Ambassador Rufus Akeju, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) for Oyo State, has been around for a while. He served the nation both at home and abroad. Following the conduct of the March 28 Presidential and National Assembly election in the state, Ambassador Akeju spoke with OLAOLU BILAU and ADEOLA OLADELE on reasons for the late arrival of INEC staff and election materials at some polling units in last week’s election, in the allegations against the commission by opposition political parties and the readiness of the electoral umpire for next Saturday’s governorship and state House of Assembly election…
Rate the conduct of the last Presidential and National Assembly Election
We have been hearing comments from both local and international observers as the election being the best so far that has come out of Nigeria, indeed, Africa in terms of preparation and execution. Apart from that, there were a lot of firsts recorded by this election. First with card reader in Nigeria to mitigate against unnecessary fraud in terms of rigging, first in terms registration of people also first as to very minimal violence if at all and also first that the loser congratulated the winner and the winner was magnanimous enough to form all-inclusive governance for all Nigerians, it is the first in Africa.
What is your assessment of the conduct of the election in Oyo State?
Contrary to the expectation of so many bad soothsayers, that the famous wild, wild West would repeat itself, to their own disappointment and to the glory of God, the people in Oyo State also conducted themselves peacefully. People have matured in terms of politicking and politics, people now reason that politics is not a do-or-die affair, that somebody must win and somebody must lose. Majority of course would have their way, but the minority has their say and that was what was experienced here. It was calm and there was no serious problem at all.
Going round during the election, we found that accreditation started late in quite a number of polling units, from the reports you have, what was responsible for this?
We were trying to banish late arrival of materials, that was why INEC went all out to negotiate with the road transport people, but unfortunately when we introduced the idea to the political parties, almost eight of them in Oyo State said no, they’ll have nothing to do with NURTW, that they don’t trust the road transport union.
We have tried everything else before, we used to just go to the motor park to hire any car. Sometimes they don’t show up at all, if they do they will not stay or come back to retrieve materials and personnel even though, we have paid them for the whole day, they will go to cut corners and make extra money and forget to come and pick up the people that they brought there.
Sometimes, there are also political undertones. I recall a situation where our officers had paid a particular bus owner to move things in one of the elections earlier conducted, not in Oyo State of course. It happened that in that particular area one political party was very famous and was bound to win. Unfortunately for us we didn’t know one of the members of the opposition party is the owner of the buses we had rented and we were expecting them to come at five in the morning so they can help us move both personnel and materials to the polling booth, but lo and behold, when we didn’t see him by some minutes to 10 o’clock, we had to fall back on plan B, that is, using alternative means of cars, okadas and all kinds just to ensure people get there, but they got to the polling booth late.
But, we now said we want to banish these things for good, let us go and meet this union, bring them out in the open and sign a Memorandum of Understanding with them. At least they will have a tail that we can hold on to if any mishap, disappearance or anything happens for we have our conditions which we spell out and they already have their conditions and we agreed, that was why we were able to sign Memorandum of Understanding. This was at the national level it took us about one and half years and they seem to be quite interested and were able, if they had been bad before to turn a new clothe on this issue. So, we said okay, let’s give them a trial after all, we cannot go to space to look for drivers they still have to be in Nigeria and whether we go to the motor park or we meet them on the road, either way, they will still be members of some kinds of groups. So, we thought we have it all done until about eight political parties in Oyo State kicked against it, saying they have nothing to do with it, that they (union) were being guided by one political party. And we said okay if that is what you feel, please send a letter to my principal because it is not Akeju who made this policy, the policy is country-wide and they did.
So, we were instructed that if the Oyo State politicians don’t want them (union) we should not use them (union) and we complied and you saw what happened, we are back to square one; in a few places, they still arrived late because there is absolutely nothing you can do for people where there is no legal backing. That is what was responsible.
Government cannot buy all the vehicles that INEC will need; it would be a waste of tax payers’ money. May be this experience would have teach us a lesson and at the end of it all, the political parties would have to sit down to reconsider their position.
Were there places in Oyo State where INEC had to resort to manual accreditation?
Not many, there were just cases of one, two where for example they put your voters’ card in and it went blank or they cannot read your fingers. We already have a standing rule that we can check the manual register and confirm that the card is yours, the card was issued by INEC and that you are the person standing in front of us that is showing on the card, and about 85 or 95 percent have been confirmed except the fingers, which we all know generally has to do with the severity of the kind of job you do if you are a carpenter, bricklayer or the likes, you fingers’ skin must have changed overtime. So, that necessitated some of the difficulties met, we anticipated that and that was why we said if you get to that situation, you are almost home-free; the card is genuine, the person standing in front of you is the legitimate owner and is of age, check the register, re-confirm those things and let them go and vote. And that was what happened in few places, we didn’t close down the whole shop and start using manual register alone.
You were quoted to have said, “The current electoral system has in-built checks that make the electoral process transparent,” Please explain further.
