Interview with Chairman of Nigeria’s Electoral Commission

Transcript of Interview with Professor Attahiru M. Jega, OFR
Chairman, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)
Federal Republic of Nigeria
March 19, 2015

J. Peter Pham: For those who do not follow Nigeria closely, could you briefly give us an overview of the sheer scale of what is involved in organizing general elections in the Federal Republic in general and in this particular election cycle in particular?

Attahiru M. Jega: Organizing elections in Nigeria is a massive undertaking that requires professional planning. Nigeria is a federation of thirty-six states plus the federal capital territory (which is also considered a state). We have 774 local government areas (equivalent to American “counties”); 8,809 wards (also called “registration areas” for election purposes) and 119,973 polling units (or polling stations). We also have 109 senatorial districts, 360 federal constituencies, and 990 state constituencies. Besides the voting at polling units, collation [of results] for different political offices is done at all these [intermediate] levels.

Our voter population for the 2015 general elections is 68,833,476. Because of the unwieldy population size in some polling units, they are sub-divided into an administrative arrangement called “voting points.” In all, we have close to 155,000 voting points. To carry out the general elections, we will deploy about 700,000 polling officials in addition to the hundreds of thousands of security agents who will provide a secure environment for the elections. In comparative terms, the 700,000-strong staff we will deploy for the 2015 elections is about three times the combined strength of the armed forces of countries in the entire West Africa sub-region. I need not mention here the monumental scale of equipment deployment and retrieval that is involved in the organization of our elections.

J. Peter Pham: The 2011 elections, which you also oversaw as Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, were generally lauded by the international community as the best in Nigeria’s history. Nevertheless, INEC has not rested on those laurels. Could you speak about improvements or changes that have been made since Nigeria’s last general elections in 2011? What would you like international observers, whether veterans of Nigeria’s elections or new to them, to especially be mindful of?

Jega: The underlying principle in our preparations for the 2015 elections is to consolidate gains made in 2011 and prevent reoccurrence of the weaknesses.

A few of the measures the Commission took as we prepared for the 2015 elections are:

  • A Strategic Plan (2012 to 2016) and a detailed Strategic Program of Action were formulated and are being implemented. Additionally, a detailed Election Project Plan was designed to ensure seamless execution of tasks leading up to the 2015 elections.
  •  INEC was reorganized and restructured to make it more efficient.  
  • The biometric Register of Voters was fully de-duplicated and optimized, and as a result, the register now has more integrity than the one with which the 2011 elections were conducted.
  • We conducted a nationwide program of Continuous Voter Registration (CVR), which provided the opportunity for more citizens to get on the electronic register.
  • We issued duly registered voters with chip-based Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) that will be swiped with Smart Card Readers in the 2015 elections to ensure 100 percent verification and authentication of voters.
  •  INEC’s The Electoral Institute (TEI) was reorganized, making it a center of excellence for training and research—not just for our Commission, but also for State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs) and other Election Management Bodies (EMBs) in West Africa. This institute organized the training of polling officials who will be deployed in the 2015 general elections.
  • An Election Risk Management (ERM) tool was deployed with support from the African Union (AU) and International IDEA, to enable the Commission to gather information about risk factors associated with elections, analyze the information, and deploy effective measures to contain or mitigate risks, all toward ensuring peaceful and violence-free elections.

Pham: The presidential and parliamentary elections were originally scheduled for February 14, with the state races to be held two weeks later. On February 7, just one week before the scheduled date, INEC announced a six-week postponement, citing concerns relating to security raised by the armed forces and others responsible. Since then—not only in Nigeria, but abroad—there has been considerable controversy regarding this decision. Could you walk us through your thought process?

Jega: The conduct of elections in a country like Nigeria is invariably a collective venture that involves not just the EMB, but also a diverse range of stakeholders—most notably, security agencies. While INEC must work hard to perfect its systems and processes for conducting elections and take responsibility for any imperfections therein, whatever the Commission does is not by itself sufficient to guarantee the success of elections.

In the conduct of elections, issues like security—which is central to the success of those elections—fall outside the control of the Commission. INEC is an EMB and not a security agency; it relies on the country’s security services to provide a safe environment for personnel, voters, election observers, and election materials wherever elections are conducted. Where these security services strongly advise that they could not guarantee a safe environment for elections, it would be unconscionable of INEC to deploy personnel and materials, and call voters out in such a situation. 

