Voting buying has become a disturbing feature in elections in Nigeria, as observed most recently in the November 6 Anambra governorship election. However, speaking with PREMIUM TIMES a few weeks before that election, the Resident Electoral Commissioner for Rivers State, Obo Effanga, says the phenomenon also indicates an improvement in the electoral process. Follow his argument and other observations in this excerpt from the first part of the interview.
PT: The 2023 general election is just over a year away. Is INEC up to date in the preparation for that election?*
Mr Effanga: Yes, there are various stages leading up to the main election proper, and we are on track with the things we are doing. Right now, we are doing the continuous voters registration and we are cleaning up the voters’ register to ensure that those who are qualified to vote are on the register and they are also where they can vote. Because, from the last registration process to now, there are people who have moved from where they were staying and need to transfer to new places. So we are allowing them to do that. There are also people who were not up to 18 or were not able to register then and are trying to register. That is going on smoothly.
PT: At what point are you going to close the register?
Mr Effanga: This is supposed to end sometime next year in June, I think it is 30th, I am not sure. From that point, we will close the registration.
PT: Recently, INEC created new polling units across Nigeria. How is that going to impact the preparations for the elections?
Mr Effanga: If you recall, the last time polling units were created was in 1996. We just created new ones 25 years after. Within that time and now, a lot of things have changed with the geography, population movement. Let us look at Abuja for instance. The population of Abuja as of that time, if you look at the census record for 2006, I think the population of Abuja was less than one million. Now, we have more than that. More importantly, we have new settlements, a lot of the estates you have now never existed. And that is also true across the country. There are a lot of places where people were not living but people are living there now. Up till now, if they have to vote in an election, they go a long distance to be able to vote. But with the creation of new polling units, we will ensure that they are closer to the people. And we used a scientific method and that is why it worked this time, not that the electoral commission had not tried to create new polling units before now.
If you recall in 2014, before the 2015 general election, there was an attempt to create polling units, but they ran into a hitch when it was politicised, so they had to suspend it. Before now, the plan was that a polling unit would have like 500 registered voters. So what we were doing before now, like in the 2015 elections, any polling unit that had up to 750 registered voters, we had what you call voting points created out of the polling unit. It is part of the polling unit. So when we now needed to create more polling units, all we just had to do was that every voting point would be converted to a polling unit. So that way, it was very easy to manage the system.
We engaged the civil society groups, we engaged the political parties, we engaged the security agencies, we engaged the media and explained to them. So if you have a polling unit, say 3000 registered voters, you just divide after the first 750, how many more voting points exist, and convert this to polling units. And when you convert them, you will now decide where you site these polling units.
PT: Are you using the new units in the next elections?*
Mr Effanga: Yes, elections will be held in those new polling units.
PT: How many new units do we have overall?
Mr Effanga: Before now, we had 119,000 polling units in the country. Now, we have about 170,000 plus polling units.
PT: The National Assembly has now passed the Electoral Act Amendment Bill. One of the provisions allows INEC to transmit election results electronically. Do you think you have the capacity and facilities to do so?
Mr Effanga: Yes. The commission has actually come up with a paper on that. They made the argument and said this is what we are capable of doing. We have done it before. For instance, what we did with elections, from last year, you would see that there is a process of transmission that has happened, electronic transmission of results. Because, once an election is concluded at the polling unit, the election result is entered in an appropriate form, a photograph of the result is taken with the device we are using. Once the results go for collation at the ward collation centre, once that result has been admitted, it is uploaded into a portal that anybody, anywhere in the world can see the results.
Interestingly, in 2011, I remember that I was outside the country, I was about to come back from my master’s study, and I was following the election in Nigeria, and then I saw the process in the presidential election, where the results were now brought physically by the resident electoral commissioners and the state collation officers to the national collation centre, and they were reading out the results one after the other. And at a point, they would say they are waiting for other states to arrive. I found it very ridiculous, that we will wait till that point of people bringing results physically for you to do the collation when once an election has ended at the polling unit, or even if you do the manual collation up to the state level, why do you need somebody to bring it physically? At that point, it is already known to everybody, everyone already knows the result of that state.
Why must somebody bring the result physically? You can as well transmit it, even if it is to snap it. And now with all the technology we have, you can send it by email and then people at the other end can pick it. The kind of drama I see when an election comes, everybody acts as if the world is coming to an end. So if I decide to keep my phone here, someone can say, why did he keep his phone here? That I must have kept it here because I am giving a signal to someone. All sorts of crazy desperation comes in, and then people want to dispute everything. I find it a very uncomfortable situation. It is like everything you do, people don’t want to believe it.