The confusion that some people are having is that it is not business as usual. For example, in the old days, you only simply add zero to 100 to become 1000, you can’t do that anymore. The process of accreditation alone will weed-out those who don’t belong. If you double-register for example, we will weed both registrations out. So, it’s an in-built thing and you have to be honest with yourself. And then, as the card is being read the signal is being sent to the Central Database in Abuja that, Mr. A is being accredited, he has voted, but if you show up anywhere else, the machine will scream, ‘catch him, he’s a thief’ (laughs). It’s an in-built mechanism people who want to be dishonest would be forced to be honest that is the reality on the ground now.
After the election, some opposition parties in Oyo State protested and said INEC should cancel the results from the state.
That’s an impossibility, why should we cancel the result?
They claimed that the result was electronically manipulated
How? They should tell us how because everything was happening in the presence of the whole world and God Almighty. You have international observers you have local observers, NGO you have their own party agents, after all they signed the result in each polling unit and at the end of it all they were there. I think it’s the fear of the unknown, they still don’t understand, they think it’s magic or superstition, when you believe in something you don’t understand that is what is causing problem, but before too long I am sure they will get used to it, they will begin to appreciate that we have taken pains out of electioneering in Nigeria for once whereby even the electorate are satisfied with themselves and heaved a sigh of relief that, ‘yeah, my vote counts’ unlike before when they will say, ‘why am I going to vote, they will not count anyway’. You can see the crowd that came out to vote, they are beginning to believe in the electoral system and that is very important to electing people who will rule the country.
There were allegations that there were discrepancies between the number of votes counted at the polling units and what eventually got to INEC, how possible is that?
That is human being for you, it’s possible if all the poll officials, including the party agents, security men even, INEC staff make mistakes and that is why the accreditation becomes very important. We have a fixed number, maximum it can never be more than 750 in each polling unit. So, let’s say you accredit 600 in that unit and somebody now said the number of people that voted there were 605, we would screen to find out where that five came from and if we can’t find it we nullify the election in that unit and everybody will sign it because you can see the number that gets accredited, you know the number of people that voted so, how can the number of those who voted be more than the number of those accredited? It means that somebody didn’t get accredited and jumped the queue or somebody just added five, that is another in-built mechanism because it becomes glaring to everybody how many people were accredited, how many voted and then the ballot papers, which one was rejected, which one was counted, very meticulous, straight forward.
And the earlier problem of people not receiving their voters’ card was because we relied on contractors to do it, we don’t do it ourselves. It’s like taking your clothe to a tailor and he promised you that before the wedding day you’ll get it and on the wedding, he disappears because he hasn’t finished sewing it, that’s what happened then, but it’s going to become easier as time goes on because once you turn 18 years you just walk into INEC office in your neighbourhood and say I’m 18, I want to register. It doesn’t have to be an election year, you just come there, fill the form, they take your photograph, you can collect your Permanent Voters’ Card that day, we will get to that stage before too long.
An allegation was leveled against you by one of the stalwarts of the opposition parties that you are working indirectly for the APC-led government.
Why should I be working for any party at all? I thought I work for INEC and I work for Nigeria. Whoever said that should show us evidence. These were the kinds of nonsense that went on in Osun State for so long that they were not even focused to address the issue at hand, to talk to the electorate, to present a tangible programme to them. What have I got to do with that, I don’t even leave my office on election day, it’s a command post, you get from the field what is happening, where you need to send somebody, you do so, that’s what I do here. For anybody to say that, he is not being kind to my person, he’s not being kind to the processes, the sweat that was put into redefining electioneering process in Nigeria and the person saying that must be a stark illiterate that doesn’t know what is happening and he better start learning little by little.
What are the preparations in place for the Governorship and State House of Assembly Elections?
The preparation has gone to very advanced stage. We have trained our ad hoc staff we are going to re-train them again just to make sure they get more familiar with things. Of course all our non-sensitive materials are presently at their stations that is, in all local government areas and also, the sensitive ones are in the vaults of Central Bank and my officers are going there to inspect them and ensure that they are correct and complete, they are not bringing it here yet, but they have to inspect them in case anything is missing. All these shortfalls they are talking about is not correct, we don’t have any shortfall of any material in fact, we have more which are being accounted for, everything is in place and we’ll be ready by the grace of God.
What is your message to the people of Oyo State?
They should be commended for their performance in the last election I will want them to even do better. They must come out en masse. They should realize that the first election was to the central government this one is closer home to them. This is why they should come out en masse to participate and elect people they want to represent them, to govern them because it is dangerous to sit on the fence now. You will have no right to comment if the government does not suit you, but if you participate effectively to choose the leader that you want to your affairs, you can sleep with both eyes closed that at best you have done your bit and trust them to do their part which they are promising you now. So, go out there, be orderly, no need to fight, it’s only an election, it’s not a do-or-die business. If we do it this time, in another four years, we’ll have the opportunity to do it again in the next four years. Let us leave all the rascality out of politics, look at the countries around us, the small ones, they are putting their affairs in order, I appeal to everybody to let us do the same in Oyo State and in Nigeria.