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HOW VOTER CONFIDENCE CAN FURTHER BE ENHANCED BY INEC

By Ifeanyi Ottah
Given the recent inconclusive elections in Kogi and Bayelsa states, there are serious indications that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC),  under Professor Yakubu Mahmood, would not have lived up to expectation in giving Nigeria free, fair and credible elections in 2015 if former President Goodluck Jonathan had succumbed to pressure and removed Professor Attahiru Jega before the general elections.

It is also important  to emphasize that if the inconclusive  elections witnessed in Kogi and Bayelsa within two weeks are allowed go on in other subsequent elections, it is obvious  that the voter apathy largely experienced  during the dark days of  Professor Maurice Iwu- led INEC  which Professor Attahiru Jega had made Nigerians to forget, would be resurrected.

Recall that Iwu’s elections (2003 and 2007) were rated as among the worst ever conducted in this country. The major beneficiary of those elections in 2007, late President Musa Yar’Adua, didn’t mince words when he said that the election that brought him to power was fraudulent.

Jega, it would  be recalled, did not only succeed in giving the country free, fair and credible elections in 2011 and 2015 but made Nigeria’s electoral  image stand out as one of the the best elections ever conducted in this country. .

Today, some Nigerians have dubbed the new INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, “an inconclusive chairman” with the way the two recent elections have gone.

Meanwhile, the inconclusive tag associated with the Kogi and Bayelsa governorship elections had brought to the fore one of the biggest challenges facing the INEC. The commission, under Jega, had been praised for its conduct during the 2011 and 2015 general elections. But against stiff opposition from the then ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the commission insisted on the use of Smart Card Readers and the Permanent Voters Card (PVC) – two technological innovations that have been used successfully in some countries in Africa and elsewhere in the world. Indeed, the two devices were eventually hailed as the greatest innovations that made the elections to stand out, compared to the previous ones held since the return to Civil Rule in 1999.

By so doing indications from recent elections in Kogi and Bayelsa states suggest that politicians and their supporters are nevertheless trying to find new ways to undermine the system, by continuing to resort to the age-old practice of snatching ballot papers and ballot boxes, stuffing of ballots, disruption of voting and fomenting of violence to scare away potential voters in places where their opponent appears to have the upper hand.

In the case of the Kogi election, INEC had to cancel results in 91 polling units across the state as a result of cases of violence, over-voting, snatching of ballot boxes, among others.

Subsequently, a supplementary poll was ordered in the affected units. This was as a result of  the margin between the two leading contenders then, the late Abubakar Audu of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Governor Idris Wada of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was 41,000 votes; whereas the total number of registered voters in the affected polling units was 49, 953.

The impasse has been resolved, with the declaration of Yahaya Bello, Audu’s substitution, as winner. With the dust from the Kogi election still to settle, you can imagine the concern of voters when Yakubu’s men declared the Bayelsa election inconclusive again. The excuse this time is that voting in the Southern Ijaw Local Government Area was severely marred by ballot stuffing, intimidation and violence.

Incumbent governor, Seriake Dickson, was leading when INEC suspended the election. Although the electoral body said it declared the election “inconclusive” because Dickson had not secured a comfortable margin over his rival, the suspicion is that INEC, under Yakubu, is on a mission to finish off the Peoples Democratic Party. It would be interesting to see what happens if INEC announces a result that goes the other way.

With another inconclusive election after Kogi, Prof. Yakubu appears not to be helping matters. What happened in Southern Ijaw local government penultimate Saturday should not have come as a surprise. The local government has the highest concentration of ex-militants in Bayelsa, majority of them still armed, rich and very dangerous. For them, the election is not just about choosing a governor to run the affairs of the state for another four years; it is about their personal survival.

The INEC boss should have known that Bayelsa was not going to be a tea party and taken steps, hand-in-hand with security agencies, to prevent that December 5 political impasse.

