Image managers of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), recently met in Kaduna to review the Commission’s communication policy. CHIBUZO UKAIBE writes on the outcome of the meeting ahead of 2019.
Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof Mahmood Yakubu, was very mindful of the challenge for the Commission ahead of 2019 as he addressed critical staff of the electoral body who would implement its communication policy.
The Commission had assembled its image managers in Kaduna, the Kaduna State capital, for a two-day workshop to review its communication policy. The event which was co-sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), had in attendance, senior officers and directors from departments of the Commission.
Yakubu, in trying to drive his point home, laboriously explained that for a sensitive organisation, at the heart of a nation’s democracy, and whose live blood are integrity, fairness, credibility and constitutional adherence; management of perception is very important both off and on election season.
He underscored the need for transparency and ensuring prompt and easy access to information particularly in this age of social media and explosion of unbridled citizen journalism.
The fear of the chief electoral officer is valid, analysts opine. As fluid and artificial as perception may seem, it has remained a critical feature in politics, often helping to mold realities, especially in the electoral system.
What’s more, for a country that battles with trust issues, having endured abuse from its political elite and also having to bear the manipulations by institutions over and again, perception index of the average electorate tends to the negative, arguably so.
For one, the perception index of the INEC over the years has been that riddle by stints of doubt as to its non partisanship. This owes largely to how the chairman of the commission emergences. Although, the commission is on a first line charge with regards to its funding, the impression remains that unless the political party that controls executive arm of government hands off the appointment of the chairman of the commission, its independence would remain suspect.
For proponents of this thought, this is regardless of whether or not, the nominee has to be screened by the Senate. They argue that the Uwais electoral reform took cognizance of this issue.
But other stakeholders believe that the partisanship or otherwise of an INEC chairman is not always a function of whether or not the chairman was appointed at the whims of the president, noting that integrity remains the major determinant
of any upright chief electoral officer.
However, besides the appointment of the chairman, another critical issue that has over the years affected the perception of the commission has been poor and untimely communication with regards to its operations during elections, analysts opine. The ability of the commission to communicate promptly to its publics on critical issues has remained a challenge.
More so, the need for the INEC to have a strong narrative in the face of the rising trend of hate speech as witnessed in 2015 has become an issue of concern.
Still, ahead of the 2019 general election, as in previous elections, the place of perception with regards to the activities INEC cannot be over emphasized.
In his remark, Yakubu said “Across the world, the history of the conduct and management of elections has shown that beside planning and effective implementation, the next most important activity is the management of perception of, and about, elections.
“Such perception depends on the way an Election Management Body (EMB) transparently engages with all stakeholders and makes information readily available internally and externally.
“The Commission’s 2015 Communication Policy attempted to systematize this process of information management. Functions, operations and processes
have to be effectively communicated vertically and horizontally for the benefit of the voting population and stakeholders nationally and internationally.
“While the current policy has served the Commission, it is obvious that a review is necessary as we prepare for the 2019 General Elections. Such periodic reviews of policies in the light of new developments are normal for any organization. In the case of this policy, such a review is significant in order to achieve four objectives. First, is a comprehensive review of the policy to determine what worked and what needs to be fine-tuned in the light of the experience we have gathered in implementing the current policy since inception in 2015.
“Secondly, and more specifically, is the need to examine the extent to which the policy has enabled the Commission to effectively communicate with the public. Thirdly, determine the extent to which the policy has facilitated a more robust internal communication within the Commission. Finally, appraise the effectiveness of a sustained stakeholder engagement between the Commission and all relevant stakeholders.”
He maintained that since 2015, significant changes have taken place in the political and electoral processes that should be taken into consideration in planning for the next general elections.
He noted that changes such as the ongoing review of the electoral legal framework, the ever changing structure and nature of political competition, prospective expansion in the number of political parties, growth in the use of social media and its possibilities, ongoing activities such as the nationwide, all-year round Continuous Voter Registration exercise, the development of the Strategic Plan/Strategic Plan of Action require the review of our communication policy in order to rise to the emerging challenges as we move towards the 2019 General Elections.
He added that within the commission, diligent officers are doing an enormous amount of good work across the country in the areas of innovations in our operational activities, new ICT initiatives such as result collation and transmission, security of electoral materials, stakeholder engagements as well as our internal administrative processes to ensure better delivery of electoral services to the public.
“If we cannot effectively communicate the Commission to the public, no one else can do it for us. The more effectively we do so, the more the public appreciates the work of the Commission, its constraints, challenges and giant strides.
“In more specific terms, the Commission needs to create greater avenues and channels for engaging with political parties, civil society organizations, the media, relevant government ministries, departments and agencies as well as international development partners.”
