Inside INEC headquarters by Jacob Segun Olatunji

jegaWith eight days to the presidential election,  JACOB-OLATUNJI SEGUN,  NIGERIAN TRIBUNE,captures the happenings  within the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) headquarters in Abuja

From afar, one could feel the tempo and mesh of activities going on at Plot 436 Zambezi Crescent Maitama District FCT, Abuja, the headquarters of the Independent National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (INEC). From the evident candour of security operatives to the business-like mien of everyone around, the unmistakable message is that the Commission had hit the ground running ahead next week’s presidential election.

The frenzy is not peculiar to headquarters, which happens to be the heartbeat of the Commission. The elaborate arrangements for the elections, which has made Nigetria the focal point of the international community, traverse INEC’s Electoral Institute located along Airport Road,

Human and vehicular movements in the two locations are being closely restricted. In fact, the security in and around the Commission’s headquarters have been stepped up by joint security forces comprising military personnel, police (regular, mobile and anti-terrorists), as well as the operatives of the Department of State Services; men and officers of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), among others. To ensure water-tight security, the area has been cordoned off with barriers, with hi-tech security gadgets mounted within and around the premises, including the main entrance. Both members of staff of the Commission and visitors are subjected to thorough security checks.This is aside the fact that all visitors and workers are compelled to wear proper identification cards, while the usually crowded motor parks around the vicinity had been cleared and relocated far away from the main building for security reasons.

A similar high security alert holds sway at the Commission’s Electoral Institute located along Airport Road just as a massive renovation work was still in progress due to the fire outbreak at the institute last week.

The Friday Edition gathered that the Commission had concluded plans to ensure a conducive environment for all stakeholders that would have anything to do with the collation centre. It was gathered that canopies and several furniture would be brought in within the next few days for the comfort of all the party agents, observers, media practitioners, representatives of civil societies and other stakeholders at the collation centres. A source at the centre also disclosed that proper arrangements had been for the live coverage of events at the centre by local and international media organisations.

Further checks showed that the Commission’s Annex Foreign office located at Wuse 2, Abuja dedicated for the accreditation of the media organisations remains a beehive of activities, as representatives of media organisations thronged the place to undergo accreditation procedures.

Meanwhile, INEC has designated the International Conference Centre (ICC) located at Area 11 as its National Collation Centre for the presidential election results as against the its Electoral Institute used in the previous elections. The ICC has been designated a Security Zone with military personnel, operatives of DSS and others since the crisis of insurgency in the country.

The mood in the commission is expectant, reflective of the general feeling among Nigerians about the election. While the normal adminstrative workers were carrying out their daily activities, the commission has deployed all the national commissioners to the various zones across the country, according sources.

As all these arrangements are in progress, the commission has been holding meetings and other forms of consultations with stakeholders. One of such meetings was held with the accredited Election observers, civil society organisations, representatives of political parties and the media to brief them about the level of preparations for the smooth conduct of the all-important polls. It will be recalled that the INEC chairman, Professor Jega attended a crucial meeting at the Presidential villa, Aso Rock, on Tuesday, along with the Security Chiefs for another round of briefing.

Though, there was no official statement the briefing he had with the Security Chiefs, it was learnt that Jega assured that the INEC was better equipped now for the elections, especially with the high level of collection of Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs) by eligible voters unlike before the elections were rescheduled.

There were indications that the collection of PVCs across in the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) had risen to more than 81.22 per cent, as the spokesman of the INEC chairman, Mr Kayode Idowu, had explained that the update of the figures was as at March 12. He reportedly said there were 10 states whose collection figures attained more than 90 per cent. These include Jigawa, Akwa Ibom, Gombe, Imo, Kaduna, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, Taraba and Zamfara. Also, there are eight states that recorded above 80 per cent and they include Rivers, Enugu, Bauchi, Adamawa, Kano, Cross River, Anambra and Abia. To underscore its readiness for the election, INEC said all the ballot papers and ballot boxes intended to be used in the elections had been distributed to all the states and the FCT. According to the national commissioner in charge of information and voter education, Chris Iyomoga, was quoted as saying: “As we speak Smart Card Readers have been distributed to the states – enough for all the PUs (polling units) and Voting Points.”

In the build up to the elections, the Commission had encountered teething problems in the distribution of the Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs), which has continued to raise doubts on the preparedness and sincerity of the commission to conduct free and fair elections in 2015. However, despite the controversy rocking the commission, its chairman, Professor Jega, was of the opinion that the commission would deliver on its promise of conducting free and fair elections. To ensure this, the commission had insisted on the use of PVCs, as well as Card Readers for the elections, with conviction that the use of PVCs and the card reader technology during the elections would curb rigging.