The Bayelsa poll was not only characterized by violence but with poor logistics most especially in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area. INEC’s response initially was to shift voting in the area to the next day. But, armed thugs continued to cause mayhem, by disrupting the distribution of election materials. Thus, the rescheduled poll suffered several hitches and had to be cancelled like that of Kogi. INEC said a new date would be announced for the election in the local government, which has 120, 827 registered voters and is the largest among the eight councils in the state.

If INEC, under Yakubu’s watch, cannot complete any one of two elections held in two different states on two separate days, how does it hope to organize a general election with all its problems? It is not as though the declaration of elections as inconclusive might detract from the worth of the whole enterprise; it is just that it creates misconception among the voting public who would normally feel that the electoral body is up for a mischief. However, rather than announce results that would be highly-contentious, it is better to delay a little to get it right.

Nigerians do not seem to have a problem with that, but a season of inconclusions such as this, would readily give the impression that it is now a norm for the commission to go that way. If subsequent elections go the way of Kogi and Bayelsa, Nigerians would not be wrong to call to question, the competence of the electoral boss.

There is yet no evidence that the “inconclusive” outcome of the Bayelsa election was inevitable.  There are dangers in continuing the way the present INEC appears to be going.  Voter confidence is largely undermined. Disputed state elections have so far produced five governors wheeled in by the courts, rather than by voters. And we’re still counting.

Consequently, the courts have their place in any open, democratic society and if that place includes systematically making the voter’s choice irrelevant by holding sham or inconclusive elections and leaving the courts to clear the mess, it then goes a long way to show that the country’s electoral process is not in progression but in retrogression.

Some have posited that Yakubu was appointed only two months ago and by so doing, he had barely “settled down” before Kogi and Bayelsa elections. They have argued that Prof. Yakubu did not have enough time to prepare for the polls. However, if that is the case, it presupposes that the much-touted arrangement that Amina Zakari-the once upon a time acting chairperson of INEC- purportedly put in place, was perhaps, a ruse.

INEC had often expressed its preparations for the two polls which started before the appointment of Prof. Yakubu. In effect, what the INEC boss was expected to do was to simply guide the process.

In any case, lack of sufficient time for preparation should not even be an excuse. Yakubu’s immediate predecessor, Prof. Attahiru Jega was appointed in June 2010 and he had a general election to conduct before May 2011. With just about 10 months, he re-invented the wheel because he had to superintend over an INEC that had become highly-bastardized, terribly-partisan and corruption-infested.

Although, the election time-table was at a time tinkered with as a result of logistic challenges, the 2011 general elections was adjudged one of the best in Nigeria’s electoral history.

The argument has often been made that Jega succeeded that much because as a unionist, he was a member of the civil society movement and he is a political scientist.

However, as a thorough-bred academic and historian, Yakubu’s knowledge of Nigeria’s political history also comes handy as it should enable him pick the right lessons from the past while avoiding the pitfalls.

In one of his strategy-review meetings with security chiefs in Abuja, Yakubu said, “if 2015 was a litmus test of how far we have gone in our democratic journey, subsequent elections cannot fall below that bar”.

How he concludes the forthcoming supplementary poll in Bayelsa would show if Nigerians can entrust him with the conduct of the 2019 general elections.

Two inconclusive elections are enough for any INEC boss to sit up. The Edo and Ondo state governorship elections are coming up in a few months.

However, this is not the first time Nigeria would be witnessing a trend of inconclusive elections and resultant supplementary elections. There was supplementary election for Ekiti State governorship election in 2009. The Anambra Central Senatorial Constituency also had one in 2011. Others are: the Imo State governorship election in 2011; the Oguta Constituency of Imo State-2013; the Imo State governorship election in 2015; and the Anambra State governorship election in 2013.

This development has always meant different things to different political parties, depending on how it affects their chances of victory. For instance, in Anambra State in 2013, political parties like the APC and the PDP picked holes in the pronouncement of INEC while the winning All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) was quite indifferent, knowing that it was already coasting to victory with the results so far declared. But, INEC insisted that it would not cancel the entire exercise as canvassed by some of the parties, after the Chief Returning Officer had declared elections in the affected area inconclusive.

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