Politics

INEC: A commission under siege

As attacks on facilities of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) persist in some parts of the country, ANAYO EZUGWU examines the situation and the danger it poses to the conduct of 2023 general election

Though the 2023 general election maybe two years away, the belief that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will conduct free, fair and credible polls seems to be under threat, especially, in the south eastern part of the country. The commission is under siege as hoodlums and criminal elements have continued to attack facilities belonging to the electoral commission.

The attacks, especially, in the South- East geopolitical zone has prompted the chairman of INEC, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, to raise the alarm that the 2023 polls are likely to be threatened. Speaking at a recent meeting with the Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) from the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Yakubu warned that the attacks might compromise the commission’s ability to conduct hitchfree elections in future. His words: “Unfortunately, some events in the recent past have challenged the commission and adversely affected our commitment to continue to improve the electoral process.

The spate of arson and vandalism targeting the commission’s facilities and property has become profoundly worrisome. “Unfortunately, this has been on the rise since the 2019 general election but has now developed into a crisis. In the last three weeks or so, three of our local government offices in Essien Udim in Akwa Ibom State, Ohafia in Abia State and Udenu in Enugu State have been set ablaze by unidentified persons. On May 16, our state office in Enugu suffered yet another arson and vandalism in which parts of the building were ransacked and several vehicles razed. And more of our facilities are being systematically targeted and attacked.

On May 18, two more offices in Ebonyi and Ezza North local government areas of Ebonyi State were burnt down.” According to Yakubu, although no life was lost, the damage to the physical infrastructure and electoral materials were total. “Nothing has been salvaged from ballot boxes and voting cubicles to generating sets and office furniture and equipment.

Surely, these attacks are no longer freak events but appear to be quite orchestrated and targeted at INEC. Clearly, these are acts of unjustifiable aggression, which may undermine the commission’s capacity to organise elections and dent the nation’s electoral process.”

Yakubu said the facilities of the commission are there to serve the local communities in exercising their franchise, adding that targeting such important national assets and repositories of electoral materials that took time and enormous resources to procure cannot be justified. “Replacing these facilities in the prevailing economic circumstances will indeed be a tall order, thereby adversely affecting electoral services in the same communities. These facilities are not only limited to voting but also used for other critical electoral activities such as voters’ registration, coordination of stakeholders’ engagements and voter education and sensitization,” he explained. He, however, noted that the commission will work with the security agencies to deal with the perpetrators of these heinous crimes in accordance with the law.

“I believe that we can dig deep and draw from the commission’s longstanding partnership with communities in this regard, in addition to depending on the invaluable support of our security agencies. Consequently, the challenges posed by these threats notwithstanding, we are still positive that we can find lasting solutions to the spate of attacks on our facilities,” Yakubu said. As a result of these attacks, the commission has lost smart card readers worth millions of naira. For instance, on February 12, 2019, shortly before the general election, two containers containing 4,695 smart card readers were destroyed along with other sensitive materials in a mysterious fire at the Anambra State headquarters of INEC.

Likewise, on September 10, 2020, just before the Ondo State governorship election, about 5,141 card readers were destroyed in a fire at the INEC head office in Akure. Like the concerns raised by Yakubu, in the last five years, a good number of INEC offices across the country have been destroyed, with critical infrastructures affected, thereby threatening the commission’s capacity to manage elections. The unending attacks and the possibility of continuing means that the commission is put on the edge, especially when critical tools like the electoral register and card readers are affected.

Timeline of attacks

The first reported fire incident that affected INEC in 2021 was on April 20, when an early morning out-break razed the commission’s data processing centre in Kano State. It was learnt that the fire incident started about 10:15 am and razed the whole building, destroying all equipment and other valuables.

On May 2, the Resident Electoral Commissioner for Akwa Ibom State, Mike Igini, reported that the commission’s office in Essien Udim Local Government Area had been set ablaze. INEC’s National Commissioner and Chairman of the Information and Voter Education Committee (IVEC), Festus Okoye, in a statement noted that the incident occurred in the early hours on the fateful day. Okoye stated that the security guard on duty escaped unhurt, but the destruction to the building and property therein was extensive. “Items destroyed include 345 ballot boxes, 135 voting cubicles, megaphones, water tanks and office furniture,” he said.

He recalled that on the eve of the 2019 general election, the commission’s newly constructed prototype office in Ibesikpo Asutan was burnt down, while two more offices in Mkpat Enin and Eastern Obolo local government areas were bombed. A few days later, on May 9, 2021, the Resident Electoral Commissioner for Abia State, Dr Joseph Iloh, reported that the recently renovated INEC office in Ohafia Local Government was set ablaze.

He, however, said there were no casualties on the part of the commission’ staff on guard duty, but the building was virtually destroyed, including electoral materials and office equipment. Three days later, May 13, Okoye, said the REC for Enugu State, Emeka Ononamadu, reported that the INEC office in Udenu Local Government Area was set ablaze by gunmen.

“The latest tragic incident occurred around 8.40 pm on Thursday, May 13. Casualties were not reported. However, the office building was extensively damaged while electoral materials and office equipment were destroyed in spite of the best efforts of the Enugu State Fire Service to contain the inferno,” he stated. On May 14 and 16, the Enugu State INEC office at Obollo-Offor, Udenu Local Government Area and the commission’s headquarters were attacked and burnt, after the security personnel on duty were overpowered. Two days later, May 18, two INEC offices were simultaneously attacked in Ebonyi State.

