Few days to the 2015 elections, the then opposition party, the APC, using front organisations, took out front page advertorials alleging that the INEC had concluded plans to rig the polls in favour of the ruling PDP. This allegation which was promptly rejected by the Umpire and also ridiculed by the PDP cast huge doubt on the minds of Nigerians then on the capability of the INEC to deliver credible elections. The Umpire, to all intents and purposes, later acquitted itself by conducting what has been described by some as the best in the series of polls conducted in Nigeria since 1999.
For the 2019 elections, the die, as they say, is cast. All the 91 political parties have conducted primaries to determine those that will be flying their flags at the polls. While we await the November date for the formal lifting of the ban on campaigns, attention has again shifted to the Election Management Body, the INEC, whose responsibility it is to conduct the 2019 elections. For many, although on paper there are 91 political parties, the battle is between the two major political parties, the ruling All Progressives Congress(APC) and the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party(PDP). Predictably, the PDP has kickstarted the perennial second-guessing of the actions of the Umpire usually witnessed whenever elections approach. Just two days to its presidential primaries, the PDP staged a demonstration at the INEC Headquarters in Abuja, protesting what it called the rigging of the Ekiti and Osun elections by the EMB. Quite frankly, the performance of security agencies in the cited polls was very much below par but, the PDP was not attributing that display to the INEC. The operational efficiency and integrity of the EMB were at the heart of the PDP’s worry for the 2019 polls. This discourse will, therefore, seek to answer the question: Can INEC be trusted to deliver credible elections in 2019? To answer this question, we shall need to ask another corollary question: what constitutes a rigging of elections in Nigerian?
For this analysis, I will break elections in Nigeria into three critical stages and point out where rigging usually takes place over the years and what has been done to curb it by the EMB. These are: pre, during and post voting stages. For any elections to take place, there must be a register of eligible voters. This register is a living document which is continually updated as citizens either reach the legal age to vote or decide to participate in the electoral process. The first step towards ensuring that elections are credible starts with the integrity of the Voters Register. It was in 1998 that the INEC undertook preparation of the first Voters Register following the intention to return to civilian rule. That exercise went the way of past attempts. The integrity of the Voters Register was compromised as it was filled with all manners of persons ( eligible and ineligible) aimed at inflating the number of voters and giving an undue advantage to politicians. Cognizant of this dubious manipulation of the Voters Register, the INEC usually discards previous Voters Registers and creates a fresh one from scratch for each election year. We should keep in mind that what INEC traditionally issues to intending voters after registration is a paper card with zero features that was easy to reprint and with the cooperation of some ad-hoc staff, allowed ineligible voters to vote. Also, because there was no capture of biometric data, it was easy for persons to engage in multiple registrations at the same or different registration centres and merely turn up at the various centres to vote on Election Day without detection. Not surprisingly,politicians exploited these gaps. Once the pre-voting stage of elections is flawed, everything else would go the same way.
Next, we take a look at the Voting Stage. Elections are mostly a game of numbers. The winner in a non-collegiate election is the candidate with the highest number of votes having satisfied other conditions bothering on votes dispersal ( for the governorship and presidential elections) and the margin of error between the differences in the votes cast for the top two contenders and cancelled votes. Considering that the National Average for voters turnout for elections has never exceeded 56 %, it is almost impossible to get every single person in the Voters Register to come out to vote. Also, given that most of these persons are ‘Ghost Voters’, politicians, having already populated the Register with all manners of persons, then collude with security and ad-hoc staff to get these ‘’persons” to vote. The practice is to allocate or share to the highest bidder the remaining votes of ‘registered’ voters not accredited due to their nonexistence. Evidence of this happening was the 2003 Rivers election were about 99% of the Registered Voters came out to vote, and almost every one of them voted the same party with the lowest number of void votes ever recorded for such vast crowd. Once achieved the next is the justification aimed at covering the tracks of the riggers…usually accomplished through mass thumb-printing of ballot papers and stuffing of ballot boxes with same.
Another Election Day rigging strategy is the use of violence where collusion is impracticable. Criminal gangs of thugs are usually hired to raid polling units to snatch ballot boxes and later to return them after stuffing them with already thumb-printed ballot papers. This criminal act is done again with the cooperation of the compromised staff of INEC who would have given these marauders and their politician collaborators access to sensitive voting materials that were diverted while in transit to the polling units.
