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INEC, media, stakeholders brainstorm on credible elections

[FILE PHOTO] INEC chairman Prof Mahmoud Yakubu

Is it possible to conduct a free, fair, credible and violence-free election going by the experiences Nigeria has had in election processes since the country returned to democratic governance in 1999? The question becomes even more germane in view of the history of election processes since the country attained independence in 1960. It was largely why civil rule was truncated in 1966 and 1983.

This was a question in the minds of many at the Post-2019 General Elections with the Media summit, organised by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Lagos on Monday. The meeting was aimed at addressing some of the grey areas of the exercise and projection for the future.

Since the Professor Mahmoud Yakubu-led INEC took over the electoral processes in the country, after the defeat of erstwhile President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015, the umpire has faced critical challenges of which the role of the media, especially social media, has become critical and worrisome.

One of such challenges is the 2019 presidential election won by President Muhammadu Buhari of All Progressives Congress (APC). But the former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, candidate of major opposition PDP is challenging the outcome before the Election Petition Tribunal. Aside the fact that the opposition party is claiming the election was rigged and also tailored to favour Buhari; INEC is also joined in the suit. Atiku and PDP are claiming that the umpire’s election result transmission server has a contrary result to what was declared.

There are also other challenges INEC encountered in the various gubernatorial elections held across the country, just as it is not spared in the National Assembly and state Houses of Assemblies’ elections. For instance, the recent verdict of the Supreme Court over the rerun governorship election in Osun State last year still remains a moral burden for INEC; the by-election of Kano State and in other areas are still raising concerns.

But more importantly and part of the reasons INEC is collaborating with the media in particular and other stakeholders for the review of the last general election is the role the media should play in election process. While speaking at the meeting, Yakubu assured Nigerians of the commission’s determination to consider all necessary recommendations made to shape future elections in the country, especially the upcoming Kogi and Bayelsa elections in November.

The umpire chairman assured media stakeholders that whatever input it got from the meeting would help to shape future elections, beginning with the legislative by-elections in Plateau State next month. He further noted that European Union (EU) made 30 recommendations, which the commission would look at with a view to implementing them.

Yakubu also expressed concerns over the rising wave of fake news and its complications, but he commended the recent workshop organised by European Centre for Electoral Support (ECES) on fake news. He also commended the commitment of International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) to election processes and monitoring in Nigeria.

According to him, “The challenges of election process cannot be solved by INEC alone. It is a stakeholders’ issue that includes the media, political parties and the National Assembly.”

However, welcoming guests, the Residential Electoral Commissioner (REC) in Lagos State, Mr. Sam Olumekun, commended media professionals for their support and synergy throughout the conduct of the last general elections. He said the media delivered on its role of sensitising the public about the electoral process. He, however, noted that more efforts are needed to address fake news and its negative impact on election.

According to Olumekun, “The role of the press is to bring to light the activities of the voting class, which is the electorate, the political parties and their manifestoes and the messages that would determine the choice of citizens.

“In Lagos we have 6,520,000 registered voters with 245 registrations areas and 13,423 voting points in the last general elections while the commission recruited 60,560 ad hoc staff. In terms of contest, there were 78 presidential candidates; as you are aware, there were 54 senatorial candidates in Lagos, 276 for the House of Representatives while a whooping 640 contested for the state House of Assembly. We have 45 candidates who stood for election for the governorship. We commend the press for the support for the commission during the election.”

He lamented that INEC is being treated as a solve-all-organisation, stressing that it is now common to blame the commission for every fault and shortcoming during election. He expressed surprise that people also blame the commission on low voters’ turnout, political violence and nomination of candidates and others.

According to him, “Nobody has asked the question, ‘where are we in terms of election conduct in 1999 and today?’ I think those issues must be looked into and faults should be situated in proper perspectives and not just INEC.”

Also tasking the media on the need to support the umpire, the National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Mr. Festus Okoye, said the commission needs the support of the media in reshaping the perception of the Nigerian public in relation to its intention and ability to conduct free and fair elections.

According to Okoye, “The commission is aware of the reach of the media in election process and coverage and its outcome in communicating activities and programmes of different commissions, agencies and parastatals, and organs of governments to the public. As some are aware, INEC does not have a printing press or a radio station but it relies on the goodwill of the media in getting it programmes and policies across to Nigerians.

