Two recent governorship contests in Kogi and Bayelsa states, overseen by the newly-appointed Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Mahmood Yakubu, witnessed unimaginable challenges that should get all stakeholders thinking about the unfinished business of how to make our electoral process better. These polls, declared inconclusive after the first ballot, practically served as official inauguration of the electoral helmsman. Indeed, the task ahead is enormous.
Before the Kogi election could be completed, the standard-bearer of the All Progressives Congress, Abubakar Audu, suddenly died. It was a befuddling experience for INEC, just as the people of the state were thrown into confusion. Both the 1999 Constitution and the Electoral Act never envisaged such a tragedy, thus creating a void.
Protests had greeted INEC’s approval of Yahaya Bello as Audu’s replacement for a supplementary election. Bello has since been issued with a certificate of return as the winner of the controversial poll to the chagrin of James Faleke, the running mate to the deceased. He has gone to court to challenge the decision, preferring instead to be declared the winner, just like the Peoples Democratic Party candidate, Idris Wada.
Before Audu’s demise was made public, irregularities in 91 polling units had prompted the Returning Officer, Emmanuel Kucha, to cancel results from the affected areas. With the margin of lead between the APC candidate and his PDP counterpart lower than the number of registered voters in the affected polling units, results were cancelled and polls declared inconclusive in line with the electoral guidelines. The APC had polled 240,867 as against 199,514 votes for the PDP, to establish a 41,353-vote lead. But 49,953 voters had registered in the troubled area, with about 35,000 having the Permanent Voter Card, a requirement that qualifies anyone for the ballot.
But it was a different kettle of fish in Bayelsa State. Election results were cancelled only in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area in the December 5 poll, while results in seven other areas had been declared, with Governor Seriake Dickson of the PDP polling 105,748 votes, against the 72,594 votes garnered by Timipriye Sylva of the APC. INEC has just fixed January 9, 2016 as the date for the supplementary election.
It is difficult to comprehend why an election monitored by over 40,000 security operatives, comprising 14,000 police personnel, 10,000 from the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, and over the 20,000 members of the Joint Task Force domiciled in the Niger Delta Area was blighted by violence engineered by militants hired for such a dirty job. The Inspector-General of Police, Solomon Arase, and other security high commands re-located to the state to ensure that the exercise was hitch-free.
Yet, a band of hoodlums in just one LG area – Southern Ijaw – was able to overwhelm the high number of security operatives on duty, to create this electoral debacle. It is a sore point that should not be overlooked. Charges of complicity have been levelled against the Army by the governor, which the security outfit swiftly denied. The Army, which set up a panel recently to critically look into its role in the staggered Ekiti and Osun states governorship elections and others that preceded them, should break with its ugly past of getting into the fray during elections; and be above board during the supplementary poll.
However, INEC was dead right in cancelling compromised results from the troubled area. Election is a democratic contest, whose outcome should reflect the will of the people. No more, no less! Shooting, ballot-snatching and stuffing and taking electoral officials hostage are criminal offences. Therefore, the rogue political agents that attempted to hijack and pervert the wishes of the Southern Ijaw people should be punished in accordance with our Electoral Act and other laws. The commission’s fixity on rules should be sacrosanct; we expect this to guide its conduct of the rescheduled poll.
Yakubu ought to realise by now that the integrity of the 2019 general election will be better protected or preserved if he uses the Bayelsa poll to bring electoral offenders to book. President Muhammadu Buhari, who was miffed by the country’s penchant for sweeping electoral offences under the carpet, had emphasised the need for change when Yakubu was sworn in two months ago. He should not waver.
Besides, just as the efficiency of the Card Reader machines was an issue in the March/April elections, so it was in the two recent polls. Now is the time for INEC to return to the drawing board with the manufacturers to find how to make the machines function seamlessly. While the Election Tribunal and Supreme Court will ultimately resolve the Kogi State electoral logjam, the constitutional challenge it raised should be responded to by the National Assembly before the next general election.
Equally critical is finding out why electoral materials still reach the polling units late. If security is suspect in a single election that maximally tasked the energy and resources of INEC and the Federal Government, there is then the overarching need for the umpire to re-examine its administrative capacity to conduct hitch-free polls.