With voting over, we then come to the next and most crucial phase of the rigging plot, the post voting stage. This is where collation of results take place. The collation of results is the period when the results from the supposedly duly counted ballot papers are inputted into official INEC results’ sheets for onward transmission to the appropriate authority for announcement or Return of an elected candidate. Over the years, this point in the chain has always been problematic. Usually, everything done on the field can be circumvented or overridden in this process. All you need here is a compromised Returning Officer with compromised Collation, Supervisory and Presiding Officers to rig elections. Every one of these individuals must have been ‘taken care of’, and that also includes party agents. At this stage, any figures can be written and then passed on to the Returning Officer who declares a result irrespective of what happens on the field.
A more brazen form of this rigging method is the overriding of the local election officers and direct results announcement in Abuja. The late Justice Katsina-Alu once narrated how he was on a queue to vote in his hometown in Benue only to hear the results of the election on the radio. Another example is the announcement of the 2007 Delta Gubernatorial elections results in Abuja while results were still trickling into the state collation centre in Asaba.
I have gone through a brief narrative of the rigging methods through the various chains or levels to help the reader put into context the steps that I will next explain: these steps are measures that INEC has taken over the years and currently to ensure that rigging of elections in the ways described is impossible.
By the time Jega took over the helms of affairs in INEC and following the disaster that was the 2007 elections, he realised that the presence of a credible voters’ register is a prelude to free and fair elections and that sticking with the anachronistic non-permanent paper voters card issued at each election cycle was unwieldy. He decided to introduce the Permanent Voters Card( PVC). The PVC has embedded in it a microchip with advanced security features which makes it difficult to fake. The card not only has the full biometric data of those captured but also has information such as :
• The residential address of the registrant
• The passport photograph of the registrant
• The name of the voter, beginning with the surname followed by other names
• sex, date of birth, occupation, registration centre details, etc.
These features effectively checkmate registration at various centres and help to prevent multiple voting as each person is only allowed to register once. It is also far more advanced than what is used in the USA for instance for voting and is administered almost simultaneously with an Electronic Card Reader to authentic the features in the PVC. I was informed by someone who should know how a Senator had tried to register twice but was prevented by the system.
The process of detecting multiple registrations works thus: once field data of potential eligible voters have been gathered at the different Registration Area Centres( RACs) or other such areas as designated by INEC, the staff work overnight to upload the data to INEC Servers. At the end of the registration exercise, the geeks at the ICT Department in the Headquarters activate a sophisticated software known as the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS).
AFIS automatically expunges all cases of double registration in the system and accepts only one biometric information for one person. This makes it difficult to see anyone with two PVCs in different polling units. This technology was effective in removing over forty thousand double registrations and illegal registration of ghost names and pictures in the register in one State in the South. The AFIS has been able to weed out over one million ghost registrants since its deployment. It was the AFIS that discovered the case of the double registration of a serving governor who INEC has vowed to prosecute after the immunity conferred on him elapses. Who would have noticed these infringements in the past?
The next issue commonly raised against the INEC on the voters register deals with the case of underage voters found in the register. This fear is a valid one. In 2010 when the first phase of registration of voters was started, acting to type, politicians all over the country ensured that persons who ought not to be registered got into the register: including underage voters. During the display of the Voters Register for claims and objection shortly before the Ekiti Governorship Elections, this writer saw pictures of voters on the register that looked like underage voters. It is not only restricted to Ekiti; every State has its share of minor voters. Just recently, Kano State was in the news for allegedly allowing underage voters to participate in its Local Government Elections. Let me state that the ratio of underage voters to eligible voters in the register is insignificant but no matter the number, such most not be retained. However, for this discourse, if the persons who got into the register in 2010 were teenagers that had not attained the constitutional age of 18, by 2019, everyone of them would have attained and surpassed that age. Given that the CVR that took place for over 16 months recorded virtually no allegations of underage registrations, it is safe to say that the Voters Register is now free of that unwholesome entanglement. Again, even if there still were any underage voters that were able to fall through the cracks, political parties can utilise the claims and objections window to weed them out of the register.
Next, we come to events that take place during the elections. As earlier identified, the rigging strategy in this window involves ballot box snatching, stuffing and over voting. The introduction of the PVCs and Smart Card Readers and Professor Mahmood Yakubu’s insistence on cancelling elections where violence occurs, and ballot boxes were snatched have effectively killed the attractiveness of these strategies to politicians.
In the first instance, the introduction of simultaneous accreditation and voting ensures that the period when the number of registered voters rather than accredited voters were arbitrarily inputted in result sheets was confined to the dustbin of shameful history. Let me cast readers’ mind back to 2003 and 2007 when some States were posting 98 per cent voters turn out, a figure that is not only higher than the National Average but unprecedented in Nigeria’s electoral history.