“In relations to social media, the commission has stepped up with over 1.2 million voters on Twitter and over 300,000 followers on Facebook, but they are still working hard to convince more people in this sector. While information gets to the public, the quality, content and slang of using information is also critical. In other words the stories, information and news that get to the public and the understanding given to such information shape their perception of such policies and programmes and processes. The commission knows and believes that line editors and editors are fundamental to the type, contents and slang given the stories and information communicated to the public and we continue to engage the media on better understanding of policies of the commission’s programmes.”

He noted that the 2019 election offers the commission and major stakeholders in the electoral process an opportunity for reflection and appraisal of the issues that attended the election.

He noted, “The conclusion of nomination processes, the voting phase, declaration and return of candidates as well as the swearing in and inauguration of the executives and legislative arms of government offer an opportunity to warehouse the purposes of the election, and improve on them for conduct of future exercise.

“It offers us the opportunity to appraise the challenges in the election and adjust on the issues and processes that did not work or did work well. This also offers us the chance to deliberate on how to conduct credible election in Nigeria.”

Okoye added that while it is right and rational to alter the constitution and amend the laws to take care of new and novel issues in the electoral process on issues that might have risen or likely to arise as maybe contemplated by the lawmakers, “we must be careful not to fall into the trap of believing that every electoral challenge must be solved or resolved through constitution of electoral amendment.

“We must acknowledge that constitution and legal operations and amendments alone cannot solve the challenges in electoral process. The faults in the electoral process must include improvement in the administration and management of the election. It must include the change in attitude and operation of major stakeholders in electoral process and their commitments to play by the rules. It must include fidelity to the law and the constitution and fair and unambiguous action for violation.

“As the country looks forward to four governorship elections, ordered by-elections and others, the media, civil society groups and political parties, executive and legislature must dish out areas of the constitution and the laws that are problematic, ambiguous and where we have lacuna should be harvested and presented to the National Assembly for legislative actions.”

But in separate presentations, the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) flayed the role of security agencies in elections in the country and the poor process of accreditation of journalists for election coverage by the commission. President of the guild, Mrs. Funke Egbemode, who was represented, said the excesses of security agents in election also indict the umpire just as she expressed displeasure over the manner in which journalists are always manhandled by security agents while reporting election.

The guild also urged the commission to boldly point out to any political party, when the primary selection process of candidates is faulty.

Chairman, Lagos State NUJ, Dr. Qasim Akinreti, said the commission should design a better way of accreditation of reporters to cover election, which he suggested should henceforth be done in collaboration with the union to ascertain fake and genuine journalists.

But expressing concern over the danger fake news poses to election process in the country, the commission’s Chairman, Planning, Monitoring and Strategy Committee (PMSC), Dr. Muhammed Mustapha Lecky, said spreading of fake news or alternate truths is regrettably finding its way to mainstream media.

According to him, “We are indeed in very perilous times with the penetrative, instructive misuse of social media which has become the order of the day. Whereas these new media platforms provide avenues and possibilities to deepen participatory citizenship, information and knowledge sharing inclusively and empowerment, the reverse is increasingly the case, as people resort to social media as their primary source of information, enabled by the ubiquitous of internet.”

Lecky further noted that the commission’s aim for organising the meeting was to comprehensively evaluate the conduct of the polls in order to learn vital lessons that would facilitate a review of policies and programmes to create inputs for a roadmap for future elections.

He said: “INEC is undertaking these series of exercises and review meetings as part of its comprehensive Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis.”

President of the European Centre for Electoral Support (ECES), Ms. Monica Frassoni, who described the role of collation and returning officers as “crucial,” also observed that it was important for ECES, which supports INEC in various capacities to hear from them about what happened during the polls and how the situation could be improved.

She said: “As a former member of the European parliament, I understand very well the crucial role the collation and returning officers play in the electoral process and the responsibilities that go with it. The interests of so many stakeholders rest on your skills, experience, integrity and bravery. Through your support to the democratic process, there is also a very clear mark of your commitment to your country.

“It was a matter of very big regret and perhaps a little surprise that some of you and your colleagues found yourselves under certain pressure and attacks in several parts of the country, with the attendant consequences. We are working in several countries of the world and we do understand and see that the situation in Nigeria is particularly challenging.”

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