By Prof. Mahmood Yakubu
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) cherishes the long-standing support from the media. We do not take this relationship for granted. While we may not always agree on all issues, which is understandable, both of us are definitely in agreement that our democracy and electoral process must be nurtured and consolidated. On our part, we regard the media as both a key stakeholder and a dependable ally in sustaining and deepening our democracy. It is for this reason that the INEC Press Corps, comprising over 90 members from the print, broadcast and online varieties, is given unfettered access to information and our activities. Furthermore, based on the importance and unique role of the media, we now hold regular quarterly consultative meetings with media executives led by the President of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) to discuss policy and other critical electoral issues in the electoral process. This is in addition to the periodic engagements with various media outlets. This interaction is therefore designed to further strengthen our partnership in promoting free, fair credible and inclusive elections in Nigeria.
INEC and the media play vital roles in sustaining democracy and democratic governance. It is for this reason that they both derive their powers from the Constitution. While the functions of the Commission are enshrined in Part I of the Third Schedule of the 1999 Constitution, the fundamental right to freedom of expression and of the press, from which the media derives its strength, are enshrined in Chapter Four (Section 39) of the same Constitution. Furthermore, while the sanctity of the vote and the credibility of electoral outcomes as expressed through the will of the electorate is supreme, the ethics of journalism is tailored towards upholding the truth and ensuring the integrity and fairness of the profession and its practitioners. In journalism, the truism is that opinion is free, but facts are sacred. Therefore, democracy and free press cannot be sustained without free press. We must therefore continue to work together to promote free, fair, credible and inclusive elections.
ACTIVITIES AND INNOVATIONS
Context of Elections and Electoral Activities in Nigeria
Nigeria’s size and population make it one of the biggest democracies in the world. It is certainly the second largest presidential democracy after the United States of America. The size of our voter population and elective institutions make elections in Nigeria a huge undertaking. This fact is better appreciated within our regional context. There are 15 countries in West Africa today, including Nigeria. However, with the current voter population of over 84 million, Nigeria has about 11 million more registered voters than the other 14 countries put together which have 73.6 million registered voters. Conducting a general election in Nigeria is like holding election in West Africa and beyond.
Furthermore, the statutory responsibilities of INEC make it both an Election Management Body and Electoral Commission. Section 53 (f) of Part 1 to the Third Schedule the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) requires the Commission to organize, undertake and supervise all elections to the offices of the President and Vice-president, the Governor and Deputy Governor of a state, and to the membership of the Senate, the House of Representatives and the House of Assembly of each State of the Federation. In order to do so effectively, there are other extensive responsibilities undertaken by the Commission which include:
i. The registration and regulation of political parties, including the monitoring of party and campaign finance as well as their primaries, congresses, meetings and conventions;
ii. Nationwide continuous registration of voters and the maintenance of the national register of voters;
iii. Prosecution of electoral offenders;
iv. Creation of polling units;
v. Delimitation of electoral constituencies;
vi. Voter education and publicity;
vii. Management of electoral logistics;
viii. Election security in consultation with the security agencies;
ix. Strategic engagement with stakeholders;
x. Formulation of regulations and guidelines for the conduct of elections and electoral activities to give clarity to the provisions of the Constitution and Electoral Act; and
xi. maintenance of extensive physical assets (offices, residential accommodation and other facilities) nationwide.
In addition, elections are held all-year round between one General Election and another with no respite. There is no election season any longer in Nigeria. The Commission has to think literally on its feet as it reflects, strategises, and innovates and pilots the new innovations. For instance, since the 2019 General Election, the Commission has conducted 36 elections made up of 5 Governorship constituencies (Anambra, Bayelsa, Edo, Kogi and Ondo), 6 Senatorial Districts, 7 Federal Constituencies (House of Representatives seats) and 18 State Assembly constituencies. Yet, there are more elections to be conducted in the next 8 months. The Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Area Council elections made up of 68 constituencies (6 Council Chairmen and 62 Councillors) is scheduled to hold on 12thFebruary 2022, followed by the Ekiti and Osun State Governorship elections holding on 18th June 2022 and 16th July 2022 respectively. There are also 3 pending Federal constituency bye-elections (Jos North/Bassa in Plateau State, Akure North/Akure South in Ondo State and Ogoja/Yala in Cross River State) and 3 State constituencies (Ekiti East I in Ekiti State, Shinkafi in Zamfara State and Akpabuyo in Cross River State). While the off-season Governorship elections are known in advance, the bye-elections, mainly caused by the deaths of serving members of the National and State Assembly, are unpredictable.
Policy on Conducting Elections in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic
The world was confronted with the emergence of the deadly COVID-19 Pandemic in November 2019 The first case was reported in Nigeria on 27th February 2020, forcing the Federal and State governments to take series of actions to protect citizens. The pandemic caused extensive disruptions in the country’s electoral system, forcing the Commission to the postpone four bye-elections in Bayelsa, Imo and Plateau States. The highly contagious nature of the virus meant that the Commission cannot conduct these elections without considering how to protect election officials and other stakeholders from the risk of infection. In response, the Commission came up with the Policy on Conducting Elections in the Context of the COVID – 19 Pandemic in May 2020. The policy, which was first of its kind in Africa outlined the measures to be put in place to ensure the safety of citizens that would participate as voters, candidates, or officials on election day. It was successfully applied during the Nasarawa Central State Constituency bye-election, held on 8thAugust 2021 and in other elections thereafter, including the Edo and Ondo Governorship election in September and October this year.
