‘Once today’s outing is salutary, all negative opinions previously held would dissipate’

Prof. Lai Olurode

Prof. Lai Olurode is a former national commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). In this interview with DANIEL ANAZIA, he examined the implications of the postponed February 16 Presidential and National Assembly elections to today’s polls and the need for INEC to deliver on its mandate

The postponement of last Saturday’s Presidential and National Assembly elections holding today has continued to generate criticisms from Nigerians. As a former INEC commissioner, what is your take on the issue?
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) deserves our sympathy rather than criticisms. It has enough to bite, more than it can deal with. No chief executive of an electoral bureaucracy would knowingly be in the eyes of the storm, insults, insinuations and damaging remarks, all of which may destroy hard-earned reputations of several decades. Let us concede the benefits of doubts to INEC and wish it the best.

The postponement must have been a hard and helpless choice. Yes, it had four years to prepare, but don’t forget that INEC isn’t completely independent of national, regional and international risk factors, some of which can throw spanners into its preparations, no matter how robust these might have been.

The imponderables and unknown risk factors can be intimidating.

Do you agree with the reason(s) given by its Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, for the postponement, especially logistics?
Logistics has a wide range of meanings; it is all encompassing. It could be failure to get ballot papers printed on schedule or deliver election materials to the polling units. It shouldn’t be about configuring the card readers. There was enough time to have accomplished that. Could it be about recruitment or training of ad-hoc staff?

Without being specific, it is difficult to assess the veracity of the ostensible reason(s). It is also not feasible to determine the culpability of INEC or other stakeholders in the logistic logjam and fiasco.

Could there have been an order from above? Was the postponement meant to accommodate late hour court decisions? We may have to await Yakubu’s memoirs to decipher the truth.

Why did it take the Commission so late to realise these inadequacies?
That is a million naira question! It might be the expectations that it could overcome the challenges or the fear of public reactions to postponement or its backlash.

Would last week’s postponement not affect the confidence on the Commission to conduct credible elections and the credibility of elections it is going to conduct?
Certainly, public confidence in INEC would have been eroded. INEC must also have created self-doubts in its staff about its state of readiness. But if it succeeds in conducting good elections without much fiasco and security challenges, self-doubts and low public confidence will dissipate. The end is what counts. But if in spite of the current rough means, the elections are marred by severe irregularities, INEC’s image may be permanently tainted and irredeemable.

With almost all the political parties, condemning the polls shift and expressing seeming lack of confidence in the election umpire to deliver, how do you think they would accept the outcome of the elections?
Whatever the outcome, INEC is the politician and political parties whipping boy. Only elections where political parties and political elites smart to victory are acceptable, otherwise, they are rigged. This is the mindset, no matter how credible; it is a warped and negative mindset.

Someone should be interested in conducting a psychosocial analysis of a typical Nigerian politician. It must turn to be a significant phenomenon.

As a former INEC commissioner, at what point does it usually dawn on the commission that all is not going well as scheduled?
In 2015, it was the federal government that said it could not guarantee security and insisted on postponement. INEC then had no room for manoeuvre.

In 2019, it was INEC that postponed on grounds of logistics and whatever other reasons and the decision to postpone was announced a few hours to the elections. It is difficult to know if postponement was on the table all along. If so, why were we led on as if elections would hold?

Why should the electorate come out today to vote in view of what happened last Saturday?
Nigerians should better realise that the global path to civilisation and development is through democratisation. We must not be despondent because of the postponement.

INEC itself must have been shattered by the resultant self-doubts, which the postponement must have provoked. Personally, I feel good that though the means may be rough, the end will be good. There will be light at the end of the tunnel of Nigeria’s electoral process.

Being apathetic or disillusioned won’t only derail our struggle for freedom. Let us not allow the initial robust enthusiasm to be dampened; we must aim at 70 per cent voter turnout.

Eligible voters should come out for two reasons. First, it is a civic duty and an expression of citizenship. Second, it is about making choices between the parties and thus participation in the decision making process.
Considering that the polls shift came barely five hours to commencement of elections, could it have been a deliberate ploy to reduce participation, especially for voters who had to travel to their places of registration, some of who may not go back today?

