Barrister Festus Okoye is the National Commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and Chairman of Voter Education and Information Committee. He speaks to ONYEKACHI EZE on the operations of the Commission and plans towards electoral reforms
The successful conduct of Edo and Ondo governorship elections has raised the stakes high for INEC. What assurances do have that starting with this year’s Anambra governorship poll, the Commission will not lower the standard in the 2023 general elections?
The Commission has in place an Electoral Continuity Plan (ECP) that encapsulates the challenges of conducting elections in a pandemic and within the context and framework of constitutionally prescribed and circumscribed periods.
The Commission prepared well for the Edo and Ondo states governorship elections as well as the bye-elections that took place in Nasarawa Central State Constituency and 15 constituencies in 11 states of the federation.
Prior to the elections, the Commission deepened the use of technology in the electoral process and the pandemic accelerated the pace of the deployment of technology in the process. The pandemic also enabled the Commission to roll out some of the new, creative and innovative solutions it piloted in some off-season elections.
The 18 registered political parties filed their nominations electronically. Domestic and international elections observers applied for accreditation online and the commission accredited them online.
The media also applied for accreditation online and the Commission accredited them electronically. More importantly, the Commission uploaded polling unit results to a dedicated portal for public viewing using the z-pad. The Commission is determined not to lower the standard of elections in Nigeria.
Based on this, the commission will reconfigure and recalibrate the polling units to make them more accessible to voters. The Commission will resume the continuous voters registration exercise and capture those that have attained the age of 18 and those not previously captured.
The Commission will also revalidate those previously captured and introduce additional biometric features and solutions to protect the integrity of the process. The commission is also committed to the introduction and use of electronic voting machines during the Anambra State governorship election. The lessons from the Anambra governorship election will be harvested and used in improving the regime of electoral technology in the country. The Commission carefully planned and executed the successes recorded in Edo and Ondo states governorship elections.
Nigerians believe that the decision to adopt z-pad in the last two governorship elections was because INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmoud Yakubu was looking for reappointment. Now that he has gotten it, do you think Prof. Yakubu will still be committed in deepening electoral process in the country?
The appointment and reappointment of the Chairman and National Commissioners of the Independent National Electoral Commission is the exclusive responsibility of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Senate.
The Hon. Chairman of the Commission Prof. Mahmoud Yakubu never allowed the issue of appointment or reappointment to affect his performance and the commitment of the Commission to the conduct of credible elections. The Commission has been piloting different electronic solution to the challenges of the electoral process.
For the Nasarawa Central State Assembly election, the commission rolled out the z-pad as a secondary authentication solution to the smart card reader and to upload polling unit results to a central portal for public viewing.
Eventually, the Commission used the z-pad to upload polling units’ results and did not deploy it as a secondary authentication solution to the z-pad as the Commission could not guarantee that it was robust enough to solve the authentication challenges of the smart card reader.
The commitment of the Chairman and the Commission to the deepening of technology in the electoral process was firm and anchored on professionalising the Commission and driving it towards compliance with regional and international standards in election administration and management.
The Chairman has assured Nigerians that within the first and second quarter of 2021 the commission will roll out a comprehensive policy of guaranteeing and providing better and comprehensive access to the polling units and revalidation of the voters roll and the continuous registration of voters. The Commission is also working collaboratively with the National Assembly to provide constitutional and legal framework that anchors the use of electronic voting machines in our electoral process.
This will give the Commission the discretion and legal muscle to determine when and in what form to roll out electronic voting and transmission of results. We are already working on the use of electronic voting machines for the Anambra governorship election. The Chairman is irrevocably committed to Nigeria and the enthronement of integrity in the electoral process.
People also said Prof. Yakubu was reappointed to do the biddings of the All Prgressives Congress (APC). How independent will INEC be in this his second tenure in office?
I made it clear that it is the exclusive constitutional and legal responsibility of the President and the Senate to appoint and confirm the Chairman of the Commission. In the case of Professor Mahmoud Yakubu, his nomination and eventual reappointment was a product of bipartisan support from all the political parties and tendencies in the country.
Civil society groups and organisations endorsed the reappointment. The media endorsed the reappointment and there was jubilation in the commission after his reappointment and on his resumption.
The diplomatic community affirmed unequivocally that the Commission was in safe hands. The commission operates on the basis of collegiate leadership and shared responsibility. Professor Mahmood is the Chairman of the Commission but he is not the commission, but his courage, knowledge, commitment and shared leadership skills have been invaluable in the management of the Commission and the delivery of elections. The commission is a public trust and does not belong to any political party. All political parties have the same incidents of registration and have equal status in the Commission. The commission is not beholden to any political party. Our core mandate is to deliver credible elections and remain within the confines and ambit of our oath of office and constitutional mandate.
