Obo Effanga is the Independent National Electoral Commission's (INEC) Resident Electoral Commissioner, Rivers State. In this interview with KELVIN EBIRI, he explains the suspension of Port Harcourt Constituency III by-election as well as the issue of credible election in the state, stressing that politicians remain the greatest threat to Nigeria's democracy and the electoral process
How concerned is INEC about early warning signals of possible electoral violence in Rivers State?
I would rather that we prevent it from happening. We know what election is. It is a process whereby citizens decide who should lead them.
Why should that necessarily be associated with violence and criminality? For me, even before I joined INEC, I have always held this view that let us threat crime as a crime and punish people for it.
I think the focus should be on the political class, the politicians, because who mobilises people for violence in an election? It is the politician! So, let us put the pressure on them so that they don't do that.
What measures should be in place to ensure security during election?
Well, INEC does not control the apparatus of violence or deterrence to violence when it comes to elections at any time.
We are civil institution; so, we rely on the law enforcement agencies to do their bit. We work in conjunction with them when it comes to elections.
There is the interagency consultative committee on election security and we have meetings regularly.
We have a meeting after each election and we review what happened and also look at strategies for ensuing that life and property are protected during elections. I trust that subsequent elections will not have that kind of situation.
Unfortunately, it shouldn't be so ordinarily, but we have a peculiar situation in Nigeria where people think that election is a do-or-die.
So people leave nothing to chance in ensuring they have what they want, even using violence on others.
We have had incidents in this country where elections have resulted to death of people who conducted elections. It is unfortunate situation and we hope that does not happen.
How does INEC intend to check vote-buying in the state?
Why do we have this situation? The truth is that we have this situation of people buying votes from the voters because, now more than ever before, every vote counts.
So, we should first start by acknowledging that there is an improvement in the electoral process in the elections conducted by INEC.
If you cast your mind back many years before now, politicians didn't bother about whether people will come out to vote or not. They were just interested in manipulating the system. They were focused on trying to infiltrate the electoral management body to get result sheet.
So result sheet became a way to win election.
We have brought improvement into the electoral process such that every vote now counts.
It is because these votes now count that the politicians now know that the only way they can win election is to have the majority of the votes and to convince the people to vote for them. They have now found a smart way of convincing the people, which is by buying them off.
When we are talking about vote-buying, there are two parties involved; the person who wants to buy the vote and the person who wants to sell the vote. For that to happen there has to be an agreement between them and we are talking about two adults.
It is like prostitution. It is usually between two adults and it is usually difficult to find it out if they intend to hide it from you.
What has happened is that on election day, people who want to pay for votes would want to know how the vote-seller voted.
Remember that in the election, voting is supposed to be secret.
What INEC is now doing is to ensure that that process of voting is secret so that when the voter collects the ballot paper, the person is prevented and protected from people knowing how he or she voted.
But you see, the person who is bent on justifying the money given to him or her will find tricky ways of doing that.
That is why you find at polling units, somebody thumbprints and will then be pretending to fold the ballot papers so that people will see it. We are trying to prevent that.
One way is to keep the voting cubicle a distance away from the public.
But there is a problem, as in many of our polling units the space is not that much for you to even keep this far away from the people standing there. We are finding ways to ensure that people who stand there don't see.
The arrangement of the cubicle increasingly is made in such a way that when you thumbprint people won't see it.
You see, the law also says that the casting of the ballot should be in the open and that is why we are doing open/secret balloting; you thumbprint in secret, then you drop it openly.
If we didn't have that, then it would have been much easier to control this.
Previously, it was secret voting, but people now complained that when people want to vote they usually have extra ballot that they drop in there.
Although now that will not be possible because our ballot papers are customised and serially numbered.
The other way we prevent this is through the support of the security agents. They are to ensure that transaction of this nature do not happen there.
What we assure Nigerians is that we will try as much as possible not to allow the polling unit to be turned to a transaction place for exchange of money for voting.
Will INEC resort to incident forms if smartcard readers fail?
Let me explain what led to the issue of incident form.
In 2015 when INEC introduced the smartcard reader, the idea was that every voter will have a permanent voters card and you have to read it with the smartcard reader before the person is allowed to vote.
Now, that was a game changer and the politicians knew that it was going to affect their ability to manipulate the election.
If you recall, many politicians were against the use of the card reader. They said the smartcard reader was taking time to accredit people and so, at the last moment, it was said that if the smartcard reader is not effective, you could use incident form for people who were accredited manually.
