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As Nigerians head for the general elections with bated breath and cautious optimism, a few niggling issues about the electoral process have inevitably been thrown up. The preparedness of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the alleged connivance of the security agencies to postpone the general polls under the guise of operations against terrorism, the unseen hand of their Commander-in-Chief (who some say is afraid of defeat, hence needs more time to re-strategize), and the lingering but unasked question as to whether all these will end well for the most populous black nation on earth.

It is indubitable that the Nigerian state has been fighting against this particular brand of terrorists nicknamed “Boko Haram” since the days of President Musa Yar Adua’s headship of the nation, a fight his hitherto deputy, but now President, Goodluck Jonathan inherited. From a rag-tag civil disobedience in about three (3) Local Government Areas in Borno State, Northeast of Nigeria, the insurgents have gained more grounds stretching from Borno to Yobe and to Adamawa, covering over 14 Local Government Areas – all under President Goodluck Jonathan’s watch, since February 9th 2009.

From 1999 till date, Nigerians have been having periodic elections, with the 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011 elections still fresh in their minds. About a year ago, INEC had published its electoral time-table fixing the Federal elections for 14th of February, 2015 with the State elections slated for 28th of February, 2015. The nation and the whole world had a year’s notice to prepare, so did the security agencies and their Commander-in-Chief, President Goodluck Jonathan.

A couple of days to the said 14th of February, 2015, the security agencies reiterated their preparedness to provide security for the general polls, alas, much later than that, they had a change of mind – they just realized they were certainly billed to be engaged elsewhere. Their reason being that they just discovered they had special anti-terrorism operations in the Northeast of the country and would appreciate it if they were not distracted with the so called general elections. To certain keen watchers in the polity, it was an amusing coincidence that the “lack of security” card was swiftly played after the PVC angle failed to convince the Council of State and Nigerians on the need to postpone the elections.

The pertinent question is: who is afraid of the conduct of elections? Certainly, not Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, the man adjectived by his supporters as the “Best Nigerian President Ever”, the man who has transformed Nigeria, the man who brought back trains to their rail-tracks, after they derailed for over 40 years under the administration of those who did not even “buy a single rifle” for the military when they were in power.

True to type, some Nigerians are cynical, and will not be convinced otherwise. They obviously did not buy the military exercise excuse, since in their minds the military that could not defeat the dreaded Boko Haram sect for the past six years cannot be expected to do so in six weeks. Anyway, being highly religious, “miracles are possible”, they mutter under their breathe.

Nigerians and the Rumour-mongering Industry

The “news” on the streets is that being uncomfortable with the independent-mindedness of Professor Attahiru Jega, the Chairman of INEC the almighty powers of the Nigerian state intend to replace him with a pliable fellow who will ensure victory for some vested interests. How do they intend to achieve this? Ah! Professor Jega whose tenure ends sometime in June 2015 will be asked to embark on the civil service procedure of three (3) months terminal leave, close to the end of his appointment. By the calculations, the terminal leave ought to commence by March 1st, 2015. (You see! The street-boys have all the “infos”, even the provisions of the civil service rules, as well as the Gregorian calendar mathematical calculations too!) All these permutations of ouster are being done in the middle of fiercely contested general elections! Odiegwu!

Nigeria have always outlived persons who assumed the role of demi-gods, it will not be any different, this time. Power is so transient. History tells us so.

The small matter of the Permanent Voters’ Card alias PVC

On previous occasions, from the 1960’s up until now, elections have been conducted with the aid of manual technology.

Traditionally, the system have been one with manual registration of voters, ballot papers, ballot boxes, print-out of voter’s register, and manual counting of voters standing on queues in the accreditation process, preparatory to voting. These have had their attendant and catastrophic by-products of ballot-box snatching, violence, thuggery and multiple thumb-printing.
However, with the passage of time comes the evolution of technology and dynamism in modus operandi. In present times, the world over, elections are conducted with the aid of electronic machines; the usage of these technologies reduces or erases the errors and criminalities linked with the old system. With electronic voting also known as e-voting, voters’ registration is conducted electronically with the biometric data of registered voters stored in a database created by the electoral commission. The permanent voter’s card issued to voters is created to contain a micro-chip which would have the voter’s biometric data.

Before voting on election day, voters accreditation is conducted to ascertain the authenticity of a voter, the voter’s card with the micro-chip is swiped through a computer device – card reader – which would indicate if the presenter of the card is the authentic owner, verifying if he is a valid voter or not. After this, the voter is required to cast his vote via thumb-printing on a ballot paper, and notably, not on an electronic device.

Unfortunately, the Nigerian electoral laws do not fully support the conduct of elections via electronic means. Section 52 of the Amended Electoral Act 2011 stipulates that: (1) Voting at an election under this Act shall be by open secret ballot. (2). The use of electronic voting machine for the time being is prohibited.

This has necessitated the calls by both the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and well-meaning stakeholders for an amendment to the Electoral Act to enable e-voting.

The Chief Press Secretary to the Chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission, Mr. Kayode Idowu in his interview with Leke Baiyewu published on the 20th of January 2013 by The Punch Newspapers said:

“In its proposal to the National Assembly, INEC canvassed a change in sections of the Electoral Act that stipulate manual procedures of elections. That is why we canvassed for a change in Sections 48, 49, 50, 52, 54, 55 and 60 in the Act because INEC wants a situation where it will be at liberty to determine the procedures to be used for elections.”