Latest information from the commission indicated the collection of PVCs across in the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) had risen to over 81.22 percent. The commission had through the spokesman of the INEC chairman, Mr. Kayode Idowu, said that the update of the figures was as at March 12, 10 days away from the March 22 collection deadline.

According to him, there are 10 states, whose collection figures reached 90 per cent and above. The states are Jigawa, Akwa Ibom, Gombe, Imo, Kaduna, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, Taraba and Zamfara. Also, there are eight states that recorded above 80 per cent. They are Rivers, Enugu, Bauchi, Adamawa, Kano, Cross River, Anambra and Abia. Conversely, however, Ogun State has remained at the rear of the log, recording just 49.4 per cent of the PVCs collection. The commission also revealed that, over 155,000 polling units and voting centres across the federation have all received their respective Smart Card Readers for the rescheduled elections. To show its readiness for the poll, the commission equally declared that, all the ballot papers as well as the ballot boxes intended to be used in the elections have all been received and distributed to all the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, FCT.

The national commissioner in charge of information and voter education, Chris Iyomoga, told newsmen in Abuja, noted that, “As we speak Smart Card Readers have been distributed to the states – enough for all the PUs (polling units) and Voting Points. There are also redundancies. He added that, “Even though the Commission had satisfactorily tested the Smart Card Readers (SCRs) before the re-scheduling of the elections, it is to further conduct more rigorous field testing of the functionality of the SCRs which will be deployed for accreditation of voters on Election Day.” He stressed: “As at Tuesday, February 12, 2015, we had received ballot papers meant for all the elections and taken them to the states. They are securely locked at the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) vaults across the states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), awaiting further distribution at the eve of each of the elections.” The INEC commissioner however said, the commission was encouraged with the improvement of security situation in the troubled states, the reason of which the elections were re-scheduled, even as he insisted that INEC was well prepared for the March 28 elections.

Meanwhile, the simultaneous test running of the card readers in two selected states from each geopolitical zones carried out on March 7, to test the efficacy of the card readers was trailed with mixed reactions. The states selected for the exercise were: Ekiti and Lagos, (South West); Anambra and Ebonyi, (South East); Delta and Rivers, (South South); Kano and Kebbi, (North West); Bauchi and Taraba, (North East); Niger and Nasarawa, (North Central).

The National Coordinator, Good Governance Initiative (GGI), Dr. Harruna Shettima, in his reaction , described the test-run as a grossly inadequate exercise incapable of ensuring a free, fair and hitch- free election. He claimed that the mock exercise was below average, as it was characterised by flaws and petulant failures totally incongruous with the present democratic dispensation. He noted that though conducting the mock election was laudable, it exposed the underbellies of the institution. He stated: “Conducting the mock election in about 33 per cent of the country ahead of the general election was a welcome development but unfortunately, it has succeeded in exposing the inadequacies of the card readers and the electoral body to ensure that every voter who turns up to exercise their voting right on March 28 and subsequent weeks would be properly enfranchised, as the machines failed in more than 40 per cent of the areas captured for the exercise.”

On its part, a coalition of civil society organisations, Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, said that the exercise passed integrity test and was commendable. The coalition then called on INEC to deploy enough Card Readers and PVCs for the 2015 elections.

The coalition however noted that there were reports of delays and challenges in authentication of fingerprints. To this end, it urged INEC to improve on areas where it had challenges in the course of the mock exercise.

However, the commission expressed satisfaction with the mock exercise, while acknowledging challenges in confirming finger prints. But it insisted that the use of cards would help combat electoral fraud. It said that, it achieved 100 per cent success in its objective of verifying the authenticity of the Permanent Voter Cards presented by voters during the exercise. On the biometric authentication of voters, INEC conceded that only 59 per cent of voters who turned out for the demonstration had their fingerprints successfully authenticated. A statement by spokesperson of INEC chairman Mr Idowu maintained that: “The Commission, in agreement with registered political parties, had provided in the approved guidelines for the conduct of the 2015 elections that where biometric authentication of a legitimate holder of a genuine PVC becomes challenging, there could be physical authentication of the person and completion of an Incident Form, to allow the person to vote.” He stated that the card readers were able to send data of all accredited voters from polling units to the Commission’s central server, thereby checking attempts at fraudulent alterations.