By Kingsley Ogwuike
 
Sometime around mid February 2018, just after local government elections in Kano State, footage of underage voters in an election went virile generating uproar. The former ruling party, now in opposition- the people’s Democratic Party (PDP) alleged that the videos emanated from the Kano elections and accused the INEC of complicity in the alleged electoral malpractices. The party, after so much pontificating on ‘electoral integrity’, declared with finality that ‘Nigerians have lost confidence in the INEC Chairman’, Prof Mahmood Yakubu. It challenged the INEC Chairman to ‘sanitise’ the voters register in Kano and Katsina if he wants to be trusted. 
 
Let us  assert right away that underage voting is a condemnable electoral atrocity. And we are happy that the INEC Chairman rose promptly  to the occasion to condemn the incident and to empanel an investigation to unravel the truth about this unfortunate development. It would be interesting to see the outcome of the investigation ordered by the INEC Chairman. The investigation should  unravel the source of the videos and those behind the malpractices displayed in them. Every Nigerian who is genuinely interested in credible elections and good governance in Nigeria will be concerned by any act that subverts the sanctity of the electoral process. 
 
But we do  not think that PDP is fair, without any credible evidence, to accuse the INEC of complicity in encouraging underage voting or manipulating the voters register. Nor does the party stand on any higher moral ground to pass a vote of no confidence on the INEC Chair. It was too hasty to call for the resignation of the INEC Chairman when the outcome of the investigation was yet to indict him. In any case, if anybody should be passing a no confidence vote on any public official or public institution, it cannot be PDP. Here is an amorphous conglomeration of opportunists of various categories, which masqueraded for 16 years as a political party, mismanaged the affairs of this country and squandered both goodwill and enormous resources. Recently, one of PDP’s staunch members,  former Deputy Senate President, Ibrahim Mantu confessed how he helped his party, the PDP to bribe INEC, security officials and officials of other political parties to rig elections for the party all through the years the party was in power. This was just few days after the PDP leadership in a bid to seduce Nigerians to once again embrace it to return to power, confessed its egregious transgressions against Nigerians and apologised for wasting all of 16 years leading the country to near extinction. So, when we read and heard the PDP’s declaration that ‘Nigerians have lost confidence in the INEC Chairman’, we wondered which PDP was talking and which Nigerians it was referring to or speaking for. Can the PDP (or even the APC) speak for Nigerians?’ Balderdash!
 
By the way, may we remind the PDP that this register it is making so much fuse about was the same one that the same PDP used to win elections in 2011 and nothing was wrong with it then. The same register that was used in 2015 which they defended vigorously when the then opposition party challenged its credibility. This INEC has not added a single registrant to the Register except in Anambra and Ondo where elections took place . What has changed?
 
Many of us have come across and listened to the INEC Chairman on many occasions including during his periodic interactive sessions with civil society at the behest of the Civil Society Election Situation Room. Very recently we also listened to him at an interactive session with the media and civil society organised by the Independent Service Delivery Monitoring Group (SDMG) in Abuja. Prof Mahmood Yakubu speaks with erudition and passion. The enduring impression that many of us have of him remains that of an upright and forthright man committed to principles. A man of integrity who cares about history and how posterity will judge him. PDP’s outburst smacks of cant and blackmail. After reading about the ‘no confidence’ angry outburst, our  minds flashed back to Prof Mahmood Yakubu’s time and performance as Executive Secretary of Tetfund where he not only managed education funds transparently, prudently and accountably, but also refused to allow the mismanagement of the funds meant for tertiary educational institutions in Nigeria. We have read that he left behind billions of money which could have been embezzled.
 
At the ISDMG interactive session in Abuja, we  listened to him update on INEC’s preparations towards the 2019 elections as he responded to questions from both the media and civil society representatives.
 
He started with the frank  declaration that ‘INEC can’t deliver without citizens’ participation. He declared that  INEC is determined to deliver a free, fair and credible election and that any INEC staff who tries to compromise will be dealt with according to the law’.
 
As on previous occasions when he met with civil society groups, he solicited the support of the media and civil society in sensitising and mobilising citizens for the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) exercise. Apparently in response to PDP’s challenge that he should sanitise and make available the voters register, he declared at the event that ‘the total number of registered citizens will be on INEC’s website before the end of that week. He assured, confidently,  that 2019 election will be better than 2015. ‘For me, INEC work is a calling, not a job and I cannot afford to fail Nigerians.’
 
