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2023: More invalid registrations to be removed from voters register – Professor Yakubu

In this exclusive interview, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Mahmood Yakubu, spoke on preparations for the 2023 general elections, the…

In this exclusive interview, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Mahmood Yakubu, spoke on preparations for the 2023 general elections, the issues of election funding, challenge of insecurity, among others. Excerpt:

 

By Mannir Dan-Ali

 

Campaigns for the 2023 general elections have started; do you feel a sense of trepidation or fulfilment?

I feel a sense of responsibility and satisfaction. Recall that on February 26 this year, the commission released the timetable and schedule of activities for the elections.

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The elections will hold in two phases: the first one is what we call national elections—presidential and National Assembly, meaning that senatorial and House of Representatives elections will hold on February 25; then we have the state elections – governorship elections in 28 states and the state houses of assembly.

The governorship is holding in 28 instead of 36 states because in the other eight states their elections were held off cycle, like the ones we conducted recently in Ekiti and Osun states.

In the timetable we released early this year, we identified 14 activities between the publication of the notice for elections and the election day. And today, we have successfully accomplished 9 out of the 14 activities.  

Why does it seem as if this is the longest period of electioneering-related campaigns before the actual elections?  

It is actually a reality because previously, parties were required to submit the names of candidates to the commission, 60 days before the elections. In fact, we have up to 45 days for withdrawal for substitution and that has created a lot of challenges for the commission, and the responsibilities we discharge keep increasing. For instance, in 2019 we had 84million registered voters, our projection for 2023 is 95 million, and so, the responsibility for recruitment and training of ad hoc staff, the production of sensitive and non sensitive materials will increase on that basis.  

So, we approached the National Assembly and specifically requested for some extension of time between the conclusion of the primaries by political parties and the conduct of subsequent activities leading to the election day; and the National Assembly granted 180 days, which is six months.  

So they are very generous with the days?  

Although we asked for a year, they were generous enough to give us six months; that is why it looks very long.  

Parties have concluded their primaries and submitted the names of their candidates. We have published the final list of candidates for the national election as required by law.  

For the presidential and National Assembly elections, we have over 4,200 candidates. We are in the process of concluding the final list of candidates for state elections, which is going to be much longer and bigger than the national elections.

Professor Mahmood Yakubu

 

Don’t you think this is very costly for the country?

I think it is good. As our democracy matures, we will become used to certainty. What you have just said reminded me of the period before the 2019 general elections, when, in order to engender certainty into our electoral calendar, the commission decided that going forward, our elections would hold on February 3 of the election year.

For that reason we released the timetable one year to the elections, but people said it would distract the country and overheat the polity, but it is now accepted. It is the norm and practice in many countries. Every Ghanaian knows that December 5th of the election year is election day irrespective of the day of the week. In Kenya, they all know that elections will hold on the second Tuesday of August of the election year. In the United States, for instance, it is on the first Tuesday of November of the election year unless it happens to be the first day of the month.  

So much money is sucked up by public service and very little trickles down to do the necessary things for everybody. Would any of these in any way improve the quality of democracy in the country because you will find that there are pockets of despondency now?  

My responsibility is to conduct elections, and as you can see, there has been progressive improvement on the conduct and management of elections. It is clear now that with every election the process is getting better and more participatory.

So, as far as the commission is concerned, we have seen tremendous improvement. No one can say that the way elections were conducted in 1998 and 1999 is the same way they are conducted today. And we will keep improving.

There may be other issues that are beyond the electoral commission, but as far as we are concerned, I think there have been progressive improvements, and Nigerians acknowledge that.  

I understand that you have put a limit to campaign funding, such as N5billion for certain candidates, is that realistic?  

The limits are actually in the law. But it wasn’t N5billion under the old law, it is the new electoral act that set the limit for presidential and other elections —from governorship down to councillorship in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The FCT is the only part of the country where the INEC conducts local government elections. So, since the limits are in the law, they must be obeyed.  

There are also limits to what individuals can contribute to campaign financing. The party also has its own limitations as to what it can spend, including where the money is coming from and the responsibility for full disclosure for transparency.  

I have seen push-backs, especially regarding Nigerians who are based abroad, who want to contribute and who say they are being prevented by the law in terms of funding, how would you react to this?  

Well, the law is the law. It states that parties cannot receive financial contributions outside the country.  

From anybody?  

From anybody.  

Whether he is a Nigerian based in the United States, United Kingdom and wherever?  

That is right. And if there is any money received by any party from outside the country, such funds must be transferred to the commission. But there is another dimension to the foreign issue you have raised. At present, Nigerians only vote in Nigeria because the law states that you can only vote if you registered; and we don’t have registration centres or polling units outside Nigeria.  

However, there has been an advocacy by Nigerians living outside the country to be given the right to vote as is the case in many other countries, even in West Africa, but the law has not allowed that.  

