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INEC: “We have no powers to stop registration of political parties”

In this interview with a delegation from Media Trust Limited, publishers of the Daily Trust titles, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), opens up on the preparations for the 2019 general elections, the plan to introduce new technology for the polls and the registration of more political parties among other burning issues. Excerpts:

How will youths’ vote impact the next election? What number currently constitutes those who are 35 and below in the register? 

Our expectation is that under the continuous voters registration exercise, more of those who were not of universal suffrage age of 18 in 2015 will register. It’s an opportunity for those who were not able to register before the 2015 elections for one reason or the other to register. Since it is an on-going exercise, we cannot put our fingers now on the basic statistics or demographic distribution. But it’s very interesting that you mention the population of the younger voters. I remember when the democratic journey started in 1999. You can consider the fact that by 2019, it will be 20 years. Those born in 1999 have now reached the age of voting.

So, it’s very interesting. But there was something we shared with the media from the statistics of the 2015 presidential election. We gave the breakdown in terms of the demographics – even by profession – for those who actually voted in the election. You could see the number of young men and women of a particular age who voted. You can see older people, public servants, fishermen and farmers. You have the spread across the votes. But it’s an ongoing process.

Once we finish the registration from the field, we would do what they call the “deduplication” to ensure that people didn’t register more than once. Then, we have the statistics. We are duty bound under the Electoral Act to make it available to political parties in the first three months of the new year, or the number of new voters registered in the previous year. It’s an open process. But the starting point will be those statistics from the 2015 general elections. By the time we finish the cleaning up on the new registrants, we should have the statistics.

Is INEC considering amending the law to tighten party registration? Also, the office of the Vice President had issued a statement that NASENI had come up with an innovation apparently meant to replace the Card Reader. Are you going to replace the Card Reader with the solar panel that NASENI is presenting? 

Let me start with the easy part on political parties. Election is a legal process. As far as INEC is concerned, we look at the law, the constitution, the Electoral Act, and then the regulations and guidelines that we issue on the basis of the ground norm and subsidiary legislations. The constitution, at present, makes provision for registration of political parties and sets the guidelines for registration. The Electoral Act similarly makes such provisions. So, we go by the provisions of the Electoral Act.

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We have no powers to close the door to the registration of political parties. All we do is to keep rising to the challenge of managing the number of political parties in terms of preparations for elections. It is good in a democracy to have that kind of plurality of political parties. As far as we are concerned, we go by what the law says. But if tomorrow, the law says we should do something else, we will look at what it provides. But at present, that is what the law says we should do. To do anything otherwise is breaking the law. That is the consequence.

As far as we are concerned, we have the capacity to manage the number of political parties being registered and the number of applications in the offing.

On NASENI, initially, we learnt that NASENI had invented a voting machine. We were excited. One day, they called to say they would be glad to come and demonstrate the functions of the machine to the commission. They did so. Questions were asked and we set up a technical team to look at what they are proposing in relation to what we are doing. That is where we are on the matter.

NASENI is in touch with the commission. The commission has also raised a team to look at what NASENI has designed.

Is it proposing a voting machine or a Card Reader?

They proposed something that looks like a complete process: from registration to voting and transmission of results. It’s a complete solution. But it’s difficult to comment on that until the technical experts look at what they have. So, we are in touch with NASENI and we are talking to them.

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Aren’t you going to factor it into the coming elections?

Let’s wait for the technical team to finish their work. But we have already issued the timetable and schedule of activities for the upcoming elections.

Is there a timeline for the technical committee? 

Yes, there should be. Actually, they should have finished their meeting. I need to call the Director, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to find out so that we see where we go from there. But they contacted us. They came and demonstrated. Issues were raised and we decided to set up that technical committee to look into what they have invented.

Does it have the capacity for mass production?

These are questions that the technical team would answer. Is it designed? Is it fabricated? Questions will be asked in many areas. If they invent, can we have the number that we require to go round all the polling units? The issues of staff we will train and voter education that we need so that voters can use the machine. Can the machine accommodate the number of political parties we have? So, there are a number of questions. These are not questions we can answer. That is why we raise that technical team to look at it.

In fact, we also included the Director of Voter Education and Publicity as well as the Director of Legal Services because we have to look at whatever they are proposing in relation to our responsibilities under the Act. So, we are working on an extensive thing. We welcome new innovations and new inventions. But we will see where we go when the technical team submits their report.

In 2015, we had this excuse on the need to clear Sambisa Forest six weeks before the conduct of the election. Have you been able to highlight some of the concerns or challenges you have ahead of 2019 and present them to the security agencies?

We have been discussing with the security agencies. As I said earlier, we have the inter-agency consultative committee on election security. The police are the lead agency. But all the security agencies are also members. And we have been meeting. Part of what we have done deliberately with all the major elections we have conducted so far is to release the timetable and schedule of activities well in advance. We had nine months to prepare for the Anambra election. We had seven or eight months to prepare for Edo and Ondo governorship elections. We released the timetable for Ekiti and Osun last year. Ekiti is coming up on the 14th of July. Osun is coming up on the 22nd of September.

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We have fixed a date for the general elections in 2019 and it’s going to be in February next year. And we have already released the timetable and schedule of activities. The idea is that we can continue to work with the security agencies well in advance. Whatever the issues are, let us address them now. There is time for us to plan. As far as we are concerned, we have discussed with the security agencies. And I believe we are on the same page.

When you said you are on the same page, does it mean that you agree that there will be no challenges?

There would always be challenges. But the idea is that if you have a long time to prepare, then you can anticipate and address those challenges. For instance, this week, we have written to all the examination bodies – WAEC, NECO, NABTEC and JAMB. And I spoke with the Registrar, WAEC International, in Ghana because I saw a report last week that they had scheduled the GCE O’ level for private candidates for February and March this year. If that happens, it coincides with the elections. I called him and we agreed that there will be no exams at that time next year. It is the same thing with JAMB and other examination bodies.

These are some of the potential areas for challenges. If it is national exams, you can adjust. But with international exams, it is difficult to adjust. So, we have been proactive and we would continue to engage all stakeholders in their respects, including the media and the civil society organisations, believing that we are on course with the elections on the dates as picked.

We are so excited because it’s exactly 401 days today (Wednesday) to the opening of polling units at 8am Lagos time on February 16.  We are actually in election mood.


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