Early in February, our Commission received a unanimous advisory from the National Security Adviser (NSA) and the heads of all armed and intelligence services that a safe environment could not be guaranteed for the general elections as initially scheduled. Their reason was that a major military operation was being waged against the insurgency in the northeastern part of Nigeria. They said the security services needed at least six weeks within which to conclude the counterinsurgency operation. During this time, the military would be concentrating their attention in the theater of operation and, as such, would not be able to provide traditional support for the police and other agencies during elections.

Following that advice, we consulted widely with stakeholders before taking an informed decision. During the consultations, questions posed to stakeholders for consideration were:

  • Should INEC proceed with the conduct of the general elections as scheduled in spite of the security advice? If so, what alternative security arrangements were available?
  • Or, should INEC take the security advice and adjust the schedules of the general elections within the framework of Constitutional provisions?

Following the consultations, the Commission decided to take the advice of the security services and adjust the dates of the elections. We did this relying on relevant sections of Nigerian laws that empower INEC to postpone an election where there is reason to believe that a serious breach of the peace could occur if the election is held on the date appointed, or if it is impossible to conduct the elections because of natural disasters or other emergencies. INEC not being a security agency that could by itself provide protection for personnel, materials, and voters during elections, the Commission could not lightly discard the advice by the nation’s security chiefs.

We were specifically concerned about the security of our ad hoc staff—at least 600,000 young men and women—together with our regular staff, voters, election observers, and election materials. This concern was not limited to areas in the northeast experiencing insurgency; there was the possibility that even our polling officials would be reluctant to deploy in other areas if they knew the security services could not guarantee a safe environment for the elections.  

These were the considerations under which we decided to reschedule the general elections from February 14 and February 28 to March 28 and April 11. The new dates fall within the Constitutional framework for the conduct of elections in Nigeria, and we believe that few EMBs in the world, if any, would contemplate proceeding with the elections as previously scheduled under the circumstance in which we found ourselves.

Pham: But wasn’t there also an issue of the distribution of the permanent voter cards (PVCs)? I understand that only 45 million out of some 68 million had been distributed at that time, just one week before the scheduled voting. How many have been distributed to date? If it has taken this long to distribute those outstanding as of February 7, the postponement could be said to have helped to avoid significant disenfranchisement, no?

“We in INEC have never denied the fact that the rescheduling was a blessing in disguise…”

Jega: We in INEC have never denied the fact that the rescheduling was a blessing in disguise, because it allowed us a little more time to perfect our preparations. I did say that we believed we could conduct the elections successfully if we went ahead on February 14, but that the additional time could be put to good use to make our preparations ever better. As at March 17, 81.8 percent (i.e. 56, 350,776) of the 68.8 million registered voters had collected their Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs). That, of course, is better than the 45 million that had picked their cards as at the time we did the rescheduling. But I have always argued that:

  • Even the level of collection as at that time, which was about 65 percent of registered voters, rated better that the highest level of voter turnout we ever recorded in Nigeria’s electoral history. In 2011, voter turnout for the presidential election, which was the highest for the general elections, was about 55 percent.
  • The other point to make is this: what percentage of PVC collection is sufficient before elections could be held? Because the extension of that logic is that if you prescribed a percentage as prior condition before elections could hold, you cannot set a date for elections until that threshold is met. Now, is that realistic, when the law specifies time limits within which elections must be held?

Our position in INEC is that whatever level of PVC collection is achieved before set dates for the general elections is the level with which we go into the elections.  

Pham: While it is nothing short of extraordinary that the Nigerian armed forces, in cooperation with regional allies, have managed to take back significant territories from Boko Haram’s control, it is also true that many of these areas—and, in fact, others—remain insecure due to the very real threat of terrorist attacks. Moreover, hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of Nigerians have been displaced as a result of the actions, past and present, of the terrorists, and, consequently, will not be in their electoral districts later this month. What can be done or will be done to prevent these people from being effectively disenfranchised for circumstances beyond their control?

Jega: Before the military launched their latest counter-insurgency operation, INEC had designed an arrangement to enable persons displaced from areas under insurgent attacks to vote. This arrangement was presented to stakeholders in the affected states for their input, and they have accepted it. In summary, the arrangement provides for registered voters who have been displaced from constituencies under insurgent attacks to vote in centers created in safer areas within the respective state. It was under a similar arrangement that PVCs were distributed to the IDPs. So, there is no basis for fear that any voter will be disenfranchised.