We have also championed that cause because the commission supports Nigerians living outside the country to vote; and they are in two categories. You have Nigerians resident outside Nigeria, and that is the category called Diaspora Nigerians. But there is another category of out-of-country Nigerians who may be in Foreign Service or doing medical services overseas, or members of the technical corps. Like those who are permanently resident outside the country, they don’t vote.  

But as soon as the law permits that we should register them outside the country, we will work out the modalities for voting.  

You concluded voter registration some months ago and new voters are supposed to begin the collection of their cards this October, but it is said that over a million people were found to be fraudulently registered, what is your take?  

The first point to make is that these cards should be available for collection by citizens. We hope that by the end of October or early November they would be collected. We have consistently said so, and we are working towards that. Quite a number of the cards of new registrants have already been printed.  

During the registration exercise, there were complaints from various quarters that many intending voters were frustrated because there were limited centres. How are you going to distribute the cards to avoid such frustrating experiences?  

Well, we must admit that the number that turned out to register was overwhelming. What every agency like the INEC does is to rely on institutional memory of what happened.  

The commission registered over 14million Nigerians before the 2019 general elections and we had 1,446 centres. Our projection for 2023 was that more Nigerians would register; therefore, we increased the number of centres to 2,672 or so, but even so, towards the end, there was a big surge and we extended it to the end of July 2022.  

We made ample provisions, including, for the first time, online pre-registration for those who have access to smart-phones and internet and computers. But we appreciate the fact that not all Nigerians have access to these facilities.

In addition to the online pre-registration opportunities, we also had the physical or walk-in registration centres, including roving or rotational centres, but towards the end, there was a big surge.  

Now, regarding the 1 million we announced as invalid registration, the commission, after every registration, cleans up the data. In cleaning up the data, we remove those who are not eligible to be registered under the law – those who are below the age of 18, those who are not Nigerians, or those who have registered before. Nigerians are not allowed to register more than once, so we remove those who engaged in multiple registration. That was what we did. But that only covered from June 28, 2021 to January 14,  2022. Right now, we are cleaning up the data of new registrants from January 15, 2022 to July 31 when the exercise was suspended, until after the general elections.  

So you could have another big number of unqualified registrants?  

Most definitely, there is going to be another number to be added to the 1.1million we already cleaned up.  

The law also requires that once we do so, we should throw the register open to Nigerians for claims and objections by citizens. The law specifically requires the commission to publish hard copies of the register in all the 8,809 wards nationwide, as well as 774 local government areas. Now, the idea is for citizens to help the INEC to further clean up of the register.

We are about to complete the cleaning up of new registrants and add the data of eligible or valid ones to the existing register of 84million, then publish the entire register nationwide for citizens to help us clean it up further.  

Let me take you back to collection. How easy are you going to make it because you have a short window from November to, maybe January, for people to collect their cards?  

The registration process keeps improving.  

How easy would the collection be?  

We also have those who registered physically and provided the commission with their mobile telephone numbers, and in some cases, email addresses. So, one of the things we are going to do is to contact those who provided their mobile phone numbers and email addresses and let them know where these cards can be collected. We are also going to open a portal where people can click to locate where their cards would be collected. Thirdly, some civil society organisations have expressed interest to partner with the commission to make delivery of the cards to locations easier.  

We are operating on the principal of collection rather than distribution. If we distribute, it means that some people may collect by proxy, and from experience, the cards don’t end up in the right hands.

The onus is now on the registered voter to actually go and collect his or her card. And we will keep the uncollected cards. In other words, the cards will not be in the wrong hands.  

In the past, funding was a sticky point, have you got all the money you need for the actual elections?  

That is true. And learning from the experience of what happened in the past, we approached the National Assembly to provide a timeline by which funds should be appropriated, and as much as possible, released to the commission before elections. One of the progressive provisions of the 2022 Electoral Act is exactly that funds should be released to the commission, at least a year to the elections. We submitted a budget of N305bn for the elections, which has been appropriated and a substantial part of it released.  

That is why, when you came, you said you were looking at me without all the signs of anxiety and stress. That is because we have been doing fore planning.  

A substantial part of non-sensitive materials have already been contracted and some have started delivery. So we are not going through the kind of tension we went through in previous elections.  

So not all the funds have been released to the commission yet, but even if all the funds are release today, some of it will not be needed until next year. For instance, we won’t pay for logistics for movement of personnel to locations; we wouldn’t pay for personnel allowances until next year. We are comfortable where we are at the moment.  

Are you sure you won’t need additional money to conduct the elections?  

One cannot say so because one doesn’t know what tomorrow would bring up, but at the moment we are comfortable where we are. 

What about the foreign support the INEC normally gets from the European Union (EU) and other donors?

The donors support the commission in scaling up some of its activities, but INEC will not receive any money from any donor on sovereign electoral activities, for instance, sensitive materials and information communication technology. These are the responsibilities of a sovereign country like the Federal Republic of Nigeria.  

But they have been very helpful as development partners in capacity building, for instance. On some of the publications of the commission, inclusivity activities or voter education and publicity, we welcome that.  

