By Dapo Akinrefon
Barrister Mike Igini was, until recently, the Resident Electoral Commissioner, REC, for Cross River and Edo States respectively. In this interview, he bares his mind on the use of the card reader for the 2015 general elections. Excerpts:
It has been a while and Nigerians would like to hear from someone like you on so many defining issues in the country like the outcome of the 2015 elections and expectations in 2016.
Regarding our involment in election management from 2011 up till the generals election of 2015, l would say that, despite the apolcalytic projections either about the elections or about the country going under on account of some devisive issues, the successful transition of Nigeria from same-party democratic consolidation to opposition party democratic consolidation, which is not very common, especially in our continent, is indicative of progress and we should congratulate ourselves as a people and a country.
You see, no matter how deeply wounded or triumphant we may be at any point, politically, this shows that we can take steps to make progress despite our challenges. Unfortunately, as we speak, countries like Burundi and Rwanda are currently undergoing very dangerous political endeavors of third term projects tinkering with their Constitutions, these negative exemplars in our continent graphically underscores the significance of the price of the peace we are enjoying here consequent upon the successful 2015 elections even though not perfect. We must, therefore, cherish it and avoid actions that may reverse the gains of that successful threshold that we have crossed.
So you believe the 2015 elections remain the most defining issue
To be clearer and more specific, the 2015 general elections etched into global democratization discourse with huge commendation, and so are the dramatis personae because Nigeria, as Africa’s largest democracy and the world’s largest black democracy, crossed a crucial landmark contrary to the assertions or views of global scholars like Michael Bratton, Linz & Stepan to Staffan Lindberg and others who are hesitant to give Africa credit for institutionalizing the democratic process. Indeed and, at best, credit for democratization to Africans have been grudging. But the 2015 elections have shown that we can do it if all critical stakeholders agree to work together to consolidate a number of electoral tools that we have developed such as the use of the card reader in the designed election management system with the key seven principal business areas.
For those who understand the whole enssence of the embrace of democracy, election or the selection of leadership only represents the minimum idea of democracy. The maximum or higher objective of democracy is development. But you cannot build a house if you have not made good plans and laid a solid foundation. The solid foundation for democratic development is in developing enduring institutions and a credible electoral process is at the heart of that foundation. For democracy to be fully consolidated, we require a free and active civil society; freedom of speech and a free but responsible investigative press committed to its credo of the peoples right to know ; the rule of law to ensure legal guarantees for citizens’ freedoms; a very sound bureaucracy; and an institutionalized free market economy with certain degree of regulation by the state to safeguard the weak. We have made some progress, but development is a continuous process, we cannot do everything at once, we must therefore prioritize institution-building, because it should be top on the priorities of democratic nation-building.
The outcome of the 2015 elections that you people conducted and the issues that arose therefrom are still the issues defining public discourse. Is it possible to have petition-free electoral outcome like in the United States of America and other developed countries ?
We can have petition-free electoral outcome if the understanding by those who seek public offices is truly to service the common public good and not for self-aggrandisement borne out of the mentality of what is now called “do or die” with its attendant disregard for human life by arming thugs to kill people in order to “win” election. Petition-free election should be the direction we should be heading as a people and a nation. As I always say, a petition-free post-election period will be the ideal that election management should aspire to, just as it has been in the U.S except for the year 2000 Florida saga and in the United Kingdom where, for about 99 years, all election results were accepted from the polling units as annouced up to the final point of declaration of a winner.
That for us should be the “gold standard” but for our different contextual background, one that was characterized by many years of mismanaged elections and a lengthy period of minimalism and “structural capture” of the electoral laws. That background naturally breeds suspicion and lack of trust by the electorate and key stakeholders , hence election results are subjected to much circumspection by tribunals adjudication, often spanning into years until the amendment of Section 285 of the Constitution that has now abridged the time to 180 days at tribunal level, Appeal Court 60 days and Supreme Court 60 days.
It is instructive to note that since the 2011 and the 2015 elections, the number of post-election petitions have dropped significantly. This should continue as free, fair and credible elections remain the condition-precedent for a sustainable democracy. If we keep on this path of progress, that indicator of good performance by INEC since 2011 will lead up to low or absence of post-election petitions in the forceable future.
You were a major promoter and advocate of the use of the card reader in our elections. How has it impacted on the electoral process and what is the future of card reader in Nigeria’s elections?
While I was one of the principal advocates, it must also be noted that everyone agreed that it had the capacity to improve the integrity of elections in Nigeria. The Commission had the support of government and made huge investment in the card reader project and it should be consolidated. As expected, whenever there is an innovation of any form, there will be legitimate fears over the impact, but it is a tool and an electoral solution to one of the key challenges of our electoral process, the challenge of a credible voter register.
Incidentally, some who resisted the card reader only expressed concerns that it should not be used deliberately against their political interest, which, of course, is not meant to do. Its purpose is to add value to the electoral process by limiting the outcome to the choice of voters who present themselves to vote.