Another rigging strategy that has been disrupted is the criminal diversion of sensitive and non-sensitive election materials by politicians. Since the Ekiti elections, the transportation of all election materials is now tracked real-time by the INEC. Nigerians can even log on to the INEC website to follow the materials as they move them to their destinations in the Local Governments Areas.
Interestingly, many people now take for granted the availability of elections results almost immediately after voting. This is the result of another innovation introduced by INEC. It is not uncommon to start seeing election results flying around the social media; this is a result of the introduction of what is known among INEC and Observers as the “People’s Result Sheet”, that big result sheet that is pasted in every polling unit once voting and counting were completed. This innovation has made it practically impossible for anyone to alter results after voting.
Another trending topic on possible election compromise is what is now known as ‘preloading or front loading’ of Card Readers. Let me unequivocally state that it is impossible to “preload” the card reader before 8 a.m. on elections day. At the end of elections the Presiding Officer shuts down the Card Reader, or it automatically shuts down itself. We should also bear in mind that every Party Agent is allowed to query the Card Readers before the commencement of voting to confirm that the Card Readers are at the ground or zero position. How then is “preloading” possible? INEC has also taken steps to ensure that Card Readers now have improved memories and can no longer be rendered inactive except manually done which allows them to identify the culprits. Also, the Card Readers’ operational systems have been upgraded to ensure that there is a clean handshake of PVC and Card Reader during the authentication process making the use of incident forms useless.
The outcome of these improvements is translating to improved operations on the field. During the Anambra Elections, Card Reader malfunctions were less than 0.001%, and the RATA(a backup tech team put together by the INEC) corrected 98 per cent of these. The Ekiti and Osun elections had even lower cases of Card Reader malfunctions.
As earlier identified, the weak link in INEC operations has always been collations. This is so due to the various points that election results need to pass through from the polling units for validation. In the past, it was possible to manipulate results as it passes through each of these collation centres. However, following the ‘liberalisation’ of results with the form EC60-A, a cog was placed on the path of riggers. To make rigging more difficult, the Card Reader was used to transmit results, but since they lacked cameras, it was not an optimal anti-rigging mechanism. The INEC has sorted that snag. For the 2019 elections, the INEC is introducing an innovation of using computer tablets to capture the form EC8A for onward transmission to the INEC National Situation Room, effectively nipping any attempt to rig elections during collation. I am aware that a public presentation and demonstration of this innovation is in the offing.
What I have done thus far is to show how the Commission is using technological innovations to confront rigging. However, the most significant anti-rigging tool that the Commission has, in my opinion, is the personal integrity of its Chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu. Yakubu comes to INEC with pedigree and a blameless record of public service. As INEC chairman, he has stubbornly stuck with his penchant of insisting that everything done by the Commission is in line with existing laws even if heavens would fall.
This attitude was exhibited during his baptism of fire in the Bayelsa Governorship Elections where his insistence that only Card Readers be used for the elections saved Seriake Dickson from a sure ‘defeat’ at the polls. The same Dickson that had lampooned Yakubu before the polls could not stop singing his praises after he won.
His equal application of the law has seen him receiving flacks from the two major parties. INEC under Yakubu is not the same.
With the support of President Buhari, INEC is today becoming an activist organisation. Unlike in the past when INEC National Chairmen treated Civil Society Organizations and activists as enemies, it is now a common sight to see Yakubu in any gathering of credible CSOs engaging with elections.Not less than ten members of Civil Society Organizations who were known critics of the Commission are now serving as National and Resident Commissioners. These persons were scouted by Yakubu and sent to the president who graciously accepted them. It is bearing fruits.
The Anambra election which was overseen by one of these activist Commissioners is still a reference point till date. In the Osun re-run election, the exploits of one of the activist National Commissioners in the field was highlighted.
Just recently, Yakubu effected some changes in the Committees of INEC. The reshuffling of Committee positions has been reported to put him at loggerheads with elements within the ruling party. Again, the decision by the INEC not to field any candidates from Zamfara State is another testament to his forthrightness and avowal to stand by the provisions of statutes guiding elections.
The 2019 elections will benefit from this single-mindedness to do what is right. Yakubu has always insisted in several fora that never again shall election results be determined in INEC offices in Abuja. We are witnesses to him living by this creed.
So, back to the question: CAN INEC BE TRUSTED FOR THE 2019 ELECTIONS? My answer is an emphatic: YES! Only forces outside INEC ‘s control are capable of derailing this progress. My next intervention in public discourse will be to identify these forces and how they can be stopped.
Dr Chima Amadi is the Executive Director of the Centre for Transparency Advocacy and can be followed on Twitter on @AMADICHIMA