A former Director of Voter Education and Publicity, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Oluwole Osaze-Uzzi, in this interview with Channels TV Politics Today monitored by Linus Aleke, speaks on the February 25 election and the postponed March 11 election, among other issues
Why do you think INEC postponed the governorship and house of assembly election by one week?
You know the furore that arose out of the challenges that the commission had with the presidential and national assembly elections, especially with the BVAS and upload of results. You could not envisage a situation with the tension in the country, with the uncertainty, and with all that happened in the last 10 or 12 days, I don’t think that INEC could afford to get it wrong thing again. Things didn’t go on well last time and I think confidence is at an all-time low. Even though some people may begin to get over it but I think the vast majority of Nigerians are not satisfied. I don’t think the commission itself is satisfied with the way things turned out. Having said that, elections were long scheduled to hold more than a year ago, and the commission fixed the March 11 for the subnational elections. So, the commission has to get it right and I think part of the problem was that INEC chose to time over process, there was a call to be made. Do we delay things and ensure that we follow the process to the latter even if it means delaying this thing for a week or for whatever period or do we save time, save tension, and just go ahead and bye-pass some of the processes laid down in the regulations? I think, the commission took the former. This time around, I think the process, triumphed over timing. If they had gone ahead with the timing, I think these subnational elections would probably have come out the same way or even worse than the presidential and national assembly elections. Because INEC needed to use the BVAS and the way things are now, the commission needed to reconfigure the BVAS and it takes time to do so.
BVAS was not a problem in the first election BVAS worked well in many places but the concern was the transmission of the election results to the IReV portal, but in this instance, the BVAS is at the centre of the postponement of the election, which is that a genuine reason to postpone the election?
You are asking me to pass judgement, but it is difficult for me to do so when I don’t have all the facts. I can only work within the purview of the fact presented by the commission itself and it is in the public domain. Maybe if I am still with the commission, I would have gotten a better insight than I did. Let me approach your question this way, first of all, there are two dimensions to the BVAS. Don’t forget BVAS was used for authentication, by and large, most commentators acknowledged that it worked very well. But it also was used for the upload, scanning, or taking a photograph of result sheets and uploading it. Yes, they said that they had technical glitches, but I don’t know the exact nature, and most of us don’t know the exact nature of these technical glitches. Was it a question of equipment failure, uploading from BVAS to the server or was it that the server was not in a good position to receive them? We felt, conflicting or different stories about that, so, I am not a technical person and I don’t know what the technical things are and the commission has not come up with all the facts. Perhaps, an inquiry, an independent one by the commission in the coming days or weeks will give us better insight into that. Now, was it a tenable reason, let me put it this way the commission has powers under section 24 of the Electoral Act to postpone elections. Although, if you read the wording of the Act, it is more like a natural disaster or other emergency or if there is a likelihood of threat of violence, serious insecurity, one that threatens national security or breaks down of law and order in a particular locality or across the country, INEC has the powers to postpone. I want to believe that INEC has come under the provisions of that other emergency because it does not say that if there is an equipment failure or technical glitches you can postpone an election. But I want to believe that it is flexible enough to say it is an emergency occasioned by this need to reconfigure the BVAS. So, in that sense, I think we can say it is tenable, but whether Nigerians accept that or not, maybe somebody direct from INEC, involved in the process might come and throw more light on this issue. I think that is what is necessary because the commission needs to be building confidence and trust. Trust is low in many areas, so we have to do all that we can to restore this lost confidence because the Commission is the only body in Nigeria today that can conduct elections. So, there has to be
some level of confidence, trust, understanding, and cooperation between the Commission and the good citizens of this country. So, we have to give them benefit of the doubt that this is a good enough reason because they know that citizens would not have accepted it if the subnational elections turned out to be disastrous.
Does the electoral umpire need more than 48 hours to back up and reconfigure the BVAS for the subnational elections?
