The Chairman, Independent National Electoral Commission, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, in this interview with GBENRO ADEOYE and TUNDE AJAJA,speaks on issues surrounding inconclusive elections and future elections among other issues
Many people expressed satisfaction with the way INEC under Prof. Attahiru Jega conducted the 2015 elections. What are you going to do differently?
When we were inaugurated in 2015, we made a commitment to consolidate the gains of 2015. Something happened to our election and democracy in 2015 that we were all proud of. So, our responsibility is to consolidate to make progress, learn from what happened, make the smart card reader better, deepen the use of technology and see what other values we are going to add. Secondly, we are committed to ensuring that every ballot in Nigeria counts and every polling unit accounted for, in line with the constitution of this country, the electoral act and our guidelines.
We see elections in other parts of the world, during which people go about their normal activities. Why is it that in our case, the whole country must be on a lockdown anytime there is an election?
Honestly, there should be no reason for a lockdown, but for our attitude, as a people and as a nation. If the attitude changes and elections are no longer do-or-die, there will be no reason for a lockdown. In February, Niger Republic conducted its presidential election. I was in Niamey. When I visited one of the polling units, beside a market, I was shocked to see that the market was opened, even though there was an announcement for a lockdown, similar to what happens in Nigeria, but nobody bothered. I also saw an attitude there; before voting started in a particular polling unit, the poll officials, voters and party agents came together and invited the observers to pray for a successful voting. They prayed, shook hands and started voting. Here, polling units are targets, and if you allow free movement, people will come from different places to either vote or cause mayhem. Benin Republic conducted its election in March. It’s amazing when I saw the report because I didn’t go. The equivalence of our sensitive materials; ballot papers, result sheets, etc, are what the presiding officers at the polling units would collect from the electoral commission, put in a ballot box, stop a motorcycle, unaccompanied by any security agent, and ride to the polling unit. After voting, they would put all the ballot papers on the table, call all the party agents to help in sorting them out, count, sign the result sheet, put everything back into the ballot box and stop a motorcycle to carry it to the collation centre. Can we do that in Nigeria? When I was in Niger Republic in February, I kept calling Nigeria in the presence of the head of the electoral commission there, and he asked why I kept calling, I said we had a rerun ongoing. That concept, rerun, was strange to them. So I said, let’s assume a member of your parliament dies, what do you do to fill the vacancy? He said they don’t conduct by-elections. On the ballot, when they do general elections, each political party fielding a candidate would also nominate a supplementary candidate. In the event of death, resignation or removal, the supplementary candidate steps in to complete the tenure of that person. It saves them the cost of doing rerun. And if you think Niger is doing it because it is a very poor country, that is what they do in all but four states in the United States, at the level of Senate. If a senator dies or resigns or is removed from office, they ask the governor of the state to nominate a replacement, often from the party of the deceased. So, when I returned home from Niger Republic, I discussed with someone, who said I shouldn’t bother introducing it here because the supplementary candidate might kill the person occupying the office. It’s our attitude. So, simply put, nothing stops us from doing elections in a very ordinary manner than our attitude, our integrity. In Switzerland, when they finish elections and they count at the polling units, they stop a taxi, put the ballot box in it and tell the taxi driver to take it to the collation centre, unaccompanied. Can we do that in Nigeria? If we change our attitude, nothing is impossible.
Why does INEC wait until months to elections before rolling out the Continuous Voter Registration exercise?
Under normal circumstances, citizens are supposed to go and register once they have come of age and it should be a seamless process, but there is cost to it and we all know the current economic situation. However, we will soon roll out the Continuous Voter Registration exercise nationwide. The challenge for us is the level at which we are going to do it and the duration, but we have been doing CVR in some states where we have state-wide elections, like Bayelsa, Kogi, Edo and Ondo. We also did it in the FCT before the area council election. If you are going to do it, it is going to cost us a lot. The duration is also an issue because in the FCT, there was a clamour that we should extend the duration. We extended it by one day and that cost us over N8m simply because everything we do in Nigeria is costly.
During the second republic, there was an attempt to introduce electronic voting, which would have eliminated some of the problems we have always encountered, but some people argued that some sections were not ready. When will we be ready for it?
Electronic voting will come eventually, but it has to come over time. Apart from knowledge issue, we need infrastructure and it’s easier. But at the end of the day, machines don’t conduct elections, human beings do. So, our integrity is central to the conduct of elections. I read a report in one of the papers one day that in one of the states, some hoodlums or thieves went to a bank, used dynamite to blow away the block work and stole an ATM machine. If somebody can steal such a machine, nothing stops the person from stealing a small electronic voting machine that can be carried in a bag. So, at the end of the day, it is our attitude.
