Full Text: Jega parley with leaders of political parties, says 'we have time constraint'

Source: huhuonline.com

It gives me immense pleasure to welcome all of us to this second interactive meeting in as many months. You would recall that during our first meeting on 18 th August, 2010, I

 promised that as principal stakeholders in the electoral process, political parties would be regularly consulted by INEC. This meeting is meant to both fulfil that promise and to discuss some issues that are central to the success of the unfolding electoral calendar and the roles of political parties and INEC in it.  

  Since our last meeting, the Electoral Act 2010 has been signed into law and gazetted, which resolves one of the central impediments to our preparations for both the registration of voters and 2011 elections, as I mentioned at that meeting. On our part, we have released the election timetable and continued at breakneck speed to prepare for voter registration exercise and the elections proper. In the one month since our meeting, in addition to releasing the election timetable, we have set a clear and targeted agenda with a detailed inter-Departmental operational plan that will guide our activities up to the elections in January 2011: we are now on the verge of signing the contracts for procurement of the equipment required for the registration exercise; we have met with and received the buy-in of numerous stakeholders; we are nearing the finalization of an MOU with civil society organizations; we have commenced the recruitment of over 360,000 staff required for the voter registration, and; we have fully developed a new registration software that is completely owned by INEC, which is currently being rigorously tested.  

  Following the release of the election timetable, the Commission has received repeated inquiries expressing concerns about the ability of political parties to comply with the timelines of the calendar in the context of the new Electoral Act 2010. Principal among the worries is the new format for the nomination of candidates, which is much more decentralized and extended than before, thus requiring a longer timeframe to be actualized. Apart from the political parties, government officials, our development partners, the mass media and the wider public have also wondered about the ability of INEC to deliver a fresh Voters' Register for the 2011 elections and to conduct the elections proper within the timeframe established by the Constitution and the Electoral Act 2010. Surely, INEC is not oblivious of these legitimate concerns, which reflect the collective will of Nigerians and the friends of the country to ensure that we get the next election right.  

  Yet, these time constraints were not unanticipated by the Commission. You may recall that in my very first Press Conference as Chairman of the Commission, I clearly stated that the two constraints facing the Commission, having decided to conduct a voter registration exercise from scratch, were time and availability of funds. I therefore alerted Nigerians that our ability to deliver a new Voters' Register, which is the bedrock of free, fair and credible elections, depended largely on meeting certain timelines. Among these were award of contract for the acquisition of the DDC machines early in August, delivery of the first 15,000 units of the machines early in September and training of registration officers by early to middle of September. It has since become clear that we have missed some of these timelines. Fortunately, the problem of finance has now been largely solved, with the supplementary appropriation and agreement with the Federal Ministry of Finance on a schedule of releases of funds, which, I am very happy to note, the Ministry is commendably adhering to.  

  However, the nagging problem of time endures. It is important to put this constraint of time in perspective, considering the diverse interpretations it has received in the press over the last few weeks. The fact that we have time constraints does not mean that the tasks at hand are impossible to accomplish within the existing timeframe. Instead, what it means is that there is a very limited margin to make modifications to timelines, particularly for critical deliverables. For instance , if for any reason it would take five weeks instead of the estimated four to deliver all the DDC machines needed, that would totally put the registration exercise in jeopardy. And the more we miss the timelines, the more difficult it becomes to adjust. Still, as a Commission, we have repeatedly insisted that we shall work within the existing legal framework as contained in the 1999 Constitution, as amended, and the Electoral Act 2010. We have also consistently said that the more time we have, the better the outcome of both the registration of voters and the 2011 elections. These positions are informed by at least two considerations:  

  1.It is not the Constitutional responsibility of INEC to establish or change the legal framework, including timelines, for electoral activities. Consequently, to canvass the change in the legal framework or Constitutional provisions on election dates would not only be inappropriate, but could open the Commission to public suspicion, given the well known recent electoral history of Nigeria .  

  2.     The question of fixing and changing election dates has been one of the major sore points of our electoral experience in Nigeria . The degree of partisanship that usually informs discussions of these issues is legendary. Consequently, we decided as a Commission that direct involvement in such debates could undermine the independence of INEC in the public eyes, and we deliberately chose to keep away from it.  

  Yet, we fully understand the position within the relevant arms of government that INEC is in the best position to indicate if it needs more time to carry out its Constitutional roles effectively. Certainly, he who wears the shoe should know exactly where it pinches and what is worth doing is, indeed, worth doing well. The foregoing aptly captures the dilemma that the Commission has been grappling with in the past few weeks namely, that while it is true that we require more time, we must consistently act within the law and also insulate the Commission from the partisan politics that is bound to trail any demand for time extension.  

  At a Retreat of National Commissioners and Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) of INEC in Calabar from September 16 - 19, 2010, these issues were exhaustively discussed, weighing all the implications for the Commission, the electoral process and the Nigerian people. The Retreat clearly noted that while the Constitution and Electoral Act must remain sacrosanct, there is no point in delivering an electoral process the outcome of which will again be controversial and incredible. At the end, it was concluded that:

  Having examined the Commission's detailed Action Plan for the voter registration and elections, the Retreat noted that the timeline for the implementation of this Plan is very tight. Consequently, the Commission shall endeavour to engage all the relevant stakeholders with a view to exploring all legal avenues for extension of the time to enable the Commission deliver on the aspirations of Nigerians for credible voters' register and free, fair and credible elections. Should this happen, May 29 2011 inauguration date must remain sacrosanct.

  There is no doubt that political parties constitute the most critical stakeholders in this regard and that is why this meeting is taking place two days after the retreat. I hope that this meeting will closely interrogate the existing situation regarding the election calendar and make recommendations to relevant bodies. I hope also that we can reach a consensus on these issues and avoid divisive positioning. We are sharing with you the detailed work plan of the Commission for the registration of voters and elections, which particularly convinced our Retreat to seek ways of extending the time available to the Commission. Our expectation is that you will profoundly critique the plan, paying necessary attention to its operability within the subsisting timeframe.  

  Finally, let me state clearly that the reason the Commission decided to be upfront with the Nigerian people about the Herculean challenges confronting it was an abiding commitment to ensuring their ownership of whatever the Commission is doing. We have always insisted that our actions will be transparent and that we shall always seek the understanding and support of Nigerians in difficult times. Surely, this is one of such times.  

  I thank you all for coming and wish us all fruitful deliberations.    

  Professor Attahiru M. Jega, OFR Chairman, INEC