The Ezza North Local Government office and that of Ebonyi were burnt, while the Izzi Local Government office was vandalised; the ceiling and doors were badly damaged. In 2020, the INEC equally recorded some fire incidents, including that of February 2 when its office in Ogidi, Idemili North Local Government Area of Anambra State was gutted by fire. Confirming the incident, a police spokesman in the state said “the fire allegedly emanated from a bush burning.”

A few days later, on February 8, 2020, hoodlums reportedly set the INEC office in Orlu Local Government Area of Imo State ablaze, a week after the supplementary election held in the state. The police public relations officer in the state said the incident happened in the early hours of Monday and no casualty was recorded, but electoral materials and properties belonging to staff members of the commission were burnt down. This occurred less than a week after the winner of the Orlu/Orsu/Oru East federal constituency supplementary election was announced by the commission.

There was also a fire incident on April 17, 2020, at the national headquarters of the INEC in Maitama, Abuja, where a section close to the media centre of the commission and the election party monitoring office was affected. Similarly, on September 10, 2020, just before the Ondo State governorship election, 5,141 card readers were destroyed by fire at the state head office of the commission in Akure. On January 28, 2019, there was a fire incident at the INEC office in Oyigbo Local Government Area of Rivers State.

However, in a statement after the incident, the head of the Department of Voter Education and Publicity for the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), Edwin Enabor, said it was a minor incident. According to him, contrary to some reports that it was caused by hoodlums, it was a result of an electrical fault. Enabor said: “The management of the INEC in Rivers State wishes to inform the general public about a minor fire incident that occurred at our office in Oyigbo Local Government Area. An investigation has shown that it was caused by an electrical fault and not by hoodlums as insinuated in some quarters.

“We want to assure the public that everything is under control and that our offices across the state are well secured.” The following month, February 3, 2019, hoodlums set the INEC office in Isiala Ngwa South Local Government Area of Abia State ablaze.

The hoodlums were said to have stormed the office around 2 am. The attack was said to have woken the youths of the area from their sleep as they quickly mobilised and alerted the police, who assisted them in putting off the fire. Although the inferno did maximum damage to the structure and materials there, the quick intervention of the youths and the assistance of the police saved the situation from escalating.

The commission, however, continued to operate from the old office until few weeks before the incident when it decided to relocate from the local government headquarters. That was the second time the INEC office in Isiala Ngwa was burnt down. Also, on February 24, 2019, the Osun State INEC office in Ijebu-Ijesha, Oriade Local Government, was engulfed in fire, which burnt parts of the office.

No life was, however, lost in the incident. After that, on March 3, 2019, the Jigawa INEC office in Gumel Local Government Area was burnt. Everything was destroyed, including documents, furniture, generators, electronic gadgets, computers, among other materials. On March 8, 2019, the Akwa Ibom INEC office in Ibesikpo Asutan Local Government Area was gutted by fire. One hundred and ninety-eight smart card readers, printed voters register, 13 generating sets, voting cubicles, as well as other sensitive and insensitive election materials got burnt.

The following day, March 9, 2019, the INEC Registration Area Centre at Ezza North Local Government Area in Ebonyi State was set ablaze by hoodlums. In 2015, in the heat of the controversy surrounding the governorship election in Abia State, thugs reportedly set the commission’s office at Omopa on fire, prompting the relocation to Umu-Ikaa. The following week, February 10, the Plateau State INEC office in Qua’anpan Local Government Area, where ballot boxes, generators filled with fuel, cubicles, newly printed electronic and manual voters register, unclaimed permanent voter cards, were destroyed. Two days later, on February 12, the Anambra State INEC office in Awka, the state capital, was set ablaze. Card readers and other sensitive materials for the elections were burnt. Two containers containing 4,695 smart card readers were destroyed, along with other sensitive materials.

Concerns ahead of 2023

As the attacks escalate mostly in the South-East, political analysts and commentators are worried that these may jeopardize the chances of the commission conducting free, fair and credible elections in the 2023 general election. Okoye, who maintained that the incidences may undermine the commission’s capacity in carrying out its statutory duties, said: “When you attack these offices and burn them down, the implication is that you want to prevent us from even doing the continuous voters’ registration exercise and also from proceeding with the preparation for the 2023 general elections.

Some of the equipment the commission uses is not procured off the shelf. “Some of these things are ordered from outside the country. There has to be budgeting, appropriation and because of the COVID-19 pandemic production has slowed down in some of these advanced countries.

It is going to take the commission a while to replace some of these things and that was the reason why we summoned all our Resident Electoral Commissioners from all the states of the federation for us to deliberate and try to put together some of these attacks and proffer solutions on how we are going to tackle both the internal issues and external issues with the inter-agency’s consultative committee on the election security,” A former presidential aspirant, Senator Olabiyi Durojaiye, oh his part, said the 2023 general election may be threatened if urgent measures were not taken to stop the continued attack on INEC offices.

Durojaiye said though he is optimistic that elections would hold in 2023, he described the burning of INEC offices and attack on police stations in some parts of Nigeria as ominous signs that all is not well. His words: “I believe the 2023 election will hold because I am an optimist. If you have an adjustment within the next six months, we can conduct the 2023 election.

But if nothing is done urgently to the attacks on INEC offices and police stations, I don’t see us having the 2023 elections. It is disheartening; it is an ominous sign for INEC offices and police stations to be constantly attacked. This is a bad sign for the country. It is something that the authorities should really look at carefully.” With the hoodlums and criminal elements attacking INEC facilities still on the rampage, Nigerians are anxiously waiting to see how security agents and the commission will curb further attacks.

 

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