By NBF News

The Cross River State Resident Electoral commissioner (REC), Mike Igini, no doubt, is an ardent fighter for democracy and the rule of law in Nigeria. This is evidenced in his role during the hectic days of June 12, 1993 struggle to reclaim Chief Moshood Abiola's presidential mandate, which was taken away from him through the annulment of that election.

He has been an outsider in the governance of the country but today, he is part and parcel of the nation's electoral body, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as a resident electoral commissioner.

In this exclusive chat with Sunday Sun, he takes a look at the electoral body, its performance in the just concluded election, its problems, what to expect from the body in future elections, the fight for corruption, minimum wage and the governor's stand, the Boko Haram among other national issues.

Now that you are an insider in INEC, do you have a perception different from what you had before your appointment?

I have some perceptional changes, and I will anchor those changes on two principal issues of management namely: leadership, direction and control. Regarding leadership, I would like to say that the chief directional change for an organization starts with its leadership vision.

The leadership vision of the chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega and the preceding leadership of INEC are quite distinct. Whereas the preceding leadership vision did not walk the talk of morality or in fact expended so much words beyond the income of ideas, Professor Jega not only talks the talk, he also walks the talk of morality with all commissioners and delivered largely on expectations. In the preceding leadership vision, it was clear by action and outcome that morality was left to define itself via a laissez-faire approach.

Secondly and unarguably, the prevailing atmosphere, that is the non-combative and humble administrative style of President Goodluck Jonathan in the country, favours the ethical approach of Professor Jega. But, if we take the Kantian assertion that man is endowed with practical reason and freewill, which also makes him to choose actions that are directed by his reason for the sake of duty or obligation, then that argument will not be sustainable.

We just have to give the chairman kudos for asserting the autonomy and ethical leadership vision. Now, some may argue further that if Professor Iwu had followed his freewill, he might have had a head-on collision with President Obasanjo, just like Professor Humphrey Nwosu did with President Babangida. But that would be a hypothetical argument because we do not have empirical arguments based on quarrels between Iwu and Obasanjo on that issue to stand. At any rate, Professor Nwosu did stand his ethical grounds, and the calling of the position of INEC leadership is principally for the occupier to assert its autonomy; so that argument is unacceptable.

On the matter of control, there has been some changes on process control regarding elections; that is why biometric registration was pursued avidly and effected nation-wide within a short time frame. This was not new to INEC but the avidity with which it was pursued this time around, re-enforces the leadership vision that I was pointing out. The effectiveness of other control measures will emerge at the tribunals; there is so much room for further improvements, but that is an ongoing process.

On the control measures required to effect human resources controls for organizational effectiveness, there was not enough time to effect much structural change regarding personnel that were a drag on the organizational culture change, but such changes are currently going on; the public is still out on that based on performances during the just concluded election, so we expect some changes.

Nigerians see INEC staff as very corrupt, particularly before people like you joined it, what is the situation now that you are there? Were they correct in their assertion or was it a misconception of the staff?

The commission is part of and operates within the Nigerian society where corruption appears to have been accepted as an article of faith. However, INEC like other public institutions has its own crop of some of the finest, committed, good and experienced staff committed to the vision and goals of the commission. But you know that when people pass in front of a house where you have one good man, they will say, 'In that house there is one good man,' but when they pass through a house with one bad man, they will say, 'That is the house of bad people.'

So, bad people often rub off on all, but good people are isolated for their deeds; a case of 'pockets of ethical islands in a sea of scoundrels' according to Professor Lai Olurode in his handbook: 'Issues in Good Governance and Human Development.' No doubt, the bad deeds of some INEC staff in previous elections impacted negatively on the confidence of the electorates. But speaking for myself, I have sufficiently taken practical steps to demonstrate the strength of my will to ensure a change in attitude and practices. The process of electing leaders is of foundational importance regarding our developmental aspirations and to subvert it is counter productive. I find it difficult to understand how people are unable to see the long term futility of collecting any form of reward to subvert the political process.

Let us take a simple examination of the process; how much can you give me to make it useful for me to ensure that you will get elected without the peoples' votes so that the road leading to my house will remain bad, the school my children will attend will not improve and the hospital I may be rushed to will not have the facilities that may save my life in an emergency? Whatever you give me now will all be frittered away soon because it may be used to buy the same quality of life that you will not provide. So, if one connives or collects money to impose a bad government, it is an indirect way of robbing oneself.