PT: Is it because the electoral process has not earned the trust of the people*?
Mr Effanga: I agree that a lot of things have happened in the past that shows that the electoral process has not been as accurate as we may want it to be. Like I also said, the election is a reflection of who we are. The success of an election does not only depend on INEC. In fact, what INEC does, may be an infinitesimal part of what makes it a success. I do tell people, on election day, after all the planning, after all the discussion, negotiation, explanation briefing with different stakeholders, it looks as if it is the entire system that is against INEC. Sometimes, even with officials, you cannot be sure of the people who are within the system. For instance, sometimes, you may not be sure of the security agencies, whether they are working for the success of the election or not, and we have seen it happen a number of times.
Who are the people who conduct the election in the real sense? It is not INEC staff but ad hoc staff. We don’t have control over them, to a large extent. Apart from the money we are going to pay them, we do the training. So if each person who is involved in the process, if I am or if I am a youth corps member involved in this, and I see this as an important process in the country, that my action goes a long way in sustaining the country that I belong to, then I will act honestly.
Then you also have the collation officers who are brought in from the tertiary institutions, mainly the universities. There is a level of expectation you would have in a normal society about somebody who is a lecturer in the university; that the person acts with the highest level of integrity, especially when it comes to election which determines who gets elected and governs.
So you have all those people, then you have the political parties, who are the number one beneficiaries of the electoral process. A lot of times, they act in such a way that they want to muddle up everything. And it is in their best interest that things are seen as being done properly. But they would want to muddle up things so that if they lose, they will say we knew this thing wasn’t going to work out, because look at all the things that happened, the manipulation. But when they win even after all that, they will see victory for democracy! So you have the political parties and the politicians who are working against the interests of a credible election, many of them.
And then you go to a community where the election would be conducted. Even a regular voter, who should be interested that things are properly done, finds a way of causing confusion. We have gone to conduct an election, sometimes, or carry out activities of INEC, and some young people in the community, saying they wouldn’t allow the election to go on or the process to go on until they are settled by the politicians. And the community would actually tell us that, ‘sorry, please just give us time, let us try and manage these people, you know, then we will discuss’! We had a situation before the last election, you know what, when we finished all these registrations, there was a time that we went and pasted the list of voters in the units in the wards for people to come and check. Maybe there was a mistake in your name or something, what we call the time for claims and objections. We wanted to do this and it was going to last about four days.
In one community, I got information that when our staff went there to conduct that, the young people said they were not going to do that activity unless the community elders settled them. And the community elders actually told our staff to beat a retreat until when they sorted it out, they would invite them. So you ask yourself, who benefits from that? These are the same people who would complain that some other people have more votes than them. And this is an opportunity that benefits you. So sometimes, I think that there is a detachment of the people from the electoral process, not realising that what happens there eventually affects the quality of governance they have.
PT: You must have followed the last local government elections in Kaduna State. What do you think about the use of electronic voting machines?
Mr Effanga: That was the second time that they were doing that. I noticed the first one and I thought that was a very good development. They continued again this year. In 2017, I was part of a delegation from Nigeria, on the invitation of the Electoral Commission in Venezuela that invited us to participate in the election. So I was in the country for the presidential election, and I saw the process. They used the electronic voting machine too. It is very effective and it is something we can do in Nigeria. And I know that eventually, that will happen. I remember that immediately before or soon after the last general election, the Commission had actually opened up on that and some vendors of electronic voting machines had made presentations to the Commission. So the Commission has options of which one to use eventually when we can do that. It is something that we can use.
But you see, what I also tell people is that there is so much that technology can help you achieve – it is definitely better than manual. But at the end of the day, the success of it will also depend on the humans who are involved in the process. And the humans would include the electoral officials themselves, the political parties, the security agencies and the attitudes. I don’t want to sound like I am looking at doom. But when you see people who are desperate to manipulate an electoral process, I tell you, there is nothing they cannot do to ensure that that happens.
So even if you have an electronic voting machine, I might even suggest something like the ATM that we have now, you will be shocked to hear that
people deliberately went to destroy that machine or it has to do with some other methods, just want to manipulate. Or even if they can’t do that, what stops them from stopping people physically from going to vote? And we have seen this happen sometimes when people want to suppress votes. It has happened. So, how would that be addressed?
PT: Last year, INEC launched several platforms such as Z-pad. How effective have these initiatives been?
