Ngige, Tam-George say challenges not insurmountable with political will.
The process and the outcome of the November 16 governorship elections in Bayelsa and Kogi States remain a moot point. Consequent upon the outrage that the elections is still eliciting amongst the citizenry as a result of the high level of brigandage and brazen acts of manipulation and rigging, not a few concerned Nigerians and accredited election observers believe that electronic voting would be the antidote to cure the ills in our warped electoral process. As a result, major stakeholders have canvassed urgent signing into law by the president, Muhammadu Buhari, the amendment to the Electoral Act which would legalise the use of smart card readers for accreditation. After a curious rigmarole of the bill between the legislature and the executive, Buhari, to the utter dismay of many Nigerians, withheld assent on the ground that the amendment was coming too close to the 2019 general elections. Political observers and members of the opposition however suspected self-serving and less than patriotic motive for the president’s action. Given the widespread indignation that trailed the outcome of the Kogi and Bayelsa States governorship polls, strident calls for the adoption of electronic voting became even more vociferous as a way of preserving the sanctity of the ballot box in subsequent elections.
But if the signal from the nation’s election umpire is anything to go by, the adoption of electronic voting anytime soon may not be feasible. The Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC gave an indication to this effect weekend on a television programme monitored by the magazine. Fielding questions on Channels Television current affairs programme, Sunrise Daily, Rotimi Oyekanmi, chief press secretary to the INEC chairman, Mahmood Yakubu painted a gloomy picture why electronic voting at this time would be somewhat a mirage or at best a tall dream.
Though he admitted that “this electronic voting argument is a very brilliant one” Oyekanmi asserted that “it is not as easy as people think”. He went on to enumerate certain initiatives embarked upon by the Commission in anticipation of the Electoral Act amendment by the eighth Senate, and why electronic voting would be an uphill task. According to him, “the INEC chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu led a very strong team to the Nigerian Communications Commission and NICOMSAT to discuss the gray areas concerning electronic transmission and voting hoping that the Electoral Act would be amended. Now, the NCC is the regulator of all the service providers and it then turned out that there are several blind spots not covered at all by these service providers. And remember, INEC has got almost 120,000 polling units across the 774 local governments in this country. So, effectively, if you are going to transmit word and images, there must be enough strength in the network to be able to do that. Therefore, every polling unit must be able to transmit directly to a central place where all these things will be collated. But the service providers then told us that they don’t have the capacity yet. So, what then happens if we, for instance, conduct presidential election which is one constituency and we are not able to transmit results from all the almost 120, 000 polling units? What happens? That is one”.
Speaking further, INEC spokesman said there are also other external factors. “There is cybersecurity issue. We’ve all been witnesses to what has happened in recent time. Even with the United States election, the accusation against a particular country of interference and all of that. How do we ensure that the fifth columnist don’t hack into our system to destroy the process because you know polling units are supposed to open at 8 o’clock and close by 2 pm and then we have all the processes at that time. How do we ensure that we protect the network across the entire polling units across the 774 local governments throughout the period that we are going to have this election? That is another issue. So, unfortunately, the Electoral Act could not be amended so we had to revert to the existing law which still emphasizes manual conduct of the election process. So, we are as enthusiastic as Nigerians are”.
Further casting doubt on the possibility of electronic voting, Oyekanmi posited that while Nigerians have expressed a lot of hope that this type of system could be adopted, “we also need to look at the pros and cons of electronic voting because it is not as easy as people think. You have to provide infrastructure. There has to be electricity; you have to look at the way the weather functions. If the rains start falling, for instance, depending on the time of the year that the election is held, what happens if there is a melt-down in the network in a particular part of the country?” Concerning card readers, the INEC spokesman said: “even for the smart card readers that we use, we have to take, according to the area of strength, the different networks that are strong in different areas of the polling units”. Recalling the commission’s experience in Osun State, Oyekanmi said “in Osun State when we conducted the governorship election, we discovered that there are very different areas of strength for the service providers. Where one is strong, the other one is weak. So, we had to now understudy the areas where a particular one is strong, and we took those Sim cards for that particular area, and then the other place where another one is strong, that was what we did”.
