INEC Preparations: Rough And Patchy Road To February 14
AS irreplaceable components of any democratic dispensation, elections are the periodic accountability instruments used by the people to conduct a referendum on the leadership of their country. In the case of Nigeria, the general elections, which get underway with the February 14, 2015 Presidential poll have been enveloped by an atmosphere of uncertainty. One of the most disconcerting reality is that stakeholders are not particularly sure if the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is prepared for the elections or not. There have long been suspicions that the electoral architecture being put in place by INEC may not be firm enough to withstand the challenge of Nigeria’s peculiar realities.
It is very usual for analysts to talk about preparing for the next elections immediately after the conclusion of the one at hand. So the refrain after the 2011 general election was that Professor Attahiru Jega and his team should begin the preparations for the 2015 general elections in earnest. However, what is never usually factored in is that INEC does not generate any funds of its own. So the Commission then has to wait for the funds to arrive before it can begin whatever preparations. And by the time the slowly grinding mill of the bureaucracy responds to these financial needs, the next elections are already at hand, and everyone begins to scramble in order to meet deadlines and deliver “credible elections.”
Exactly 20 days to the first vote on February 14, INEC doesn’t seem to exude enough confidence that it can pull off an election devoid of the kind of setbacks that could imperil the credibility of the elections. On a number of fronts, the commission is now so hard pressed for time and there is growing concern being voiced from several unusual quarters. One of those voices of dissent against INEC’s approach recently came from the National Security Adviser (NSA) Colonel Sambo Dasuki (rtd). Speaking at a forum in London last week, the NSA lent his weighty voice to second guessing the readiness of the electoral umpire. Specifically, Dasuki dwelt on what seems a sore point relating to the 30 million pieces of Permanent Voter Cards (PVC) that are yet to be collected by Nigerians.
From the point of view of INEC, while budgetary issues hampered what would have amounted to quicker moves to deliver the PVCs, the ones that had been printed since last year were not collected by Nigerians. This in a way speaks to the age long absence of an engaged and committed set of citizens willing to brave the odds to be a part of the political process. In the end, the reality is that while INEC experienced down time in the distribution of the cards, there are millions of Nigerians out there who have refused to do their part by going to their Local Governments or registration centres to pick up their cards on the designated distribution days.
Nonetheless, the blame is now being squarely placed on INEC, which has been made to look weak and on the back foot on account of the many pontifications it is now getting from all quarters relating to how it should carry on with ensuring a smooth organization of the 2015 electoral process. This is the light in which one may view the somewhat odd “directive,” a few weeks ago from President Goodluck Jonathan, which more or less handed INEC a stern warning over the same issue of PVC distribution. As such, the misnomer of having a partisan participant in the electoral process, talking down at the electoral umpire in a lord of the manor style, highlights several contradictions. It is a story of how INEC’s shaky preparations and the institutional weaknesses in the nation’s electoral architecture are conspiring to breed situations that are out rightly untenable if the electoral umpire were truly independent in word and indeed.
Apart from the last minute rush to distribute the PVCs, the commission equally has several other deadlines to meet. While the card readers, which have been presented as a foolproof mechanism to thwart the sinister intentions of election riggers have been delivered, they have not been tested. So as things stand, Election Day would apparently be the first time the card readers would be put to use. Knowing the nature of Nigeria as a place where the most advanced technologies can suddenly begin to “take the heat” and malfunction, there are a multitude of fears.
So one major question hanging on the lips of many Nigerians is: would the card readers work? These fears are further accentuated by other realities, as would be found in the guidelines released for the elections by INEC. In the guidelines on accreditation for instance, a voter whose PVC cannot be read by the card reader on Election Day would be told of the inability to accredit him, and would be told politely to leave the voting zone. This particular guideline is anchored on the fact that the card reader would function well for all registered voters with their PVCs.
On the other hand, the guidelines state that if the card reader malfunctions, and a replacement cannot be found by 1pm on voting day, the Presiding Officer at the polling unit should inform the voters and the activities should be postponed to the following day. This is a recipe in the estimation of many concerned stakeholders for chaos and even violence. The argument is that the 2011 elections were not conducted with card readers, but they were largely reflective of the wishes of the Nigerian people. The narrative by INEC with regards to the card readers dwell on the need for the operations of the commission to go digital in order to counter the plans for rigging by desperate politicians. The prayer however is that the card readers should work well, else the elections would amount to huge and horrible mess in which several millions of voters could be disenfranchised.
With respect to the ballot boxes too, the digital narrative is holding sway. INEC has said it would be using digitalised ballot boxes in order to make ballot box snatching impossible in polling stations and reduce election fraud by politicians. The calculation is that those planning to engage in the nefarious venture of ballot box snatching on Election Day would have no incentive to do so because it would amount to a futile effort since that votes from areas where ballot boxes are snatched would be declared invalid.
But while the issue of ballot boxes does not seem to be posing any headaches to INEC for now, the printing of ballot papers is appearing to be a snag. The experience from 2011, wherein ballot pares had to be flown in from South Africa was not a palatable one. Towards, the 2015 elections, part of the debate has revolved around the need to avoid the capital flight associated with having to do the printing of ballot papers offshore. But doing the printing within has its own downsides in terms of capacity and ensuring the integrity of the materials. This is one challenge that INEC must navigate, especially in this political season when the trust deficit is really so high.
In the end, if the commission is able to surmount the odds relating to getting the materials needed for the elections on the ground, the next big challenge will be the question of distribution. In the recent states elections conducted in Ekiti and Osun, INEC was able to get its logistics right. Sensitive and non-sensitive materials arrived in good time, and the Commission got a lot of pats in the back. But in the case of the general elections beginning on February 14, the Commission would have no luxury of working in one small terrain. The whole country is the turf and that includes part the volatile stakes in the North East. Due to the insurgency, the fate of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in relation to their right to exercise their franchise hangs delicately in the balance. The Common sense approach is to forget about holding elections in areas where the security of voters and the election officials cannot be guaranteed. There was the thinking that it would be possible to find a way to prevent the impending loss of voting rights by IDPs.
The idea of distributing PVCs to them in their camps was mooted, but if those who are not in refugee camps have not been able to get their PVCs, what is the guarantee that IDPs scattered all over the three states would be able to get theirs’? Moreover, as the challenges mount on many fronts for the Commission, time is not pausing in order to allow these realities to be addressed.
It is therefore the lot of the Commission to sit down and realistically reach the conclusion on what is possible and what is not. Apparently, the unsure footedness of INEC with respect to its readiness for February 14 and thereafter is giving ammunition to some partisan elements, especially within the administration to make calls on its behalf. The ball is therefore in the Commission’s court to retake the initiative and ensure the 2015 electoral process reflects the wishes and aspirations of millions of Nigerians.