For clarity, it should be noted that all these afore-mentioned sections have to do with ballot papers. An e-voting procedure would entirely do without ballot papers and boxes and for a change there would be the need for an amendment to the relevant portions of the electoral laws. INEC needs to be given the liberty and discretion to determine the procedure to be adopted in the conduct of elections, based on its judgment of a particular situation or a particular terrain.

It may be recalled that something similar was done at the last Ghanaian general elections where electronic verification of voters was done, which the Nigerian electoral body has elected to replicate in the forthcoming general elections. The electoral body has announced and by its actions demonstrated that it is ready to authenticate and verify voters with the use of electronic technology (card readers and biometric permanent voter’s card), a process which is presently in place. Just like the Ghanaian electoral body, its Nigerian counterpart will also use manual ballot papers and ballot boxes.

The glaring benefits of electronic voting are legion. An advantage of usage is that it ensures that the individual that brings a voter’s card to the polling booth is first verified as the owner before he is allowed to cast his vote.

Another benefit is that since only the owner of the PVC can use it, there will be no room for multiple voting. Once your card is swiped and read, you cannot use it more than once. Again, those persons buying voters’ cards cannot use them; if you buy or steal a voter’s card, you can only deny the owner the chance to vote; you cannot use the card yourself.  The use of card readers also saves a lot of time used in manually leafing through a voters’ register. A practical and successful usage of these would serve as a pedestal for a total drift towards e-voting.

In all of these, it is pertinent to ask: how proactive are the Information Technology (IT) staffers of INEC to forestall hacking into their system by agents of unscrupulous politicians? Does INEC have the software and wherewithal to allow the process to work seamlessly? Has this system been tried or test-run outside the air-conditioned offices of the electoral commission, preferably under the scorching sun to ascertain its integrity?

It is worthy of note to state that in patriotic attempts to nurture our fledgling democracy, it is a sine qua non that any new systems developed to improve the conduct of free and credible elections should be embraced. Chinua Achebe in his book “The Arrow of God” stated that “…..a man must dance the dance prevalent in his time.”

However, the seeming insistence of Professor Attahiru Jega to utilize the Permanent Voter’s Card (PVC) for the conduct of the general elections have pitted him and the electoral body he superintends against some forces who would rather the usage of the Temporary Voter’s Card (TVC). The argument of these persons was that since INEC had been unable to distribute the PVCs to all voters, it would in effect disenfranchise some voters if elections were conducted on the 14th and 28th of February 2015. In response, INEC clarified the position by stating that having dis-centralized the distribution process, they were confident of distributing these PVCs before elections, besides the number of distributed PVCs far outnumbers that of actual voters at the last general elections in 2011 and all others prior to 2011.

When the proponents of the usage of temporary voters’ card saw the stiff resistance from Nigerians and INEC, they moved a notch higher by pushing for the postponement of the general elections pending when the PVCs were fully distributed. This kite of postponement was first flown by the National Security Adviser to President Jonathan, Colonel Sambo Dasuki in far way England, he made this call while speaking at London think-thank, Chatham House. As expected, Nigerians from far and wide reacted negatively to his suggestions. The postponement call was curious in that no matter the amount of time given for collection of these cards, there are persons who will never make a move to collect their cards and, the electoral body is not expected to move from house to house to effect distribution.

Furthermore, the clamour for postponement took a desperate turn when it was taken to a meeting of the Council of State held at the Presidential villa on the 5th of February 2015. Curiously, there is no provision of the 1999 Constitution or any Statute that empowers the Council of State to order INEC to postpone elections, a decision which is an exclusive preserve of the electoral umpire.

The Council of State is a creation of section 153(1)(b) and part I of the Third Schedule to the Amended 1999 Constitution, and it is just a mere advisory body to the President on specifically stated issues as provided for by the Constitution; instructing INEC on when to conduct elections is not part of it. It is a body being chaired by the Nigerian President, other members are the Vice-President, who is the Deputy Chairman; all former Presidents of the Federation and all former Heads of the Government of the Federation; all former Chief Justices; the President of the Senate; the Speaker of the House of Representaives; all State Governors; and the Attorney-General of the Federation.

True to the expectations of the majority of Nigerians, the National Council of State did not act ultra vires its powers. Owing to their wealth of experience, they were expected to be men of wisdom, an attribute that prevailed when they took the side of law and commonsense by advising INEC to carry out their constitutional and statutory duties of conducting the elections in line with their laid-down plan, template and time-frame.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on perception, the proponents of election postponement appeared to have won. They could not get the elections postponed via the PVC route, but they got it, anyway – security came in handy. Like Niccolo Machavilli in his popular book “The Prince”, the end justifies the means. A pyrrhic victory by the proponents? Time shall tell.

The Keg of Gunpowder

Nigeria sits on the precipice and on a keg of gunpowder; the army of unemployed youths is frightening, creating a pool of gullible converts to the Boko Haram menace in the Northeast of Nigeria while armed robbers, kidnappers, ritualists, and internet fraudsters hold sway in Southern Nigeria. There are ominious signs of discontent and angst in the land. A lot of persons want a change of how government is run in the nation and how it affects their lives. They want their voices to be heard by the instrumentality of their voter’s card. They want elections to hold.

With the postponement of the general elections, we rest on the words of Professor Jega, who assured Nigerians of elections in March 28th and April 11th, 2015. His assurances were based on those given to him by the security chiefs! Well, like he said, we “hope” that elections will hold on those days. Will he be the electoral chief at that time? Again, time shall tell.

Curiosity drives me to attempt a peep into the future: is Professor Attahiru Jega leading Nigerians to paradise or Dante’s inferno?

JOHN ARUOTURE is a legal practitioner based in Delta State.

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