AUGUST 5, 2016.
Let me begin by thanking the Nigerian Guild of Editors for giving me this opportunity to make some remarks before this audience of very distinguished Editors. The theme of this year’s conference couldn’t have come at a better time. We are all aware of Nigeria’s current economic challenges, occasioned by the sharp drop on crude oil prices globally, and how this has been affecting the country’s finances. INEC, too has had to grapple with the high cost of re-run elections. I am confident that useful ideas would be generated at this conference for the diversification of the economy.
The press is often referred to as the fourth estate, coming only after the big three: Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. But Edmund Burke was of the opinion that it is more important that the other three. Undoubtedly, the press played a critical role in the pre and post independence era of Nigeria’s history; through to the period of military rule and the advent of democracy in 1999. Throughout the different phases of our country’s history and despite the harsh political and economic environment in which it sometimes operates, the press has consistently and continually defended the weak and drawn attention to the issues that matter, especially as they relate to democracy and good governance.
In a young democracy like ours, the press is, indeed, an indispensable tool. The entrenchment and sustenance of a democratic culture, which is so crucial to the preservation of our country, is firmly rooted in an efficient, incorruptible and trustworthy electoral system. The awesome power that the people have to elect their leaders in a free and fair election is so important that every effort should be made to guard it jealously. The concept of one man, one vote must apply in truth and in deed. Yet, it is only when the environment is conducive; when the people have faith in the electoral process and when they strongly believe that their votes will count that democracy can thrive. Transparent, credible and peaceful elections are very important elements towards democratic consolidation that we cannot afford to take for granted.
In recent times, the conduct of elections has attracted unprecedented attention and scrutiny by the press. Several articles have been published or aired on what INEC did and did not do. The Commission welcomes and appreciates constructive criticism, which will help us grow since no Election Management Body is perfect. It is however sad to note that some of the reports do not reflect the true state of affairs. It is against this background that the Commission is encouraging journalists to always cross check their facts from several channels available to them at the Commission before going to press. After all, accuracy is one of the hallmarks of professional journalism.
INEC is aware of the huge responsibilities on its shoulders. Let me assure this gathering that we take our responsibilities very seriously. We are constantly evolving innovative ways of improving our processes in order to strengthen the electoral system and make votes count. We will continue to introduce innovations into our electoral system, strengthen our training programme, as well as to enhance our logistics and result management system based on international standards and best practices.
Permit me take you through some of the court-ordered re-run elections, by-elections caused by death or resignation of elected members of the National and State Assemblies and end-of-tenure elections conducted by this commission since we were sworn in in November 2015. Over the last eight months, INEC has conducted over 83 re-run elections, 7 by-elections and three end of tenure elections. Of these, 58 were successfully concluded, contrary to the insinuation that all our elections have been inconclusive. It is instructive to note that 22 of the remaining inconclusive elections arose from the March 19 elections in Rivers, which all stakeholders agreed were marred by violence, demonstrated by the untimely death of a youth corps member.
Ladies and gentlemen, in spite of the orchestrated acts of violence, including an arson attack on the INEC office in Bori, the Commission was determined to hold outstanding rerun legislative elections on 30 July 2016. However, due to unassailable and unfavourable security reports, we were prompted to postpone the election to a later date.
Distinguished guests, the most daunting problem encountered by the commission in conducting elections thus far is violence, which manifests in many ways: physical attack (sometimes leading to unfortunate death) on INEC staff (ad-hoc and regular), intimidation, completion of result sheets under duress and sundry electoral malpractices. At times, violence takes the form of attack on our offices, facilities and public institutions used as Polling Centres.
You will recall that recently, our office in Khana Local Government in Rivers was burnt down by yet-to-be-identified persons. Many sensitive materials were destroyed in the process. Earlier, Staff of our State Headquarters in Owerri were held hostage by thugs, thereby preventing them from deploying election materials for a re-run election. Suspected hoodlums burnt down our Local Government offices in Dekina and Adavi in Kogi State, while our office and vehicle in Gwagwalada Local Government Area were also vandalized. Besides, a block of classroom at the Central Primary School in Minjibir town in Kano state was burnt down during the recent State Constituency by-election.
We have thus always ended up with inconclusive elections in all the areas where violence took place. In instances where the Commission could not vouch for the credibility of the process or its outcome, elections were either cancelled in the entire constituency, relying on Section 26 of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended), or in selected Polling Units, relying on Section 53 of the Electoral Act (as amended).
Let me reiterate here that INEC is willing and ready to conduct elections in any part of our country. But the environment has to be conducive for us to perform our duty. Under no circumstance will INEC conduct an election where our permanent and ad-hoc staff, voters, local and international observers, local and international journalists face the imminent danger of being killed or maimed. No election is worth the life of a human being and we take the safety of our staff and all stakeholders very seriously. The commission will never conduct or conclude any election that has not met the minimum threshold of credibility under our laws. We have been and will continue to appeal to our politicians to eschew violence and allow peaceful conduct of elections.
We have received a lot of cooperation from various arms of the security agencies. Following the widespread disruption of the recent by-election in Minjibir State Constituency in Kano State for instance, the Nigeria Police made a number of arrests and arraigned the suspects before the Magistrate court in Minjibir town. The Police and INEC legal teams successfully secured the conviction of 42 suspects.
We are all aware that the Edo gubernatorial election is about a month away – September 10. At the commission, we are determined to make a success of it. Already, various stakeholder meetings have been held in Edo State and further consultations are still going on. We have conducted the Continuous Voters Registration Exercise, during which many Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs) were distributed and other eligible voters who were not captured in the previous exercise had the opportunity to register. The various parties have already begun their campaigns and we are hopeful that the election will be peaceful. On the other hand, the Ondo state election is scheduled to hold on November 26. We are leaving no stone unturned at the Commission and we are also hopeful that the Ondo election will be conducted without any incident.
The 2019 General Elections is also less than 1000 days away. We are determined to consolidate the gains recorded during the 2015 general elections. Already, all hands are on deck to address the challenges arising from the functionality of the Smart Card Reader. The commission is also looking at ways by which election results can be transmitted electronically from the Polling Units to the Collation Centres in the interest of security, sanctity of the ballot, speed and accuracy. Similarly, we have designed a portal from which all registered voters can confirm and verify their registration online ahead of elections. Voters will be able to transfer their registration from on point to another online.
As we move ahead, we look forward to working closely with the press. I was enthused when I saw the Code of Ethics for Nigerian Journalists on the Guild of Editors’ website. Of the15 Declarations under the Code, I find Declaration No 2 very instructive. Under a sub-title: Accuracy and Fairness, it states inter alia:
“The Public has the right to know. Factual, accurate, balanced and fair reporting is the ultimate objective of good journalism and the basis for earning public trust and confidence. A journalist should refrain from publishing inaccurate and misleading information. Where such publication has been inadvertently published, prompt correction should be made. A journalist must hold the right of reply as a cardinal rule of practice. In the course of his duties, a journalist should strive to separate facts from conjecture and comment.”
Regrettably, many newspaper reports and editorials on INEC’s activities in recent time have not been reflecting this important declaration. Our appeal to this distinguished audience and the press is: in reporting on INEC activities, be fair, be objective, be factual, be truthful.
Thank you for your attention.