Expansion of Voter Access to Polling Units
For 25 years, between 1996 and 2021, the number of polling units in Nigeria remained the same, despite the progressive increase in the number of the voting population over the years. For instance, in 1999, the number of registered voters was 57,938,945, 60,823,022 in 2003; 61,567,036 in 2007; 67,422,005 in 2015 and 84,004,084 in 2019. Yet, the number of PUs remained the same. While the law gives INEC the power to create new PUs and allocate voters to them, all attempts made by the Commission to do so within the period were met with spurious allegations based on political considerations. Following several unsuccessful attempts to create additional PUs, the Commission established Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements across the States of the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). After wide-ranging consultations with stakeholders and fieldwork by our officials, the 56,872 Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements were converted to full-fledged Poling Units in April 2021 bringing the total number of PUs in Nigeria to 176,846. The Polling Units can be viewed at (https://www.inecnigeria.org/elections/polling-units/).
New Innovations in Technology
Determined to deepen the use of technology and reduce human intervention in the critical stages of the electoral process, the Commission introduced new innovations. A few of them are identified as follows:
i. Submission and Processing of Nominations Forms and Other Applications
The Commission has been discouraging human intervention in the electoral process. Since the 2019 General Election, the following activities are now conducted either partially or entirely online through dedicated portals:
a. Voter pre-registration;
b. Nomination of candidates for election by political parties;
c. Submission of list of polling and collation agents by political parties;
d. Accreditation of national and international observers for election; and
e. Accreditation of media organisations for elections.
ii. Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) and Launch of Online Registration Portal
You will recall that the Commission often undertakes a fresh registration of eligible voters with every general election until 2010 when the first reliable biometric register of voters was compiled. Thereafter, the practice is to undertake intermittent registration of voters on the eve of major elections.
However, in April 2017, this Commission for the first time began the implementation of the registration of voters on a continuous basis as provided in the Electoral Act. By the time the CVR was suspended in August 2018 to prepare for the 2019 General Election, a total of 14,283,734 new voters had been registered and added to the national register of voters, increasing the overall number to 84, 004 084. However, the CVR could not resume as planned after the general election due in part to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the earlier part of 2020. In our determination to serve Nigerians better and in response to repeated calls by stakeholders, the Commission introduced a dedicated portal for online registration on 28th June 2021. This allows intending registrants to commence the process online by filling the forms, upload their pictures and required documents, and then make an appointment on the web portal for a date and time to visit an INEC State or Local Government Area (LGA) office to give their fingerprints and complete the registration. In addition, those who are already registered as voters can carry out all the other activities such as transfers, correction of personal details and replacement of damaged or defaced Permanent Voters’ Cards (PVCs) online.Nigerians have fully embraced and are taking full advantage of the services available on the portal. The Commission has also been updating Nigerians every week on new development since the CVR started. As of 22ndNovember 2021, the CVR platform had recorded a total of 4,297,494 fresh registrants while 1,856,771 registrants have validated their application
iii. The INEC Voter Enrolment Device (IVED)
In June this year, INEC introduced a special gadget designed in-house by the Commission’s Engineers but fabricated abroad. It performs a variety of functions including physical registration of voters, fingerprint and facial authentication on election day and uploading of the polling unit result sheets to the INEC Result Viewing (IReV) portal. While the device was used as the INEC Voter Enrollment Device (IVED) at the resumption of the Continuous Voter Registration in June this year, it first was deployed for the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) in the Isoko South 1 State Constituency bye-election in Delta State on 11th September 2021 and later for the recently concluded Anambra Governorship election. In both elections, the equipment performed the functions of the Smart Card Readers (SCR) and the Z-Pad.
iv. INEC Result Viewing Portal
In our effort to engender transparency in the electoral process, the Commission unveiled the INEC Result Viewing (IReV) portal to make available for public view copies of the polling unit election result sheet, known as Form EC8A on Election Day. By Clicking on http://inecelectionresults.com and creating an account and password, any interested Nigerian can have access to the portal and view polling unit results are they are uploaded live. The Nasarawa Central Constituency bye election held on 8th August was the first to have its polling units’ results uploaded to the portal, followed by the Edo and Ondo Governorship elections. However, before the introduction of IReV, the Commission had, during the 2017 Anambra State Governorship election, introduced the pasting of Form EC 60E, also known as the “People’s Result Sheet” at Polling Units, where citizens could view the result of each polling unit.