Why can’t INEC put a system in place whereby people who clock 18 could walk to the Local Government office to register?
If we say that people can walk into our local government offices as soon as they turn 18, yes people can walk to the urban areas to register, but even so how many people will do so before general election? If you say you will do CVR in two weeks, probably only 10 persons will turn up in the first one week. In the last three days, 80 per cent will turn up and begin to make noise that we should extend. Then, think about people living in remote villages. They can’t come to the local government headquarters just to register to vote. In the last CVR we did in Edo, it was very interesting. When we allowed for transfer and relocation, 135,877 records were captured; those were the people who came for transfer from another state to Edo. But, when we did the data consolidation, 2,036 people actually registered twice, or did not complete their registration. No fingerprints or photographs, which suggests complicity with the ad-hoc staff who registered them. So, you have the old habit that dies hard. In the FCT, politicians mobilised buses to get those living in IDP camps to go and register. And these are people who could have registered elsewhere. So, we need to do something about our attitude.
When Nigeria had good financial standing, funding was a challenge. Now that the country is in this bad state, what is the hope for INEC?
Funding is never sufficient anywhere, but I’m not sure that the commission was constrained by lack of funding before, and I’m confident that the commission will never be constrained by lack of funding. Since I resumed, there is nothing we have asked for that we have not been granted. But what it does is that it imposes a lot of responsibilities on us to look at the current situation and begin to cut cost. The bulk of the money goes into paying ad-hoc staff and you can’t cut that. And then the issue of attitude. In Bayelsa, we hired buses to go to Southern Ijaw during their election. On Friday preceding the election, all the buses disappeared. For that reason, the polling units could not open by 8am in some of the units. So, there are some people who see election period as a season to make money, and they would seize the opportunity. They know that you would likely hire their vehicles and boats. Instead of N10, for example, they could charge us N100. And if we don’t arrive the polling unit on time, they would be the first people to castigate us. If we approach these things as patriots, there are areas we can save costs.
There are insinuations that your activities are being teleguided by the executive. What is your reaction to this?
The truth is that some of the major political parties make the same accusation. If the ruling party wins an election, they say we are being teleguided by the executive. If the opposition wins, the ruling party says we are sympathetic to the opposition because most of the commissioners and staff were appointed by the previous administration. My simple response is that it is not true that we are being teleguided. It can never be true. I have made a commitment to this country that the day I think I cannot perform this job in good conscience, I leave, afterall I have a job to go back to, which is the only job I applied for in my life, and I prayed to God that I wanted to be a teacher. I’m very happy to play that role. So, it’s not true that we are being teleguided. One of the ambassadors to Nigeria came on a farewell visit towards the end of his tenure and on his own, he raised this issue, saying they had been following the accusations against the commission. He said if the two major parties are criticising you in equal measure, it means that you are doing the right thing, but if the criticism is coming from one side, then, probably there is some iota of truth. People tend to say these things particularly when they expected something to go their way and it didn’t.
There was an accusation sometime ago that the leadership of INEC met secretly with a political party. Could you tell us what really happened?
In Nigeria, the electoral commission is the registrar and regulator of political parties. Elsewhere, there is a separate commission that registers and deals with political parties. In Nigeria, INEC performs the two functions; we register associations into political parties and we regulate their activities. So, it’s only natural that political parties want to meet with the commission as an individual party. There is a procedure they follow to meet with the commission. As a matter of routine, on quarterly basis we meet with all political parties, but if there is something important that a political party wishes to discuss with the commission, our doors are open. They are to write or contact us, we will give them an appointment and there are ground rules for meeting with political parties. The first political party to visit us was the PDP, shortly after Ali Modu Sheriff was appointed chairman. They asked for an appointment and we met with them in the commission’s office. As a rule, the chairman of INEC does not meet with representatives of political parties alone. Never. The meeting takes place on request from the national headquarters of the party, not state or local government branch. But we have no control over who comes with the team from the national headquarters. Thirdly, the meeting doesn’t take place outside the commission’s office. That was precisely what happened that day. For three weeks, they had been asking for an appointment. Finally, we granted them the appointment, the meeting took place in INEC, I was joined by three national commissioners, three directors and all of my technical staff. So, there were eight of us from the commission, and four of them from the party. How can 13 people meet secretly in INEC office? It can never be. Some other parties have also visited us, including the smaller parties and nobody said anything. But, in the context of probably an election coming up, and this adversarial relationship between major political parties, something is over-bloated. But unfortunately, the commission cannot be joining issues with political actors all the time. There was also such accusation after the Attorney General and Minister of Justice spoke to journalists after the Kogi election. They said he influenced the decision of the commission. He is somebody I had never met. It was unfortunate. After the incident, we reconvened on a Tuesday and we were going to issue a statement later in the day. However, the AGF had a programme somewhere in town and at the end of the programme, journalists accosted him and he spoke ex tempore, but because he spoke to journalists, the report was carried before our own statement in the evening. Then, people said we were being teleguided. In my first 11 days in office, after the Kogi election, somebody asked for my removal. INEC will never compromise. If you are doing this job, your efforts are thankless, you need to have an elephant skin. Once you are convinced that is the right thing to do, you should continue, somebody will acknowledge it someday.
