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By NBF News
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THE shoddy handling of the first batch of the Independent National Electoral Commission's (INEC) order of 132,000 units of the Direct Data Capture (DDC), machines and eventual theft of 20 units at the ramp of the cargo section of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos is most unfortunate and highly condemnable. That blot in the preparation for the January voter registration exercise, in a build-up to the 2011 general elections in the country, is enough to give citizens cause for concern, in spite of repeated assurances by the authorities of credible polls. We demand a thorough probe of the security breach, beyond claims of petty thievery by the police, to reassure potential voters and the international community that the polity is indeed ready for change, from an ignoble past.

Some criminal elements had reportedly attacked the consignment a few days after the arrival of the second shipment of the machines on the tarmac and made away with 20 machines according to INEC, giving vent to assertions that the cargo was a target. Initial denial by INEC officials that the stolen items were not its own was unhelpful and such hasty unverified response to internal challenges would not help either for a faultless process the commission promised the nation.

As usual, officials of the various clearing agencies at the entry port passed the buck because of the sensitive nature of the cargo. For its significance to the electoral process, the eyebrows raised over the DDC machines could be justified, among the many stolen items at the airport, otherwise goods disappearance is believed to be normal at the country's ports. It is a serious indictment of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), managers of the porous airport, the security personnel and the clearing firms who often fall short of international standards. Importers have almost always been at the receiving end of the unauthorized activities of an army of touts who operate alongside airport officials.

The recovery of 16 of the missing machines in the airport neighbourhoods of Shasha and Akowonjo in Lagos as the police and other security operatives sprang into action, coupled with the arrest of four suspects, is cheering news. Only an unhindered investigation of the circumstances of the theft, the motives of the sponsors and likely insider-collaborators, if any, would assuage the feelings of stakeholders who are justifiably agitated about an alleged faltering electoral process managed by Prof. Attahiru Jega's INEC.

Minor as it may appear, the incident casts a shadow over the security arrangements at the nation's airports. The identified lapses had always been among the sore points of airport security as the tarmac of any airport, international or domestic,  should be a highly restricted operational area as dictated by global aviation rules.

Here, touts' invasion of our airports is worrisome. MMIA is perhaps the only international airport where there are more non-travellers than passengers and operations staff. It is very embarrassing if the airports are so exposed to all sorts of human traffic, authorized or otherwise at sensitive points. Uncontrolled movements in and around the airports (and across borders) are a serious threat to internal security for which the country has got punished on more than one occasion in the past. In fact, the MMIA has remained an international embarrassment in spite of past efforts to manage the lapses.

The theft of the DDC machines is believed rightly or wrongly in some quarters to be a conspiracy by unknown persons or groups to derail the democratic process. The Goodluck Jonathan administration has a duty to intervene in the process when necessary especially when issues of security are raised, to restore confidence, and to demonstrate that it is serious about its promise to deliver credible polls in 2011.

INEC stands partly indicted in the scandal for ordering sensitive election materials without ensuring adequate security cover. The commission must be able to show more than a passing interest in the safe passage of its materials, not just waiting to take receipt of items ordered only when they are delivered by contractors who are bound to face their own challenges.

The commission also has to address widespread suggestions that the stolen machines could have been used by some unscrupulous fellows to gain prior knowledge of the software of the DDC system before doing away with the recovered 16.  Therefore, the thieves and their collaborators or sponsors must be fished out and punished according to the law. However, the Presidency and the National Assembly may wish to reconsider repeated calls for an electoral offences commission to try offenders who seek to sabotage  elections, a request that the INEC chairman restated at a dialogue with various professional groups in Abuja recently.

The Ministry of Aviation has a lot of work to do, in ensuring high standards at the country's airports.  Government must leave no one with further negative feeling that the integrity of the coming election has been compromised from the very beginning.