This is not to say that if the people in their wisdom decide to elect a bad government, I will stand against it. But let it be their choice and not because I was paid to facilitate that, in which case it will be left for the people to learn from their mistake, and my conscience will be clear. Thus, while the public is right in believing that there are corrupt people in INEC, they are also not aware of the extremely poor condition of work and more importantly, the unacceptable wages in the name of salaries that they are paid, which makes them merely compliant and not committed.

The staff are not well paid as I have noted severally and that is why I have always advocated for the removal of their salaries from the civil service structure like workers of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), National University Commission (NUC), Code of Conduct Bureau etc. A number of staff members who over the years benefited from a culture of financial harvest periods at the expense of public trust, do not also give a total picture of other honest staff of the commission.

This sub-culture will have to change and we are working hard towards that culture change. If we keep at it, we shall get there with the support of the Nigerian people and the cooperation of purposive and ethical governments. Sociologically, change may be evolutionary, diffusionary or revolutionary, but for now, we are taking an evolutionary approach.

You were one of those who had advocated for determination of election petitions before swearing in of winners.

Do you think that a reduction of time in the amended constitution would make a difference this time?

The fact that a three-man Election Petition Tribunal in Delta State commenced on a daily basis except Sunday only and went through the entire process of hearing election petition on its merit and concluded a gubernatorial petition within a month, from June 30 to July 25, has shown clearly and vindicated our position over time that election petitions in Nigeria can be concluded before winners are sworn in. The idea of allowing disputed winners to be sworn in and various allowances, salaries collected and public funds used to prosecute personal electoral matters with all its attendant distractions is unhealthy for our fledgling democracy.

It is very unfortunate that in this country, any idea that has worked or that would help to expand the frontiers of our system is usually abandoned for strange and unfathomable reason. In other parts of the world and even here in Nigeria, the 1979 and 1983 electoral disputes were resolved before winners were sworn in but this has been rejected by a powerful section of the political class and what we now have is a reduction of time to 180 days at the tribunal and 60 days at Appeal court but no definite time frame at the level of the Supreme Court. Now, the tribunal in Delta has set a record that it could be done in less than a month and on the whole a period of three months unlike the prescribed six months at the tribunal alone.

INEC just concluded a retreat for its commissioners in Uyo. What was the main thrust of the retreat and what should Nigerians expect?

It was an opportunity to reflect on where we are, where the Commission wants to go, how it intends to go about it and what resources will be required. Specifically on the core function of the Commission, namely elections, efforts are being made on wide consultations for improving the process, to strengthen the process, so that the aspects of the elections where weaknesses were observed will be modified to ensure that future elections will be far better with better outcome. For instance, in the last elections, the long time taken to conduct accreditation led to a lot of economic loss in man-hours, if the process of accreditation was done using electronic smartcards with biometric data synchronized to the yet to be issued permanent voters card database, it will save a lot of time.

Also if the voter smartcard, silmultanously brands the ballot paper using a device handled by the polling officer, all the elaborate efforts made to secure printed ballots will be unnecessary. In which case branding of the ballot papers, carrying the digital biometric mark of the voter and the polling unit, can be engraved at the point of accreditation, or it will be invalid. If this is done we can even ask anyone to keep the printed ballot papers and bring them to the point of election because until it is branded for each voter it will be useless to anyone. In that case voters can vote and leave after accreditation.

Then after voting, the time for opening of ballot boxes, sorting and counting will be known to everyone, all voters, observers and other stakeholders can come back to witness this, during sorting and counting, electronic processes can be used to sort out the cards to confirm that each one carries a biometric digital branding, and that there was no stuffing of the boxes using the same processes which worked in the last election, then the counting is done in the presence of observers. To ensure that the voters' anonymity are maintained, the digital branding will only be known by INEC forensic so that where there is contention, the audit trail can be verified by digital fingerprints using specialized bar coding.