INEC couldn’t have further added to the ordeal of an average voter. Most electorate suffer to obtain voter cards and the actual voting experience may be a sad narrative for many.

Yes, it may become more expensive for people who would travel to the hometown to vote, but it is worthwhile making the sacrifice. In future, government should think of facilitating such trips through provision of public transportation.

Once we are desirous of improvement, we must remain positive and resolute that tomorrow will be better than today. A positive mind set is the answer.

During your tenure, did the commission experience such challenges and how did it handle it?
Of course, every electoral bureaucracy has both common and unique experiences. During Prof. Attahiru Jega’s time, three or so factors fed our interventions. The first is our reliance on science, the accumulated experience of previous commissions. We never sought to reinvent the wheel. Of course, we shared experiences all over the world. All new projects that we did were backed up by rigorous research.

Secondly, our national commissioners and the chairman, as well as resident electoral commissioners fought on logic and ideas about how and why. Our electoral process was research and data-driven. Above all, we were risk-takers.

Jega was never scared of playing along with crazy ideas, some boomerang, while others became innovative. He was good at building consensus, using all kinds of means, but he was not a hardliner though, as I had thought.

So, both science and discretion were combined to good end. Above all, I think Providence was our greatest success factor.

What is your advise to Yakubu to weather the current electoral storm?
He shouldn’t be discouraged by those uncomplimentary remarks. The focus of his commission should be on conducting ‘Grade A’ elections. Once Saturday’s (today) outing is salutary, all negative opinions previously held would dissipate. The commission may then become celebrated.

How can Nigeria overcome the issues of electoral violence, especially by youths, and vote-buying?
Vote-buying and election security are deleterious toxics in our electoral process. Indeed, they are election conundrums. Their overall goal is falsification of the truth-seeking nature of elections. These twin devils had been with us for long.

The way out is voter education and the realisation that Nigerians should not trade off their freedom to the highest bidder. Otherwise, they remain as slaves forever. Those wishing to exchange money or other consumables for our votes are our enemies who continue to exploit our poverty conditions to their own advantage. We must shun their money and commodities and remain peaceful during elections.

The way to escaping poverty is not by voting for ‘stomach infrastructure’ or immediate consumption, but voting for freedom, pride, truthfulness and development.

In the past, ordinary Nigerians themselves contributed to the sustenance of political parties. It was the spoils from oil rents that murdered our patriotic zeal and sense of volunteering. We can revive this immense social capital to counter the negative influence of moneybags.

Given the recent events, has INEC learnt anything from previous elections?
Yes, INEC had learnt a lot from previous elections, as it continues to build on the successes. Hiccups and faltering steps in the life of an institution are not signs of failure; these should be a lesson in institutional strengthening and consolidation.

Don’t forget that this is just our sixth general elections. Progress is being made. By the time of our 10th election, the election environment should be better and everyone would have become frightened by the prospects of democratic reversal. Democracy is after all a continuum. Nigerians must not feel helpless.

While planning the 2015 general elections, what were the challenges encountered, given a big country like Nigeria and the size of the electorate, and how did the commission tackle them?
Major challenges were related to logistics, security, training of ad hoc staff and voter education.

On logistics, we decentralised and allowed inputs from the bottom of the hierarchy. We knew that a vertical arrangement won’t produce the desired results, but a horizontal framework has better prospects of being effective.

On security, we simply revived our earlier strategy of Inter-Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES), which had been in place since 2010 through a workshop supported by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation.

Our collaboration with all security agents was superb and robust. We designed a framework for accommodating and facilitating the participation of internally-displaced people in the electoral process. Ditto with physically challenged voters.

Training of ad hoc staff was professionally handled. It had several challenges, including illegal substitution and abscondment.

Our voter education activities were community-focused and culture-centred. We tapped into embedded community assets.

There were attacks on INEC facilities ahead of the elections. What could have been responsible and how can this be tackled?
The attacks are barely two weeks old and will fizzle once Saturday’s (today’s) elections are good.

The postponement was the main culprit; they are natural backslash of frustration, which emanated from the postponement. The commission must be thinking of sanctions for those directly and indirectly responsible.

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