These notwithstanding, the election umpire said electronic voting is “something we are open to, and once the will is there, once the law is amended, once the infrastructure is provided, we will go ahead and adopt electronic voting”. Emeka Ngige, senior advocate of Nigeria, SAN, and chairman, Council of Legal Education, did not, however, share Oyekanmi’s seeming pessimism. Recalling an example of the last election of Nigerian Bar Association, NBA Lagos branch in which electronic voting was adopted, Ngige suggested that “INEC should adopt electronic voting in our national election with manual back-up so that if the electronic voting is questioned, you can use the manual back-up to corroborate what you have done electronically”. Austin Tam-George, former commissioner for information in Rivers State, aligned with Ngige’s position, asserting that there are no obstacles as enumerated by Oyekanmi that cannot be overcome. Tam-George, communication and public service consultant, asserted that “If we want to make sure that we have extensive telecoms penetration across the country in order to have credible electoral process, we will do it if there is a will” stressing that “what is lacking, I think, is that there is no political appetite to have credible and transparent electoral process because it favours certain key political actors at the moment”.
Responding to criticisms that electoral offences had continued unabated because nobody had been brought to book, Oyekanmi said it was unfortunate that there is no provision in the law that empowers INEC to arrest and investigate electoral offenders, noting that the only organ that can do that is the Nigerian Police. “So, what we do is to work hand in hand with them to ensure that these culprits are brought to book. Arising from 2019 general elections, we have received some case files, about 16 of them from the police, and we will now jointly prosecute the culprits hoping that we’ll be able to conclude the case. So, we depend on the police to be able to carry that out”. He underscored an urgent need for the establishment of electoral offences tribunal as recommended by all the committees set up by the Federal Government in the past – the Uwais, the Lemu, and recently that of Ken Nnamani. Oyekanmi said the commission is happy that the current National Assembly is well disposed to doing that and hoped that they would expedite action so that those who commit electoral offences can be duly arrested, prosecuted and jailed if that is the case.
Oyekanmi found an ally in Ngige who agreed that it has never been the duty of INEC to handle electoral offences prosecution. he believed that when that commission is created, it would handle everything.
Ngige would, however, want sanctions of electoral offenders to go beyond arrest and prosecution and agreed that t political parties should be held accountable for their actions. According to him, “there was a particular country, I’ve forgotten the name of that country now wherein 2008, the political party engaged in rigging of election and the matter went to their apex court. In nullifying the election, the court proscribed the political party based on what they had done in the election. I recommend it for this country”. The senior advocate of Nigeria who had handled briefs on election petitions posited that “the onus of proof does not require climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Beyond reasonable doubt is proveable, particularly those that are documentary; or even the violence that you see, with the aid of video, people now record things as they happen. I tendered it at the tribunal”.
By and large, Tam-George was of the view that “we’ve reached a point of national crisis where we need to put partisanship and political acrimony aside and ask fundamental questions of electoral reforms, about voter education, about punishing people who perpetrate violence acts….. We need to have a very serious national conversation concerning the quality of what we call our democracy. We need to have a passionate and honest debate about exactly the kind of country we want”. As far as he was concerned, “what we call election these days, frankly, could better be called “competitive rigging” whereby “the major or ruling political party simply rigs out the opposing political parties. They just try to rig, and out-rig each other. So, what we have is competitive rigging rather than elections”.
Tam-George opined that the more fundamental consequence “appears to be that it affects the quality of leadership that we have, not just at the national level, but across the states. .. I think we’ve now reached a very critical point in our political crisis that we need to have a national debate. What type of country do we want? This is not democracy, frankly. Democracy means a government that represents the widest possible wish of our people. But we do not have democracy. What we have is some kind of civilianization. We have civilians in all structures of power…” The communication and public service consultant wrapped it all up by saying “sometimes, I remind people that the stone-age did not end because people ran out of stones. The stone- age ended because people invented metal and that led eventually to the industrial revolution. By the same token, if we really want a transparent and credible electoral process, we will see light at the end of the tunnel, not darkness at the end of the tunnel”.