That is each voter and polling unit has a special barcode generated on the ballot paper upon accreditation just like an electronic fingerprint. After the results are counted and verified by stakeholders, the weaknesses of the last elections observed between Polling Units and collation centers can be obviated by electronically sending the verified results already displayed at the polling units in the specified legal forms, the results can be sent as digital imaging from polling units via the Vsat already mounted at the LGAs at the same time using a secure dedicated channel.

By combining the electronic processes to compress the aspects that are subject to time-pressure such as accreditation and result collation, and preserving the aspects that requires verifiable audit trails, such as paper balloting using accreditation branded ballot papers, and the sorting and counting in presence of stakeholders, we can save half the day often lost to elections, reduce the man-hours spent by voters at the polling units to the time required for accreditation and voting and the time spent to observe sorting and counting if the voter so desires. But we will still have confidence in the process, because the voters will still cast their ballots and see it counted.

Moreover, we can cut the elaborate security requirements reposed on many stakeholders for the deployment and distribution of sensitive ballot papers, when we know that until it is branded at the time of accrediting each voter, it is useless to anyone. In fact, we can even ask the politicians to escort it to the polling unit and we will still be secure knowing that each voter has to brand it with his digital barcode biometrics using a machine that only the Polling Unit Officer is in possession of. The ballot paper will then be as insensitive as a pen used for elections until it has been handed over to the voter.

It is easier to secure electronic devices used in front of voters by polling officers across the country made up of specified polling units, than to secure millions of ballot papers. All these are just to give you an insight to the type of thinking now going on in INEC to secure future elections; it is one of the many ideas being tested for feasibility by the Commission to improve the credibility and acceptability of the leadership election process, to make leaders more accountable to the people. Keep in mind that whatever the Commission comes up with, the funding for such ideas and the legal process for implementing it is still subject to the legislative process, so it will require advocacy of the public in supporting the thinking and direction of the commission that the electoral process should now be taken to high level of sustainability.

What do you think accounted for the wide gulf in terms of total number of registered voters of 73.7m as against participation which was merely 33.7m?

The world today is a global village and we know that worldwide, participation in elections is often within 45-50 per cent. That requires publicity and awareness. Political awareness requires a multi stakeholder approach, which means political parties that seek votes of the electorates have a crucial role in bringing about greater voters participation.

In addition, transparency and credibility of the process, if the process is credible, more people will be encouraged to participate, although the laborious processes of accreditation and voting also needs to improve to encourage more participation. Also INEC as its already doing via retreats with E.Os and RECs as well as other relevant agencies would have to conduct post election research. Such data gathering using focus group interviews of electorates so that other salient issues affecting participation in our context may emerge, because we can not use only universal assumptions without also considering local conditions.

As a known activist from your school days, how do you feel about the protracted electoral crisis in your home state, Delta?

The most unfortunate reality today is that those who fought for democracy are not the ones in charge and have failed to appreciate the risk that we took and many sacrifices made to bring about this democracy. In very many states in the country and more recently in lmo, we stood tall and mighty in defense of the triumph of the will of the people expressed through the ballot. I am particularly saddened by these perennial judicial elections in my home state.

My concern has always been on the process and not who becomes what. If the process is right, the outcome would not be a subject of controversy. Elections have deepened the division in the state and this is very unfortunate. Elections are better decided by the verdict of people at the polling units and not in courts. In fact, in the United Kingdom, for over 99 years until November 2010, there was no judicial intervention in the outcome of elections. Honestly, we cannot continue this speculative outcome of elections because it depletes social capital that in turn affect development.

How would you assess Prof Maurice Iwu's headship of INEC with that of Prof Jega on conduct of elections?

Just as I have highlighted above, there are marked ethical differences in the approaches of both heads if the general observable assessments of a cross section of the public is anything to go by. But we must also take into account some environmental factors prevailing in both periods of leadership. On the matter of decisions made, I have already said that there is no excuse for not asserting the ethical expectations required of the leadership of INEC. On that score, the chairman, Professor Jega stands on a higher pedestal. But that said, we cannot dismiss the impact of other factors completely.

First, the willingness and commitment of the government under President Goodluck Jonathan and his solemn promise to Nigerians not to interfere in the Commission's affairs was exemplary and a positive contribution to the outcome of the just concluded elections. Also, in the appointment of the Commission's current leadership, the sensitivity of Nigerians and the global community was given paramount consideration by the president in making such all important appointments at a crucial moment of this country unlike his predecessors, either military or civilians. We all can see the difference in terms of the integrity of the leadership and the relative mileage our electoral process has covered.

