Festus Okoye is the Executive Director, Human Rights Monitor, a Barrister and Solicitor at the Supreme Court. In this interview with newsmen, he bares his mind on the lessons to be learnt preparatory to the 2019 general elections. ISAIAH BENJAMIN was there for LEADERSHIP EXCERPTS:
How would you rate the just concluded Anambra governorship election, as one of the observers?
I led the Nigeria Bar Association election working group to the Anambra governorship election as the chairman. The NBA group was joined by the chairmen of the eight branches of the NBA in Anambra state. There are a few things that happened with the election.
One is that the election held under the atmosphere of fear, anxiety and uncertainty occasioned by activities of separatist agitators who said they want a separate state of Biafra for the south east.
Also, the election held against the background of past failures and the people’s votes not being made to count. So the expectation was that since the vote of the people have never counted that it was going to be the same process. The election also held against the peculiar nature of Anambra politics as a politics of godfathers. These were the three variables that manifested themselves in the Anambra election.
There was also the background that the incumbent governor belongs to the All Progressives Grand Alliance, (APGA) that controls only one state of Anambra state in the whole of the federation.
The two dominant parties, one is controlling the federal might and the other one controlling some states in the country. The expectations was that there was going to be violence and the process was going to be a process of war and it was not going to be free, fair and transparent. This was the background, but we went to Anambra and there was positive and negative from the election.
What were the positive developments?
One of the positives is that the people of Anambra defied intimidation, fear, threat of violence and when out in large numbers to go and cast their votes. If you look closely at the votes that came in from Anambra state, you will see that during the last 2013 election, the total number of votes cast stood at 442,242 while the total number of valid votes for that election 425, 254.
For the just concluded 2017 governorship election the total votes cast in the election stood at 448,771 out of which 422, 314 are valid votes, so the implication is that Anambra state has a history of low turnout and voter apathy. But for this particular election there were more people voting than in 2013 even when some of these variables that I just enumerated were not on ground. The people of Anambra state turned out in large numbers to cast their votes against the background of the vote and die agitation by the separatist agitators in the south east that is one. The second one is that for me this is the first election where the security agencies conducted themselves in a manner befitting of professional security agencies.
They displayed a high level of civility, high level of professionalism both those manning the major entrance and exit out of Anambra state and those in the polling units. In fact, some of them went to the polling units even before the polls opened and remained there throughout and for me that is also a big positive. Another one is that the election did not record any single death that a single person being killed in relation to the election, of course there were isolated cases of ballot box snatching and skirmishes here and there but it was not on the scale that people were worried about.
There was also the fact that some people in Anambra believed that they can buy the election and some people will sell the election to them. This time around they did not see the election to buy and they were forced to go out and go and campaign, that is why all the big political parties were going from one local government to the other looking for votes because they were not sure they could buy the votes and also not sure the electoral management body was ready to sell the election to them. That was another positive.
The performance of the members of the National Youths Service Corps was also another positive, very few parents wil agree that their sons and daughters will go and preside over an election under the general atmosphere of fear and violence. But these young men and women defiled all odds and went to remote areas, riverine areas and when to other places with difficult terrain to conduct the election.
The for me is also a huge positive. The last one is the deluge of local and international observers that went to Anambra because they believe that Anambra was a test run for the 2019 elections and they went and saw and did not see the scale of violence that everybody anticipated, so that was a very huge positive for me coming from the election.
What about the negative side?
There are few issues around the election that we must deal with, the first is that the Independent National Electoral commission is still struggling with the issue of logistics around deployment, we have some of the polling units opening very late, majority opened between eight o clock and nine. But we also had polling units that opened around 12 noon and I think this is not good for our democracy. Taking into consideration the fact that INEC opened what it called super ranks around the registration areas where youth corps members and those to conduct the elections were kept to move easily and quickly to the polling units, but this apparently failed in some of the local government areas. So I believe logistics challenges are still there.
The other issue related to the card reader, we have places it malfunction, we have places it failed completely, we had places where the presiding officers complained that the card reader was too slow and they had to resort to incident forms in the election and the use of incident forms compromise the integrity of the election, compromises the quality control which the card reader is suppose to protect.
So, as we move towards 2019, INEC must find the way of improving on the card reader technology so that we don’t defeat the whole essence of the use of the card reader technology. There was also the obscene use of money in the election, what most of the political parties or the big parties did was that they carried their money to the polling units.
