By Daniel Kanu

With just 20 days to the 2023 general elections, there are doubts, apprehension, as well as optimism over the readiness of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) for the exercise, given the plethora of concerns that abound.

The election will start on Saturday, February 25, with the national elections: the presidential and National Assembly polls.

On that day, legislators for 109 Senatorial Districts and 360 House of Representatives constituencies will be elected. The state elections: governorship, as well as 993 members of the State Houses of Assembly, will hold two weeks later, precisely on Saturday, March 11.

Only 28 out of 36 governors will be elected on that day. The other eight elections are offseason due to the past electoral litigations that misaligned the tenures of the affected governors.

With challenges in critical areas: Election technology vis-a-vis electronic transmission of results, use of electronic device for accreditation of voters, insecurity and its impact, election violence, election staff recruitment, problem of vote selling and vote buying, among others, Nigerians seem to be worried about what the outcome of the election will be.

Since 1999, Nigeria has been conducting regular general elections following the restoration of civilian-democratic rule after many years of military rule. The 2023 general election will be the seventh consecutive general election in the country.

In the midst of all the apprehensions, Mahmood Yakubu, the INEC chairman, remains resolute in assuring Nigerians that INEC is equal to the task ahead.

He said that there is no going back on the use of Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) and the INEC Results Viewing Portal (IReV) for the conduct of the 2023 general elections.

Equally, Yakubu has stopped at nothing to continue to reassure Nigerians and the international community of the commission’s commitment to safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process and delivering the best election ever in the history of Nigeria.

Speaking recently with the Commonwealth Pre-Election Assessment Mission in Abuja, Yakubu submitted that there was no going back on the deployment of innovations, just as he reassured that his commission is on top of anticipated challenges.

“Let me seize this opportunity to respond to a story emanating from a section of the media that the commission has decided to jettison the uploading of the polling unit results real time on Election Day. It should please be disregarded as fake news.

“The Commission will upload polling unit results and citizens will have real-time access as we upload from polling units. This innovation was introduced by the commission and it cannot turn around to undermine itself, this technology has come to stay. We are serving the citizens, how can we deny citizens access to the results of a process conducted by them at the level of polling units?

“We have a brand-new law in Nigeria called the Electoral Act 2022, it is IT friendly, and perhaps the most progressive of legislation as far as elections in Nigeria are concerned.

“The law has enabled the commission to deploy technology in elections we have been deploying some of these devices in the off-season elections in preparation for the general election.

“I want to assure you and reassure you that the 2023 general election is going to be our best ever. We are committed that the votes cast by Nigerians will determine the outcome of elections, nothing more, nothing less,” he said.

What may perhaps be disturbing is that most of the voices doubting the credibility or otherwise of the 2023 elections are even coming mostly from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) which controls the Federal Government and enacted the 2022 Electoral Act that provides for the deployment of technologies for the 2023 polls.

It first started with Abdullahi Adamu, the national chairman of APC, who expressed worry over the electronic transmission of election results from polling units.

Adamu is not convinced with the use of electronic transfer when a Commonwealth delegation for the 2023 elections to Nigeria also visited him in Abuja, insisting that INEC must assure the ruling party of its 100 per cent for the process.

He said: “Our concern is how ready are we to deploy some of these technologies as regards transmission because we are taking a major step in transmitting election results in real time.

“To transmit results, to every part of Nigeria, I’m not sure that the network covers it. I know that even in parts of Abuja there is no network and we have from now till February when in substantial parts of the country there is no electricity.

“INEC must assure us 100 per cent that as at when due in transmitting results they are ready because they spoke about recharging batteries, but we had in previous elections when it says it can’t recharge.”

Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, the APC presidential candidate for the 2023 polls who spoke at Chatham House in London, said INEC was yet to assure his party that the electronic transmission of results was reliable.

According to Tinubu: “We are still building confidence in our democratic and voting system. INEC is yet to assure us during this election that electronic transmission, the technology being used for accreditation and the total vote count is reliable, dependable and assuring in our democratic process before we introduce a complicated element of ballot counting.”

When Sunday Sun asked how optimistic he was on the promise of INEC to deliver free, fair and credible election, Olisa Agbakoba, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), said that he can only hope the commission would do the talk.

“I can only hope. At least, INEC has for the first time kept assuring, guaranteeing that this will be an electronically-backed election and that we can actually join the electronic platform once the results are uploaded from the polling unit.

“If that is going to happen, then it will eliminate rigging. But the big question is, would it happen? I’m happy the Telcos are saying that the networks can carry the transmissions. If that is the case, then we’re going to have something like Abiola’s time when Prof Humphrey Nwosu, even without transmission, he had a way to post the results as they came.

“I hope that INEC is able to justify the confidence we have to place in them that the election should be free from rigging so that we can get the best person; because, once it’s free from rigging, it means our votes will count,”Agbakoba said.

