The Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, on Wednesday, gave reasons why it declined to void results of the recent governorship elections in Kogi and Bayelsa States, insisting that no law in Nigeria empowered it to cancel an election.
The electoral body which took the position at an interactive session the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room organized in Abuja to review some lapses they observed in the gubernatorial polls that held in both states on November 16, maintained that section 26 of the Electoral Act only gave it the power to postpone an impending election.
Speaking at the event, INEC’s National Commissioner of Information and Voter Education, Mr Festus Okoye, said the commission was helpless, despite several protests it received for election results from the two states to be cancelled.
He decried that the judiciary had in some of its recent judgments, made matters worse for the electoral body when it held that INEC chairman lacked statutory powers to cancel any return that was made by the Returning Officer in any election.
Okoye said it was not enough for the CSOs to advocate for an urgent review of the present Electoral Act when the political elites had continued to sabotage the democratic process.
He said: “My understanding of the whole issue, especially on Electoral reform is that electoral designs alone will never and can never solve the problem or our electoral challenges unless we have a concomitant will. Unless the elites in this country believe in our democracy and the democratic system, even if we amend our laws 100 times it will not solve our problem.
“The second issue is that those of us who are in INEC and CSOs have a responsibility to understand the processes and procedures of the Commission and how it functions and some of the powers donated to the Commission, the limitations of those powers and how they can be exercised and how they cannot be exercised.
“I say this because, on the issue of cancellation and whether INEC could have cancelled the elections, my own understanding of the rules of interpretation is that when the intention of the legislature is very clear, you give a particular provision its ordinary meaning. You can’t give any other meaning into the provisions of the law if the intentions of the lawmakers are very clear.
“I believe that the intentions of the lawmakers can be deduced from the clear wording of section 26 of the Electoral Act. It gives the Commission the power to postpone, not cancel an election before the election starts.
“It says that where a date has been appointed for the holding of an election and there is reason to believe that there is a serious breach of peace is likely to occur if the election proceeds on that day or that it is impossible to conduct the election as a result of natural disaster or other emergencies, the Commission may postpone the election and in respect of the area or areas concerned, appoint another day for the holding of the election provided that such reason for the postponement is cogent and verifiable.
“There is no provision of the law that gives the Commission the power to cancel. The law gave the commission the power to postpone an election and then go back if the conditions have improved.
“My second point is that if you look at the decisions of the Supreme Court in relation to our processes and procedures, it states clearly that the moment a presiding officer has announced the results from a polling unit, the Chairman of INEC does not have the power to cancel the result from the particular unit. In other words, each polling unit is sovereign in its own right. So the fact that there is a problem in one polling unit does not concomitantly mean that there is a problem in another polling unit. The moment a presiding officer has announced, there is nothing we can do about it.
“The other point is that this commission has attempted to be the driver of this process, in two senatorial zones in Imo state, in one Federal Constituency in Benue in two-state constituencies in Niger and Akwa Ibom, we made a point that the returning officers for those constituencies announced results under conditions that were cloudy and we decided to withhold the Certificate of Return for those constituencies.
“They simply went to court and the court said look the moment a Returning Officer has made a return, only a court of law can reverse whatever was done.
“The third point relates to the whole issue of section 177 of the Constitution. Just before the elections, the political parties were asked to submit names and list of their candidates. About seven of them submitted under-aged candidates and we said that those nominations were invalid and we would not take it because we believe that we are the regulatory agency and that since the Constitution said that only a Nigerian by birth can contest governorship election, that it would be irresponsible for the Commission to sit back and then a Chinese national will be nominated to contest governorship election and in the affidavit the person said I am from China, or somebody is nominated and the person said I am five years old and there is an affidavit backing it.
“So we wrote to those parties that their nominations were invalid. They went to court and the court said no, that before we can even remove the name of an under-aged candidate, or before we can remove the name of a Chinese if the person has been nominated, that we must, first of all, come to court to get permission.
“So many of us kept quiet, but we believe that we are exercising our regulatory power to sanitize the electoral process. So the more we try to move forward, the more we try to clean up the electoral process the move we also get reversals and rollbacks, especially from the courts.
“Another issue I need to raise related to the result sheets. It is true that in the Kogi election you will not find the SDP and the APM on the result sheets, and it is true that we asked the presiding officers and the collation officers to fill in the names of SDP and APM in then result in sheets with a pen. But both political parties were in the ballot which we printed two weeks to the election.
“A week to the election the Federal High Court said we should restore the ADP on the ballot. We discarded the ballot that had been printed and printed a fresh set of ballot papers and moved them to Kogi State, two days to the election, another FHC said we should put APM in the ballot.
“We rushed back to the printers, discarded the ones we had already printed and then printed fresh ones. These are tax-payers money. The courts that gave the order two days to an election that we should print fresh ballot papers and put the political parties on the ballot, it seems to me that they don’t even understand that our ballot papers are printed to currency standard and that sometimes we don’t even print the ballot papers in Nigeria based on the law deficits we have in the electoral process.
“So I am saying that postponing an election is not a child’s play. It is something that an election management body must think through, this is because a month before the elections, we moved the non-sensitive materials to Kogi and Bayelsa. A month to the election, we trained all the presiding officers and other electoral officers. We printed out ballot papers and result sheets.
“I agree that there was violence in Kogi and Bayelsa and I tell you that after the Nembe incident, half of the collation officer we had trained and brought from the universities withdrew from the process on the ground that we cannot guarantee their safety. So there are challenges with the electoral process and our plea is that we must understand some of these challenges and proffer solutions to them”.
More so, the INEC National Commissioner said there was a need for the country to have a re-think over the concept of the Smart Card Reader Machines, contending that they have become “obsolete and redundant”.
He said: “Lastly, we must also find a solution to the issue of the Smart Card Reader. The Smart Card Reader has lost its efficacy and vibrancy in relation to the electoral process because the political elites have found a way around it. So rather than use the Smart Card Reader they just ignore it because ultimately they know that when the case gets to the court, what the court will say is that if you want to prove over-voting, we have to see the voters’ register and the INEC forms and not the Smart Card Reader.
“So as far as I am concerned, the Smart Card Reader has become a redundant instrument and inconsequential. So there are challenges and there are problems with our electoral process but I want to assure you that this particular Commission has the courage and presence of mind and has the drive to bring in new innovations and new creative ideas on the table in order to improve our electoral process.
“But we need the support of Civil Society Organizations and all Nigerians. It is not everything that we can say and it is not everything that we can do”, he added.
Earlier in his remarks, Mr Clement Nwankwo who is the convener of the Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room, a coalition of over 70 organizations that monitored elections in Kogi and Bayelsa states, called for a holistic review of the extant electoral laws in the court.
He urged INEC to ensure that it properly interpreted relevant electoral laws whenever situations called for it, and be able to muster to cancel elections when necessary.
“INEC has the right to say that the process of an election was not fair and seek to re-conduct it. If conditions are such that does not ensure a peaceful election, INEC has the right to speak out,” Nwankwo stated.
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