I’ve been a widow for 15yrs but have never asked any man for help — Acting INEC chair Zakari

I’ve been a widow for 15yrs but have never asked any man for help  — Acting INEC chair Zakari

The exit of the immediate past chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Attahiru Jega, no doubt created a big vacuum. More than 11 aspirants are presently jostling to succeed him. They include the Acting INEC Chairman, Mrs. Amina Zakari who, in this interview with select journalists, speaks about what she called unwarranted mudslinging against her person. YUSUF ALLI, Managing Editor, Northern Operation, was there. Excerpts: 

WHAT are the things left undone by the former INEC chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega, which you have to contend with now?

There is a lot that has been done in terms of processes to conduct credible elections. The main issue now is to make our staff and internal processes more efficient. It has been a tough five years. When we came in five years ago, it was like a new commission. We did a lot of restructuring, re-organisation and strategic planning. So many things were happeningCVR, permanent voter cards, electionand the commission is the only agency that can conduct governorship elections and by-elections. So it wasn’t an easy five years. But thank God, we were able to surpass the expectations of Nigerians.

Within those processes, however, we discovered a lot of human errors. Things that could be done easily were made more difficult because of the understanding of Nigerians, training of ad hoc staff and so many other issues. So, the concentration now is to inculcate some values. People need to understand that they have to work on a daily basis. They have to utilise their processes. In fact, we are working on a business process review, and I am chairing the committee. We have gone far in mapping out our business processes. All we need now is to keep on sensitising the staff so that we can have a changed management.

We have done all we needed to do in terms of restructuring and re-organisation. But there is change management and that is one of the handover notes. The other handover issue is increased use of technology in the electoral process. I believe the use of technology increases transparency and efficiency of any process and we also need to sensitize our staff on the need to be ICT-efficient. This is the message I gave them all.

In every election now, we must ensure that the staff is adequately trained. We must provide capacity building. We must go back and get those who are technologically ready, because if God willing I am allowed to continue, we are going to increase the use of technology. Even in our day to day activities, we realise we have a dearth of data management. After an election, you don’t know who conducted the elections. Who were the ad hoc officials? So that we can have a data bank of who has done elections before, so we could use them. With little training, you could re-use them, but every time we want to have an election now, we have to start all over again. So, if we have hands at the lower level who are technology-savvy in the use of computer, data management would not be an issue.

Will INEC continue to use card readers?

The card reader is here to stay. We are ensuring that the storage facilities are being run. We are doing an audit on our storage facilities and sometimes we get calls from the field that everything is fine, because we monitor to ensure that everything is fine. We’ll do an inventory of all our card readers and ensure that what we think we have in store is actually what we have in store. I will also do an inventory of the internal workings to see whether our SIM cards are still there or they are missing. You know we have to continually do the auditing. You can’t just leave it to chance until maybe 2019 when you open and discover that all your card readers are not functional.

Will they be useful in 2019?

Normally, the lifespan of the machine is five years, with proper storage. So, when we audit the storage, we would see if we need to rethink our storage strategy; maybe we have to store them in a central place where we can concentrate on providing a conducive environment for their lifespan.

What value would you add to the electoral process if you are confirmed as substantive chairman?

Like I said, I am a data and process person. The value I would add is to begin our process early so we do not get caught up in this ad hoc, fire brigade approach to activities. I know what we went through all these five years. We normally have to request for information. We request for somebody to do his job. So, the direction we have started giving the commission is that everybody has to do his job as and when due.

You know we had a retreat in June when the former chairman was leaving with the other commissioners. We discussed with the electoral officers, the administration officers, the RECs and we made recommendations from the retreat. We have also compiled our 2015 election report and we have recommendations thereof.

We also have reports from observers and monitors. So, we extracted all the recommendations and aligned them with the departments that should work on them as well as the RECs, and we gave it back to them. The very first week I came, I gave it back to the departments that these are the recommendations from the retreat, and the promise was that every recommendation would be looked into. You can’t just throw them away because these are issues that our staff brought up.

Why did you lobby to become the INEC chairman?

I did not lobby for it. I had packed all my things out of INEC and wanted to take a leave for the remaining three weeks. I felt that as the commission was being depleted, I had a responsibility to sit out my three weeks. Then I was called on my way home after the chairman (Jega) had handed over to Ambassador Wali. I told that the head of service was looking for me, and I said what for? I just continued driving. I was almost home when they said, ‘Come back, you have a letter to be the acting chairman.’ I said, ‘but somebody was appointed in the morning, take the letter to INEC.’ But they said, ‘It is in your name. You have to come and receive it. Just turn round.’

While I was still arguing, my driver decided to turn round. I called the ambassador and told him, and he said, ‘Go pick your letter.’ I called the former chairman and he said, ‘Go pick the letter.’ I was confused and worried because it is an enormous responsibility and I wasn’t really expecting it. I picked the letter and came back to the office the next day in a sober mood. I know the only thing left to do is to consolidate on the gains within this acting period; just maintain an administrative structure, try to keep the commission running administratively and then let’s see what happens, since I know the problems of the commission in terms of business processes. So, we are working on communication. We are discussing with the directors, giving them responsibilities and, hopefully, everything should be fine.

