Ex-INEC National Commissioner, Prof. Lai Olurode: Jega Always Deferred to Superior Argument

Like the immediate-past Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega, the National Commissioner for South-west, Prof. Lai Olurode, left the commission on June 30, 2015 with the expiration of his five-year tenure. Prof. Olurode, former Dean Faculty of Social Science at the University of Lagos, worked closely with Jega. He was Chairman of the Party Monitoring Committee of INEC and was one of the three-man committee set up by the commission to probe the contentious over one-million vote return from Rivers State during the March 28, 2015 presidential election. WESTERN POST’s team comprising TUNDE RAHMAN and BIODUN AKANDE sat down with Prof. Olurode during the week in his Iwo, Osun State hometown, to look at his years at INEC, the achievements, challenges and his next line of action after the expiration of his tenure… 

Prof, after 5 years at INEC as National Commissioner in charge of the South-west, your tenure ended and you left the commission on June 30, when you look back now at those years what do you see essentially in terms of performance and achievement?

One can look at what the commission under the leadership of Prof. Attahiru Jega has been able to accomplish by juxtaposing what the outgoing commission has been able to achieve with its predecessors.

First of all, let’s look at the basic ingredients; the first one is the image of the commission. The popular perception of the election management body is very critical to what it will be able to do and what it will not be able to do. The commission under Prof. Maurice Iwu was generally negatively perceived as it was not regarded as an effective organization.  You couldn’t just dismiss those negative perceptions with a wave of the hand that they are inconsequential. They are not inconsequential in the sense of the example the issue of voter register, which forms the infrastructure that could be regarded as the foundation for doing a good election. There is no way you can conduct a good election in a situation where you don’t have a good, credible and acceptable register. Therefore, one of the key decisions that the commission took was to go for a new register, which we were able to accomplish in a record time of six weeks and I don’t see the need for the coming team to go about starting from afresh and compiling a new register. Although Prof. Jega said the register is not perfect but it is far better than others because it holds all the identities of most Nigerians in one platform as the commission has been able to do. We hope that the new commission would improve in certain areas where we had challenges as we experienced in the issuance of Permanent Voters Card and capturing people in the Diaspora.

So in that regard, I think the commission under Prof. Jega, compared with the previous ones, has done so well. As to the role of money in politics, I am not saying that there are no bad eggs in the commission but I can assure you that nobody can substantiate any allegation against Jega and his team. But a lot has to be done before you can say that you have gotten rid of the role of money in politics in this country. Look at the campaign finances. It is one area where we have not done well. We started it as I was made the Chairman of the Party Monitoring Committee, but we couldn’t do well in that area because it’s a very difficult task to accomplish.

But I hope with the help of the government and the international community, the new commission should be able to perform better in party finances monitoring.

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Another area where work has to be done is in internal party democracy. Party stalwarts just want to install their surrogates. They do not want people at the grassroots during primaries to have a say. And we have assured the candidates that if you are ready to fight your party, we are willing to support you. There are instances where the candidates that would emerge from the primaries would be different from the candidates that would be fielded at the end of the day.

To sum it up, in the area of achievement as you have asked, there is nothing the commission ventured into that we did not do a rigorous research on. We are far better conceptualised. Jega’s commission was an election management body that was driven by research and not by innuendos.

 When you were speaking earlier, you talked about certain challenges particularly with respect to the PVC, and I recall that you as National Commissioner for South-west had challenges with PVCs especially in Ogun State. How were you able to navigate that period?

I think two or three factors minimized the problem and assisted the commission in the image crisis that was almost created for us. Governor Ibikunle Amosun was very understanding. First of all, we didn’t produce the PVCs for Ogun State in sufficient numbers. Secondly, the cards came out piecemeal because we had all sorts of challenges with regards to both the printing and the contractor. We made a technical mistake by concentrating the printing of millions of cards in the hand of just one contractor. We thought he had the facilities to do a good job but we realised he didn’t but we were into it already and we couldn’t back out. He had the data; he had everything so it was too late for us to now begin to look for another contractor. We were able to mitigate the challenges in Ogun because the governor was very understanding, because we didn’t hide, we came out clean by admitting that we had challenges.

