Rivers State is ill-famed for bloody electoral violence, which evokes fears whenever elections are to hold in the state. In the December 2016 rerun polls, it took weeks for the Independent National Electoral Commission to announce all results after violence engulfed the exercise. The last February 23 presidential and National Assembly elections were affected by violence which forced declaration of no voting and failure to collate results in six local government areas.
As the state goes into the governorship and state parliamentary elections opening tomorrow, PREMIUM TIMES’ Taiwo Hassan Adebayo, joined by campus journalist Chiamaka Okafor, interviewed the Resident Electoral Commissioner for the state, Obo Effanga, at the commission’s head office in Port Harcourt.
Mr Effanga spoke on the challenges of conducting violence-free elections in the state as well as our observation that ad-hoc staff were bribed by partisan interests in Port Harcourt.
PT: The last elections on February 23 in Rivers State were affected by widespread violence and irregularities. How prepared is INEC for the governorship and state assembly elections now?
Effanga: INEC has always been prepared. The previous violence recorded was not caused by INEC. However, we are working together with security agencies to make sure the elections are peaceful. We also implore stakeholders, party candidates and agents to conduct themselves in an orderly manner and also pass the right messages to their supporters to vote and not in any way try to disrupt the process.
We are a part of the inter-agency consultative committee on election security. We are discussing with security agencies and fashioning out how best to address some of the security concerns.
PT: It is primarily the responsibility of the security agencies, the police mainly in fact, as you have mentioned, to ensure a violence-free election. Since February 23, what has been the level of engagement with security operatives especially against the background of the allegation that these security operatives interfered with the process?
Effanga: We had that discussion, and the inter-agency committee on election security had a meeting on Monday where we had some of these discussions of what went wrong, what went well, and what to do as we go into the next election. Even at the national level, you will know that the commission has had a meeting with security agencies concerning security issues during elections.
We cannot now become too involved in the process of handling security, we are not trained in that aspect, there are those who are experts in that, and we still rely on them.
PT: We were at a collation centre for the last presidential election where two electoral officers separately made direct allegations that the military came to disrupt the collation process and the military has since not responded. Has there has been any form of explanation to you on what happened by the military.
Efanga: The security agencies are aware of the allegations and counter allegations but what we are committed to doing is to ensure that the process is not disrupted as we go to the election tomorrow. We still rely on them to do what is right.
PT: They said soldiers disrupted collation exercise… and some (of your INEC) officials were compromised…
Effanga: Just like many have alleged the interference of the military with the process, I do not have evidence on that and cannot do anything for now, but just like the national commission said after the election, we need to sit back and review as a commission and as a country how elections are conducted in this country.
It is unacceptable that when we talk about the election, we think of violence, people being cautious and the likes especially in Rivers State. This is a narrative that needs to be changed. Like I always say to the people of Rivers, it is their state and their responsibility to change it.
PT: Are you bringing any disciplinary action against any of your staff who is involved in any form of compromise?
Effanga: Yes, if we find any of our officials guilty of allegations. We cannot stop the election to go into an investigation. At the end of the exercise, when investigations are carried out and concluded, necessary actions will be carried out.
PT: Will the same collation officers from the previous elections be used?
Effanga: No, collation officers and returning officers are part of the ad-hoc staff and not INEC staff. So, where we have cause to worry about an officer’s capability or integrity, we will not hesitate to drop anyone. There were many trained officers, and not all were deployed so we can always choose from others.
PT. We observed elections and was at several wards in Port Harcourt and INEC ad-hoc staff were compromised. They were paid by partisans during the election on February 23 and between that Saturday night and Sunday morning at the collation centre, Elekahia primary school. Are you not concerned?
Effanga. I am just hearing this for the first time.
PT: A few persons I spoke with said they were not paid early enough by INEC. So do you think that the alleged delay could make them vulnerable to compromise?
Effanga: I do not think so; people who are ad-hoc staff already know how much they will be paid and the certainty of such payments. Some of the payments were made before the training, and some are still being paid.
We made this clear at the training that what is due to everyone will come, we could not afford to pay people, and they will not turn up on the day of the election. We have had such instances in the past. So if someone says he/she collected money because of non-payment, I do not see that as a good excuse.
PT: Was there an orientation for the ad-hoc staff on the essence of staying neutral and mot being compromised?
Effanga: There was an orientation for the staff, and each swore to an oath of neutrality, and if we have evidence of such we will hand them over to the security agencies and have them prosecuted.