Beyond a few places where obviously the card reader was by-passed as evidenced in the kind of figures shown as indicated in our reports of the 2015 elections, if we examine critically the credible margin of election results, figures from recent elections and the more recent ones in Kogi and Bayelsa, from those declared, showing a reasonable and realistic reflection of voter turn-out, which are credible, dignified figures, we can say hopefully today that the era of invidious moon-slide and landslide bogus election results are fast becoming a thing of the past in this country. This is what the introduction of the card reader has brought to our electoral system and we should acknowledge that the card reader has brought a tremedous resurgence of hope and fidelity unequaled in our quest to give meaning and purpose to the voter register.
There must be a relationship,traceable link between the card reader recorded number of accreditation and the ticked numbers on the register of voters. The voter register is the most important tool for making election outcomes credible, it is like a credible and reliable scientific research which relies on the “sample frame”; it is the touchstone that gives assurance to the fact that the ballot, as expressed in an election, arose from the physical presence of eligible voters at the polling unit who delegated part of their sovereignty temporarily to elected officials.
Election is about voters electing those they want to lead them, and a credible voter register helps to ensure that those who vote are the true eligible voters, the card reader, which authenticates the voter identity, helps to make the voter register more robust and resistant to moon-light and landslide bogus figures. Therefore, anyone who wants the progress of this country and who supports credible election results should not go against credible voter authentication which is the work of the card reader.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, recently made remarks over disturbing conflicting tribunals and Appeal Court judgments on the use of the card reader. Are you worried about the conflicting positions of the tribunals on the use of the card reader and what it portends for the future?
Indeed, I am not only worried but I’m also very concerned over the setback to our electoral system, and speaking generally in the best tradition of our legal profession, not being specific on matters before any court, the implication of some of the tribunals outcome intended to shoot down the use of the card reader as some of my fellow lawyers involved in petition matters are determined to achieve is worrisome. By urging tribunals to strike down the use of the card reader, the implication is a return to our prior election system, going back to the 2003 and 2007 era where Mike Tyson, dead people and ghost names on the voter register produced huge votes recorded on election day to declare people winners of election.
This ugly and terrible state of our electoral past is what the card reader was meant to cure and ensure that only those eligible voters with PVC physically present at voting stations duly accredited only would be given ballot papers to vote.
The card reader is to complement and confirm the integrity of the voter register and that is why the unusual moonlight figures of the past years are disappearing and, if those against the use of the card reader succeed through the court, that would be a major setback and total reversal of the reformative mileage we have covered as a country on election matters, a significant progress that has resulted in other African countries calling on Nigeria’s INEC for assistance.
More disturbing, are the conflicting judgments of the various Divisions of the Appeal Court on the use and status of the card reader. The Supreme Court is now the only hope for the future use and sustenance of the card reader to sanitize, promote free, fair and credible elections in this country.
There were some Nigerians who opposed the use of the card reader for the 2015 elections and the discordant tunes from tribunal rulings and senior lawyers involved in these matters some of whom described the card readers as illegal. All these would seem to suggest that the court would now be used to strike down the use of the card reader. What is your view on this possibility?
As I said previously, I will speak from a generic viewpoint, we must keep in mind that the “legislative framework” for election is a composite of four key authorities, namely and in order of hierarchical authority: The Constitution, the Electoral Act, judgments of courts of records particularly the Supreme Court; and the derivative guidelines for election approved by the election management body and l’m talking of INEC.
As for the card reader, after the Chairman then, Professor Jega, went to the National Assembly to put to rest doubts about its use, there was no legislation against the use. On record, there is videographic evidence of its use and the statutory alternatives to the use are well defined in any election involving the use of the card readers. Where it is not used, there should be evidentiary proof of a form filled indicating why it was not used, because the whole point is to authenticate the voter. The matter of discordant tunes on its use from election tribunals is disturbing as expressed by the CJN. If a process is meant to improve the integrity of the electoral process, judgments that shoot it down cannot advance the cause of our development; it means we have chosen a path of regression to the era where elections are decided by unsavory self-help in bloating the voter register with strange names on the part of politicians. We must bear in mind that one of the greatest promises for the embrace of democracy is empowerment of citizens in order to participate actively .The card reader is meant to empower voters, and any decision against the use of the card reader is an act that dis-empowers voters.
Given the potentials the card reader has for disinfecting the process with the scrutiny of authentication of the voter register, all those who stand for genuine electoral reform have no choice but to improve the enabling policy ambiance for supporting the card reader by ensuring judicial clarity which supports its use. The current incongruent decisions by the tribunals must therefore be put to rest with an unequivocal declaration by the Supreme Court, and it is the prayer of all who want to see credible elections endure in Nigeria, that the decision of the apex court gives undisputed support for the card reader, an election tool which was budgeted for, resources allocated and the allocation approved by the National Assembly, this being the universal process of policy implementation. An implemented policy is de jure law.