Still smarting from withering criticisms over its shoddy performance in the February/March general election, the Independent National Electoral Commission will face another crucial test this Saturday as it conducts governorship elections in Bayelsa and Rivers states. The areas are already tension-soaked amid ominous security reports and allegations of manipulations among the leading parties in the contest. However, INEC and the security agencies have to preserve the integrity of the electoral process.
The two states are among the seven where polls are staggered in the country, a mishmash that began after the 2007 electoral debacle. Many parties are in the polls, but the All Progressives Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party are the dominant players. In Bayelsa State, the incumbent governor, Seriake Dickson (PDP), is not on the ballot, as he is about to serve out his two terms in office, while his Kogi State counterpart, Yahaya Bello of the APC, is seeking a second term. Besides the governorship, Dino Melaye of the PDP and Smart Adeyemi of the APC will vie for a senatorial seat. Hitherto occupied by the former, the Court of Appeal nullified his election last month.
The two states are notorious for electoral violence; a fact already giving concerns to the INEC Chairman, Mahmood Yakubu. He declared recently that thugs were being mobilised within and outside the two states by politicians at an Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security meeting that reviewed the situation ahead of the polls. “There are already warning signals in the two states. Both are politically volatile,” he affirmed. In a seeming dress-rehearsal, thugs razed the headquarters of the Social Democratic Party in Kogi, a week to the polls. The building is said to be close to the state police command.
Such dreadful atmosphere, perhaps, informed the Inspector-General of Police Mohammed Adamu’s announcement that 66,241 personnel would be deployed in the areas: 31,041 in Kogi and 35,200 in Bayelsa. The Deputy Inspector-General, Operations, Abdulmajid Ali, in niggling over Kogi’s notoriety during elections, said, “We have taken notice of some flashpoints and we will be serious in these areas; more so, intelligence gathering revealed that some aspirants were also organising their armies. They sew uniforms of either (the) army or police for them but we have taken notice of this; we are going to take decisive action.”
Regrettably, since 1999, INEC has never got it right on logistics. As a result, electoral materials get to many pulling units late; in some cases, four hours behind schedule, while in some others, materials are in short supply. Vote-buying; thuggery; snatching and stuffing of ballot boxes; killings and compromise of electoral personnel have become permanent electoral infirmities.
These aberrations led to INEC’s adoption of some innovative electronic devices – card reader and permanent voter card – to check abuses in 2015 to the applause of all observers. But echoes of 2019 polls indicated subversion of the mechanism. Card reader machines were allegedly not used in some polling units. This bred confusion and lack of a level playing field for all. In some cases, violence set in. Therefore, INEC should strictly keep to the guidelines it has set for the elections to enhance fairness to all the parties.
Unfortunately, President Muhammadu Buhari seems not to have been above board on this score. He has approved N10 billion to Kogi State Government as refund for federal roads it executed, which critics say, is a design to tilt the pendulum in favour of Bello, his party’s candidate. Such action does not exude statesmanship. As the chief security officer of the country, he should be mindful of the fact that any electoral violence will, indeed be seen as a failure of the state on his watch to exert its powers through its institutions.
He has not moved beyond rhetoric in electoral reforms. When he inaugurated Yakubu in 2015, he charged him to sanitise the electoral process by ensuring that electoral offenders were punished, citing thuggery, snatching of ballot boxes, rigging and nullification of results by tribunals as unwholesome trends that should not ravage elections anymore. On the eve of the last general election, he warned ballot-box snatchers to be ready to pay with their lives. Eventually, they made nonsense of his threat. After the polls, the irregularities of which he had been a serial victim – in 2003, 2007 and 2011– ought to have gingered him into action on systemic electoral reforms.
Security agencies should discharge their duties professionally. Unfortunately, security personnel have increasingly become partisan during elections. The 146-page report by a Technical Working Group, which the National Human Rights Commission empanelled on the 2007 and 2011 polls, said the tribunal discovered that “the evidence of the witness is that police officers were, in fact, doing the shooting, the thumb-printing or the ballot-stuffing.” The 2015 and 2019 elections were not better.
Buhari should fully implement without further delay the recommendations of the Muhammadu Uwais report and other reports on electoral reforms, among which is the establishment of a commission to handle all electoral offences. The electoral reforms should be ramped up beyond the card reader and the PVC, legacy of the former INEC boss, Attahiru Jega.