A National Commissioner of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Barr. Festus Okoye, in this interview monitored on Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State (BCOS), speaks on the commission’s preparations for the governorship elections in Edo and Ondo states. FELIX NWANERI brings the excerpts:
What is your advice to politicians and electorate in Edo and Ondo as the governorship elections in both states draw nearer?
I will only say as it has been popularized; ‘election no be war.’ We must conduct ourselves in a manner that gives credibility to the electoral process and also conduct ourselves in a manner that does not endanger the safety of anybody. Let the political parties adopt the new media and new strategies in terms of their rallies and campaigns. The media has been very generous in terms of publicity in these elections. The social media is there, posters and billboards can be utilized, so that physical gathering will be reduced to the minimum. The electorate and electoral personnel must wear their facemasks to the polling units. Anybody, who does not wear a facemask, should not come to the polling unit. We are talking about face covering. We advise our people to obey security agencies, election officials on election days so that we can conduct these elections without endangering the health and safety of our people and this is very paramount. As a commission, we are determined to conduct good elections in health and in safety.
The coronavirus pandemic has come to change the way we do many things in the world. How is INEC reacting to the new reality?
INEC did not wait and did not sit on the sidelines when the issue of the COVID- 19 pandemic started. We had what we call end of tenure elections that are constitutionally circumscribed. Based on that, we decided that it was in the interest of the Nigerian people and our democracy and in the interest of constitutionalism for the commission to begin some level of conversation on the way forward in relation to conducting election under a very uncertain circumstance in uncharted water. That was the basis for developing our own policy guidelines and code of conduct for our elections ahead, even amidst COVID-19. We have adapted this code of conduct/guidelines and these have resulted in some of the alterations and amendments in the guidelines and the way we are going to run the elections. We were thinking ahead and we believe that we are really ahead of so many commis-sions and agencies in terms of trying to see how we can live normal life under a very abnormal situation.
Pictures coming from Ondo and Edo have been showing people gathering in large numbers. How do you intend to manage this during campaigns, rallies and the elections?
The conduct of election and the management of election are what I call a ‘multi-stakeholders venture.’ No single institution, individual or entity can really manage the conduct of elections in Nigeria. We are facing a novel situation, which nobody envisaged. The implication is that the political parties, the media, civil society groups and organisations, security agencies, the commission and the electorate must engage in collective responsibility and collective action to ensure that all of us remain safe when we hold the elections. We have advised the political parties to also develop their own guidelines for rallies and campaigns. And that their own guidelines for rallies and campaigns must also conform to the protocols and guidelines released by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 as well as some of the amendments to the laws made by the various state governments. So, everybody must engage in collective responsibility and action for us to put through this particular period. Societies are moving ahead and other countries are moving on. Individual and collective responsibility is very key to containing and defeating this pandemic. So, we have encouraged and will contin-ue to encourage both the political parties and the citizens to imbibe the culture of obeying rules, regulations and guidelines for us not to endanger the health and safety of the Nigerian people.
How do you want to ensure that people, especially the commission’s staff, will be safe in the process?
People always make mistake that INEC has all the powers in the world. The commission, yes, has powers donated to it by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and by the Electoral Act and its own regulations and guidelines. The Nigerian Police Force, as the lead agency in charge of election security has all has its own powers and responsibilities in securing elections during the pre, main and post-election activities. The same thing applies to other security agencies that are under the umbrella of Inter-agencies Consultative Committee on election security established by the INEC. So, it implies that we have a responsibility to organise and superintend elections, but maintaining law and order at the polling units and also making sure that people obey the laws is the exclusive responsibility of the police and the other security agencies in the country. What we do is to provide a framework, guidelines and regulations and insist that every other agencies and parties that have the responsibility for securing the elections do their own part in relation to the electoral process.
Our people are known to be impatient, especially during elections. How feasible will it be for the commission to implement the avalanche of plans towards conducting elections amidst the pandemic?
It will be presumptuous to expect 100 per cent compliance with our rules and regulations. But, what we are doing is to engage all the critical stakeholders in relation to the situation on ground. We will do our awareness campaigns. We do not have an option in relation to the end-of-tenure elections in Edo and Ondo states. These are elections that are constitutionally circumscribed. Section 178, sub-section(2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria gives us the time frame within which we must conduct the elections in Edo and Ondo states. For the election in Edo State, whatever it takes, the Constitution states that the election must be conducted on or before the October 13, 2020. And for the election in Ondo State, the Constitution states that election must be conducted on or before January 15, 2021. We cannot conduct the election in Edo State on October 14, 2020. That means we are engaged in an unconstitutional act. And the Constitution has not really given us a guide on what to do if the commission fails to conduct these elections on the constitutionally circumscribed dates.
Some people have viewed that we need to suspend the elections altogether and wait till we have a better situation when the pandemic has subsided in the country. What is your reaction to that view?
Now, there are two issues involved in this. The first is this: If you look at section 180 of the Constitution, it states that “the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria can intervene and suspend elections if the country is at war in which the territory of Nigeria is physically invaded.” The president can suspend the election and then extend the tenure of the incumbent for a period of six months in the first instance. Here, there is a challenge. With this pandemic, can we say that Nigeria is at war? Can we say that the territory of Nigeria has been invaded? Then, we also have section 305 of the Constitution that gives the president and National Assembly the power to declare state of emergency in any state.
The provisions of sections 180 and 305 of the Constitution are completely outside the control of the commission. They involve political and legislative actions and the commission has nothing to do with it. Our position and brief is to conduct and superintend the elections and Section 178, Sub-section(2) of the Constitution states that we cannot conduct election in Edo and Ondo states earlier than 150 days and not later than 30 days to the end of tenure of the incumbent holders of the office.
These provisions are cast in stone and are unmovable. The day the tenure of the governors of Edo and Ondo states ends, they will vacate the office. They are not submitting any letter of resignation. When the governor and the deputy of each of the states leave the office, there will be a vacuum and the Constitution has provided who fills the vacuum. So, we don’t want Nigeria to get into a constitution crisis. And the implication is that we just have to go on with the elections. If we don’t go on, it is outside the control of the commission. It becomes a political matter between the president and members of the National Assembly.