But as a matter of policy, the commission doesn’t accept money from development partners. What we do is to discuss with them, develop our concept note, and if it is consistent with what they can fund, then they fund the activities. In other words, they don’t give us cash.  

In some cases we also augment because they don’t have all the resources to meet all the requirements of the commission.

Talking about information technology; how hack-proof is the INEC? This is a concern even to big countries like the US and others, so how prepared are you?  

Any organisation that operates an online platform is susceptible to hacking, but our defence system is very robust. But I am sure you don’t expect me to say exactly how we are going to defend our system on a national and international television because potential hackers, whether ethical or unethical, are also watching this programme. We are satisfied that our defence system is robust.  

Are you saying we are not likely to hear an excuse from INEC that hackers have done this or that because you are well prepared?  

As far as INEC is concerned, we are satisfied with the mechanisms we have put in place to defend our internet assets.  

What about where you would keep physical stuffs, such as papers and what have you? This is necessary because in the last few months, there was controversy about whether the commission is no more confident in keeping its materials with the Central Bank of Nigeria because of the partisanship of the governor?  

Let me make this important clarification: The commission has facilities nationwide, including zonal stores for the storage of critical election materials.  

But they are not as secure as the Central Bank, where currency notes are kept; don’t you think so?  

There are two dimensions to this. Basically you are talking about sensitive materials like result sheets and the ballot papers, but for us, there are other categories of materials considered sensitive, such as our ballot boxes, voting cubicles, BVAS. All these are in the custody of the commission itself, not any other organisation.

Coming back to the issue of the Central Bank, it hasn’t been an issue of security of the facilities. Since the commission started this partnership with the apex bank, we never had any breach or failure.

But for the reason you mentioned, before the Ekiti and Osun governorship elections, we handled these activities directly.

But next week, we are going to have a meeting with logisticians in Lagos. It is a thing we do on the eve of elections but we are going to discuss with them, including the armed services, labour unions, the Chartered Institute of Transport and Logistics, the Central Bank of Nigeria and many others, including commercial banks and companies, on the management of electoral logistics. I hope that at the end of that meeting we would make further clarifications. But our collaboration with the Central Bank has been a happy experience.  

Is it after this engagement that you would decide whether you won’t be keeping anything with the Central Bank this time around?

 It is after the engagement.  

Going by the experiences you have had with the BVAS, are you confident that you won’t have a big crisis when it is used all over the country?  

When we had issues in the first major deployment of the BVAS in the Anambra governorship election, there were few challenges, not just technological or technical. We also had issues with transportation because of the insecure environment under which the election was conducted. We also had challenges with some of the ad hoc staff that withdrew at the 11th hour and we had to replace them. We learnt lessons from the Anambra election.  

Yes, we had challenges in the FCT but we reviewed our processes. You can see that in the cases of Ekiti and Osun, we had no issues with the BVAS.  

So, I can confidently say that we have found a way to address the challenges associated with the initial deployment of the BVAS in elections.  

But to give citizens more confidence and assure that we are ready for the general elections, we are going to do a mock accreditation using the BVAS in selected states. In other words, we are not just deploying about 200,000 BVAS for the elections in 2023 without doing that mock test.  

At present, we are satisfied that we have done everything we are supposed to do to ensure that we achieve maximum or optimal functionality of the BVAS machines.  

How is the electronic transmission of results going to work?  

The issue of electronic transmission of results is going to be consistent with the provisions of the law. At present, what we do is to transmit polling unit results by uploading the sheets, the EC8A, copies of which are given to polling agents and the police. We upload this on the IREF portal.  

We started this in Nasarawa in August 2020 when we had a by-election in a small state constituency; since then, we have deployed the IREF portal in 105 offseason elections.  

Can it cope when it is used in national elections?  

Fantastic! In fact, right from Anambra, the speed with which we were able to upload the results from all nooks and crannies of the state has been appreciated by citizens.  

How are you going to deal with the issue of insecurity? This is because places like Katsina, Zamfara, Niger, Kaduna, down to a large chunk of eastern Nigeria, are experiencing one form of attack or another repeatedly, how would you conduct elections in those places?  

Well, I must say that it is a challenge, but there is no challenge without a solution. Our responsibility is to conduct elections. It is the responsibility of other agencies of government to secure the environment for us to conduct elections. We have been working very closely with the security agencies.  

The situation now is different from what it was in 2015 and 2019. In 2019 you could say that insecurity was largely confined to a section of the country, the North East, but it is now more widespread, and it keeps mutating.  

Sometimes an unsafe area today becomes safe tomorrow, and vice visa. Security considerations are the responsibilities of security agencies.  

Staff members of the INEC and your facilities are actually targeted as in eastern Nigeria.  

That is correct. Forty-two of our offices were targeted, not just in the eastern part of this country but in other parts as well.

But since June last year we haven’t recorded many incident of attack and destruction of facilities.  

We will continue to work with those whose responsibility it is to secure the environment for us to conduct elections. We are confident that this will be done.