Elections do not begin and end with the Chairman, staff of the commission and ad hoc staff also have roles to play. They are the ones in the field conducting the elections. What are the measures put in place by INEC to ensure that these people do not compromise the integrity of the electoral process?
The Commission has a core of professional staff that are committed to the electoral process. We have our conditions of service that emphasize non-partisanship, professional discharge of responsibilities and commitment to electoral etiquette.
The Commissions Electoral Institute has developed an elaborate program of electronic and in person training of electoral staff and this has worked well. Presently, the Commission has a database of students and ex-Corps members that have served in one capacity or the other and this enabled the Commission to conduct the Edo and Ondo governorship elections despite the closure of schools on account of the global pandemic and industrial action by academic staff of various tertiary institutions.
The ad-hoc staff of the Commission and the collation and returning officers are aware of the resolve of the commission to apprehend and prosecute those that abuse their oath of neutrality and or compromise the electoral process. We have interdicted, queried, demoted, terminated and dismissed staff that compromised the electoral process. We have arraigned ad-hoc staff and collation and returning officers in court for sundry electoral offences. More fundamentally, our technological so- lution to electoral matters will reduce human interface and interference in elections and electoral outcomes.
Electoral reforms have been on the INEC agenda for some time but are being hindered by lack of enabling laws. The problem might not be the National Assembly because when the Electoral Act was amended before the 2019 general elections President Muhammadu Buhari refused to sign it. Is the Commission now working in synergy with both the National Assembly and the Executive so that the necessary laws backing electoral reforms will have smooth sail this time?
We are confident that the country will have a new Electoral Act by the beginning of the second quarter of 2021. The leadership of the National Assembly are committed to the process. The Chairman of the Senate Committee on INEC and House Committee on Electoral Matters are engaged in a multi-stakeholders approach to the passage of a new Electoral Act.
The electoral amendment bills from the Senate and the House of Representatives have been harmonised and gazette. A technical committee made up of members of the National Assembly, the commission, the office of the Attorney General of the Federation, the National Institute for Legislative Studies with support from the Policy and Legislative Advocacy Center has finished work on a draft of the bill and it will still be subjected to rigorous analysis by both committees of the National Assembly.
All the critical stakeholders are involved in every stage of the process and the suggestions and recommendations from the public hearing have been imputed into the bill. The present Electoral Act will be repealed and reenacted. All the amendments made to previous acts will be harmonised and will form one document rather than having them in scattered legislation.
There was a report in the papers that INEC wants to review some of its adopted technologies particularly, the use of card readers. Is the Commission thinking of phasing it out given the reported cases of its malfunctioning during elections?
Technology is dynamic and the smart card reader technology has been upgraded and this accounts for the introduction of the z-pad as a secondary authentication solution to the smart card reader. We are piloting, we are test running and we are upgrading our technological solutions. We are also introducing new, robust and creative electronic solutions to the electoral process. We will test run some of the solutions with state Assembly bye-elections but ultimately, we are upgrading and introducing new technologies and initiatives.
Will INEC adopt electronic transmission, aside z-pad, in transmitting the results in this year’s Anambra governorship election?
The commission will adopt relevant technology based on and backed by the Constitution and the Electoral Act in conducting and transmitting the results of the governorship election in Anambra State. The Commission will conduct the election using electronic voting machines based on our understanding of the state of the law and our resolve to deepen the use of technology in the electoral process. The Commission may adopt a twotrack approach to the transmission of election results. It may continue with the manual transmission of results and refine the z-pad technology and transmit results. Ultimately, the Commission will adopt the solution that guarantees the integrity of electoral outcomes. In
the event that electronic transmission of results is not possible or there is no law backing it, does the Commission have enough of these pads for general elections?
The Commission designed the zpad as a secondary authentication solution to the smart card read. It was also designed for purposes of uploading polling unit results for purposes of public viewing. The Commission is piloting a couple of electronic solutions relating to nominations, voting and results transmission. The Commission will roll out the ones that are ready, robust, available and easy to use. Appropriate appropriation will be made for the solution that will be deployed for the 2023 general election.
INEC has not yet issued certificate of return to any candidate in Imo North senatorial election since December last year, because of conflicting court orders. Is there any time lag for this? For how long will INEC be waiting for a candidate or political party to come and collect its certificate?
Yes, the Commission did not issue certificate of return to any candidate in relation to the Imo North senatorial district election. The Commission declared the APC as the winner of the election and did not return any of the claimants to the office. We are aware that some of the preelection matters that gave rise to the challenge are in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. We are also aware that other matters have been filed in the election petitions tribunal. The commission will not preempt the courts and will wait for a pronouncement one way or the other.
Is the Commission considering registration of new political parties before the 2023 elections?
The Commission will register any political association that meets the constitutional and legal threshold for registration. In the bill before the National Assembly, there is a cut off period for applications and this is to enable newly registered parties enough time to put structures in place and prepare for elections