The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is gearing up for two off-season governorship elections and there are fears that these polls might run into stormy weather like previous ones. In this interview, civil rights activist, lawyer and Chairman, Transition Monitoring Group, Dr. (Mrs) Abiola Akiyode- Afolabi examines the issues surrounding elections and tells ONWUKA NZESHI that electronic voting could cure a lot of the headache
The governorship election in Ondo State is around the corner, but do you think it is safe to hold elections now given the spread of COVID19?
With an approved new policy framework known as Policy on Conducting Elections in the context of COVID-19 pandemic, there should be no cause for alarm. The most important thing is to ensure strict adherence to the World Health Organisation protocols prior to, during and after the elections.
The general purpose of the policy is to enable officials and staff of the Commission to understand and respond adequately to the challenges of conducting elections in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also to provide a guide for engagement with stakeholders as they prepare for elections.
There are reports that some countries have postponed their elections in order to safeguard the health of the people.
Why should we go ahead in spite of the situation in Nigeria?
Yes, there are a number of countries that actually postponed there elections while some such as South Korea and Mali have also conducted elections during this pandemic. So it is not out of place for us in Nigeria to hold elections if appropriate measures are put in place by the election management body.
Again, Nigeria is lucky to have conducted it’s general election a year before the pandemic so it won’t be much of a problem to manage the elections in Ondo and Edo states. We also have to go ahead with the elections in order not to cause unnecessary constitutional crisis by leaving the position or office of governor vacant in those states.
As such, election must take place to determine the next occupiers of such offices at the expiration of their term of office.
As the head of the Transition Monitoring Group, what is your assessment of the preparations made so far by INEC for these elections?
Like I mentioned earlier, INEC has taken a step in the right direction by reviewing its guidelines on election to reflect the realities of the COVID-19. They have also conducted series of meetings with different stakeholders such as security, political parties, media and CSO to provide needed synergy ahead of the elections. So they are on top of the game.
Our elections are usually marred by violence and other forms of malpractices. What are your expectations of the next round of elections?
We cannot totally rule out the outbreak of violence in our elections given reported cases of wrangling going on among political parties most especially the incumbent and major opposition parties in both states. We have read different cases of attacks of opposing sides in the last few months. It is important that we sue for peace while the security agencies should be on top of their game.
Political parties and their members need to be responsive and act responsibly in going about their various activities.
How prepared is the TMG for the monitoring of the forthcoming elections?
The Transition Monitoring Group will be deploying observers in different wards across the local government areas of the states. Having engaged with identified stakeholders in Edo and Ondo, we are on the verge of conducting trainings for our observers ahead of Election Day deployment. TMG has been consistently engaging the process by monitoring some of the political events and reporting on them appropriately in the two states.
What is your advice to INEC towards achieving free, fair and credible elections in these two states?
INEC must ensure a level playing ground for all. They need to put a perfect logistics in place and make sure that they have a working template which must be followed through in order to achieve fair, free and credible elections at the end of the exercise. They should not allow the past narratives to define the forthcoming elections.
What key reforms will your organisation recommend towards changing the face of elections in Nigeria?
We need reforms that will make the electoral system accountable, that will provide opportunity for more women and people with disabilities to exercise their franchise freely. We need an effective electronic methodology that can support a more transparent electoral system
What specific changes would you like to see in terms of eliminating violence and intimidation during elections?
INEC owes Nigeria a duty to ensure that proper arrangements are put in place to mitigate possible outbreak of violence by making sure that adequate security measures are put in place. The commission must take seriously the welfare of the security personnel that will be deployed during the elections while the general public should be adequately sensitized against violence ahead of the elections.
INEC recently announced its plans to embark on a pilot scheme for electronic voting by 2021. Do you think this is feasible?
This is a welcome development. Nigeria is long overdue for electronic voting, doing this will lessen some of the challenges witnessed during our elections. Perhaps, in a way it will help save cost and make elections less transactional given the fact that this may reduce contact with politicians and time spent at the polling units.
This will also speed up the collation process and make the process transparent. The options are innumerable in the deployment of full complement of ICT to make the peoples’ vote count and enhance the integrity quotient of the electoral process. Nigeria’s technology ecosystem is keen to assist government to address this recurrent electoral dilemma.
There are dozens of proposals in the public domain demanding open scrutiny as to their workability. The onus is on those in government and decision makers to take the challenge and put the teams and their solutions to test before the 2023 elections.
The Electoral Act Amendment Bill passed by the National Assembly before 2019 elections is still in the cooler. What do you advise INEC to do about it?
Electoral reform is a continuous process, building on what has worked successfully and addressing the weaknesses identified in the system. Our collective view is that there were considerable organisational, logistical and technical difficulties with elections which Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and other national stakeholders will wish to address. So we must continually engage the process and explore every avenue to reform our electoral process.
Do you think that Nigeria is on the track to adopting the recommendations made by local and foreign observers after the 2019 general elections?
Yes, observers’ reports and recommendations are meant for the deepening of democracy and strengthening of the electoral processes so it must be embraced with both hands. I think that INEC as the electoral umpire and Nigeria as a country should seriously work on those recommendations if there is going to be any meaningful change in our electoral system before 2023.