‘Dinosaur experience’ awaits politicians banking on rigging in 2023 —Mike Igini, ex-REC

‘Dinosaur experience’ awaits politicians banking on rigging in 2023 —Mike Igini, ex-REC

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Whenever the history of election in Nigeria, particularly in the Fourth Republic, is written, ample space will be devoted to the contributions of the immediate past Resident Electoral Commissioner in Akwa Ibom State, Mike Igini. Although he has disengaged from active service, having spent two terms, Igini says he will devote his time to partnering with Nigerians on how elections can be made better. He speaks with DARE ADEKANMBI on why attacks of INEC assets have not abated, the fate that will befall politicians in the 2023 elections, how “residual sovereignty” has been restored to the electorate by INEC, among others.

 

Are you not worried about the growing attacks on INEC offices in some parts of the country? They are not good signs for the all important 2023 elections.

The issue of incessant attacks on INEC assets is not only worrisome but also disturbing to the extent that we have just about 79 days or so to the 2023 elections. And a couple of weeks ago, we continue to see these attacks on INEC assets in the various parts of the country. The shame of our country is that this is happening because, for years, people who attacked INEC facilities, particularly during the period of elections, have not been identified or brought to book. You may recall that in the preparations towards the 2007 elections, there was a truckload of explosives that was driven into INEC headquarters in Abuja, in the Federal Capital Territory. That truck was driven by a human being and the truck was registered. From 2007 till date, nothing has happened to those behind it. They could not fish out the driver of the truck. Similarly, the INEC ICT office in Abuja was set ablaze. That was the time when [Professor Maurice] Iwu announced that INEC had installed VSAT in the 774 local government areas for transmission of results. But when that happened, nobody was brought to book. In 2011, we also witnessed violence and attacks on a number of INEC offices, yet nobody was brought to book. In 2015, the same thing happened. I was in Edo State where several offices of INEC were burnt and PVCs carted away. Nobody was brought to justice. In 2019, it was the same thing that happened across the various states of the federation. In Akwa Ibom where I served last, INEC office in Eastern Obolo Local Government Area was attacked. Even in Etim Ekpo too, there was an attack. In Ibesikpo Asutan, which is close to my own office, which had just been renovated with about N16m as one of the new model offices of INEC, was set on fire 48 hours to the governorship election in the state. Over 300 card readers were burnt. Forty-two generator sets, brand new, to be used to service the RAC centres for people who are going to be at centres on the eve of elections, all of them were set ablaze and some cubicles destroyed. From 2019 till date, nobody has been punished for the attacks. That same Akwa Ibom, at Obot Akara, one of the local government areas in the North West Senatorial district of the state, on the eve of the presidential and National Assembly elections, 11 buses that the commission hired from private commercial owners and which were parked awaiting materials from the CBN were set ablaze. Nobody has been brought to book.

I gave you this background to let you know that, whereas what is going on is not new, what is surprising is that it would appear that non-state actors are now challenging the monopoly of the State for control of instruments of coercion. That is the danger for our country. Any conduct that undermines public institutions and public interest, if not dealt with, will be repeated. This is what has continued. It even appears to have made violence part of our elections.

Despite what is going on, the 2023 elections will be conducted. Don’t forget that the violence was so much before the 2015 elections that we had to make some adjustments to the timetable and INEC was able to conduct the elections then. My charge is to two principal stakeholders. I can tell you that no matter what the elite, who are behind some of these things going on, will do, the 2023 elections must be conducted. We all have a responsibility to make this happen. But in terms of the challenge, it should be noted that anywhere in the country where you see INEC office, that in itself shows the presence of the commission. It also shows the fact that an institution for the conduct of democracy is present there. Therefore, communities have to take responsibility for protecting our common assets that are domiciled in their respective local government areas. This is because in those places where offices were burnt, if you carry out thorough investigation, you will find out that those who carried out the burning of the offices are people from the area mainly and not people from outside the council areas. I am therefore calling on community leaders, the youths and other stakeholders in areas where INEC offices are located to take responsibility of securing the facilities and give information to security agencies when they have it. With respect to security agencies that are actually saddled with the primary responsibility of protecting lives and properties, what is clear in all the historical background I have given to you, is that the failure of the State to deal with the matter over the years is clearly indicative of the failure or absence or ineffective intelligence gathering. People who normally commit this terrible crime do not just wake up one day to carry it out. They normally plan it. In those days, we had the intelligence unit of the police called the SIB. In those days, plain clothes policemen from SIB mixed with everybody. They would go to restaurants, motor parks where we have these bad boys and the mixed with them to get intelligence and to burst crimes before the criminals would think of executing their plans. It does not appear that, that arm of the police is funded these days. The unit has to be revived for the police and other security agencies so that they will be alive to the challenges of this time. What is going on now is an assault on our democracy. There is clearly failure of intelligence and failure to act. Look at what is happening in the United States concerning the January 6 [2021] assault on the Capitol Hill. Till today, they are going after everyone who participated in the assault on democracy in America. But here in Nigeria, democracy has been serially assaulted by elements within our country and we are unable to do anything to fish them out. No matter what people do, the biggest setback is that we don’t have money and we are under serious economic crisis globally and locally. The little resources we have, and which have been used to procure those assets and build those offices, we will need to spend more money now to rebuild them. In fact, the INEC office in Ebonyi State, where the latest of the attacks took place recently, was under renovation. They were painting the inside, having already painted the outside. Everything has been brought down again, which means we have to spend more money to fix it again. At a time that we don’t have money, the assets that we have are being destroyed by some useless elements and characters. It is very sad.

