This is a challenging time for Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and security agencies, particularly the police. Since the 2015 general elections, the commission has had the cause to be confronted with some infractions committed by some of its staff during elections.
But last Tuesday’s arraignment of 23 INEC officials on alleged infractions committed during the December 10, 2016 parliamentary rerun elections in Rivers State is a joke taken too far. And except the staff prove their innocence, the arraignment is going to create an image problem for INEC. The 23 staff were arraigned before an Abuja High Court presided over by Justice John Tsoho.
They were indicted by the report of joint Nigeria Police Force/Directorate of State Service (Police/DSS) Special Investigation Panel set up by the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Mr. Ibrahim Idris on the rerun poll.
The police had, in letter for their arrest sent to the INEC Chairman, Professor Yakubu Mahmood, said the indicted officials were being investigated on “alleged bribery of poll officers, interference with voting process by politicians and outright snatching of ballot boxes.”
The letter, which was signed by Chairman of the investigation panel, Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) Damina Okoro however, added that the officers are innocent until the investigation panel establishes any case beyond reasonable doubt against them.”
Prince Solomon Soyebi, INEC National Commissioner in charge of Voter Education and Publicity (VEP), also disclosed that the commission also accepted the recommendation to commend a number of ad-hoc and permanent staff, as well as security officials who performed exceptionally well under very difficult circumstances of the elections.
Already, the 23 affected staff are on interdiction by the INEC, and have been placed on half salary pending the determination of their cases in court.
In addition, the commission has overhauled its secretariat in Rivers State, which includes the immediate redeployment out of the state of the Administrative Secretary, heads of department, deputy and assistant directors as well as all the 23 local government electoral officers.
This followed the report of the Administrative Panel, which accused INEC officials in the state of partisanship. The panel came down hard on both the INEC staff in Rivers State and the security officials who monitored the elections.
It particularly frowned at the commission’s officials who it said, seemed not prepared for the rerun polls. According to the report: “All senior staff/ officials in Port Harcourt office should be transferred out of the state.
The REC (Resident Electoral Commission) should, however, remain as the institutional memory until he serves out his term in June 2017.”
The panel headed by Professor Okechukwu Ibeanu, a National Commission, also accused security personnel deployed to conduct the election were partisan.
This, however, was rejected by police authorities, which saw no reason for the INEC panel after the report of the joint police/DSS committee set up by the IGP.
The INEC report accused security personnel who monitored the rerun poll of engaging in ballot snatching, stuffing, intimidation of voters and all other electoral malpractices. It said: “One of the low points of the Rivers rerun election was the intervention of security operatives in the process.
This was widely identified by staff of the Commission and independent observers alike as one of the major factors that led to the failure of the process in some local government areas.
“There were too many security agencies involved in the process outside the framework of the Interagency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES). It was not clear whether many of them were acting as part of their various organisations or as groups and individuals serving political interest.”
It regretted that security operatives, who were expected to protect the voters and election materials allegedly unleashed terror on them.
“In other cases, they refused to accompany and protect men and materials for the elections,” the report added. Among vices committed by security agencies, according the panel, were attack of INEC officials, hostage taking and hijack of materials.
“Of singular note was a certain policeman named Akin Fakorede, who ostensibly is a Commander of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Rivers State.
“Mr. Fakorede first tried to lure INEC staff to travel with him from Port Harcourt to Emohua LGA under the pretext of enabling them to collate results. But for the intervention of National Commissioners, we suspect that he would have put our staff in harm’s way. “When he failed in his initial bid, he stalked the INEC officials to the Collation Centre in Port Harcourt and physically assaulted Dr. C. Odekpe and Mrs. Mary Tunkuyo.
In fact, Dr. Odekpe ended up with a gash on his head and both spent days at the Air Force Hospital in Port Harcourt,” it added. Though, the panel’s report was limited only to Rivers State but the partisanship and infractions committed by INEC officials cannot be said to have limited to other states.
The commission and its officials have been accused of rigging the governorship elections in Edo and Ondo states. The conduct of Edo State governorship, however, is before the tribunal.
Before now, the INEC had always defended its officials fingered at aiding electoral malpractices. But since the 2015 general elections, and what seemed to be overwhelming evidence, the commission has learnt not to hastily rush in defence of any of its official indicted for electoral offences.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), in October last year, said it would charge 130 INEC staff to court for alleged involvement in N73 million bribes to influence the 2015 general elections.
“In line with this, a total of 130 staff drawn from Adamawa, Gombe and Taraba states have been interrogated and will soon be charged to court for corruption involving the sum of N73 million bribe during the 2015 polls.
“The breakdown of the INEC staff interrogated by the EFCC shows that Gombe has 26 suspects, Adamawa has 86 and Taraba has 18 respectively who collected the bribe which we have since recovered from them,” said Aminu Ado Aliyu, EFCC Head of Operations in Gombe State These officials are yet to be taken to court to prove their innocence.
INEC said two weeks ago that a total of 202 of its officials from 14 states were accused of electoral malpractice in a report submitted to it by the EFCC last year. The commission said it has deferred its decision on the affected staff to enable it reconcile the EFCC report with that of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP).
The 202 officials were accused of benefiting from the N23. 29 billion allegedly released by former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison.Madueke
The INEC panel headed by Baba Sherima Arfo, a National Commissioner, had earlier investigated the affected staff for allegedly collecting bribe to influence the 2015 general elections. Though only INEC staff at state level have been implicated, the alleged involvement of INEC officials in electoral malpractices places heavy moral burden on the commission.
It creates credibility problem on the electoral umpire. Once the integrity of the umpire is tainted, it is difficult to restore the confidence of the players. And that is the challenge INEC will be facing. The commission and the police have to convince Nigerians that there is no complicity of officials at the headquarters with what the indicted officials at the states did.
The 2019 general elections are about two years away; will INEC and the police be able to rebuild its damaged image before then? The commission, however, still has opportunities before then to reassure Nigerians that it is capable and able to conduct credible elections in the country with the police and other security agencies performing their professional duties without bias.
These are the Anambra State governorship election taking place this year, as well as the Ekiti and Osun governorship elections holding next year. The conduct of these elections will tell Nigerians whether INEC and security agencies can be trusted to deliver free, fair, credible and acceptable elections in 2019.
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