Stronger INEC/media partnership needed to achieve a strong democratic Nigeria – Prof Yakubu

*Conducting a general election in Nigeria is like holding election in West Africa and beyond

WorldStage Newsonline– The Chairman, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Mahmood Yakubu has explained the complexity of holding elections in Nigeria in view of the huge population, calling for the cooperation of the media by virtue of the converging functions of commitment to a strong democratic Nigeria, based on one man, one vote, anchored on free, fair, and credible elections.

Speaking at an interactive meeting with members of the Guild of Corporate Online Publishers (GOCOP) in Lagos, the INEC boss said with the current voter population of over 84 million, Nigeria has about 11 million more registered voters than the other 14 countries put together which have 73.6 million registered voters.

On the magnitude of task at conducting election in Nigeria, he said, “The size of our voter population and elective institutions make elections in Nigeria a huge undertaking.

“Conducting a general election in Nigeria is like holding election in West Africa and beyond.”

Prof. Yakubu explained that stronger INEC/media partnership will go a long way to help achieve a strong democratic Nigeria, based on one man, one vote, anchored on free, fair, and credible elections.

Officials at the high table

“While it is INEC’s desire to ensure that only the choice of the electorate emerges at the end of every election, I regret to inform this audience that some individuals in our society do not believe in free and fair elections, and they will do everything within their power to undermine the process. It is our collective duty, therefore, to ensure that this sort of mindset fails,” he said.

He acknowledged that the commission had enjoyed and continues to enjoy a cordial relationship with the media in the area of extensive coverage, publication and airing of our programmes, activities, elections, and special briefings which contributed in many ways to the successes t recorded in the last five years, but that one major area where he needed help would be in containing fake news.

“The emergence of the Internet brought with it tremendous opportunities for all sectors, including the media and it has broadened the scope of human abilities to share information and knowledge within seconds,” Prof. Yakubu said.

“The dynamism of the social media, enabled by the power of the internet, has made it possible for media organisations like yours, to upload narratives which in turn are transmitted to digital platforms such as cell phones, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on, providing an opportunity for millions of people all over the world to watch them within a short time.

“Quite often, those who try to undermine the electoral system and their sympathisers take advantage of the free social media space and sometimes even the traditional media to advance their interests and spread falsehood. This can take various forms. They can, for instance, cook up wild allegations against the Commission and/or its officials to frustrate a good policy which they perceive as inimical to their selfish interest. When such allegations get to you, please thoroughly investigate. After all, one of the tenets of your noble profession is “fairness’ and “objectivity.” I implore you to always balance your stories.

“Equally importantly, I urge you to understand the Commission’s processes and procedures and the laws governing our activities. The Commission does not believe in censorship. We are also aware that the greatest antidote to fake new is greater transparency and openness. We are committed to that. Let us work together to fight the scourge of fake news.”

ACTIVITIESAND INNOVATIONS

With Nigeria’s size and population making it one of the biggest democracies in the world, he listed the responsibilities of INEC as enormous with no election season any longer as elections are held all-year round between one General Election and another with no respite.

Prof. Yakubu listed some other extensive responsibilities undertaken by the Commission which include, The registration and regulation of political parties, including the monitoring of party and campaign finance as well as their primaries, congresses, meetings and conventions;  Nationwide continuous registration of voters and the maintenance of the national register of voters; Prosecution of electoral offenders; Creation of polling units; Delimitation of electoral constituencies; Voter education and publicity;  Management of electoral logistics; Election security in consultation with the security agencies; Strategic engagement with stakeholders; Formulation of regulations and guidelines for the conduct of elections and electoral activities to give clarity to the provisions of the Constitution and Electoral Act; and maintenance of extensive physical assets (offices, residential accommodation and other facilities)nationwide.

Participants

He said, “The Commission has to think literally on its feet as it reflects, strategises, and innovates and pilots the new innovations.

“While the off-season Governorship elections are known in advance, the bye-elections, mainly caused by the deaths of serving members of the National and State Assembly, are unpredictable.”

HOW COVID-19 INSPIRED INNOVATION

As the world was confronted with the emergence of the deadly COVID-19 Pandemic in November 2019, the INEC boss said it caused extensive disruptions in the country’s electoral system and it was left with no option than to innovate after been forced to the postpone four bye-elections in Bayelsa, Imo and Plateau States.

 He said, “In response, the Commission came up with the Policy on Conducting Elections in the Context of the COVID – 19 Pandemic in May 2020.

“The policy, which was first of its kind in Africa outlined the measures to be put in place to ensure the safety of citizens that would participate as voters, candidates, or officials on election day.

“It was successfully applied during the Nasarawa Central State Constituency bye-election, held on 8th August 2021 and in other elections thereafter, including the Edo and Ondo Governorship election in September and October this year.”

Determined to deepen the use of technology and reduce human intervention in the critical stages of the electoral process, Prof. Yakubu said the commission had introduced new innovations which include Submission and Processing of Nominations Forms and Other Applications; Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) and Launch of Online Registration Portal; The INEC Voter Enrolment Device (IVED); INEC Result Viewing Portal.