That means you still had three weeks left before you were appointed as the acting chairman.

Yes, I had three weeks left.

Do you believe you are up to the task of managing the commission?

Having worked for five years in the commission, I have a good knowledge of what goes in it. I had more contact with the staff than the former chairman, and there was so much responsibility entrusted to me. I handled so many ad hoc assignments. I was in charge of managing the youth corps affairs, and it was a 24-hour duty on Election Day. Everyone would go home after the election, but I would still be on the phone trying to get them back to base. I managed the business process. I managed political parties for four years, and that was a continuous assignment.

Some of the committees had their job towards the election, mine was a permanent assignment. I was working like an everyday civil servant. When I was moved out, I didn’t know there was life after political parties. I had to manage their factionalisation. I had to engage in dispute resolution. I became an emergency lawyer. So, it was an eventful five years. And now, I can look back and see where corrections and improvements need to be made. I have been part of the re-organisation. I had been in the security committee, operation committee, so many committees. I have a good knowledge of what goes on in INEC. I think in any organisation, continuity is good.

Are you praying to be confirmed as substantive chairman?

God decides who becomes leader. If God decides that I would be the one to continue, I will have to do my best.

Having being entrusted with so many responsibilities by the former chairman, will it be correct to say that Jega prepared you for this position?

I don’t think he deliberately prepared me. Maybe he saw certain qualities in me that he was able to tap into. Maybe that is why he gave me those responsibilities. Possibly, it’s the jobs I did, the quality of my presentations and assignments, that made him pick me. You know as they say, the reward for hard work is more work.

Is it true you have familial or marital relationship with President Buhari?

I would say Gen. Buhari did not appoint me as a commissioner; President Jonathan did. Before that, Gen. Obasanjo appointed me as a special assistant and I was posted to FCT where I was secretary for health, agriculture and social development at the same time. At the time President Jonathan came, he was looking for people that had integrity. That was what I was told, and I found myself in the commission and did my best. For somebody to now say Gen. Buhari knew me and gave me the job, obviously he knew I am a hard worker and he is a principled person. I have never known him for nepotism. He is a very principled person.

If there are familial ties, the principle would have rubbed off on that family. I come from a very principled family. My father survived two regimes that were jailing and sacking people, and he survived both. And for that, I don’t think I would do anything that would jeopardise that principle. I can’t say the general is my in-law. I am not married to his son and my daughter is not married to him. That is what I understand about being an in-law. But obviously, in life, you have acquaintances, people you have known. But I think people should not get distracted by this ‘family or no family’. Am I competent? Can I deliver? Can I conduct my affairs with integrity? The President’s message is for people to be honest and to have integrity. This is a statement he sent to me. ‘Don’t do anything against your principle.’ Already, I have that principle and I will maintain it.

Were you nominated by APC or any APC governor? Because that is the speculation…

The President is a man of himself and people should not think that people influence people of power. Even when I was made a commissioner, was it somebody from PDP that recommended me? I know people in high places. I was acquainted with some of them. So, having somebody recommend you, does it make your job different from what you would do? I might as well have been recommended by a PDP person or a Labour Party person that is acquainted with the President. I think the President had a job to do. He was confronted with the information that this number of commissioners has left and these are the ones remaining, and he chose me.

So I don’t think it’s about recommendation. We should think about the other administrative processes. I was still a commissioner. I am qualified to do it. And like he said, gender issues cropped up. He seems to be a traditional person and the gender activists started working on him. So, that might have informed the choice of the only female among the six commissioners remaining.

Were you the most senior commissioner?

Yes, there were two of us. We were the two most senior commissioners. And this is not the first time INEC has had an acting commissioner. I understand Prof. Maurice Iwu was a commissioner who became a chairman. When we came, Soyebi was acting commissioner and he handed over to Jega. And he conducted elections. He had done all the procurements. The commission was running before we came. In fact, with Soyebi and Umeadi, the same scenario happened. When Iwu left, he didn’t nominate an acting chairman. Umeadi took over but the Presidency appointed Soyebi as acting chairman.

Are you desperate for this position?

There is nothing called desperation. Or have I portrayed that image?

Your adversaries believe that you want to get the job at all cost…

No, no, no. I am not desperate and I don’t have to get the job at all cost. I think even if I don’t get the job, I have made history as the first acting female chairman of INEC. Within this period, have I done anything good? Have I done anything to improve the process? Even if it is a two-day job, somebody has to do it and I happen to be the one doing it. If somebody is asked to come and take over, I will willingly hand over to that person. I am not desperate.

I have been a widow in the last 15 years, no man or anyone will say I have ever knocked on his door to seek help to take care of my children. I was brought up with decency and I have tried my best to preserve and protect my integrity.

The PDP has been criticising your appointment. Do you think this is justified?

