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2023: INEC’s image crisis deepens

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INEC releases report of 2023 general elections

By OBINNA EZUGWU

A trending online skit shows a suited up official interviewing candidates for the role of chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The interviewer asks the three candidates what the answer to 5+5 is, and sure enough, two gave 10 as the correct answer. But the third candidate gave his answer as 362, and strangely he was the one hired on the spot because he understood the job.

Nigerians have since learned to make light of every situation, and skit making has become very popular genre of art in a country determined to find joy in spite of the challenges.

Since the conclusion of the 2023 election, some have turned to creative art to express their frustration with the the electoral body. But for many, it is no longer business as usual, and the Prof. Mahmoud Yakubu-led electoral umpire continues to come under intense scrutiny, amid ongoing legal battles at the various tribunals, nearly five months after the elections.

Typically, Nigerians would have moved on with their life, after all, elections have always been manipulated, and more often than not, those who lost would lick their wounds and wait for the next one. But this time, it’s proved different. Dispute over the outcome of the polls, particularly the presidential election, has remained in the front burner. Cases at tribunal are being followed with keen interest. Some of the revelations are scandalous, and in the middle of the controversy are the country’s electoral umpire, and its chairman, Prof. Mahmoud Yakubu.

“The 2023 general elections did not ensure a well-run transparent, and inclusive democratic process as assured by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC),” said the European Union Election Observation Mission in a report released last week.

“Public confidence and trust in INEC were severely damaged during the presidential poll and was not restored in state level elections, leading civil society to call for an independent audit of the entire process.”

The polls outcome turned out to be an anticlimax. Nigerians and the international community had hoped for a better outcome, and invested emotions and financial resources into the realisation of the dream of a credible exercise. The signing into law of the 2022 electoral act by Muhammadu Buhari, the immediate past president, restored public confidence in the electoral system. For the first time, the use of technology was backed by law, and the introduction of BVAS, in addition to the promise of real-time transmission of election results from polling units via the INEC Result Viewing (IReV) gave millions hope.

Transmission of results from polling units into the IReV portal meant that the problematic manual collation of results at collation centres, where winners and losers were ultimately decided irrespective of votes, would be eliminated. On the other hand, the use of BVAS machine would eliminate the multiple thumping of ballot papers. The two key initiatives were to be the magic wand that would eliminate electoral fraud.

Mr. Mike Igini, former INEC commissioner for Akwa Ibom State, who had achieved a reputation for accountability, was all over the place reassuring Nigerians that the era of electoral fraud was gone. And many, feeling reassured, developed renewed interest in the system. The international community, particularly the European Union, committed resources and trained INEC staff.

However, everything appeared to have come crashing down on February 25. Reported cases of voter suppression, intimidation and violence in a number of states, were capped off by the realisation of polling unit agents that they couldn’t upload presidential election results in real time as promised by the commission.

What followed then is the crux of the dispute at the ongoing presidential election petition court (PEPC), where Mr. Peter Obi of the Labour Party, who came third with 6.1m votes in the results announced by the electoral body, and Atiku Abubakar, candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), who came second with 6.9m votes, are challenging the declaration of Tinubu as winner, contending that the former Lagos State governor did not win majority of lawful votes, and that he had been declared winner on falsehood, after actual results were altered.

INEC has continued to blame the failure to upload the presidential election results on unexplained ‘technical glitch,’ an explanation repeated by Festus Okoye, its spokesperson, during an appearance on Channels TV last week.

This is even as Amazon Web Services Incorporated, which the electoral body engaged to provide technical support to it during the general elections, through its representative, Mpeh Clarita Ogar, has informed the PEPC when he appeared as a witness, that there was no technical glitch on February 25.

“To have Festus Okoye open his mouth and say that it’s technical glitch that stopped the upload of election results from the polling units, there must be a disconnect between the mouth and the brain box,” argued Dele Farotimi, a key member of Obi’s Labour Party.

“If he says it’s a glitch, is it in the brain, a technical glitch or a glitch occasioned by a complete shutdown of human conscience?”

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The electoral body, which has indeed not offered much explanation about what really transpired on the election day, has not managed to convince neutral observers that the failures witnessed during the election were not deliberately orchestrated.

“The widely welcomed Electoral Act 2022 (the 2022 Act) introduced measures aimed at building stakeholder trust,” the EU elaborated in its final report on the election, which has generated much heat.

“However, the Act’s first test in a general election revealed crucial gaps in terms of INEC’s accountability and transparency, proved to be insufficiently elaborated, and lacked clear provisions for a timely and efficient implementation. Weak points include a lack of INEC independent structures and capacities to enforce sanctions for electoral offences and breaches of campaign finance rules.

“INEC leadership at federal and state level leaves the electoral institution vulnerable to the perception of partiality.

“Early in the process, while enjoying a broad stakeholder trust, INEC introduced a series of positive measures to strengthen the conduct of the elections. However, closer to the polls some started to doubt INEC’s administrative and operational efficiency and in-house capacity. Public confidence gradually decreased and was severely damaged on 25 February due to its operational failures and lack of transparency. While some corrective measures introduced before the 18 March elections were effective, overall trust was not restored.

“The introduction of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) and the INEC Results Viewing Portal (IReV) was widely seen as an important step to ensure the integrity and credibility of the elections. In practice, multiple missteps and lack of transparency before the polls, compounded by severely delayed display of presidential result forms, dashed the public trust in election technologies used. INEC failed to give a timely and comprehensive explanation for the failures on 25 February, hence the improved online display of results forms from the 18 March state elections just fuelled further speculations about what exactly caused the delays after the presidential poll.”

The electoral body has yet to upload all results, five months on. And among those uploaded are altered results, blurred images, selfies and sundry documents not connected with the presidential election.

On Thursday, June 15, a Professor of Mathematics at the Nnamdi Azikwe University, Awka in Anambra State, Eric Uwadiegwu Ofoedu, told the PEPC that a total of 18,088 blurred result sheets were uploaded into the INEC Result Viewing (IReV) portal after the February 25 presidential election.

Ofoedu was the fourth witness to testify in the joint petition Obi and his party filed to challenge the outcome of the presidential election.

He told the court that he found that the electoral body uploaded unreadable data to its portal while he was analysing results of the election, adding that he paid very close attention to the outcome of the election in Rivers and Benue states.

However, the move by the witness to tender some documents in evidence was opposed by all the Respondents in the matter, INEC and the ruling APC.

The Respondents, who equally challenged the admissibility of Prof. Ofoedu’s statement on oath as an exhibit before the court, said they would adduce reasons for their objections in their final written address.

Meanwhile, INEC, like APC, has since closed its defence in the case filed by Obi and the Labour Party. The electoral body, in its defence of the allegation, produced only one out of three witnesses it initially lined up to testify before the tribunal.

The witness, Mr. Lawrence Bayode, who is a Deputy Director of ICT at the Commission, while being cross-examined by President Tinubu’s lead counsel, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, maintained that polling unit results contained in Forms EC8A, captured and transmitted to the IReV portal with the aid of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System, BVAS, machines, were not relevant for the collation of results of the presidential election.

Mr. Bayode, who said he had worked at the INEC for over 24 years, while reacting to Obi’s claim that blurred results were uploaded to the result viewing portal, insisted that the said results that were downloaded from the Commission’s website, did not affect the physical results of the election that were recorded at the various polling units.

The electoral body insists that the its failure to upload the presidential election results, which it blames on “glitches” is not enough to judge the entire process.

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Reacting to the report by EU fortnight ago, Okoye, maintained that it’s unfair to judge the commission and the entirety of the polls on a few “glitches.”

According to him, in other reports submitted, domestic and international observers attested to the fact that in terms of voter accreditation, the BVAS performed optimally.

“If you look at those challenges, you must also look at the context of the elections, also the environment which was surrounded by, one, insecurity in so many parts of the country. Nobody can dispute that,” he said.

“Secondly, there were also issues targeted at some of our staff and other Nigerians. You have to also look at the issues of fuel scarcity during that particular period and the issue of the naira redesign and also that we had significant challenges with transporters.

“So these are some of the issues we’re going to look at.”

INEC chairman, Mahmoud, made similar claims during his press briefing last week.

“Granted that the events on the election are the most important in terms of optics of election, it is also also essential to look at the totality of the election,” he said. “Compared to the previous elections, we believe that the 2023 election was one of the most rigorously prepared for in recent times.

“Despite the divergent of opinions about the outcome of the election, the overall outlook suggests that that it’s a fair reflection of the complex multi party democracy.”

Also the Presidency rejected the report, describing it as premeditated and at variance with other local and international observation reports. Mr. Dele Alake, presidential spokesperson, accused the EU mission of bias, and as known supporter of one of the candidates in the election.

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