Mr Effanga: Yes. In Edo, Ondo and all the other elections, that is what we have been using. But now, the new device that we are using is more sophisticated and faster. And I will explain to you immediately how we can confirm that. Last week, INEC announced the number of registered voters in Anambra elections and also announced that, with the new device we are using, it is faster to do cross-checking to pick out multiple registrations. And in Anambra State alone, we have identified 62,000 multiple registrations. So by the time we do this across the country, you will be shocked at the figures. So there is improvement in the process and the technology we are using.
PT: In Anambra and most parts of the South-east, INEC’s and other public facilities have been destroyed by insurgents. To what extent are you
feeling such in Rivers?
Mr Effanga: We have not had any in Rivers after the last general elections. We have not had any such facility attacked. And I hope that we would not have such situations.
PT: So the environment is conducive for your preparation for the next elections?
Mr Effanga: So far, we are doing well. If there is any problem, it would just be the general security situation that could happen, not necessarily linked to politics. For instance, the day we started the physical aspects of this registration in the first quarter, there was an incident in Rivers State where some youth were protesting the delay in the construction of the East/West road. So for local governments that you have to pass through that area to go and start, it was delayed. We eventually started that same day, but in some of those places, it was later in the day. So those kinds of things could happen and then we have to find a way of reacting to them.
PT: What level of control does INEC have over military personnel deployed to cover elections?
Mr Effanga: In terms of conduct of elections, deployment of personnel and materials to location, that is an INEC decision. We let them know the locations we are going to use and they now inform us of how many personnel they are going to deploy to those places. Now, at a polling unit, let’s start from there. At every polling unit, the person that calls the shot is the presiding officer. He determines how the arrangement is made and who comes to vote, so he manages all of that. And the presiding officer there is usually the youth corps member. So he can ask the security agents to address any situation or if somebody is unruly, you can ask the security teams to please take the person out, for instance. But you see, some of the things you see, may not necessarily happen in the polling unit.
Because this issue of too many arms in the polling unit led to an understanding that at a polling unit, nobody should be there armed. So even the security personnel assigned to polling units are not armed, they don’t carry firearms. Then outside the polling unit, there is a wide area where you can now have armed policemen and all these other security agencies that sometimes include soldiers. Their work is to be there, if there is a need to move in and provide safety, if there’s violence, they can move in. But it is not to be policing polling units. And then after the election, you now go for collation, the ward coalition, local government coalition, depending on the level of election, and those places too are supposed to be secured as much as possible. You will have armed people trying to secure the outer perimeter, but inside should as much as possible be left for civilians and people who are working in the civil manner.
PT: So, what level of responsibility should INEC bear in this, keeping in mind allegations of interference by security personnel?*
Mr Effanga: You know there is this committee that INEC set up, the Interagency Consultative Committee on Election Security. At the national level, it is chaired by the INEC Chairman and co-chaired by the Inspector General of Police and all the security agencies sit in that meeting. At the state level too, it is chaired by the REC with the police commissioner as the co-chair, and then we have the representatives of the security agencies. So we have regular meetings to discuss these strategies for the election. But you see, the truth of it is that those people, what I would call the rogue security people that get involved in this manipulation, sometimes are not within the immediate control of even the representatives of these security agencies in this committee. You will have some politicians that are influential and try to bring in a special unit of the security agencies to come and undermine the election. So, that happens. And it is not something that INEC can address. Of course, we don’t have a supervisory authority over security agencies, they have their command structure.
And then when this is identified, we expect the command structure to be able to deal with those. So when we had the election in Rivers State, the last governorship and House of Assembly election in Rivers, the violence became so much after the election and we had to suspend the process. And then eventually, when they were going to continue and there was going to be some supplementary election, where election could not be held, one of the things that INEC did was to identify some of the security officials that from our records and from reports, we had cause to believe that they were not working in sync with us to deliver on credibly or that they were involved in those acts of violence, we told the heads of the security agencies that this particular person, we don’t want him involved in the process, and they made sure that happened.
PT: How is INEC addressing this issue of vote-buying?