 

Many Nigerians are reading meaning into the attacks and may be discouraged from wanting to vote…

My appeal to Nigerians is that no matter what these elements do, INEC has what we call rational and emergent plans. Where we have a situation like this, INEC will fall back on its emergent plan and that was why within 48 hours that they razed our offices in Akwa Ibom State and card readers burnt, we were able to immediately fall back on the emergent plan which saved the situation for us. Can we begin to say it is the improvements that INEC has put in place that are causing all these attacks? Before now, people used to write election results. But that is no longer possible. I think the best thing is for the politicians to go out and really campaign. In the 2023 elections, having regard to the provisions of the Electoral Act and INEC innovations, power is back to the people. The job that we all need to do is to let the electorate know that the power to choose leaders is now back to them and the polling unit is now the centre of the universe where election will be won and lost and not at the level of the collation centres. That is all over. The use of BIVAS is compulsory from Abia State, by way of alphabetical order, down to Zamfara State. There is no exception. Everybody must use BIVAS for the purpose of accreditation which is now bimodal, that is, a dual process. You cannot enter the polling unit arena without having your PVC because of the provision of Section 47 of the Electoral Act 2022. Therefore, if you don’t have your PVC, there will be no admission into the polling arena, no accreditation and no voting for such individual. For those who have done transfer [to different polling units], corrections and others, INEC is already issuing their cards. So, people should go and get their cards. The election period is a period when the journey of a country is renewed. It is also a period of assessment for those who have served for a particular period and the policies that they have evolved. That is why election period is a period for the citizens to exercise their residual sovereignty to hire and fire. That is the beauty of democracy. So, the 2023 elections provide critical accountability and the election is served on the basis of what the people have experienced over the period and this will inform the choices that they are going to make in 2023. Nobody should do anything by way of violence to stop that from happening because that appears to be the only thing that the international community is waiting to see. So, clearly Nigerians have a date with history on the 25th of February and on the 11th of March respectively to make a choice of their president and who will be at the National Assembly, those who will be governors and state Houses of Assembly members. Please, let us be very clear. There is anger in the land. There is hunger in the land. People are not happy for different reasons. This election is one that Nigerians are seeing as a magical one for them to sing a new song. Nigerians should not be denied the opportunity of singing a new song in 2023.

 

The foundation for 2023 elections is laid on technology and I know you have spoken greatly in favour of the use of technology to sanitise the electoral process. But there has been pushback from those who feel network failure may hamper the use of BIVAS in remote areas, particularly with references being made about what happened during Professor Attahiru Jega years when a national election was called off midway because of technical glitches of card readers. Recently, the national chairman of the ruling APC raised concerns too. Don’t you think they have a point for INEC to consider on this?

Any society that fails to embrace technology will be overtaken by the chaos of decline and decay. INEC, as an institution, has been making steady progress in terms of reforms of the electoral process to ensure that the ballot remains the best means of the expression of the will of the people in a democracy. At the moment, INEC has developed a technology to deal with the historical challenges of election service delivery, some of which you have mentioned. Therefore, if the current system that has gone through a series of piloting to the extent that it has been used to conduct over 105 off-season elections and the elections reflected the will of electorate, why do people still express concerns over a system that is working? The difference between BIVAS and the previous system of card reader is that BIVAS has been tested in some of the states such Edo, Anambra, Ondo, Ekiti and Osun. It is those who are afraid of a credible process, where the votes of the people determine who becomes what, are the ones expressing this concern.