 It was alleged that a wrong set of PVCs were first sent to Ogun State?

No, that was no true. What really happened was that as at the time of registration of voters in 2010 through January 2011, you know Ogun State has the highest concentration of higher institutions. Secondly, don’t forget the fact that Ogun State is a border state. So people were mobilising from neighbouring states even from Benin Republic to Ogun State. Also, majority of those registered were students of higher institutions in Ogun State. And as at the time the cards were ready, some had relocated like the Redeemer University had relocated to Ede in Osun State and so many other students that got registered in 2010-2011 had left the school having graduated. You know we are talking about a period of almost four years. Go to the manual register with which we captured the identities of these people, look at their correct addresses, go with the cards and visit those people at home, you will find out that they were people that were resident in those areas but they had relocated.

In addition, when we were issuing the certificate of returns to some of the governors in the South-west, I said we need to do more. We need to work more on mobilisation. The highest rate of card collection is about 65 or below 70 percent in the South-west and even some people that were issued with the cards didn’t come out for collection. Also the voter-turnout was the least in the South-west, it was about 45 percent. I think the argument of the governor, which you cannot dismiss, is that we should ensure that the people get their cards and it is another thing for them to come out to vote. I think the two should go together simultaneously.

Let’s look at those difficult periods for Jega and his team. I mean the period between February and March 2015 when elections were postponed by six weeks, the impression in some quarters at that time was that INEC was not really ready in the areas of PVCs production and distribution and it was believed that, that situation gave the military top shots the opportunity to play games with the election dates. What is your take on this?

Honestly, I must say that the commission was confronted with some challenges. PVC production was a major challenge and we also had challenges in distribution and collection. We had problem in getting people to come out even when we were ready to distribute.

And I will explain why we experienced that crisis.  Even though the commission, with regards to our voters’ education activities, we emphasized the point that people should register where they are likely to be on the day of election.  They shouldn’t register where they are not likely to be on the day of election because we were yet to perfect the technology of transfer.

Again, don’t forget that there were people out there who never wanted the election to hold and the commission decided that we wouldn’t want to play into the hands of such people that even if it was only 60% of the cards that had been distributed, the commission was ready to go ahead. And at the meeting with the National Council of State, the chairman made a point that the commission was ready to go ahead with the election. When people raised the issue about cards production, distribution and collection, the chairman still maintained that if we could be guaranteed security even in the North-east we were ready to roll out the election project with the number of cards we had distributed.

And that would have been a disaster; you could see from the election result, the difference between the leading candidate who has now become the president and the runner-up was less than three million, just about 2.5 million, so we could not have been in crisis.

Also, we were constrained by the constitution as well in terms of the number of days before handover that election should hold.  You will recall that we fixed the date for the election a year before the election and people were saying why did we do that?  Initially, I was not comfortable with that arrangement but I later realised it was a wise thing to do because that also served as a signal, wheeling us into action that days are getting nearer. Because the date was not just for the action, it was a date we had set for the international community since there would also be international election observers that would be coming and we would need to have an idea of the date, so that they can also programme their movement. Again, remember that Professor Jega said on the floor of the Council of State meeting that no election body can be 100% ready before the election.  Really, we need to accept that 60% of collection rate was not good enough to go into an election. Of course, there were security challenges, but I think what is good about is that we were lucky to have had that window of opportunity of about six weeks and what we had not done before we were able to do it, like we were about to accomplish the testing of the card readers.  Not that we didn’t test the cards before but we were able to do it in an election-like environment and also the workability of the Permanent Voters Cards and we did this in about six states in the country, each state represented a zone.

 At that time when the election was postponed, PVC collection in the North, particularly in the North-east, was very high, almost 90%, and people were wondering how you were able to achieve that at a time insurgency was ravaging the North-east.

 Don’t forget that in the North, most people had left their homes and concentrated in camps and it is much easier for those in camps to come out to collect their cards than in a situation where you need many polling units. In a war situation where you have Internally-Displaced Persons congregated in a place after being displaced by war, it is always much easier for them to get the cards.