On inclusivity to accommodate some members of the society that needed special attention to make it possible for them to participate actively in the electoral process, he said, the commission had deployed assistive facilities such as the Braille Ballot Guide and magnifying glasses during elections to enable vision-impaired voters, persons living with Albinism and other individuals who may so require, to take advantage of the resources to vote unaided.

“Indeed, the Commission also cares about internally displaced Nigerians who were forced to flee their homes due to natural disasters, insurgency, activities of bandits and other criminals,” he said.

“In September 2018, the Commission developed the INEC Framework on Access and Participation of Persons with Disabilities, followed by the Regulations and Framework for Voting by Internally Displaced (IPDs) in December 2018.

“We also have the Gender Policy to take care of the needs of women in the electoral process and also recently created a Department of Gender and Inclusivity for the implementation of the gender policy in a coordinated manner.”

EXPANSION OF VOTER ACCESS TO POLLING UNITS

Prof. Yakubu also spoke about the challenged faced by the commission to expand voter access to polling units for 25 years (between 1996 and 2021), despite the progressive increase in the number of the voting population over the years.

However, after wide-ranging consultations with stakeholders and fieldwork by its officials, he said “56,872 Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements were converted to full-fledged Poling Units in April 2021 bringing the total number of PUs in Nigeria to 176,846.”

CURRENT CHALLENGES

Despite the success of the Anambra Governorship election held on 6th November 2021 which was peaceful and universally adjudged to be credible, the INEC boss said the commission was not unaware of the issues raised about the performance of the new technology deployed for voter accreditation.

He said, “The deployment of the BVAS in the Anambra Governorship election was the second pilot test. It was intended to achieve two objectives. First is voter accreditation to replace the Smart Card Reader. The second is the uploading of polling unit result on the IReV portal to replace the z-pad. The BVAS performed optimally in uploading results on the IReV but there were the usual challenges associated with the pilot of a new technology in a major election.

“From our assessment so far, much of the glitches encountered on Election Day in Anambra State had little to do with the machines but more with the operators of the system. The extraordinarily difficult circumstances under which the election was held meant that some of the better trained ad hoc staff withdrew at the 11th hour.

“Similarly, some critical service providers such vehicle owners also withdrew thereby severely affecting our plans for rapid response by our technicians – the Registration Area Technical (RATECH) staff.:

In spite of the glitches, he said BVAS had justified our determination to deepen the deployment of technology in the electoral process.

“Given the credible conclusion of the election, it has strengthened our belief that even the minimal introduction of technology in voter accreditation is better than the best manual process,” he said.

Other speakers at the forum were Barr Festus Okoye, National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education; Mr Lanre Arogundade, Executive Director of International Press Centre (IPC), Lagos-Nigeria; Rotimi Oyekanmi, Chief Press Secretary to Hon Chairman, INEC; Executive Director, Institute for Media and Society (Ims), Dr. Akin Akingbulu; and Ms. Maureen Chigbo, the President of GOCOP and Realnews magazine.

PARTNERSHIPS WITH STAKEHOLDERS

Barr Okoye in his presentation said the commission under the leadership of Professor Mahmood Yakubu had been deliberate and strategic in forging partnerships with different stakeholders in Nigeria’s electoral democracy.

Specifically, he said the commission was convinced that it needed the reach and support of the media for Nigerians to understand its processes and procedures especially in the area of deepening electoral democracy through the use of technology.

Participants

He said the commission was however of the view that there were some irreducible minimums to a meaningful relationship, partnership and engagement with the media.

“The first is that the media must understand clearly the constitutional and legal mission and mandate of the Commission both as an umpire and a regulator,” he said.

“Secondly, the media must have a working knowledge of the constitutive constitutional, legal and regulatory instruments that guide and underpin the work of the Commission. Without this understanding, functions and powers granted and domiciled with other agencies and Commission, all perceived inadequacies and infractions may inadvertently be ascribed to the Commission and this could lead to misunderstanding and disinformation.

“The third is that the media must understand and appreciate the fact that preparations for elections, the conduct of elections and the resolution of electoral  disputes are in a class of their own and cannot be discussed and analyzed from a generic point of view. This is because elections and the electoral process have their own dynamics. For instance elections petitions are not civil or criminal proceedings and therefore must be understood within the context of Nigeria’s electoral jurisprudence.

“The fourth is that the work of the Commission has national security implications, which implies that reporting elections needs to be handled with an eye on conflict sensitivity and national peace and cohesion. Reporting elections requires special skills and understanding of the centrality of election to Nigeria’s survival as a federal democracy where incontrovertible facts devoid of speculation, grandstanding and political maneuvers are more likely to be more helpful. This is simply because one false report that goes viral may have the potential of triggering a breakdown of law and order in a part or the whole of the country.

“The fifth is that it is in the interest of the country for the media to always seek for official clarification on germane and serious national issues, especially when electoral matters are involved, instead of  relying on the opinion of unnamed “highly placed officials” of the Commission and those of ‘a National Commissioner that does not want to be named’”

Barr Okoye said delivering on free, fair, peaceful, safe and credible elections must be seen and viewed as a shared responsibility and partnership between agencies, Commissions and branches of government and in this multi stakeholder venture no one should be left behind.