Unfortunately, to answer that we may need to dwell a little bit on the realm of propositions as all the information is not available to us right now. All of these equipment or some of them have to be brought to Abuja and if that is the case, certainly there will be logistics challenges in moving them up and down. As far as my understanding is concerned, I am not a technical person, but each of equipment is polling unit specific. Data from the polling unit have been stored in a particular device so, it is not just a software issue. There is a software part of it and you have to reconfigure each one individually as well. So, how many days is a technical question which only the commission can answer? But my understanding is that each device has to be reconfigured like the card reader. Let me take an analogy with a card reader. The card reader was programmed in such a way that it is election specific. If there was an election on March 11 for instance, you programme it to begin function at 8am when the polling is supposed to start and allow it to work till about 9pm, at which time everybody in the queue by 2.30pm ought to have been accredited and voted. The reason for this is not farfetched, it is also a question of building trust. The reason is that look, we don’t want these things to start so that polling officials don’t preload thing before the time and the commission also don’t want it to go too far into the night because once people are out of the polling units, the tendency that some may attempt to do untoward things are also there. So, it has to be programmed specifically under those parameters, I think that was done, I don’t know the technical terms for all these things. So you now have to reconfigure these for this election. Now, the time between the declaration of results and the second election was 12 days or thereabout, so, they had enough time to do that. But now, because of the court order, do not tamper with these things, I think the commission obeyed that order and stayed behind and did not do anything with that equipment. So, they have to wait for the ruling of the court on the matter, and unfortunately, the verdict came late. Nothing could be done, no action could be taken until they are sure that clearance was given by the court because the initial order was don’t tamper with the BVAS. Now reconfiguration would have meant tampering with the BVAS and disobeying the court order.
Why did INEC wait till the court ruling before convening a meeting to postpone the election even when they knew all along that they are bound by the circumstances to shift the election, they waited until some Nigerians have wasted their money travelling back to their base to the elections, is that not unjust to the electorate who had paid their hard earn money to travel across the federation?
Certainly, I can understand the misgivings, if I was in their positions I was supposed to travel as well. I felt some kind of righteous indignation and a lot of people felt angry and understandably so. I know for a fact that a lot of planning went into this process, it started before I even left the commission. It was ironic that one of the international election observer missions said they were not satisfied with the planning. That the planning was haphazard and they also have justification from what they saw on the field to say so. One would have expected that there would be a plan A and then plan B, but the hindrance from taking it from Monday, which was the day they got the order. They also applied to amend the order to enable them to undertake the election on Saturday. But they have to wait for the court ruling one way or the order, it was not given, that the court will rule in their favour.
If the court had ruled otherwise, would INEC have still postponed the election?
Look, INEC does not need a court ruling to have plan B. A lot of people in the commission are well-versed in the election. Many of them have been with the commission since it was established in 1998. Many people who worked with NEC are still there also. There is a reservoir of knowledge of processes of things that have been done, and I think an indication of that should have come when we realised that there was likely going to be a postponement. There had been postponement in previous elections, it is becoming a recurring decimal. Sadly, in four conservative elections circles, elections have been postponed. Planning ought to have addressed some of these issues. I don’t know the mischief that could have been caused. They filed this application on Monday and on that Monday it ought to have been taken or alternate arrangements or plans should have been done. Or maybe they should have suspended the election indefinitely pending when the court rules but I did read certain commentaries, which alleged that INEC was planning to blackmail the country. When it threatened that the election might have to be postponed if the court ruled otherwise. That commentary was made because of indignation and anger. Let us face it, how is trust built? INEC conducted an election in 1999 when people just wanted to get rid of the military and the outcome was accepted. In 2003, people were not happy, in 2007, it reached a crescendo, and trust was next to zero. But with changes in personnel and reforms that were introduced, trust began to build up and I think that the trust appreciated in 2022. By the time the commission brought more technology, and conducted the Anambra, Ekiti, and Osun elections using the new technology, they saw significant improvement in the process and Osun was picture-perfect. So, expectations were now high and people were ready to forgive the sins of the past. At that point, INEC became one of the most trusted public institutions in Nigeria. You know, trust is a fragile thing, once that happened, the commission was propelled to say that they can do this and that. Unfortunately, it did not happen.
Are you saying that INEC brought this upon itself?
In the sense that it was the one responsible for the conduct of elections. In the sense that it has given assurances that raised the people’s hope. INEC promised and assured people that it will do whatever has to be done. In that sense, the commission raised people’s hope and dashed them. I suppose INEC is overpromised and under-delivered.
Do you agree with people who said that there was no adequate preparation?
No, I don’t agree with them, there was preparation.
In terms of information and communication management, would INEC have done better?
I think that perhaps, the wave of criticism and anger could have been steamed, but it will not satisfy everybody. But I thought with timely, more open, and robust communications, people would have been willing to tolerate and forgive. INEC would also have probably shown more understanding but when communication comes late, minds would have already been made up and the space would have already been filled with misinformation or alternate information and truth. It becomes now difficult to displace that which is there. By Friday evening, for example, INEC would have addressed the stakeholders that they are having technical glitches but are working to resolve them. But that never happened.