2011: Crunch Time, Nigeria! By Kayode R. Idowu
' National honour is national property of the highest value. ' - James Monroe (1758-1831), American Democratic Republican statesman and 5 th President of the United States. In a few days from now, we confront as Nigerians an acid test to reclaim our collective honour as a people in the civilized world.
This test of honour will play out in a series of elections to be conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in 119,973 polling units nationwide. The first of these is the National Assembly (i.e. Senate and House of Representatives) elections on Saturday, April 2 nd ; then, the Presidential election on Saturday, April 9 th ; followed by the Governorship and State Assembly elections on Saturday, April 16 th .
Make no mistake about it: this test of honour is inescapably a collective one for all Nigerians. It is our national honour at stake, and our relevance in the affairs of the modern world being redefined. By all means, the test isn't INEC's alone; the Election Management Body is only a midwife of the process and an umpire on the play turf.
Ex-American public official and author, the late John William Gardner, said in his work titled No Easy Victories : 'History never looks like history when you are living through it. It always looks confusing and messy, and it always feels uncomfortable.' I would say nothing better articulates the time we are in presently in Nigeria. Every Nigerian who is eligible to vote in the imminent elections has a date with history; a partner in the duel to redeem this country's unflattering image before the world. We can make that history through a new political culture that overrides old tendencies and foibles; but also through a voting system that may seem cumbersome, yet essential to secure the elections against past abuses that brought global odium upon the country.
The Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) stipulates the Open-Secret balloting system whereby voters indicate their choice of candidates/parties in secret, but cast their ballots in the open. Acting within its statutory powers, the Electoral Commission has come up with additional guidelines which prescribe simultaneous accreditation and voting in all the polling units nationwide on Election Day. This procedure is intended to obstruct unscrupulous persons who may seek to exploit a more relaxed voting procedure by going from one polling unit to the other to vote, if they could. By the Commission's guidelines, the Election Day procedure for all the elections involves the following steps by eligible voters:
· Take your Voter's Card to the polling unit where you registered recently to be accredited between 8:00 a.m. and 12:00 noon - that is, for polling officials to confirm that you are the rightful holder of the card and that your name is in the Voter Register. At this stage, an appropriate finger of your left hand will be marked with indelible ink as proof of accreditation. Anyone who fails to join the queue by 12:00 noon when the poll orderly stands behind the last person present will not be eligible for accreditation; but whoever is already waiting in the queue by then will get accredited, no matter the time. It is important to note that anyone without his/her Voter's Card has no business going near the polling centre as he/she will not be accredited. Besides, anyone doing so stands the risk of being arrested by security agents.
· There will be a headcount, and the number of accredited voters will be announced loudly by the Presiding Officer to all present before entering the figure in statutory records.
· Whether you stay behind at the polling unit after accreditation or leave, you must be back on the queue at 12:30 p.m. for another headcount of accredited voters who show up to vote. This headcount will be taken after the poll orderly takes position behind the last person on the queue, and the figure will be announced loudly by the Presiding Officer to the hearing of everyone present before entering it in official records. Anyone who shows up after the headcount is taken will not be allowed to join the queue, though he/she may have been earlier accredited.
· Next, the voting starts. This involves polling officials verifying that you have been duly accredited, and then an appropriate finger of your right hand will be marked with indelible ink as proof of your having shown up to vote. Thereafter, you will be issued with ballot papers signed, stamped and dated appropriately by the Presiding Officer.
· On getting the ballot paper, you will move to the voting cubicle / compartment to fingerprint the space for the party / candidate of your choice.
· You will then return into the open and proceed to drop the ballot in the Transparent Ballot Box provided for the unit in the full view of everyone present. Voting closes for each polling unit when the last person on the queue votes.
· After voting, you may remain at the polling unit until the votes are sorted, counted and the tally announced by the Presiding Officer. But in doing this, you must conduct yourself in a peaceful and orderly manner.
Adequate provisions have been made by INEC to enable physically challenged persons to exercise their franchise. To this end, a person without appropriate fingers that should be inked for accreditation and voting will have corresponding toes of the right and left feet inked for same purposes. Indeed, persons with neither fingers nor toes will have those of persons who assist them to the polling units inked on their behalf. Such persons can be assisted to vote by those accompanying them, but proxy voting will on no account be allowed.