There were buying and selling votes in the polling units. Some political parties were offering voters 500, some 2,000, some 5,000 and so on, thereby trying to compromise the integrity of the electoral process. I believe this is a negative flore in the election and it is part of the things we must address as we move towards the 2019 elections.
To what extend did the stay away call by IPOB affect the election?
I believe that if you look at the number of votes cast in 2013 and the number cast in 2017, you will see that the IPOB call came to nothing because more people voted this time than in 2013 that is why am saying Anambra has a history of low voter turnout and voter apathy. But let me state clearly that there is a slow start to the election. In some of the polling units people adopted a wait and see altitude because of the campaign of vote and die. But when people saw that others were coming out to vote there was now a rush.
People were apprehensive, not knowing what was going to happen, people thought IPOB will carry out their threat, but it was clear that their threat came to nothing the security agencies also made sure that they could not actualize their threat because the major entrance to Anambra and exit were manned by soldiers and Mobile police. The polling units had the compliment of police officers, DSS and other security agencies to make sure nobody causes any problems. So they were muscles out and could not operate.
There is a possibility that sone people stayed away from the polling units on account of the unknown.. But if you put the result side by side with the last election there , you will find out that there are within the same parameter in consonance with the voting Pattern and voting behavior of the people of Anambra state. Even if some people stayed away it was not significant in relation to the expectations of the people.
What is your take on the militarization of the election?
My believe is that election is an ordinary civic responsibility and people should be allowed to go to the polling units to go and vote under a calm atmosphere devoid of over militarization and violence. But the Anambra election was conducted under a strange atmosphere and very difficult circumstances so that strange and difficult circumstances necessitated the moving in of security forces to make sure that negative forces did not exploit any vacuum to cause trouble, so Anambra is peculiar, exceptional, but for me from what I saw out there on the road, the presence of the security agencies encourage people to come out and vote. I did not see in Anambra anybody who said the presence or security agencies prevented him from voting. The operatives were very civil and never interfered with the electoral process in any manner.
From what you saw on ground, can INEC replicate this in 2019 which will be on a larger scale?
Some of the problems identified in Anambra state are not completely under the control of INEC, part of the issues we need to deal with is to impute the card reader technology into the electoral framework, the National Assembly should move quickly to complete the amendment to the electoral act at least by the first quarter of 2018 so that INEC can know fully well whether it is using the card reader technology as a technology backed by law for the conduct of the 2019 elections and also whether the electronic transmission of the results will also be backed by law. Let the National Assembly move quickly and deal with this issue.
The other issue is that the National Assembly must complete the alteration to the constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria before 2019 and one of the issues there that that borders me relates to the conduct of a new election in case the first election becomes inconclusive. The law said that a presidential candidate must score majority of lawful votes cast and a quarter of the votes cast in two-third of the states of the federation in order to be declared winner. In default of anybody getting this INEC is obligated to conduct a new election within 7 days.
So given the size of Nigeria, given the massive logistics challenges involved in the conduct of the elections I believe that it is next to impossibility for INEC to move within a period of seven days and organize a fresh presidential election. So in order for Nigeria not to enter into a constitutional cliffhanger, it is important for the National Assembly to conclude the alteration to the constitution for the seven days in the constitution to read at least 21 days.
INEC can remobilize within 21 days but they cannot in 7 days. That is a huge issue to be looked into. Also one of the things that INEC must do is to also train independent monitors with experience who will be posted to the 774 local government areas in the country to assist the electoral officers especially those who do not have the requisite experience, courage and expertise in terms of moving election materials to the polling units because the moment they is a delay in the commencement of the polls, it poses security challenges and people start to think conspiracy theories why a poll is not opening on time in some areas
To what extent do you think buying and selling of votes affected the outcome of the election?
Buying and selling of votes affected the results no doubt, because political parties, politicians and godfathers carried their monies to the polling units and in some of the polling units we went to, you will see people running towards one particular direction, saying the person has come and then you will see somebody carrying bag a moving towards that direction. The problem is that the three main political parties were involved in the business so non of them have the moral high ground to complain. But I think that it is part of the issue we must deal with.
The security agencies have the responsibility to deal with anybody who commits an offense at the immediate precinct of the polling units. They don’t need to wait for the presiding officer to give an order to arrest such a person. The moment somebody commits an offense they have a responsibility to make sure that the person is arrested and prosecuted. We need to deal with the issue of money in the election, so that we will stop confusing the electorates who want to exercise their voting right.
We need to deal with the issue of money in the election, so that we will stop confusing the electorates who want to exercise their voting right
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