Mr Arogundade in his presentation said INEC under Professor Mahmood Yakubu had continuously demonstrated the willingness to improve on the conduct of elections as evidenced in its support for technologically driven polling especially the electronic transmission of results.

“Its resolve strengthened the position of the media and civil society during the debates on the Electoral Act Amendment Bill such that the National Assembly had to bow to our wish that the discretion to electronically transmit results should lie with INEC in order to preserve its independence,” he said.

“With the National Assembly having conceded to our aspirations in this regard, it is now left for us in the media to charge President MuhammaduBuhari to sign the bill in time to enable fuller deployment of technology in forthcoming elections.”

On the challenges faced during the process of passing Electoral Act Amendment Bill, Arogundade said “I must quickly say that it was not all rosy as far as the Act Amendment Bill is concerned.

“For example, we are not happy that the National Assembly did not yield to our demand to drop aspects of the amendments that may have the implication of criminalising journalism during elections. For example, whereas the maximum fine for violating the provisions relating to equitable access in section 100 of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) used to be N500, 000:00, the amendment bill in section 95 has not only increased it to N2millon in the first instance and N5million upon subsequent conviction, but it has also additionally provided for the sentencing of: “Principal officers and other officers of the media house to a fine of N2 million or to imprisonment for a term of 12 months.”

Beyond the Electoral Amendment Bill, Mr Arogundade said there was the need to continue to emphasise that strangulating regulatory frameworks such as seen in the bills for the amendment of the National Broadcasting Act 2004 and the Nigeria Press Council Act 2020 will not only undermine the constitutional obligation imposed on the media to monitor governance and hold government accountable to the people, but also hinder media independence and serve as obstacles to the performance of the media’s core functions during the electoral processes and elections.

He said, “The online media environment is a very crucial one for the performance of the above-enumerated roles. The effective performance could however be challenging due to the phenomenon of fake news, which has significant presence in the online and social media space and the incursion of the so-called citizen journalists into the information sharing arena. Under the confusing atmosphere, government tends to always group everyone together and makes it look as if nothing else happens in the online media other than the dissemination of fake news and hate speech.

“Much as we have defended press freedom and Internet rights of journalists operating in the online space, it is imperative for us to renew our commitment to compliance with ethical and professional standards, fact-checking and factual accuracy in order to enable citizens, the media regulatory agencies and hopefully the government to separate the whiff from the chaff. More importantly, we have to earn deserved respect to be seen as reliable partners in the delivery of credible elections.”

Dr. Akingbulu in his presentation acknowledged the successful conduct of the Anambra State governorship elections and the passage of the electoral bill by the National Assembly, saying, “We can see that each of these successes is a positive forward step in the building of democracy in our country. We can see that every successful step is an impetus for further steps in the consolidation of our democracy.”

Underlining the fact that the media is one of the crucial institutions with important roles to play in the electoral process, he said, “the roles of the media are so important that they are indispensable in the proper conduct of an electoral process and in the broader functioning of a democracy. We often talk of the “watchdog” role of the media, which refers to the unfettered scrutiny of activities/performances of governance or public institutions and helping to bring them to account.”

Rotimi Oyekanmi, Chief Press Secretary to Hon Chairman, INEC in his presentation acknowledged that online newspapers/magazines/blogs form an integral part of Nigeria’s vibrant media confraternity with immense power to shape public opinion and the capacity to trigger the formulation and execution of people-oriented policies.

“They hold public office holders accountable by questioning the rationale behind their actions and policies and demanding answers. Indeed, online newspapers speak truth to power and public office holders are forced to be careful about their actions,” he said.

“Since their platforms are Internet-based, Online Publishers have the added advantage of reporting on events by the minute and taking information to the readers first. In a way, they have democratized the dissemination of information, taking the initiative away from the monopolistic tendencies by keeping citizens informed about the goings on.

“They also leverage on the various social media platforms, enabling them to reach even wider local and international audiences in seconds.

“This group of media practitioners has played an impressive role in helping the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to disseminate information about its activities and counter fake news. However, some of them have wittingly or unwittingly provided a fertile ground for the spread of disinformation with its attendant negative consequences, which tend to impugn the Commission’s integrity.”

He said the primary purpose of the strategic meeting was to forge a strong alliance with a critical stakeholder, in this case, the online publishers.

He listed the expected outcome of the meeting to include; Better understanding and appreciation of the Commission’s constitutional powers, functions, processes/procedures, achievements, and challenges; Cross fertilization of ideas with one of the Commission’s key stakeholders – the media; Mutually beneficial relationship is re-established and better understanding between the Commission and the media reinforced; Template for regular interactive meeting/contacts between the Commission and the participants is established; Wider dissemination of information about the Commission’s activities to multiple audiences; Positive reportage on the Commission’s activities is enhanced; and Goodwill between the Commission and the Media is sustained.

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