Pham: Outside of the areas where there have been recent military operations, insecurity remains, and the fear of terror attacks—including, increasingly, suicide bombings—exists. This may cause some voters to shy away from the polls. What can you tell us about plans for providing security for voters? What contingencies are there for areas where voting might be disrupted on the day of the election itself?

Jega: Since 2011, INEC has collaborated with security agencies on a platform called the Inter-agency Consultative Committee on Election Security. This committee comprises all uniformed security services—military and paramilitary.  Since its 2011 birth, the committee has provided the security agencies a platform to coordinate their efforts to provide security for elections, and so the election environment has become generally more secure. Indeed, the violence in 2011 happened post-election, and we have learnt the bitter lesson that security agencies must keep up their guard for a while even after Election Day.

The security agencies have designed a system whereby armed personnel are not posted to polling units during elections. But armed mobile policemen mount patrols outside three hundred meters and could readily intervene if there is any security breach at the polling unit that the unarmed agents cannot handle. Then, the military establishes an “outer peripheral cordon”: they do not show themselves openly but are in readiness to rapidly deploy should there be a security challenge beyond the police’s ability to handle. The military also mounts security checkpoints at border points into states to prevent unscrupulous persons trafficking arms that could be used to disrupt the peace. With this arrangement, we have since 2011 been able to secure the voting environment and protect voters against harm.

Pham: Elections are not only about casting of ballots, but also the entire process. INEC has recognized this and, from what I have seen, done quite a bit in terms of education and codes of conduct. Could you tell us more about this facet of your work and how it perhaps affects the all-important post-election period after results are published?

Jega:  All registered political parties in Nigeria have signed up to a Code of Conduct that promotes civility, peaceful conduct and good sportsmanship—both by the political parties and their candidates. We have always urged the parties and candidates to abide by that Code of Conduct. Of course, there have been concerns over utterances by politicians that are oftentimes unguarded and capable of igniting conflict and violence during electioneering. The problem has to do with the attitude of our politicians, many of whom have the mentality of winning elections at all cost. That mindset, which in Nigeria we call the ‘do-or-die mentality,’ drives our politicians to want to win elections by hook or by crook. It is very destructive, and we have been working with politicians to cure themselves of that mentality for the sake of peace, national stability, and deepening democracy in our country. Regrettably, the Code of Conduct is a voluntary, moral document; it does not specify sanctions for breaches, and so there is sometimes a lack of serious commitment by political parties to voluntary pledges they have signed. Additionally, INEC has supported efforts by which political parties and their candidates at the national and state levels sign peace accords committing them to peaceful conduct during both the election campaign and after the results are announced. 

The Code of Conduct also provides for the establishment of an Inter-Party Advisory Council that has been functional. It is a platform on which political parties periodically meet, exchange ideas, and do some peer review in terms of compliance with the Code of Conduct. We have also over the last couple of years created a forum by which we periodically meet with representatives of all registered political parties. At those meetings, we share information with the parties, listen to their concerns, and exchange ideas on how to improve the electoral process. These meetings have been very useful in building mutual trust and confidence, and in ensuring that there is no communication gap between our Commission and the political parties. We also have similar platforms on which we engage other critical stakeholders in the electoral process such as security agencies, civil society organisations, and the media.

As a Commission, we have intensified civic and voter education. This, of course has its limitations. It is a capital-intensive venture, and so one can only do as much as one’s resources allow. But we have been lucky to receive some support from our development partners—in this particular regard, from the European Union through the basket fund managed by the UN Development Program-Democratic Governance for Development, which has enabled us to triple our voter education campaign placements on the 2015 general elections.

Pham: Is there anything else which you would like the international community to know about?

“with the present level of our preparation, we will deliver free, fair, credible, and peaceful general elections in 2015 that will be much better than the elections we had in 2011…”

Jega: INEC is convinced that with the present level of our preparation, we will deliver free, fair, credible, and peaceful general elections in 2015 that will be much better than the elections we had in 2011, which were widely adjudged among the best ever in Nigeria’s electoral history.

Image: Nigeria Independent National Electoral Commission Chairman Professor Attahiru Jega speaks during a press conference. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde.