Mahmood Yakubu: Nigerian Voters More Than Voters In Entire West Africa
Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), in this interview with TEMIDAYO AKINSUYI, speaks on how the Commission successfully conducted the Anambra governorship election despite the numerous challenges it encountered. He also speaks on preparations for the 2023 general elections as well as the Direct Primary controversy. Excerpts:
Sir, let me begin by congratulating you on the successful conduct of the Anambra governorship election. Many had thought the election will not hold due to insecurity challenges but you insisted that the November 6 date remains sacrosanct and the election was held. How were you able to weather the storm?
Thank you for the commendation. As you are aware, the Anambra Governorship election was held on 6th November 2021 under difficult circumstances. The Commission has declared a winner and the certificate of return has been issued. Like you rightly said, the 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 9th November 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.
The COVID-19 pandemic is another major challenge that INEC under your leadership had to contend with. How has the commission been coping and what steps are you taking since a national election is coming up in less than 600 days from now?
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 8th August 2021 and in other elections thereafter, including the Edo and Ondo Governorship election in September and October this year.
With your experience and knowledge so far at the helm of affairs of INEC, what are the challenges in conducting elections 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: registration and regulation of political parties, including the monitoring of party and campaign finance as well as their primaries, congresses, meetings and conventions; Nationwide continuous registration of voters and the maintenance of the national register of voters; Prosecution of electoral offenders; Creation of polling units; Delimitation of electoral constituencies; Voter education and publicity; Management of electoral logistics; Election security in consultation with the security agencies; Strategic engagement with stakeholders; 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 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), six Senatorial Districts, seven Federal Constituencies (House of Representatives seats) and 18 state Assembly constituencies. Yet, there are more elections to be conducted in the next eight 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 12th February 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.
What is the latest information on the issue of Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) and Launch of Online Registration Portal by INEC?
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 22nd November 2021, the CVR platform had recorded a total of 4,297,494 fresh registrants while 1,856,771 registrants have validated their application.
What is INEC’s position on the controversy trailing the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, especially the Direct primary clause?
Yes, a lot of people have been asking the Commission for its position on the Direct Primary clause which was included in the Electoral Act amendment Bill. 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.