The NCC [Nigerian Communications Commission] you referred to had a joint assessment with INEC and they came out with a report that the there is network coverage in over 90 per cent of the country. So, it does not make a difference whether you are doing a national election. Let me make a point. BIVAS is not connected to the Internet. It is battery-powered for the purpose of accreditation. If fully charged, the battery can last for 48 hours and INEC elections are not conducted for 48 hours. It is not connected to the Internet because it is a stand-alone device. Accreditation is the key thing in an election because once you get that right, every other thing will be right. It is when you are doing scan result transmission that you will now use the various service providers [telcos] and INEC is actually going through satellite to do that. In Ondo State, INEC transmitted successfully from the riverine areas such as Ese Odo and all that. It is a bad workman that blames his tools. What has not changed in respect of our democracy is that despite INEC’s reforms, there has not been a reform of the behaviour of the political class in conformity with the current reform of INEC. Regrettably for them, the current system has been designed in such a way and manner that the human agency interference has been limited. And because it is limited and people don’t want to come to terms with this reality, by 2023, many politicians will have a dinosaur experience waiting for them.

 

What do you mean by a dinosaur experience?

You go and find out how the dinosaur went into extinction. It went into extinction because it was too adapted to a particular climatic situation. So, where there was a change in climate, it could not adapt. There are those who are used to rigging for so long. They have survived in politics because of rigging. But the current reform will not allow that to happen again. If they don’t go and endear themselves with the people, they will go into extinction or what is meant by dinosaur experience. It is going to happen to them.

The system has been designed in such a way and manner that any attempt to want to subvert it, those trying to do so will not benefit from such act and the evidence of their actions will be overwhelming and they will be caught. That is the beauty of what is designed. We don’t have the power to know the constructions of the mind and people will continue to think about how to beat the system. Let me also tell you that in all the 105 elections that we have run the pilot of the new system, there were attempts to attack and subvert the system, especially during the governorship elections, but they failed. In 2023, any similar attempts will also fail because the system has been designed in such a way that a REC or an electoral officer or a national commissioner or even the national chairman of INEC cannot help any politician. Help only lies with the electorate. They are the only saviours in the 2023 elections. With INEC’s innovations, political salvation now lies in the hands of the electorate and not with the umpire. People who are called to count the votes don’t matter anymore. It is only those who will cast the votes that matter now. That is the direction INEC is headed and that is why I have always told people to study the Electoral Act 2022 very well and know what they need to know. Otherwise, the dinosaur experience will be inevitable for them in 2023.

 

Sometime in September, INEC chairman, Professor Yakubu Mahmood, raised the alarm that attempts were made to hack into the INEC portal and corrupt the election results. How fortified is this system against hackers?

Yes, the attempts were made from far away Asia by hackers. But they did not succeed. It was only telling you people how robust that system is and how well we will continue to protect it. Don’t forget that what INEC is doing now is to transmit the election results into the cloud. For instance, if you type a text message on your phone and then put your phone in airplane mode and try to send the message, when you do so, the message will not go. Then undo the airplane mode and you will see that you can’t retrieve that message again. It is the same thing with BIVAS. If, at the end of voting in a polling unit all processes have been completed and at the point of uploading the results, there is no reception, the results must be sent in the presence of everybody at the polling unit. Once that is done, there is nothing anybody can do again. When the polling officials get to the next place where there is reception, the result will automatically deliver by itself and nobody can retrieve it again. When you finish this interview, try and do what I said to confirm it. So, this technology is the game changer and politicians will have to seek votes from people now.

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Will Nigeria be ripe for full electronic voting after 2023 elections, given these innovations by INEC? Is that the final destination for the commission?

This question is better answered after the 2023 elections. These are new things that we have put in place. Let us go through the next elections first. Thereafter, we can now make a projection about 2027 elections.

 

Some of us have canvassed the view that the burden of proof in jurisprudence of election petition should shift from the candidates that lose to INEC that conducts the election. There is tyranny of time for the losing candidates who are required by law to gather all evidence within 21 days from the date the winner is announced. What is your view on this?

I don’t want to give that view to you alone. In fact, it is one of the issues I am going to discuss in one of my next series [of lectures]. Wait to hear it from me later. Where should the burden of proof shift? I won’t give you this one now because it is one of the things I am discussing very shortly. I don’t know whether you have a juju that you are using to read my mind and know what I am about to do.

 

I have covered election jurisprudence for more than a decade and it is one of the topical issues I have seen as a common denominator in most cases…

The answer or my view on it will come out very soon, Wait for it. In order not to just leave you like that, let me give you something. The current reform by INEC makes it so interesting. Section 137 of the Electoral Act 2022 has now finally accepted our long-time proposal that the conduct of election is purely documentary. All INEC documents, such as form ECA, EC40 H and so on, have codes. Therefore, at election petition tribunal, rather than allow people to sabotage the process by calling as many as 400 witnesses, everything should now be documentary. And who will present those documents? It is INEC. In any case, the entire innovation for 2023 elections is designed is such a way that it places the burden of proving how the election is conducted on INEC. That is the whole essence of the innovations that you see and I hope people will appreciate that in due course.

 

Vote buying is a threat to the 2023 elections. Politicians, perhaps because of these innovations by INEC, are devising means to buy votes on election day. How do you think this can be addressed?