 There was also the allegation that those cards were simply given to the traditional rulers, the Emirs to distribute.

 No. It was not like that. In some cases in the North-west, we actually had a few cases where the cards were left with the traditional rulers and I think three of our staff were found to have done that and they were sanctioned, but don’t forget we were emphatic that PVCs are not to be distributed by proxy.  Each person must come to the polling unit where he was registered and collect his or her card there, so those few cases were not a general trend.

Even in places where we had 90% collection, that didn’t translate into more voters actually coming out to vote because with the use of the card reader, no other person theoretically should be able to use a card that doesn’t belong to such a person.

 Talking about card readers, the card reader was considered to be the singular most important innovation of Jega’s INEC in terms of checking election fraud, but there were challenges. PDP didn’t want the card readers, how did you come about the need to use card readers and what was the success rate?

 Those that were opposed to the use of card readers had their reasons.  One, the technology was new and secondly, there was no assurance then that somebody, somewhere could not thinker with the accreditation and influence the outcome of the election, and thirdly, is the lack of understanding as to what electronic voting is and what card reader is.  I think people thought that when you use the card reader that you are actually doing electronic voting but they are not the same. In addition, I also think that we didn’t do enough of publicity.  You remember by the time we finished the six-week test run of the machine, I think every doubting Thomases became better convinced. But also unfortunately, on Election Day, the card reader failed even the then Mr. President.

And that was what informed the commission to hold an emergency meeting where a decision was taken that we should bypass the card reader for the presidential election and use it for the remaining elections. Credit must also be given to former President Jonathan who said all he wanted to do was to leave behind a legacy of free and fair election. So, the first screening point is if you don’t have a PVC, then you have no business coming to the polling unit.

Therefore, the incoming commission has a lot of job to do by making sure it continues to sanitise the register by continuous registration of voters and continuous issuance of Permanent Voters Card and keeping the register of people that have PVC.

 Let’s talk about that time of collection and announcement of presidential election results and that ugly incident at the International Conference Centre in Abuja, I mean the Elder Orubebe saga. What was really going through your mind as that incident was unfolding. Secondly, what is your impression of former President Jonathan who conceded defeat even when the collation of results had not fully ended?

 President Jonathan was a stateman.  All he wanted, as he said, was to leave a legacy of a president that had done an election like no other president before him. You see, people warned him that how could you choose somebody that might not help you to win an election. He said he had never met Jega before and that all he wanted was anybody that can conduct a good election.

He didn’t care about the religion, ethnicity or where the person was coming from. Then talking about the Orubebe incident, it was very close to what the ABN did during the 1993 presidential debacle. We thank God that he was alone and we had somebody on the chair, in person of Prof. Jega, who was so calm and refused to be provoked all through.  And we also should understand that Nigerians were eager to know the final results of the election.

 You were one of the national commissioners known to be very close to Prof. Jega. What was it like working with him?

 I wouldn’t say I was very close to him. All of us were close to him.  Each of us had our portfolio.  There were many occasions we disagreed on certain issues.

But, I must say that Professor Jega, to me, remains a fantastic personality in two respects.  He was always willing to defer to logic.  Jega reasons with superior argument. Secondly, Jega demonstrated deference to collective leadership.  We had a good team that were all committed under Jega’s leadership to conduct good and credible elections.

 You also served on a three-man committee raised by Prof. Jega to probe the contentious returns from Rivers State in respect of the presidential poll. What did your committee find when you got to the state?

 The matter is before an election tribunal and it would be prejudice for me to talk about it.

 What do you make of the drama that happened when Professor Jega at the expiration of his tenure first handed over to Ambassador Wali and within 30 minutes, President Buhari insisted it has to be Mrs. Amina Zakari that should take over?

 I wouldn’t want to say much since the matter has been resolved.

Finally, now that your tenure has expired, what are you going to be engaged in now?

I have since returned to the University of Lagos where I have chair as a Professor of Sociology.

 

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