The head, department of voter education and publicity, of INEC in Kaduna State, Hajia Ruqqaiyya S. Imam, said that preparations are in top gear ahead of the general election.

She told Sunday Sun: “We have started receiving both sensitive and non-sensitive materials since. The sensitive materials are all secured while some of the non-sensitive materials are already in the local government offices. The one we have at hand now is the BVAS machine, which is in our office and very secured”.

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Dr Uche Orji, university teacher, told Sunday Sun, that given what INEC has been able to do so far, it has become a necessity to trust and be optimistic the commission will deliver.

“With all that INEC has been able to accomplish so far, I think it has become necessary that we should trust and be optimistic that the commission will deliver with Yakubu in charge,” she submitted.

But Comrade, Ogadi Uzoechi, disagreed with Dr Orji, arguing that “it has become the trademark of INEC to boast and claim that they will deliver, only to find out that some of their declared results are upturned in the courts when challenged. So, why boast in the conduct of an election that is neither free nor fair”.  

Political watchers have continued to point out challenged areas that raise questions and likely to affect the election if not well tackled.

The use of electronic device for accreditation of voters appears to be having issues. The debates over the legality or otherwise of the smart Card Readers now appears to be settled by Section 47 of the Act which empowers INEC to use the smart Card Reader or any other device for accreditation.

Electoral Act also settled the issue of using Permanent Voters Cards (PVC) and the use of BVAS.

At the moment, it has been quite difficult for most Nigerians to collect their PVCs. There have been allegations of sabortage where some ethnic groups have raised the alarm over underground plan to deny them of getting the PVC before the election. 

This is a huge allegation that INEC and the security agencies must wade into to authenticate the veracity of the claims.

Some commentators have been quite vocal to accuse and challenge INEC that lots of PVCs were not printed contrary to its claim.

They challenged INEC to publish the names of printed, but uncollected PVCs and make it available at polling centres for the owners to collect them on Election Day.  

Also with reports from the outcome of the Osun State tribunal between the Osun State Governor Ademola Adeleke and his predecessor, Gboyega Oyetola, it does not appear as if the BVAS is 100 per cent accurate and cannot be manipulated through calculated human error.

INEC told Nigerians that the cleanup of the voter register was painstakingly conducted by the Commission as it used the Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) to check the data, and detected many multiple registrants.

For two weeks from 12-25 November 2022, the Commission displayed the entire register online and physically in the 8,809 wards and 774 Local Government Areas for “claims and objections” as provided by law.

This included identifying persons who should not be in the register and making requests for various corrections.

Although it was the first time the Commission would be displaying the register online for such purpose, there were lots of unusual names identified and till date Nigerians are yet to know if all relevant corrections have been made and only appropriate names in the register.

Logistics has often been a major Achilles heel of elections in Nigeria. Yakubu said that INEC is determined to solve the challenge as the commission has established a Logistics Management System, which uses an Android application and web dashboard to track election materials from procurement through storage to delivery.  This will receive commendation after the election, if properly managed, but for now, let’s assume it will be effective.

The perennial insecurity in Nigeria remains a source of concern to any election manager.

For many years, Nigeria has been grappling with its own insecurity. In the Northeast, the long-standing Boko Haram insurgency has continued, albeit with attacks now more intermittent than regular. 

In the Northwest and the North-central, banditry, terrorism and the herder-farmer conflicts remain major challenges. 

In the South-south, the threat of renewed insurgency by groups demanding more share of petroleum revenue to the Niger Delta continues to simmer. In the Southwest, although an earlier surge by a group demanding independence for the region has considerably reduced, recent violent attacks on places of worship, rise in the activities of violent cults and kidnapping groups, as well as a history of violence involving groups seeking to control markets and motor parks remain strong. 

In the Southeast, the unknown gunmen and the lingering agitation championed by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) pose a major security threat.

There is no doubt that violence and threat of violence are major challenges to credible election in 2023. How these security matters are arrested before the election calls for serious concern.

Related to the problem of insecurity is the rising attacks on INEC facilities, materials and staff.

In these attacks, buildings, election materials and vehicles are destroyed. Sometimes, these attacks have even targeted staff and some killed.

The attacks are increasingly happening closer to the general election, and some of them seem to be coordinated.

Recall that in December 2022, the National Assembly (House of Representatives) even held a public hearing on these attacks, but still it has not abated.

With results from the conduct of mock election yesterday in the 436 designated polling units across the country to test-run processes of the commission with actual voters, there is no doubt, that the lessons learnt will assist in addressing and correcting identified inadequacy that may crop up in the real election that will commence on February 25.  

The 2023 elections pose enormous expectations, both within Nigeria and internationally, about the conduct and management of polls in the country.

This is because many political observers say the election would be a watershed that would make or mar the unity and continued existence of Nigeria.