It is very unfortunate that because there is improvement in the electoral process now, the politicians who used to disdainfully tell people in times past that they would win whether people vote for them or not, are now realising it is no longer possible and have decided to pay attention to the people now by going to buy their votes because of the level of poverty in our country. That is what has led to that situation. The act of vote buying is terrible. The right to vote is a public good that must not be traded because it is illegal, immoral and objectionable for several reasons. One is that if we don’t stop vote buying, it means that electoral democracy will be an affair of only the rich and the wealthy. Number two is that if vote buying is not stopped, it will bring about a class bias policy because it is only those who have money that will participate. So, the policies that will be made will reflect only those who are able to use money during the elections. Again, vote buying, if not stopped, will reinforce inequality in our society and that is why it must be stopped. Therefore, the law must act to prevent inequality from flooding the equality of democratic franchise.

The solution to vote buying has long been provided by the Australian people in what they call the secret balloting that was given to the world in 1856 and later embraced by the UK in 1872 and by the US in 1879, after the 1884 presidential election. Any conduct that will undermine the general public interest or has implication for it, such a conduct or act must not be left to the judgment of individual morality. This is why vote buying must be stopped at all costs by now ensuring that all the security personnel to be posted to each polling unit are going to be held responsible to prevent vote buying on election day. But for this level of vote buying that has assumed this level of epidemic is on account of the improvement in the electoral process. That is why the politicians are paying attention to the people. As you know, the right to vote is a citizen’s share of democratic franchise to participate in determining public issues and, of course, electoral historians have given quite a lot of thoughts on the political economy of vote buying that must be stopped in order not to devaluate the ballot. Vote buying constitutes a devaluation of the ballot. It must be stopped and it is a joint responsibility to do so.

 

As journalists, we know political parties in their budget for elections make provisions for INEC, security personnel and even the media too. Are you saying any party budgeting for INEC next year is wasting their money and time?

Absolutely. Those who see election period as a period to make money may not like this now. It will be a waste of time for any political party to budget for INEC officials. The national chairman of INEC, the national commissioner, the RECs, the electoral officers and others can’t help anybody. This is because none of the category of persons I have mentioned will sign any document on election day. All these people I have mentioned cannot touch any document. So, how can they help you? So, they are going to waste their money. Don’t forget that the most important area of hope for next year’s elections is the level of awareness. And the kind of awareness we have now is unprecedented and this is a combination of many factors. June 12 [1993 election] will be something that will be close to the 2023 elections. The participation in next year’s elections, given the level of awareness now, will be the first of its kinds in our history. The only election that will be nearer to it will be June 12. Nigerians want to take their destinies into their own hands. So, if anybody is making budget for things like this, they are just wasting their money and no INEC staff and official will be able to help anybody. The young people are now in charge at the polling units and another set of people will be in charge at the collation centres. Those are the people they should worry about and not the academics from the universities. I moved against some of these academics when I was REC and one of them is in jail for three years, a professor. These academics can change figures and so on and so forth. In any case, the system has also been designed as I told you in a way that whereas nobody can tell what people are planning, but they will, on the day, realise that every effort they are making will not work.

I would also like to warn people who think about vote suppression. This will not help them. In a highly competitive election, for instance the presidential election, you will need every vote in every polling unit in every ward across the country. So, if for any reason, you are so popular in your area or constituency and you think you want to suppress votes or you think in some areas where you know you won’t get enough votes and then you go and cause crisis there, you are going to undermine yourself and lose everything. People who feel they are so influential in their constituencies are the ones that are likely to lose votes because they are going to do things that will undermine themselves. As I have said, there are provisions of the Electoral Act, which I won’t mention publicly, that are meant to act as protection for the system and also to act as a sword. That is why many people are going to lose votes from their areas because the provisions are salient and they are there. It will be total invalidation [of votes] and there is nothing anybody can do. Every provision of the current Act, there is a thinking behind it. I have been part of the process since 2010 and we have had our proposals rejected a couple of times. But we thank God for the Damascus experience that the current set of National Assembly members had and we thank President Muhammadu Buhari for signing it into law. So, today, the new Act has secured INEC’s innovations designed to deal with historical challenges of election service delivery in the country. Never again will the political misfortunes of the elite be the misfortunes of Nigerians. Power is back to Nigerians and it is for them to know this. This is why I decided after disengagement that there will not be partisanship on my part. I will partner with all Nigerians to educate people on the ABC of the Act and the ABC of the procedure in our elections so that the people who have been empowered will now know that power is back to them. All they need to do is to go and get their PVCs. Nigerians should in 2023 make the 176,856 polling units their offices on February 25 and March 11, 2023. All of you should troop down to those offices because periodic election gives citizens opportunity to show that they are a freeborn to make a choice of who they want to lead them. I wish all of us the best of luck.

 


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