Desperate moments in Edo and INEC burden of conducting election in Covid-19 era
Allegations of assassination plots, plans to use the security agencies to rig election, invasion of state House of Assembly, and clashes between the supporters of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have continued to raise the fears that the Edo State gubernatorial election slated for September 19, 2020 is already destined to be marred by huge violence of the stature that transpired in Kogi State on November 16 last year.
Observers have called on the Federal Government and its agencies to urgently wade in to nip in the bud any breach of public peace that could also result in loss of lives and property.
Whereas Nigerians believe it is the responsibility of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to superintend over the election and working hand-in-glove with the security agents to ensure a violence-free exercise, the Commission is seemingly passing the buck, saying it had no powers to sanction politicians and political powers that sponsor violence.
The Commission said its duty is to make recommendations to security agents for appropriate sanctions whenever it believes peace was breached by politicians or political parties.
Critics therefore, say with INEC disposition, politicians would continue to sponsor violence and that security agents are not likely to be non-partisan since they determine who to punish or otherwise.
It is in the opinion of pundits that INEC’s failure to punish politicians and political parties responsible for the widespread violence that tainted the 2019 general election and the off-season gubernatorial polls in Kogi and Bayelsa States last year may have emboldened others to take to violence.
Although INEC noted last year the ignoble role played by the security agencies and rented thugs in the Kogi poll, the public is yet to be told of any sanction meted out to the perpetrators of the violence and the violent murder of some innocent indigenes of the state before, during and shortly after the exercise.
That failure may have fueled the fear that the threat of violence in Edo may likely go the way of others that have remained unaddressed.
Whereas Nigerians expect urgent halt to the threat or signs of misuse of the security agency, which has already reared its ugly head in Edo, INEC is seemingly postponing the evil day by saying that it will convene a stakeholders’ meeting in the next one or two weeks.
However, in a television interview monitored Sunday evening, Festus Okoye, INEC’s national commissioner and chairman of Information and Voter Education, said that the INEC was determined to conduct the Edo election and that the Commission was not sleeping on the dangerous signs that are showing up in Edo State ahead of the election.
“We are still going to convene a meeting of inter-agency consultative committee on election security to review the security in Edo and Ondo and then take pro-active measures to make sure we reduce to the barest minimum acts of violence that are capable of crippling the smooth conduct of the elections,” Okoye said.
According to him, “We are looking at the situation; we are not glossing over anything. We are looking at everything holistically and we are going to take a very concrete and formidable position that will enable us move into Edo State and conduct election to the satisfaction of Edo people.”
Despite the social distancing order and other rules that must be observed as part of the protocols in line with the coronavirus pandemic, the INEC has continued to watch akimbo as citizens lives are put in danger while political parties in Edo engage in reckless “body-to-body” campaign.
When asked what the Commission was doing to check such campaigns that expose people to danger, Okoye said: “The rules of campaign and rallies are both constitutional and statutory. Political parties have the right to exist; they have the right to freedom of association and the right to freedom of expression. So, to that particular extent they have the right to meet. They also have the right to campaign. But the law has made provision on the things they can do and their campaign and what they can do or not do on their campaign rallies.
“It is our responsibility to monitor some of these campaigns. If we feel very, very strongly that a particular party has fallen off the radar or a political party is doing something that is untoward, we document such activities and then forward to the security agencies, and it is now left for the security agencies to enforce the law in terms of conducting investigation and also in terms of prosecuting the political parties or a candidate before a properly constituted court of law.”
When asked if the law does not empower the INEC to stop a political campaign that appears to be putting the lives of people and their supporters at risk in the manner they are conducting their campaign, he said: “You have to look at the whole issue within a particular context. Now, Edo and Ondo States have laws regulating the conduct of individuals and groups during this pandemic period. These laws are enforceable by various state governments. So, if a political party in conducting rallies and campaigns falls foul of the law, it is the responsibility of the state government and of the security agencies to enforce the state law.
“We also have different regulations and different guidelines that border on the conduct of political parties and individuals during this period. If a political party falls short of those laws, it is not the responsibility of the INEC to arrest, investigate and prosecute; there are agencies and commissions that are statutorily saddled with this particular responsibility.”
According to him, “Our responsibility is to document some of these issues and if we feel very, very strongly that a political party is doing things that have the capacity to jeopardise political process, we will make a formal report to the security agencies and it is left for the security agencies to take it from there.”
Okoye added that “From what we have documented so far and from what we have seen, some of the political parties in their rallies and campaigns have no regard whatsoever on the issue of social distancing and issue of wearing face marks during their rallies. Some of the campaigns have also been tainted with vain language, slanderous language, and with intemperate language capable of inflaming passion.
“There have also been threats of violence and use of force in this election. What we want to do is that, we want to be inclusive and consultative. We are going to meet with the candidates themselves, we are going to meet with the political parties, campaign councils and we are going to meet with the inter-agency consultative committee of the election security, different religious and traditional institutions to give them information at our disposal and to tell them the consequences of proceeding in a manner that jeopardises the peace and security and the challenges of going ahead with an election where the lives of our ad-hoc staff and others would be jeopardised.”
Okoye further said that the political parties know what the consequences are and that they know that as a regulatory agency saddled with the responsibility of organising, conducting and superintending elections that “we have the power to make sure that nobody jeopardises the lives of those we are going to deploy to go and conduct this election.”
On the extent the Covid-19 would impact the cost of conducting elections in Edo and Ondo States, the commissioner, who refused to give idea of the total cost of conducting the two elections, saying he did not have the figures by heart, however, said: “We now have to provide face masks for our ad-hoc staff, hand sanitisers, methylated spirit and we have to observe social distancing in terms of number of buses we hire and other things we do.”
“On the other hand, there are certain things that we can no longer do physically, for instance, some of our meetings are now done virtually, in which case, if we are saving the cost of air transportation, the cost of hotel bills, so, these costs saved from air transportation and hotel bills are now put into providing pharmaceutical interventions in this particular election. But in all, I must say that Covid-19 has created challenges for us and has jacked up just a little bit, the cost of conducting elections,” he said.