Transparency is a major plank in INEC's design of the voting procedure. That is why for all the elections, results for each polling unit will be publicly announced by the Presiding Officer and thereafter posted on the unit. This requirement has always been stipulated by the law but observed in breach until now. Interested voters may compare the total number of votes announced with the total number of voters present for the headcount before voting started.
The Commission's rule is that any figure of votes announced in excess of the voters present for the final headcount automatically invalidates the result for affected polling unit. A major implication here is that any attempt by unscrupulous persons to stuff ballots or snatch ballot boxes will be futile; as there is no way that stolen ballots can be factored into the official result in any polling unit.
The results from polling units will thereafter be collated in 8,809 Registration Area / Ward collation centres and 774 Local Government Area collation centres for state elections; and all these plus 37 States / Federal Capital Territory collation centres for the Federal election. At all these levels - indeed from the polling unit level - political parties are required and encouraged to have their polling agents present. There will also be other accredited observers as well as journalists on hand. Besides, INEC has built into the collation process parallel reporting lines to allow for independent verification of filed returns.
But, of course, there remain some nagging questions to which answers can be provided as follows:
· Will personnel and materials arrive at polling units early enough to keep faith with the timelines stipulated for accreditation and voting?
Answer: Yes, they will. To ensure this, the Commission is for the first time going beyond the Local Government-level deployment of personnel and materials on the eve of elections. This time around, all polling officials and security agents will camp at the ward level on the eve of polls to facilitate early deployment to polling units on Election Day. Besides, the inaccessibility of some difficult terrains has been taken into account and deployment by air / sea shuttles factored into logistical preparations. But since there is always a 10 per cent chance of things going off the hinge, any eventuality of late arrival of personnel and materials in any polling unit will be addressed on case-by-case basis and necessary adjustments made in stipulated timelines for accreditation and voting.
· How secured will the voting environment be?
Answer: Secured enough to ensure a violence-free process. INEC is obviously not a security agency. But the Commission has over the past months worked very closely with all the security agencies - military and paramilitary - and has strong cause to believe that there are sufficient measures in place to secure these coming elections against violence. Already, the personnel and operational plans of the different agencies have been harmonized on the platform of the Inter-agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES) to ensure synergy and prevent conflicts or overlaps. Perhaps the most striking thing about ICCES is that it inspired bottom-to-top approach to election security planning which has taken account of local security challenges and how to tackle them. This is unlike the top-to-bottom approach in the past whereby uniform templates were prescribed for security operations nationwide, only for such schemes to turn out sorely inadequate for local peculiarities. The ICCES platform has also afforded INEC the opportunity to specify expectations from the security agencies in a manner that makes their roles complementary to one another - not parallel or conflicting as was the experience in past elections. The Commission believes that these measures, coupled with an obvious commitment on the part of respective leadership of the security agencies to discharge the onus, portend a secure environment for the coming elections.
· How will INEC handle large crowds, considering that more than 73.5miilion people were captured on the voters' roll during the recent voter registration exercise?
Answer: The Commission has resolved to decentralise voting in polling units with large number of registrants. To this end, any polling unit with more than 300 voters will be sub-divided into voting points for ease of accreditation and balloting. In other words, no voting point shall cater to more than 300 voters. The Voter Register for each polling unit has been compiled in alphabetical order with voters' surnames first, then serially and page numbered. This will allow for easy reference during voters' accreditation, and for apportioning voters among the voting points.
· Has the Commission ethical bearing on the field staff?
Answer: Yes, it does. The present leadership of INEC has pledged to observe the law in strict terms, and to leave no room for any official violating the law. The Prof. Attahiru Jega-led Commission has repeatedly made good on this pledge since it took office in July, last year. It also amply demonstrated this during the last voter registration exercise with the apprehension and prosecution of deviant officials. In all, more than 420,000 ad hoc and regular staff are being deployed at various levels for the imminent elections. There is an ethical wellspring from which the INEC workforce now freely drink, or thirst at their own peril.
· Will the public be free to report untoward incidents observed during polling to the Commission?
Answer: Absolutely so - through SMS and voice calls on phones, or by emailing. Such reports should reflect useful details such as location, time and action involved in the incident, to enable the Commission respond appropriately.
The foregoing are the ingredients of which great electoral broths are made everywhere. But the task on hand, inevitably, isn't INEC's alone. Every Nigerian must resolve and ensure that they play by the rules and play fair in this honour duel. After all, the best referee does not makes a great match; the players do!
Kayode R. Idowu is the Chief Press Secretary of INEC Chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega, OFR.