By Rotimi Oyekanmi
Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Mahmood Yakubu has assured members of the Administrative Board of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria on the Commission's resolve to conduct free, fair and credible 2019 general elections.
Speaking at an interactive meeting with the Catholic Bishops on Wednesday February 6 evening in Abuja, as part of the nationwide consultation with stakeholders on the Commission's readiness for the general elections, Prof. Yakubu gave a detailed background of the measures already put in place to ensure a successful outing. He said the Commission was determined to improve on the gains recorded in the 2015 general elections, just as he affirmed that only the votes cast by citizens would determine the eventual winners at the polls.
Responding to questions, he debunked some media reports making the rounds about the alleged centralisation of the recruitment of Collation and Returning Officers for the elections. He said there was no basis for the allegation in the first place, since Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) had never handled the recruitment of such officers.
Explaining the background, he said: “in order to protect the sanctity of the electoral process, INEC took a decision in 2011 not to recruit Collation and Returning Officers from among its staff, but from senior lecturers and professorial cadre in our Universities. This is what the Commission has done consistently. The Chairman of the Commission handles this responsibility. He liaises with Vice Chancellors under specific criteria.The Vice Chancellors submits names directly to the INEC Chairman, the submitted names are further vetted, before we finally engage and post them to the states. It is after we have finished with the process of engagement that we liaise with the RECs who then assign the Collation and Returning Officers to local government areas and constituencies where they are going to work.
“There was a reason why the Commission took that decision. There was a time in the past when, particularly in the recruitment of Collation Officers and most especially the Returning Officers, some people pandered to the wishes of politicians. The Commission then decided to centralise it and involve not only the universities, but also the Academic Staff Union of the Universities (ASUU).
“Since 2015, we have conducted elections into 195 constituencies and not on one occasion did the headquarters ask the RECs to recruit Collation or Returning Officers. This is what the Commission has been doing since 2011. I was surprised when I read the report. However, RECs have the responsibility of recruiting Supervisory Presiding Officers, Presiding Officers and Assistant Presiding Officers, mainly from the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) members, and when we have a shortfall, we make it up with students of tertiary institutions. So, there is no change of policy and there is no new policy. There is no truth in the allegation.”
On another allegation emanating from certain quarters that the National Register of Voters contains names of under-age or ineligible persons, Prof. Yakubu said that while the current Register was, indeed, not perfect, “it is the largest and most current database of Nigerians with photographs and full biometrics.”
Prof Yakubu also told the Catholic Bishops that the allegations about the existence of under-age persons in the Voters' Register gained currency after the Local Government election conducted by the Kano State Independent Electoral Commission (SIEC), when the social media was awash with stories, pictures and clips of under-age persons either registering to vote or actually voting during elections.
His words: “there was a composite picture on the social media. When we saw it, we were surprised because before the local government election, the Commission had conducted a bye election in the Minjibir State Constituency in Kano. In that election conducted by INEC, there was no single allegation of the prevalence of underage persons.”
According to him, before previous elections, citizens were required to register afresh. But the Commission stopped the practice since 2010. Since then, he stated, the Voters' Register was updated in 2014 for the 2015 general elections, and also in 2017 and 2018 for the 2019 general elections. He said: “It is robust and easily the largest database of citizens in the country with photographs and full biometrics. We believe that we should continue to clean it up instead of throwing it away and starting a new registration process.”
Besides, the INEC Chairman observed that each of the registered political parties got a copy of the Voters' Register since 2011 and none of them had ever complained of the prevalence of under-age voters in the Register.
He wondered: “So, what happened in the local government election conducted by a different election management body, the Kano State Independent Election Commissions (SIEC)?”
Prof. Yakubu continued: “We set up a committee to investigate it. We asked the committee to decompose the composite picture that circulated on the social media and then, we saw surprises. All the pictures (on social media) had nothing to do with the Kano local government election. Some were pictures of events that happened 11 years ago. The most interesting for me, was the queue of young small boys at an Internally Displaced Camp (IDP) in Bornu state.
They were given handouts. They cut the head and tail of the queue and it was presented as young persons voting in the Kano local government elections from the INEC register. Now, even if you have underage persons, you cannot have a polling unit of exclusively for underage persons. We saw this and we responded. I addressed a press conference, and when the agitation continued that we should publish the entire report of the committee, we published it online in March 2018 and since then, we have not heard a single comment.”
He also argued that the responsibility of cleaning the Voters' Register was not INEC's alone. He said while the law requires the Commission to paste the Register at each polling unit nationwide before the general election for claims and objections, Nigerians and political parties also owe it a duty to draw the Commission's attention to the names of ineligible persons for rectification.
He said: “We have been doing so consistently. After the last one, we received only a few comments from the states, I think 48,000 out of 84 million registered voters. Part of the difficulty is that we are very careful if someone says that one person is dead, because of the experience the Commission had in 2015. We received a letter from one particular political party that a candidate was dead and they submitted a Death Certificate obtained from a government hospital. They also went to court, swore to an affidavit and his family also attested to the fact that the candidate was dead. They filed all these documents at the Commission. A week later, the supposedly dead candidate turned up and said he was alive.”
On the National Collation Centre, Prof Yakubu reiterated the difference between the actual collation of the 2019 general elections results and the ad-hoc committee established to put the Collation Centre in place. He likened the Centre to an ordinary Event Centre that would house the Situation Room among others, for which the constituted ad-hoc committee has been saddled with the responsibility to putting all the structures and amenities it needs to function effectively in place.
His words: “What is a Situation Room? It is a place where we have our social media platforms, call centres where we take calls to listen to complaints people might have, details of the situation on the field and so on. It is a very boring place.
“Since the perception is that we might be up to something, which is why (according to the narratives), the Commission is unwilling to open up the place, we have decided to open up the situation room. We will give visitation rights.
“The Chairman of INEC is the Chief Returning Officer for the Presidential Election and I am not going to share that responsibility with anyone.”