Barely a month to the general elections, eminent Nigerians, led by Senate President David Mark and former Chief Justice Muhammadu Uwais, yesterday identified eight key issues critical to a successful outing.
It was all at a well-attended summit organised by Vintage Press Limited, publishers of The Nation, and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Abuja.
Also at the session were INEC chair Prof. Attahiru Jega; ex-Minister of Information Chief Edwin Clark; immediate past Chairman of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) Gen. I.B.M. Haruna; and elder statesman and former Governor of Plateau State Chief Solomon Lar.
The general elections will begin with the National Assembly poll on April 2.
The eminent Nigerians at the National Summit on Free and Fair Elections at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre spoke on the road map for the elections.
The critical issues identified by the leaders are:
•political will by all stakeholders;
•a credible voter register;
•protection of the 120,000 polling units nationwide;
•ensuring free and fair polls and that votes actually count;
•strict adherence to the Rule of Law; and
•the ability of the judiciary to rise to challenges arising from the electoral process.
The others are:
•true independence of INEC and cleansing of the commission; internal democracy within the parties; and
•the willingness of the political class to accept defeat.
Leading the debate, Senator Mark blamed electoral problems on every sector of the society.
Mark said: “Once we correctly and rightly identify the problems, the solutions won’t be a major issue anymore. Where I have my doubts is whether we have a political will power to really apply the solutions once we identify problems.
“In this country, we all know what the problems are. If we talk of NEPA, we know what the problem is. It is the political will to solve it that constitutes a problem.
“And I am happy that we have a man whom I believe is not yet corrupted by the Nigerian system in charge of INEC today. So, he should have the political will to apply it and make sure we have a free, fair and credible election in 2011.”
“If an election is not free, is not fair and as a result it is not credible, it is not because we have not brought people from the outer space to do it for us; it is because we have become part and parcel of the very unfair, not free, an election that is not credible. All of us must take part in the blame and share it equally.
“So many people don’t want to share in it. They want to point accusing fingers at politicians. But politicians don’t operate in isolation. We are invariably the agents the politicians use.”
In Mark’s view, those to ensure credible election are political parties, politicians, the electorate, INEC, security agencies, the judiciary and, most importantly, the media.
Said the Senate President: “I think the issue the organisers of this summit seek to address is the readiness of all these stakeholders to work in harmony and guarantee a free, fair and credible election.”
“There is general apathy towards all the political parties. No exception. Apathy in the sense that so many Nigerians feel that there is no internal democracy, sufficiently in the political parties for credible candidates to emerge.
“The political parties have to really clean up and ensure that they give all their members the confidence that the primaries will be free and will reflect the will and wishes of the members of the political parties.
“As we talk today, there are cases from the primary elections still going on. Because of all these, there are problems and I think INEC has a lot to do. There are cases in this country where we have more votes than the total number of registered voters.”
The Senate President also noted that many registered parties have not started campaigning. He said political parties that do not campaign should not accuse others of rigging.
“I think political parties that just wait, without campaigning, to cry foul play where there is really none should think twice. I believe the political parties should sell themselves early enough so that the electorate will know them. If they don’t campaign at all, what right they have to say that the other person has rigged an election?”
“Is it only when you win that you think that election is free, fair and credible? The answer is no. We must be able to admit that if 10 of us are going for one seat, there will be only one winner.”
“People go to court unnecessarily and the judiciary has a role to play. We must learn to accept that some will lose; others will win. Every time you lose, it becomes unfair.”
“For the electorate, when people say elections have been rigged, ballot boxes have been snatched; one politician cannot run away with five, 10 ballot boxes. So, the electorate need to be engaged to realise that snatching ballot boxes will not make an election free, fair and credible. INEC is the major factor in the issue of free, fair and credible election. Apart from logistics problem, the greatest challenge facing INEC is financial.”
On the role of the judiciary and the media, he said: “The judiciary should try and dispose of electoral cases early enough so that those elected can settle down. As long as you have a case that is hanging in the court, it is very difficult. One of the amendments that we made in the Electoral Act now is that courts can no longer declare you a winner. They can only order for a re-run. You cannot get your mandate from the court. It must come from the people. The media must be honest with what they are doing and they must write frankly.”
Former Chief Justice of Nigeria Muhammadu Uwais, who chaired the occasion, identified factors which may inhibit the elections result to stealing of Direct Data Capture machine, multiple registration orchestrated by politicians during the last voter registration, problematic party primaries and the attendant pervasive litigations.
He said: “We have read reports of selection of candidates, buying of delegates, substitution of candidates through foul means and the alarming incidence of litigations to the extent that questions are being asked, whether the process would not be derailed. All these are ominous signs.
“Sheer number of cases arising from the primaries is alarming. It remains to be seen if parties will adhere to the Code of Conduct prepared by INEC.
“INEC is fairly independent but will the April poll be free, fair and credible and up to international standards.”
INEC chair Prof. Attahiru Jega said: “Having free, fair and credible elections is still possible and it requires the involvement, participation and contribution of all of us as patriotic Nigerians who want to bring about change positively in our country. We want to draw the line; we want to say ‘yes, there were problems in the past, we want to move ahead’. We want to move forward and we have a fantastic opportunity to do that.