Have there been peculiar challenges you have faced since you resumed office?
More than any commission in the history of this country, we have conducted more elections outside the context of the general elections. So far, we have conducted 139 elections in about eight months. Less than two weeks after I resumed office, we conducted the Kogi election, which came with a peculiar challenge that was not envisaged under the constitution, the electoral act and our guidelines. That was really a peculiar election. And since then, we have been conducting elections from time to time. After the end of tenure election in Edo State, we will face Rivers for the outstanding 22 constituencies. We have Ondo State election coming up and in-between we have Lagos because one of the federal constituencies lost a member, who died not too long ago. So, there have been series of elections, and they are in several categories. Arising from the 2015 general elections, 80 elections were nullified by the election petition tribunals on appeal. At the end of the last general election, we had 680 court cases in which INEC was dragged. So, we are almost always in court.
It has been observed that a number of these elections were inconclusive at first ballot. Why is this?
Many of these elections, I mean majority, were conclusive, but some of the elections were inconclusive. And that is why an interaction like this is important. I have heard so many people say this commission is only conducting inconclusive elections. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, we conduct our debates in terms of extremes. One is either extremely good or extremely bad; there is no middle ground in our discourse. An inconclusive election is an election in which a winner has not emerged on first ballot. Is it strange? No. What are my reasons? Our laws and our history. The constitution of this country provides conditions for making return in an election. If the threshold is not met, can INEC make a declaration? We can’t, under the law, and if you do so, the court will nullify the election and then we incur costs to do the election again. Secondly, the electoral act in Section 26 makes provision for what INEC should do in the event of threat of violence, actual outbreak of violence or natural disaster. In such cases, we are to suspend the election and fix another time to conduct the election. Not only that, the same electoral act in Section 53 says in case of over-voting in a particular polling unit which is likely to affect the outcome of the election, INEC should suspend it and declare the election null and void and fix another time to conclude the election in that particular polling unit or units. It’s in the law. And in the debate about inconclusive elections, I haven’t heard anybody, so far, say INEC declared an election inconclusive outside the law. We often forget that we had inconclusive elections in the past. The first inconclusive election in Nigeria was in 1979; the election that brought Alhaji Shehu Shagari to power. We have forgotten about the mathematics of what two-thirds of 19 was, whether it was 12 or not. Eventually, the matter wasn’t resolved by the commission. It was resolved by the judiciary. People like Richard Akinjide went to court, and eventually the court decided the winner in 1979. In recent times, we have had series of inconclusive elections. In Bauchi State, the governorship election in 2011 was inconclusive, same thing happened in Imo in 2011, same thing in Taraba in 2015, again in Imo in 2015, in Abia in 2015, among others. These inconclusive elections happened in the context of general elections, but people tend to forget.
But one would imagine that it should be easier to conduct the elections that come up outside the general elections, since it is just one at a time. Why has it proven difficult?
The most difficult election for the commission to conduct are off-season elections, because the attention of everybody focuses on a particular constituency and the political actors and gladiators and their antics have time to mobilise nationwide to descend on a particular constituency, which makes the conclusion of such elections very difficult. But we have given our commitment, this INEC will never declare any election conclusive where the threshold is not met. This is the challenge that we face, and we must just brace up to that challenge. It’s a painful process but we will continue to do it. We can only declare elections conclusive when we are satisfied that it is consistent with the law and the electoral act. Even though we have inconclusive elections now, one day, people would see that we are doing the right thing.
Beyond these, are there other reasons why elections have been inconclusive?