In addition, we must take the legal framework presented by the 2010 Electoral Act into consideration, although there are some areas that still require improvement, the 2010 Electoral Act significantly improved upon previous electoral Acts because it took some experiential weaknesses into consideration, just as we expect further improvements based on what were observed as the weaknesses of the last elections. But such is in keeping with the policy process and the policy cycle of evaluation and reformulation.

How independent was your commission before, during and after the election?

I have already indicated that the national leadership had asserted the autonomy of the Commission admirably, in our own case in Cross River Sate. I will leave the people to judge for themselves. However, I can tell you that in the best tradition of the leadership selection processes which I had been made to pass through at the University of Benin as president of the students union and the University of Lagos, I did my utmost to put the interest of the Community I was appointed to serve before mine. In doing that, it was important to point out to all stakeholders with whom INEC interfaces that the concept of 'Independence', which is embodied in the Commissions name, is a notion that we take very seriously, regarding our oversight and supervision of elections, within parties and between parties.

You were at Imo state to resolve the electoral impasse in four local government areas but election did not hold in Oguta, yet you declared the result, why did you do that?

In an election, what is required to make a declaration or return particularly a Gubernatorial election is provided for in section 179 (1) (2) of the constitution. Its says the person who scores the highest number of valid votes cast as well as 1/3 of votes in at least 2/3 of the LGAs. The constitution did not say all the LGAs the basis of your question that Oguta has a high number of registered voters. But the constitution says the person must meet these requirements 'in at least' and not all.

In lmo, both candidates met the required numbers of LGAs but it was the candidate returned that had the highest number of total votes and was duly declared the winner of the election. However, in election requiring simple majority without spread to make a declaration, the guideline of INEC manual at page 37 or so is to the effect that where a candidate in an election is leading an opponent with a margin of, let's say, 20,000 votes, that is far less than the total number of registered voters, assuming 50,000 in P.Us or wards where election has not taken place or cancelled, which means that the scale of victory could be tilted either way, a return shall not be made until elections are conducted in those places.

There has been general insecurity in the country especially in the North where the Islamic sect, Boko Haram has been throwing bomb on weekly basis and killing people. Do you subscribe to the school of thought that the federal government should dialogue with the sect?

Yes, I do subscribe to dialogue, but you honestly have to face the fact that dialogue is only possible when, people are willing to come to the table of dialogue and do so unconditionally. But nothing justifies the killing of innocent people to further any cause. That said, we still have to agree that the government have to dialogue with all Nigerians who have grievances. It is quite possible that in the end when all come to the table of dialogue, it may emerge that the cause for conflict was really unnecessary, but when that occurs, you cannot bring to life those who have been killed. That is why it is better to start with dialogue rather than conflict. On the part of government, it may emerge that if it concedes to some of the demands of the aggrieved, it may turn out that their aspirations may not even impact the community as badly as government fears.

The state governors have said that unless there is adjustment in the revenue sharing formula, they cannot pay the 18, 000 minimum wage to workers and the President has just given a push to their demand, what is the implication of all of this?

In most advanced federating countries, the practical aspects of fiscal sustainability in each region or state should be taken to account, because earnings and cost of living are not often the same everywhere, but there should be a minimum wage which the government uses as a value to dignify the labour of its citizens and which should be a marker for the minima of the utility for the efforts people put in their work.

The problem in our own case however is that, whereas states assert their inability to meet such demands, when it comes to paying, they do not consider these differential abilities when it comes to how the public is taxed. For instance, when they call for removal of fuel subsidies, have they considered how it will affect the unemployed in an urban area who has no social safety nets?

I am all for a review of the revenue sharing formula as long as it takes all the possible factors into consideration, including, the future impacts, and how such increased revenue will impact on the development of the people. Moreover, people are always eager about sharing in this country, what is their suggestion on how to make the funds being shared bigger? What will be their contribution to these central funds that they want a greater share of? How will they help to sustain it so that 200 years from now, future Nigerian governments will have something to share?