He Akwa-Ibom State Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), Barrister Austin Okoje in this interview reassures the people of Akwa-Ibom State that the commission would provide all the candidates for the 2015 General Elections a level playing field to ensure rancour-free polls. But he implores the political class to cooperate with INEC since according to him, every successful election requires effective partnership and cooperation as well as adequate timing and planning among other issues. Excerpts:
HOW prepared your commission is towards the rescheduled elections in Akwa-Ibom State?
We are fully prepared for the elections. Although politicians have their own ways of doing things, we can assure you that Akwa-Ibom State will witness the best of elections ever. First, we have received a total number of 1,692, 662 voter cards but as at today, we’ve distributed 95.4 percent of the cards. 9,000 PVCs were snatched. As at today, we have recovered 7, 862, we are still left with 1,140 cards to be recovered.
We intend to move our materials three days before the elections so that on the day of election, materials get to the polling units as early as 6am.
You are aware of our new method of accreditation. We now have what we call the Card Reader. This is one of the innovations we have introduced to disallow the idea of rigging and on the issue of rigging; we love to appeal to the political class to talk to their supporters not to bring the issue of thuggery so that we can have peaceful elections. To secure your results and votes, we have a means of transferring your votes and the result electronically to the centre. So, the era of ballot box snatching is now over.
So, in a nutshell, we are fully prepared for the elections. I am surprised that even with the introduction of smart-Card Readers people still think it will be business as usual. If you have seen the quality of elections we conducted in Ekiti State and Osun last year, then, the quality of the 2015 elections will be higher than those ones. As major stakeholders you must be kept on notice of whatever we are doing as far as my administration is concerned, there will be a level playing field for everybody. If any information goes to one party, it must also go to the other one.
There are allegations that PVCs are being sold in some places in this State for cloning and that members of the PDP dominate ad-hoc staff list, what is your response to these allegations?
This is going to be the fourth time of my being involved in the conduct of national elections. Rumours will always be there. Ballot papers are very sensitive materials and are always kept under the custody of the Central Bank. When I came to Akwa -Ibom State, I had not spent two days yet when I started reading from the papers that INEC had been bribed with Five Billion Naira and some bags of rice. On ad-hoc staff, we advertised and asked interested applicants to apply on-line. Now, the on-line list is what the commission forwarded so that we can now go to verify them.
The verification exercise is going on as we speak in the respective Local Government Areas of the applicants. So, until the commission completes the exercise, we cannot compile the list so that we can have the appropriate record. So, for now, we don’t even have the list but here they are saying the PDP loyalists flood INEC ad-hoc staff list.
So, what is your advice to political stakeholders?
Stakeholders have a duty to ensure that the political space is conducive for a well-organized and coordinated election. This can only be possible with peace. Peace, in a country like Nigeria is a lofty objective. Peaceful elections are absolutely necessary for us to be able to consolidate and deepen our democracy. As we prepare for the 2015 elections, we must do everything possible to promote peaceful conduct, mitigate conflicts and prevent violence because unless we do these, the yearnings of Nigerians for free, fair and credible elections will be subverted.
It is important to note that free, fair and credible elections do not begin and end with only the procedures that INEC put in place for the conduct of such elections.
No matter how well elections are conducted, if the outcome is conflict-ridden and characterized by violence, it will lose its essence of deepening democracy and it will undermine the credibility of electoral process.
What specific lessons have you learnt from the 2011 general election?
Some of the key lessons we learned from the 2011 elections and those reviews are that good elections require adequate timing and planning. We have come to learn that there is no alternative to planning and preparing adequately. Election projects in a country like Nigeria require massive undertakings and require very professional planning.
Also, good elections are about effective partnerships and cooperation. We have learnt that running an election is a cooperative enterprise not just a task for INEC alone. Within weeks in 2011, we were able to assemble and manage over 360,000 poll officials to work at the poling unit level.
Thousands of other security personnel were on patrol while over 20,000 university staff, including Vice Chancellors, were enlisted to serve as collation and returning officers besides thousands of local and foreign observers who witnessed the elections. Without the cooperation of various ministries, departments and agencies, especially the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and security agencies that worked with us, the conduct of the elections would have been difficult, if not an impossible mission