Speaking also, the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) in Kaduna State, Abdullahi Adamu Kaugama, said “As it has been observed, four years after the introduction of the Communication Policy, the challenges that it set out to address are still very much with us. With a new Strategic Plan (2017-2021) now in place, a review of the Communication Policy has become necessary, hence the convening of this workshop.
“I hope that at the end of your deliberations, the outcome will provide for a more effective Communication Policy/Strategy in concert with the Commission’s edifying vision of delivering more credible and more transparent elections.”
UNDP, underscored the need for the review of the policy, considering what the significant changes in Nigeria’s electoral environment since the last General Elections in 2015.
Team leader, Governance and Peace-building in UNDP, Dr. Kehinde A Bolaji, said “Given this context, INEC’s Communication Policy is being reviewed in line with current realities, to enable the Commission to address the changes in its operational environment.
“Today’s Retreat is a very crucial step in ensuring that the 2019 General Elections are credible, transparent and peaceful. It comes against the backdrop of the rising influence of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) which has galvanized massive citizen’s awareness and put additional pressure on electoral information managers to deliver real-time and truthful information to the public.”
Highlighting the crucial role of communication is critical to democracy, he said free and fair electoral process goes beyond exercising the right to vote by citizens “but also about dissemination of information and robust voter’s feedback on the issues, policies, political parties, and electoral procedures, capable of empowering citizens to support the process and to make informed choices.
“Moreover, since the media (including social media) performs the role of watchdogs in the electoral process, a communication policy should promote constructive engagement with the media and the wider public, enhance transparency in the operation of Electoral Management Bodies and provide critical infrastructure for real-time information dissemination to the public.
“Effective communication is also critical in building stakeholder confidence in the electoral process. It helps the electoral commission to win and sustain trust. It also promotes citizen’s mobilization for issue-based, gender-sensitive, conflict-sensitive and inclusive political processes. Conversely, poor communication, occasioned by weak planning, coordination and dissemination, is a major causal factor of election-related violence, as it breeds citizen’s lethargy, speculations, and distortion of information and facts.”
For the workshop proper, the resources person were as intellectual as they were pragmatic.
This was expected since most of them were in the original team that produced the 2013 document.
The list of facilitators were National Commissioner, Prof. Okechukwu Ibeanu; Special Adviser to the Hon. Chairman, Prof Mohammed Kuna; renowned journalist and entrepreneur, Ms. Ibiba DonPedro; Professor Raph Akinfeleye; the immediate past Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Kayode Idowu.
Professor Akinfeleye while making his presentation titled ‘Contemporary appraisal of INEC’s communication policy document: way forward and possible options’, faulted the commission’s internal and external communication policy networks as being weak.
He added that with the emergence of the social media, INEC’s internal and external communication systems should be patterned on the horizontal-vertical pattern communication system for free, fair and credible elections.
“Within the internal communication network, evidence abound that the pattern of communication is still left-footed. That is to say it is based more on vertical pattern instead of the horizontal pattern of communication”, he said.
Maintaining that an ideal INEC communication policy should address before, during and after elections Nigeria’s cultural particularities as well as cultural peculiarities, Akinfeleye said: “I have observed with dismay the lack of systematic approach in the draft INEC communication policy analysis; this is premised on the fact that no society has a holistic and integrated communication policy; instead what obtains are pieces of regulations, laws and guidelines on both the print, the electronic and now the new media.”
Akinfeleye also said the damages suffered during the 2015 elections should compel INEC to come out with appropriate sanction for political parties and/or agents engaging in hate speech at political rallies/campaigns and town hall meetings. In his presentation, a former chief press secretary to the INEC chairman, Kayode Robert Idowu, noted that the provisions of the 2013 communication policy were never applied as prescribed in the document.
At the end of the workshop the commission agreed that in the delivery of its messages, emphasis will be placed on the socio-cultural, religious and linguistic diversity, as well as the population mix and peculiarities of our political environment and electoral system.
The communiqué signed by an INEC National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Prince Solomon Soyebi, “the Commission will also partner with other regulatory agencies and professional bodies to ensure compliance with agreed code of conduct and statutes, especially with regards to incidences of incitement and hate speech.
“Taking into cognizance all extant statutes and provisions, the revised policy should develop, manage and sustain innovative and proactive communication capacity to promote internal cohesion, public trust common vision and values.
“Arising from evolving operational environment and current internal and external developments, the revised policy should be based on effective, efficient, precise, honest and prompt dissemination and flow of information on the decisions, policies, activities, constraints and challenges of the Commission.”