Mr Effanga: There are two ways I like addressing this issue. The first point to make is that the reason we have an increased number of vote-buying is because more and more, the votes are counting. If you recall, before now, politicians wouldn’t even bother whether there is an election or not when they know that they can just write the result. We have passed that stage of just writing results. Because the result has to reflect the number of people who voted and the number of people who voted will depend on what the smartcard reader recorded as people who were accredited to vote. So the votes are counting and now the politicians see a shortcut route to getting people to vote for them is, ‘why would you waste your time trying to explain to people why they should vote for you when you know people are hungry?’ So, just pay that money? So I wrote an article once where I referred to our system as transactional. So at every point, people just want what would this cost to pay you off and all that. Now when we talk about vote-buying, a lot of times, people are focusing on what I will call the retail end, the individual that goes to vote and they give money. But what about the bigger people in the vote-buying value chain? So when an influential person in a state, or the governor of a state tells a presidential candidate, ‘don’t worry, in my state, we have 1.5 million registered voters, I assure you, that you will get this’. We hear that said. So those people would have given some money to these influential persons, huge sums of money to go and work in their states, or go and work in your local government. Go and deliver your local government or in your state, or your ward, or your polling units to this party. What do you think that delivery means? How are they made to deliver? They are given huge sums of money to try to use it to buy votes. So before the election, you see a lot of largesse being distributed: rice, cooking oil, even for some people wrappers, or even wearing T-shirts and caps at rallies. For a lot of people, that could mean the reason for voting.
But I also tell people that the responsibility of the electoral umpire is to provide an opportunity for voters to come and vote. Nobody has a right to ask you when you come and vote ‘why are you voting for this person?’ You may have 1001 reasons. It could be because the person is your friend or your brother. It could be because the person assists you monetarily at different times, or has promised that he will assist you. So at the end of the day, it is the individual voter’s choice how he or she wants to put whatever the reason for that. But what becomes obscene is when on Election Day at the polling unit, or the environment, people actually come and pay people to vote. So now that becomes not a problem of INEC as such, but it’s a societal problem. On Election Day, the key responsibility of the election officials is that people come and vote and he counts that vote. So when people say, ‘but there was vote-buying’, are you saying that you would prefer that election officials not concentrate on the people who have come to vote and run after people trying to buy votes or sell votes? At best, what you can do is to draw the attention of the security agencies, let them handle that.
PT: You have drawn a line saying this is not our responsibility. But it is your responsibility based on the Electoral Act.
Mr Effanga: I remember I said there are different levels of vote-buying. But when people focus on what I call the retail, the last point, at that point, the most important duty for the election official is for the people to vote and he or she counts the votes and records them. Not the reason they voted one way or another. Because there will always be 1001 reasons, including the fact that…
PT: So how are we going to stop that obscenity?
Mr Effanga: That is why I said it is a societal problem. How do we determine who we support for anything? Do I support someone mainly because we went to the same school? I support him because we attend the same church, or we are of the same faith? It will rely on a lot of civic education for people to know that who eventually occupies a position of authority in governance will affect a lot of things, including the cost of living, and then they try to make the right choice. But not to limit the votes to who pays more.
PT: INEC has shown a lack of capacity or lack of willingness to enforce the campaign financing law. Why?
Mr Effanga: You know what my personal opinion on this cap on campaign financing is? We are running away from reality. Even if you say one trillion, or it is as low as one million, how is it possible to track all the spending related to elections? A lot of the money that is spent during elections may not come through the political party or the candidate. You are a candidate in an election, somebody who was your classmate in secondary school is putting banners and posters saying that this guy was a head boy and he is the best student from our school, support him. Your brother-in-law is campaigning, the best brother in law in the world. The community where you live, youths are giving you awards and money is spent in having these events. This is part of what is going to campaign financing even if they don’t call it that. Media houses are giving awards to politicians. Governor of the year, Minister of the year, everything of the year. All of these build up to issues of campaigning. Or the governor decides that close to election time, that is when he wants to visit all the local government areas and thank them for all the support they had given. How do you track all this?
Also, look at the number of political parties. To what extent can anybody who wants to try, be able to track all those things to the last limit? So truly, when I see those things, it is just like we are wasting our time, because some of these rules they place in the Electoral Act, in the practical application of it, it is just like when they would say, monitoring the activities of political parties. And you have like, now we have 18 political parties. Very few of them are very strong and have structures. Have you ever asked yourself how some of the presidential candidates in the last election emerged as candidates of their parties?
They didn’t follow any process? Even Nigerians are not bothered about it.
They are only looking at the major political parties. I know some people who were for all times they were in this political party tried to get the ticket, when they did not get it on the last day, you heard that this other party has given him this ticket. What primaries were done for that person to emerge? So, I think that, as a lawyer myself, I also think that you don’t make law for just making sake. If laws cannot be implemented, then you are just wasting quality time to make these things. And interestingly, these politicians making these laws know that they will not work. So they come with all sorts of difficult to implement kinds of laws.
PT: Are you saying we should not limit campaign spending?
Mr Effanga: There is an issue about it. But I’m just wondering, just like the examples given, it will be so difficult.
WATCH: Governor Yahaya Bello's Roadmap to Hope 2023