalism, neutrality, and a commitment to the defence of our democracy, rather than partisan interests. The citizens must feel secure in their participation in the electoral process, knowing that their safety and security are assured. The present precarious state of insecurity in the country and in particular the three states where the November 11, 2023 off-season elections will be taking place poses a real threat to the full participation of the citizens in the exercise,” Sani advised.
He said sensitive and non-sensitive materials must get to the polling units on time, calling for collaborative efforts of Nigerians for a transparent election.
He stated “It is also of paramount importance that INEC ensures the timely and secure delivery of both sensitive and non-sensitive electoral materials to the states. Delays or mishandling of these materials can lead to suspicion and undermine the credibility of the entire election. We must work collaboratively to guarantee that these materials reach their destinations without any hitches.
“I implore all political parties, civil society organisations, and all citizens to play their part in creating an environment that fosters trust and confidence in our electoral processes. Together, we can ensure that the will of the people prevails and that our democracy continues to grow stronger.”
A security expert and Chief Executive Officer, Beacon Consulting Limited, Kabir Adamu, said, “These three states have the same peculiarities such as disposition to violence, geographical circumstances, the existence of non-state armed groups that are quite active and the disposition of politicians.
“Now, security is important for the conduct of the governorship elections in the three states but it must be conducted in a manner that does not disrupt or influence the outcome of the election where security agencies are neutral and provide the right environment for election to hold in a free and fair atmosphere. INEC must ensure the above on election day.”
The British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Richard Montgomery, disclosed that the United Kingdom had shown interest in monitoring the November 11 off-cycle governorship elections in Imo, Bayelsa, and Kogi states, calling for fair play and a level playing field for the candidates contesting.
Lending his voice to the matter, the Chancellor of the International Society for Social Justice and Human Rights, Jackson Omenazu, maintained that the three off-cycle governorship elections in Bayelsa, Imo and Kogi states would serve as a litmus test to INEC, advising that the commission should use the opportunity that the November 11 polls would present to redeem its image.
Omenazu said, “This coming election will serve as a litmus test to INEC. The confidence of the people about the credibility of INEC has been eroded as a result of the actions and inactions of the commission. But the commission can use the conduct of these elections to boost their battered image.
“INEC should also realise that their action has contributed to voter apathy experienced in past elections because don’t have confidence in the electoral process anymore. It is now a government of INEC, by INEC and for INEC, and we are saddened to experience this. INERC should show some level of maturity and patriotism so that it will not be seen as destroying the country. INEC should use these elections to redeem its image.”