He disclosed that the commission has virtually finished the planning process for the general election, having carried out a strategic plan and adopted a program of action with two more outstanding elections in Taraba and Bauchi
 
He also revealed that since he assumed office as INEC Chair, the commission has conducted over 178 elections with minimum litigation which is an indication of increased confidence in the electoral process. ‘INEC has stabilised the election calendar and made it more predictable. We are moving from uncertainty to certainty and this enables everyone – political parties, media, CSOs and even security agencies to plan.’
 
It was to us quite heart warming to hear the INEC Chair affirm that in compliance with the requirements of the electoral act for voter registration to be continuous, INEC under him has taken CVR more seriously, no longer tying voter registration to elections. Continuous Voter Registration enables citizens who have attained the age of 18 to register to vote. In response to complaints about challenges faced by citizens who go out to register, he also stated that INEC has taken steps to decentralise the voting points to ease the challenges faced by citizens when they go to register. This measure is aimed to ease long queues and address issues of corruption (such as allegations that officials demand money from citizens before they register them). He said INEC has opened additional registration centres beyond the local government headquarters.  He assured that with the effort so far, we will no longer be talking about CVR by 2023.
 
He said the Commission places more emphasis on citizens collecting their PVCs rather than on distribution as INEC is minded to ensure that these cards don’t enter the wrong hands. He clarified that most of those who are unable to collect their PVCs are students of tertiary institutions who had completed their programs and left before collecting their cards; civil servants who have gone on transfer or those who have died. Among other measures to facilitate the collection of voters cards, he said INEC is working with telecoms companies to assist by sending out bulk SMSs requesting those who are yet to collect their PVCs to go and collect them. He also said INEC has a portal where citizens can check the status of their registration.
 
He assured that INEC is still making efforts to enhance the credibility of elections by ensuring that results are electronically transmitted to the collation centres from the polling units  thereby minimising the chances of  manipulating  election results which often occurs in transit between the polling units and  collation centres.
 
On the  sequence of elections, the INEC Chair said there is no legal lacuna as is being touted in some quarters and that all that INEC has done so far regarding setting election timetable has been done in accordance with the existing law. ‘We are proceeding on the basis of the existing law’.
 
On the use of University teachers  as collation officers, the INEC chair said the commission decided to draw Collation Officers from the universities because compared to other sectors, the university is perceived as more credible. However, he said the commission is always open to suggestions including about any other sector from where people think it could draw personnel to serve as collation officers.
 
On election security, the INEC Chair said the commission always gets assurances from heads of security agencies during their interagency election security committee meetings. But in spite of the assurances, sudden changes from security agencies often affect their own preparations thereby affecting election security.
 
The INEC Chair is certainly a stickler. He sticks to rules and he treats as a  priority, holding to account politicians, INEC officials and even security agents who are involved in election malpractice. This can be illustrated by his setting up of a commission of inquiry following the Rivers State rerun and his eventual handing over for prosecution, of INEC officials involved in electoral offences.
 
One of the measures he has taken to speedy up the voting process is the implementation of simultaneous accreditation and voting which resulted in reducing the time spent at the polling centres. This has improved voters turn out as well as  enhanced the credibility of election.
 
Without doubt, the INEC Chairman has demonstrated genuine commitment and made visible efforts to improve the electoral process. The logical outcome of these efforts is enhanced citizens’ confidence in INEC. If there is any quarter from where there are danger signals and fears about whether the 2019 election will be  free, fair and credible, it is the political parties, particularly, the PDP and APC. Clearly the shenanigans  and desperation of the two major political parties to return to power or to retain power by all means constitutes the gravest danger to the integrity and success of the 2019 elections and the consolidation of the democratic process in Nigeria. The other major source of concern is the security agencies which have become clearly politicised, partisan  and compromised. The destruction of the  institutional integrity, professionalism and effectiveness of the police and the military, in particular, have become a major source of threat to the survival of democracy in Nigeria.
 
Just as  INEC is doing its bit under certain prevailing constraints, other stakeholders- political parties, security agencies, CSOs and citizens should also play their own roles according to the rules and support INEC to succeed in its determination to deliver a credible election in 2019. CSOs in particular have a duty to assist INEC through civic enlightenment and mobilisation of citizens to rise against and defeat the enemies of democracy in Nigeria.
 
Kingsley Ogwuike is with the Citizens Centre for Democratic Governance