What now happened, was in many instances, the politicians ensured that the smartcard readers were not even used.
Or you find a situation where a polling unit that has, say 300 voters, and they will claim that 280 persons voted and out of the 280, only about 25 accredited with smartcard readers, the rest resorted to incident form. That was strange.
What INEC has done between then and now that, the smartcard readers have been enhanced and their capabilityare much better.
From the elections we have held beginning from the Anambra last year, the smartcard reader has worked perfectly.
There will be circumstances and when that happens there will be back up. The smartcard reader is configured for each polling unit.
It has the details of all the people registered to vote in that polling unit. So, there is really no need to use the incident form.
Will INEC ever conclude the botched PHLGA Constituency 3 bye-election?
Let's look at what led to the suspension of the election in the first place.
On election day, INEC mobilised all the materials and personnel needed for the election. They were out there at the polling units on time and voters came out to vote, and in the course of the election, there was violence of such proportion that it affected the entire process and we had to suspend it.
That was a decision of the commission, INEC with headquarters is in Abuja. I am only a resident electoral commissioner for Rivers State. I implement the policy and activities of INEC in Rivers State.
Information was passed to the commission on that day of the election and a decision was taken in consultation with those of us in the state.
At this moment, I have not received any instruction on how to proceed. We have submitted detailed report of what happened.
There was an auditing that indicated what happened in every polling unit and ward. That has been submitted to the commission and the commission has not gotten back to us.
Whenever the commission feels it is alright to proceed with the election, that will happen
Why will people bring violence on an election day? What do they intend to gain? And should we allow that to be the narrative for election in Nigeria, particularly in Rivers State?
Our decision took many people by surprise because many people are used to violence on election day and at the end of the day you hear results announced.
At the end of the day a winner is declared. But we saw what happened on that day and decided it did not make sense to proceed because we could not even have any result.
In many of the places, the election had been disrupted before it could be concluded.
In some of the places, where election went on, by the time they were counting the vote there was violence.
At different stages there was violence all over the place and the integrity of the process was called to question and so we could not have proceeded.
I heard people say, "well, go ahead and announce the result" and I was wondering, "what results are they are talking about? As we speak, I don't have single result because they were destroyed and human beings were attacked.
From all indication, it then appears the suspension is indefinite?
We are planning for the general elections and so there is a lot of work going on in every INEC office across the country.
The logistics involved for the general elections is much than what you have in one House of Assembly constituency and so we are working on that. The issue whether this is going to be indefinite, we haven't said so.
We are still open and will proceed with the process. I think we need to sit back and look at this from a more practical point of view. We mobilised for that election.
The cost of mobilising for election is huge in terms of human and financial resources and so it is not something that you will be doing every other month.
You need to really plan for this. Also remember that a majority of personnel involved in this are National Youth Service Corps members and we are also concerned about their safety.
So, while this is still being worked out, we are planning for the main elections and you know that a lot of activities have happened in the last few months generally across the country in terms of the election.
So we need to focus on other thing, too, that we had planned to do.
By the way, the bye-election is not something that you plan for ordinarily because you didn't expect that.
But we planned for it and we had the experience of people disrupting the election and so we wouldn't tie ourselves down with that while there are other bigger things for us to do which is the main election.
If the commission decides today that we should proceed with the election, we will do that.
Rivers State seems to have hundreds of uncollected PVC. What happened?
In terms of PVCs at this moment, we have a total of about 2.8 million PVC for registered voters in Rivers State and that is up to the end of March 2018.
We have a difference of about 400,000 cards that have not been collected and these are cards ranging from 2011 up to March of this year.
Between April and August this year, we have a figure of about 400,000 who registered but these are being processed. We don't know how many of that will go through and be added to the figure we have.
What is your word to the political class as elections approach?
It is the need for politicians to dignify the electoral process.
I keep saying that the greatest threat to Nigeria's democracy and the electoral process are the people who are the greatest beneficiary, the politicians.
So, even for their own sake, they should dignify the electoral process.
Let them do that which is right so that when they get elected, they will not have this moral burden that the election was not credible.
Unless he is a politician who knows that he or she is not going to win the election who should use violence and try to discredit the system.
But if they are committed to the system and they want to get into office on the basis of election, they should bring credibility to the system and that is lacking in a lot of ways.
Look at what happened with the conduct of primaries across the country.
I think we should put the pressure on the political class; let them dignify the system that is going to bring them out as elected officials.