In politics, everything is justified. I don’t have a quarrel with them. I have worked very well with them being in charge of political parties. And at that time, there was no single complaint about me. Normally, you see somebody’s name being mentioned in petitions, but in all the four years, there was no time any political party or faction mentioned me in person as doing something to influence any of their activities. You would see tons of complaints and petitions from political parties. They would put our directors and everybody in the papers. Did you ever see my name crop up? That was the most sensitive and difficult assignment in INEC and I did it for four years. So for PDP to be saying they don’t like my appointment, that is politics.

How many PVCs have not been collected?

We have about 58million PVCs collected so far, which is about 81 per cent of the 68 million produced. We have about 10 million PVCs not collected. We still have about 400,000 PVCs not produced. So, we are going to resume the distribution of PVCs but we cannot just bring out those PVCs and begin to distribute them until we are sure they belong to living human beings.

We are planning our modalities for distribution.

But before that we are going out to the field to conduct PVC audit in all the states. On Thursday, we had a meeting with all our Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) and the topic of discussion was resumption of PVC distribution and Continuous Voters Registration (CVR).

Like I told the RECs yesterday, the audit will start by next week. But as for the PVC distribution, we have to come up with a water-tight process so that the PVCs will not get into wrong hands, especially as we are having Kogi and Bayelsa elections. We have to scientifically determine how we are going to do the distribution so that we just don’t go out to the field and it becomes a different story.

What is the budget for Kogi and Bayelsa elections?

For Kogi, am still expecting the budget, but we have done the budget for CVR and PVC distribution. They were approved when there were enough members of the commission. For Kogi, we are coming up with the budget. For Bayelsa, we have to go back to government for the budget. Nonetheless, we have started preparation. We had preliminary meeting with the RECs last Wednesday to discuss modalities for the CVR. We have a work plan for the CVR, so we want to start early. Then we would have a work plan for the elections. We should soon get approval for Kogi.

We would get a memo and budget for Kogi. But for Bayelsa, we have to go back to government because we had anticipated Bayelsa to be in next year’s budget, but due to the timelines approved in the constitution, it is better to prosecute the two elections this year. Next year, we take Ondo and Edo, so that we can have a paced process so we don’t get inundated with too many elections like we did between 2011 and 2015, so we can tidy up and ensure seamless delivery of credible elections to Nigerians.

The processes have started. We are comfortable. The RECs are already doing what they need to do at the lower level. I always told the staff there are soft issues you can do without money. You can begin preparations without money. While you are waiting for the core issues, you can begin with soft preparations and this is the example of what we are doing. In fact, our timelines have not been derailed for any reason.

Is INEC broke?

INEC is not broke. The releases are becoming a bit more difficult but INEC is not broke.

What is the amount to be spent on Kogi election?

Normally, for governorship election, it costs us between N500 million and N600 million. This is all inclusive. It includes payment of ad hoc staff and the bulk of our cost is usually the payment of honorarium to ad hoc staff. But we have some savings. We still have leftovers, non-sensitive materials from the 2015 elections, and we are not going to procure a lot. We will just concentrate on procuring the sensitive materials.

When will voters in Kogi, Bayelsa and other states get their PVRs?

I think Bayelsa and Kogi were among the first states where most of the voters have collected their voter cards. It is just a balance of the PVCs that are remaining and we are not sure if the people that own them are not dead. We are not sure if they are students, especially in Ogun where we did a scientific analysis and we have seen that they have so many universities and the students left and were not interested in coming back for the cards. That is why we can’t throw back the cards in the fields because we don’t want them to get into the wrong hands given that our card readers do not read all the fingers all the time. We have to be systematic about the distribution. That is why we are doing continuous voters registration for them. We are going to do pre-election registration to mop up the few people that need to register and for people to transfer their registration from polling unit. From inter-state and intra-state, they want to move to another local government. We are going to avail them that opportunity and we are trying to do it seamlessly on e-platform. We have started testing an e-transfer platform that does not need you to come back for capturing. We are working on that for the two states.

When Jega came on board, he promised to prosecute electoral offenders. How many have been prosecuted so far?

In 2011, we prosecuted up to 200 persons. The police have given us a report on that. For 2015, a lot more are in police net. Investigations are going on. We haven’t heard about the prosecution yet. In fact, some of them are our ad hoc staff. So we wait for the report. I know that the last Inspector-General of Police set up a special prosecution team for the 2015 elections. So we’ll await their report.

There is this insinuation that you have a health challenge and that you had a heart surgery. Are you fit for the job?

I don’t think the person saying that is a medical doctor. I am a pharmacist. If I had heart surgery in May, you would not see my face till the next six months because I have to recuperate to ensure that my heart is back to normal.

I travelled to Saudi Arabia in May. Everybody went for thanksgiving after the general elections. I spent like 10 days, came back and went straight to Uyo for the retreat. We finished on June 15, right after the election, straight to London for an assignment, came back, went to Ummrah and came back. If I had appendix surgery, I will recuperate for two months. Heart surgery is not easy.

You have seen me, I am fit. I have been veiling myself as a good Muslim. I need to veil myself more as the acting chairman. I am sure the person that made the insinuation is not a medical doctor.

By Yusuf Alli, NATION