Yes, there are. Nigerians have always prayed that votes should count and they now count, but we have also prayed for strong political parties to emerge, so that we don’t have one dominant party and smaller parties. In the past when we had one dominant political party and other smaller parties, elections were always conclusive, but now, by evolution, not by imposition, we have two strong political parties, fielding strong candidates, making the elections extremely competitive. In the FCT Area Councils election, I heard people say that INEC election was inconclusive even in the FCT where we conducted elections in the six area councils. People assume that we only conduct six elections in the FCT, no, we conducted 68 elections, because we conducted six elections to the offices of chairmen and then 62 elections in councillorship constituencies. In the 62 elections conducted in the FCT, the result was conclusive in two chairmanship and 57 councillorships. We had inconclusive in four chairmanship and five councillorships. So, 86.8 per cent of the election was conclusive on first ballot. Apart from these, logistics has been a challenge for the commission. We must never, as a commission, press the panic button, maybe because we are criticised for inconclusive elections, so we conclude election by all means. No. We will soldier on, and we want Nigerians to understand that worldwide elections are becoming competitive. Nigerians are always quick to use the example of Ghana. But in Ghana, if the presidential election is inconclusive on first ballot, they will conduct a supplementary election after one month, same time frame in Niger Republic and Benin Republic. They gave themselves one month, but in our case, INEC is to conduct a supplementary election between the leading candidate and the runner-up in one week. As we speak, we have 120,000 polling units. How do you mobilise in one week to conduct a supplementary election in one week in that number of polling units in a presidential election? And we almost got there in 2015. The margin between the winner and the runner-up in the 2015 election was 2.5 million votes which is the closest margin since 1999. We are working with the National Assembly to see if that part of the constitution can be amended so that we have a more realistic time frame. A practical example of what is contributing to inconclusive elections is one in Akum in Nassarawa State, which we declared inconclusive. Total number of registered voters in a polling unit there was 1,181, total number of voters accredited was 200 and the total number of valid votes was 779. Where did they get 579 votes from? Most amazing is Agam, a polling unit. Total number of registered voters was 1,113. Total number of accredited voters was nil, while total number of votes cast was 1,030. You see some amazing results. I don’t think there is any election management body with credibility that can uphold such results. We had to cancel those results and conduct a rerun election in those units, so that votes will count. Now, under our guideline, once the margin of lead is lower than the margin of cancellation, INEC will have to go back and conduct rerun in places where election wasn’t held. We found out that politicians disrupt election where they are not strong, thinking they would win based on the result from where they are strong alone. But now, we give such areas where elections were disrupted another opportunity to vote, because their votes must count.
There are situations whereby smart card readers still pose a challenge?
It’s another source of debate. From my little experience so far, we have complaints from basically two sources; some political actors and ICT vendors. Nobody has been disenfranchised because of that; we have an incidence form. You see politicians condemn the card reader during election, but once they win, they describe is as the best thing that has happened to our election process. We admit that there may be issues with the card reader, but whatever it is, we will try as much as possible to improve on its functionality. In logistics, we have made some tremendous improvement. We will continue to improve. But beyond the card reader, we still have a problem with the attitude of the political class. People are encouraged to do so much with impunity and get away with them. Any nation that does not punish violators of its own laws is doomed and that is what we are seeing in Nigeria.
Given all these challenges highlighted, how are we sure the 2019 election will not be inconclusive?
We can’t second-guess to say this is the outcome of an election before it happens, unless we are not conducting elections. We can never second-guess, but all elections are governed by constitutional provisions, provisions of the electoral act and our guidelines. We hope not, but if it happens, the constitution has a way out of it. What I want Nigerians to understand is that our democracy is maturing. If it matures, it cannot be the way we used to do things before and the mindset would have to change. So, as to what will happen in 2015, only God knows, but we will abide by the provisions of the constitution, the electoral law and our guidelines in making declarations. The whole idea is that we are so used to conclusive elections on first ballot; the political terrain has completely changed. So, we can only hope for the best. But if there are issues that have been militating against conclusive elections, that is where citizens come in, including the media. Let us be raising these issues. If all of us, including staff of the commission, play by the rules, there will be no inconclusive election. Sometimes, all we need is a little bit of patience to do it. But there are beneficiaries of the electoral process and they are always giving us a big headache. If we play by the rules and we are patient, I’m sure we will minimise all these issues leading to inconclusive elections.
INEC is saddled with the responsibility of penalising electoral offenders. Why has it been difficult to carry out this function?
Now, it is not possible simply because INEC is saddled with that responsibility. Under the Electoral Act, INEC is supposed to penalise electoral offenders and what are the steps towards the successful prosecution of these electoral offenders: first, we have to make arrest, but INEC has no police, so we can’t arrest. Secondly, we have to investigate to be able to have evidence that can be tendered in court for successful prosecution, but we have no power to investigate, and for me, that means INEC is supposed to prosecute electoral offenders, including its own staff. How can INEC prosecute itself?