The Commission recognizes that some members of the society need special attention to make it possible for them to participate actively in the electoral process. The Commission meets regularly with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) representing Persons Living with Disability with a view to understanding their needs and bringing them up to speed on policies and actions that may affect them. In response to demands, the Commission now deploys assistive facilities such as the Braille Ballot Guide and magnifying glasses during elections to enable vision-impaired voters, persons living with Albinism and other individuals who may so require, to take advantage of the resources to vote unaided. Indeed, the Commission also cares about internally displaced Nigerians who were forced to flee their homes due to natural disasters, insurgency, activities of bandits and other criminals. In September 2018, the Commission developed the INEC Framework on Access and Participation of Persons with Disabilities, followed by the Regulations and Framework for Voting by Internally Displaced (IPDs) in December 2018. We also have the Gender Policy to take care of the needs of women in the electoral process and also recently created a Department of Gender and Inclusivity for the implementation of the gender policy in a coordinated manner.
Anambra Governorship Election 2021
As you are all aware, the Anambra Governorship election was held on 6thNovember 2021 under difficult circumstances. The Commission has declared a winner and the certificate of return has been issued. The was election was peaceful and the outcome of the election has been universally adjudged to be credible.
However, the Commission is not unaware of the issues raised about the performance of the new technology deployed for voter accreditation. The deployment of the BVAS in the Anambra Governorship election was the second pilot test. It was intended to achieve two objectives. First is voter accreditation to replace the Smart Card Reader. The second is the uploading of polling unit result on the IReV portal to replace the z-pad. The BVAS performed optimally in uploading results on the IReV but there were the usual challenges associated with the pilot of a new technology in a major election.
From our assessment so far, much of the glitches encountered on Election Day in Anambra State had little to do with the machines but more with the operators of the system. The extraordinarily difficult circumstances under which the election was held meant that some of the better trained ad hoc staff withdrew at the 11th hour. Similarly, some critical service providers such vehicle owners also withdrew thereby severely affecting our plans for rapid response by our technicians – the Registration Area Technical (RATECH) staff. Technical issues relating to the performance of the BVAS will be addressed in the presentation by our Director ICT at this important meeting. Suffice it to say that in spite of the glitches, BVAS has justified our determination to deepen the deployment of technology in the electoral process. Given the credible conclusion of the election, it has strengthened our belief that even the minimal introduction of technology in voter accreditation is better than the best manual process. We want to thank the voters in Anambra State for their patience and faith in the new technology. This has also justified the hope of citizens across the country that the deployment of more appropriate technology is essential to electoral integrity in Nigeria.
Our response to the glitches encountered started right from Anambra State. This explains there were no challenges reported during the supplementary election in Ihiala Local Government Area held on Tuesday 9thNovember 2022. I want to reassure Nigerians that we have learnt vital lessons from the Anambra pilot. There will be remarkable improvement in the next major election which is the end-of-tenure Area Council election in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) schedule to hold in three months on 12th February 2022.
Since it emerged that the Direct Primary clause was included in the Electoral Act amendment Bill, many of you have been asking the Commission for its position. But the issue is not about our position, but the process. In the exercise of its constitutional power, the National Assembly has passed the Bill into law awaiting presidential assent. Once the process is concluded, the Bill becomes law and every person and authority in Nigeria, including the Commission, must obey. The Commission will give expeditious consideration to the law, including the detailed regulations and guidelines for its implementation where necessary.
THE CASE FOR STRONGER INEC/MEDIA PARTNERSHIP
At the beginning of this presentation, I talked about the areas of convergence between the media and INEC. I believe by virtue of the functions of both entities, they are committed to a strong democratic Nigeria, based on one man, one vote, anchored on free, fair, and credible elections. While it is INEC’s desire to ensure that only the choice of the electorate emerges at the end of every election, I regret to inform this audience that some individuals in our society do not believe in free and fair elections, and they will do everything within their power to undermine the process. It is our collective duty, therefore, to ensure that this sort of mindset fails.
Let me quickly add that the Commission has enjoyed and continues to enjoy a cordial relationship with the media. Your support in the extensive coverage, publication and airing of our programmes, activities, elections, and special briefings has contributed in many ways to the successes that we have recorded in the last five years.
One major area where we need your help is in containing fake news. The emergence of the Internet brought with it tremendous opportunities for all sectors, including the media and it has broadened the scope of human abilities to share information and knowledge within seconds. The dynamism of the social media, enabled by the power of the internet, has made it possible for media organisations like yours, to upload narratives which in turn are transmitted to digital platforms such as cell phones, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on, providing an opportunity for millions of people all over the world to watch them within a short time.
Quite often, those who try to undermine the electoral system and their sympathisers take advantage of the free social media space and sometimes even the traditional media to advance their interests and spread falsehood. This can take various forms. They can, for instance, cook up wild allegations against the Commission and/or its officials to frustrate a good policy which they perceive as inimical to their selfish interest. When such allegations get to you, please thoroughly investigate. Afterall, one of the tenets of your noble profession is “fairness’ and “objectivity.” I implore you to always balance your stories.
Equally importantly, I urge you to understand the Commission’s processes and procedures and the laws governing our activities. The Commission does not believe in censorship. We are also aware that the greatest antidote to fake new is greater transparency and openness. We are committed to that. Let us work together to fight the scourge of fake news.
*The INEC boss delivered this speech at a one-day stakeholders’ meeting with Online publishers in Nigeria at the Raddison Blu, Lagos on Wednesday