Outcry over INEC’s ‘arbitrary guidelines’

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The decision by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to unilaterally draft guidelines for conduct of the general elections has raised questions about the agency’s credibility.The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) described the move as illegal and unacceptable as well as an attempt to reintroduce the use of the controversial incident form.

In an interview with The Guardian yesterday, PDP’s National Publicity Secretary Kola Ologbondiyan said the commission lacked the power to introduce any guideline or regulation without input from stakeholders such as political parties.He said: “The PDP and a majority of political parties that will participate in the election have resolved that INEC must be clear and stable on modalities on the day the election will be conducted. INEC must state clearly the manner of voting. INEC must come out and say clearly that if you don’t have Permanent Voter’s Card (PVC), you cannot vote.

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“INEC must be clear and unambiguous about the use of the incident form. They cannot go behind and reintroduce another incident form having announced publicly that they will not allow the use of the form. We say this in cognisance of the fact that in 2015, INEC said they would not use incident forms, only for the commission to revert to its use. So, we totally reject this as unacceptable.”He added: “We are aware that INEC is proposing a register where voter thumb-print and signature has been created, such that in case the card reader does not recognise your thumb, you can vote either by thumb printing or signing. If INEC has such, it has not made it known to the PDP or majority of political parties.

“But let’s be clear to INEC that we will not accept any modality that will be a replacement for the incident form. Having declared that they will not use the incident form, they should not come back through another means to replicate the incident form in the 2019 general election. For us, we believe that whatever INEC has to do must conform to the electoral law provisions. Anything outside that will be illegal and unacceptable.”

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But the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) was subdued in its reaction, saying it would study the guidelines and come up with a position. Its national publicity secretary, Mallam Lanre Issa-Onilu said: “What I will tell you is that we are not going to preempt INEC. We have the responsibility to ensure that the institutions of state are allowed to go and fulfill their mandate. So, we have to start from the position of trust, believing that INEC and any other agency that has anything to do with election will do the right thing.

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“Whatever INEC is coming up with, we are going to look at it with open mind and see if we will accept it. If we have any objection, we will communicate our position to INEC. There is already an established interactive platform where INEC engages with all political parties. “So, we will not go to the public and start insinuating anything. We will start from the position of trust believing that INEC would live up to it’s mandate and will live up to its creed of independence.”

Chief Chekwas Okorie, chairman of the United Progressive Party (UPP), however dismissed insinuations that the guidelines unilaterally released by INEC were aimed at manipulating the polls in favour of a certain political party.He noted that the Electorate Act has given INEC the sole responsibility to conduct elections. It was therefore not compulsory it should consult any political party before doing its job.

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“It was under Professor Attahiru Jega that INEC’s interface with stakeholders such as political parties, the media and civil society organisation assumed a permanent feature in arriving at certain policy decisions regarding the conduct of elections. The tradition continued till the current leadership of INEC.“But right now, certain things have happened that put INEC in a quagmire regarding such decisions. For the first time, 40 of the 90 political parties took the position of a coalition with a particular political party, which is not unlawful in a democracy such as ours. Parties are so polarised now cleavages that any effort by INEC to carry them along will only end in chaos,” Okorie said.

He added: “There have been series of accusations against INEC without giving it an opportunity to defend itself. They have presumed that INEC is out to rig the election in favour of a political party. Under that circumstance, I wouldn’t blame INEC if it decides to go back to its lawful mandate and avoid more controversies by inviting political parties and stakeholders to discuss its own policies regarding elections.

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“So, what I can only advise political parties to do is be watchful, vigilant and ensure that nothing wrong is done and challenge anything done to shortchange the electorates.” Also, Mr. John Nwobodo, the immediate past chairman of the Interparty Advisory Council (IPAC) and Enugu State chairman of Social Democratic Party (SDP), maintained that by virtue of Section 153 of the Electoral Act, INEC has power to issue guidelines.

“INEC is a creation of law and it exercises its powers in accordance to the law. There is nowhere in the law that INEC is required to involve political parties in issuing guidelines. However, it is desirable, for the purpose of stakeholders’ buy-in and to secure their confidence, to carry them along in the process. But it must be noted that INEC is not subject to the control or direction of anybody or authority in the exercise of its powers.”

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According to him, “The key issue is whether INEC can make regulations in respect of card reader? This is a bit problematic in view of the fact that card reader has no place in the law as of today. There are many authorities to this effect. The smart card reader might be said to be a means of confirming the identity of the holder, to ensure that the person whose name is on the register is also the same person who appears to be accredited. But since the smart card reader is liable to technical faults, the use of incident forms becomes handy. To that extent, the guidelines may not be out of place. As it is today, there is no mandatory use of smart card readers.

“That being the case, INEC cannot, where the card reader fails to function, disqualify a voter from voting, if it is shown that the person’s name appears on the voter register. Thus, Section 49 of the Electoral Act provides, ‘Any person intending to vote with his voter card shall present himself to a presiding officer at the polling unit in the constituency in which his name is registered with his voter card.’ It is not out of place to use the card reader, side by side, with incident forms. This is the best our electoral law can offer for now.”

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The chairman of the House of Representatives committee on ethics and privileges, Mr. Ossai Nicholas Ossai, shared Nwobodo’s view, saying INEC’s regulations and guidelines were in line with the provisions of the law. Ossai (PDP, Delta) argued that with the refusal by President Muhammadu Buhari to sign the 2018 Electoral Amendment Bill into law, INEC could exercise its discretionary powers to determine the conduct of the poll.

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In the same vein, Chief Goddy Uwazurike, a lawyer and president emeritus of Igbo think-tank, Aka Ikenga, noted: “The current Electoral Act did not authorise the use of card reader as the only means of voting in an election. In fact, the Supreme Court in the case of Amode and Rivers State governor said there is no provision that you must use the card reader. It stated that card reader is not compulsory.

“So, for INEC to issue guidelines that card reader is authorised by law amounts to fooling itself. These things are not legal and are not binding. If the card reader is saying that your name is not there but it is in the voter card, you can vote.

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“In the last general elections, results were produced in places where the card reader failed to produce the name of the voter. The card reader did not produce former President Goodluck Jonathan’s name, yet he voted. Boko Haram occupied some parts of the north and there was little use of card reader in those places, yet people voted manually and the results were declared. Unless INEC is planning to fail, otherwise there is no justification in what they are trying to do. INEC is still wobbling and when they are ready to do the election, we will applaud them.”

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