“On this issue of credible elections and the need for free, fair and credible elections, I stand to be corrected but I think since the end of the civil war when there was unanimity or near unanimity of the question of unity, integration and reconstruction, there has not been a single issue that seems to have generated a consensus like having free, fair and credible elections come April.
“I think it is very important that we recognise, therefore, the uniqueness of this time that we have history and the need for us to work together and to ensure that this opportunity that we have is not squandered; that it is put to good use so that we can all be proud of the foundation that we can lay and the progress that it will bring.”
He explained that INEC has done its best to conduct a successful voter registration.
Jega added that the era of impunity was over as some high-profile Nigerians, who engaged in double registration, would soon be prosecuted.
But, according to him, there is no cause for alarm as the detected cases of double registration were less than one per cent of the 67.7million registered voters.
Jega said: “As I speak to you now, thank God we have been able to register about 67.7 million Nigerians. We have been able to collate all that information. We have been able to run them through the software that we have that can detect double registration and we have found double registration in all the 36 states of the federation and the FCT.
“The good news is that, frankly, the double registration that we have discovered is very insignificant. It is not up to one per cent (1%) of the voters registered. That still doesn’t make it right. It is still wrong. People did what they were not supposed to do. Of course, we have that information and we will soon begin to prosecute those who have done double registration.
“We have started the process to ensure the prosecution of those who have done this. Many people did not believe us. Some of the politicians, in fact, thought INEC has no capacity to check double registration and I must tell you that we have caught some high- profile double registrants and that we may be able to start with them in terms of prosecution.
“As I speak with you now we have done all the collation with our software. There were many people who thought we don’t have the capacity to detect this, but we got the best software for checking double registration.
“This software checks duplication of names, duplication of photographs and the duplication of finger prints and it catches any of these or all of these where they occur. Where you have photographs double or finger prints double then you know that that is a 100 per cent legitimate case of wilful double registration.
“But where you have names and we have a lot of names in this category that I have mentioned. In our Nigerian context, we have to be careful about that; unless the two names that you see that are similar also come with the same photograph, then that would be seen.”
Amid applause, the Chairman of INEC assured the audience that the era of impunity was over.
He also insisted on the need to go back to one of the recommendations of the Justice Muhhammadu Uwais-led Electoral Reforms Committee on Election Offences Tribunal.
He added: “The associated problem is impunity because they feel confident that they will get away with whatever they do. But for the first time, we are saying that if you violate the law, we will have the capacity to apprehend and prosecute you.
“We are doing our best now but ultimately, I believe that we will have to go back to the recommendations of the Justice Muhammadu Uwais Committee on Electoral Reforms about the need to establish an Election Offences Tribunal.
“It is very important that we have such tribunal, hopefully, with people of impeccable integrity who can handle such matters; that would be a big step forward in our effort to improve the electoral process.”
Jega raised concerns about conflicting ex-parte orders from the court and their implications for the elections.
He said: “As I speak with you now, we are confident that we have made adequate preparations, and we are now preparing for the elections that will take place from April 2. Again, it is very, very challenging. The issue of political will is very, very important and I am very happy that His Excellency the Senate President has put it on the table for discussion.
“There are problems, for example, about substitution and many of these problems will appear to the public reading the newspapers, today we say this is the candidate, tomorrow we turn around we say no this is the candidate. We are complying with orders, legal orders. Unfortunately many of these legal orders that we respond to are ex-parte orders.
“A judge will give an ex-parte order in Abuja where INEC headquarters is without giving us the opportunity to be heard. We have offices in every state of the Federation and the FCT. So, regardless of the state in which a court case has been filed we have people who when served can, between a very short time, appear before the court. You know but this is not done, we are given ex-parte orders and we have to be law-abiding, we have to respect these orders, even if we think they are wrong to go to court and present our own point of view. In order not to allow chaos in the system we have to be law-abiding and we are committed to remain law abiding. So, the inconsistencies that people are seeing are largely attributable to some of these cases.”
Foremost Ijaw leader and one-time Minister of Information, Chief Edwin Clark, who asked the audience to rise for one minute silence, in honour of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, expressed regrets that parties lack internal democracy.
He also said the recent face-off between the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu and the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Isa Ayo Salami, was not healthy enough for democracy.
“For the first time in the history of Nigeria, one man (Yar’Adua) acknowledged that his own election was flawed and he set up the Electoral Reforms Committee.
“Prof. Maurice Iwu is gone but you are still surrounded by people of similar nature; there is need for re-organisation of INEC. There are top people there, including at least one or two National Commissioners who were part of the 2007 problem.
“There is need to re-organise INEC; otherwise, you will be swallowed up. In the interest of free and fair elections in Nigeria, you have to re-organise INEC.
“In this country, in some communities with 5, 000 persons, some people still bring up 27, 000 votes.
“We are getting very worried by the situation in the Nigerian judiciary. I am speaking out of concern as someone who has spent 45 years at the Bar.
“If India, a country of one billion people, can conduct free, fair and credible elections, we have no excuse to fail in that regard.”
How to get credible polls, by Jega, Mark, Uwais