Cautious optimism as INEC conducts by-elections on Saturday

About a year after the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) conducted the 2023 general polls, the umpire is set for a rash of re-runs and by-elections in nine states, which will test if the electoral body has learnt lessons from the last outings, KEHINDE OLATUNJI reports.

Despite the controversy trailing the outcome of the 2023 general elections, stakeholders have expressed cautious optimism about Saturday’s re-run and by-elections to be conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

Some believe that with the approval of N40 billion budget for the electoral body this year, it should conduct a free, fair and credible elections, not only on Saturday, but in forthcoming Edo and Ondo governorship polls. Others opined that INEC has always had resources to conduct credible elections, but glitches that marred previous elections occurred to achieve a predetermined outcome.

But for all, it is going to be another litmus test for INEC on Saturday, as it conducts by-elections in nine states to fill two senatorial seats, four for House of Representatives and three states constituencies. In total, there are 74 candidates taking part in the elections.

The by-elections resulted from the resignation or death of elected lawmakers and subsequent vacancies declared by the presiding officers of the National Assembly and the state houses of assemblies.

The elections will hold in two Senatorial Districts (Ebonyi South and Yobe East); four Federal Constituencies (Shanga/Ngaski/Yauri Federal Constituency of Kebbi State; Surulere I Federal Constituency of Lagos State; Akoko North East/Akoko North-West Federal Constituency of Ondo State and Jalingo/Yorro/Zing Federal Constituency of Taraba State); and three State Constituencies (Guma I State Constituency of Benue State, Chibok State Constituency of Borno State and Chikun State Constituency of Kaduna State).

At the same time, the commission is also conducting re-run elections arising from the 2023 general elections as directed by Election Petition Appeal Tribunals in 35 Constituencies, out of which only three cover entire constituencies. Others involve only a few polling units.

Among the parties cleared by the electoral umpire to participate in Saturday’s elections include African Democratic Congress (ADC), All Progressives Congress (APC), All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), Allied Peoples Movement (APM), All Peoples Party (APP), Labour Party (LP), New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP), Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Social Democratic Party (SDP), among others.

The vacancy in Surulere Federal Constituency I arose due to the resignation of the former Speaker, House of Representatives,  Femi Gbajabiamila, who was appointed as Chief of Staff to President Bola Tinubu after winning the election.

Also, the by-election in Ebonyi South is to replace Senator Dave Umahi, who left NASS to take up appointment as the Minister of Works, while Yobe East Senatorial District election was to replace Senator Ibrahim Gaidam, who took appointment as Minister of Police Affairs.

As the political parties slug it out at the polls, many of whom are confident of victory, however, want INEC to be non-partisan, and perform better than the 2023 general election.

The by-elections will also be conducted to replace some NASS members, who died shortly after they were elected or after assuming office.

In April 2023, a House of Representatives member-elect for Jalingo/Yorro/Zing Federal Constituency in Taraba State, Isma’ila Maihanchi, died before the inauguration of the House. Maihanchi, who won the election on the platform of PDP died after a brief illness.

Also, House of Representative member Abdulkadir Danbuga, 63 who represented Isa/Sabon Birnin Federal Constituency of Sokoto State died in October last year. The APC member died after a brief illness.

According to the presidential candidate of SDP in the 2023 general elections, Adewole Adebayo, INEC has what it takes to ensure free and fair elections, lamenting that the unofficial policy and general attitude of the permanent and ad-hoc staff of the commission is to treat elections as freelance business transactions without any regards to the fate of the country and fortunes of the citizens who rely on democratic consolidation of the safety and security of their lives, properties and general well-being.

“If INEC wants to do the by-elections as business as usual, it will remain so. If INEC decides to make it an epiphany of democratic sanctity, it will be so. Either way is theoretically possible.”

Also, the national publicity secretary of Youth Party (YP), Ayodele Adio noted that he is cautiously optimistic about INEC’s potential in handling the bye-elections.

According to him, the commission has an opportunity to redeem itself, regain the trust and confidence of the people in electioneering and also address voter apathy.

He noted that if INEC presides over a transparent and credible process, there would be a surge in voters’ confidence across the country.

“Ultimately, the commission owes a duty to taxpayers to ensure that it preserves the sanctity of our democratic process by conducting a free, transparent and credible election.”

However, the electoral umpire believes that conducting free, fair, credible, and inclusive elections is a sacred duty it takes seriously, noting that the approach to any type of election, in terms of ensuring the credibility of the process, is the same.

On INEC’ preparation for the by-election, spokesperson to its chairman, Rotimi Oyekanmi, noted that the commission is determined to open all polling units in the affected constituencies at 8.30 a.m. on Election Day, to enable the voters to cast their votes, saying the officials would be waiting for the voters.

Oyekanmi noted that with the usual synergy that the commission enjoys from security agencies, it is expected everything would go smoothly, adding that in the spirit of openness, civil society groups will be allowed to observe the elections, while journalists will also be given unfettered access to the polling units.

“Results of the elections will be promptly declared by laid down principles. Election is a multi-stakeholder activity. Already, the Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) in each of the nine states where the elections will be held are either meeting or have met with the critical stakeholders such as political parties, security agencies and so on in their respective states, to brief them about the Commission’s preparedness and answer questions.

“As required by law, Permanent Voter’s Card (PVC) will be used for the election. Every voter must present his or her PVC at the Polling Units. The Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) will be used for accreditation and authentication purposes. It will also be used to upload the polling unit results to the INEC Result Viewing (IReV) portal.

“On Thursday January 18, the Electoral Institute, the research, and training arm of the Commission, held the Train the Trainers workshop, for those who will train the ad-hoc staff for the elections. We are also making use of our Election Monitoring and Support Centre (EMSC) to track all our materials and activities to ensure strict compliance with timelines.”

Speaking on what INEC would do to avoid cancellations, Oyekanmi stated that the commission does not have a cancellation in mind but might be compelled to take certain actions if there is a violation of the law on Election Day.

“For instance, if thugs invade our polling units and cart away our ballot boxes on Election Day, the commission can invoke the relevant sections of the law to cancel the results of such polling units and then decide on what to do next.

“However, litigation is part and parcel of our democratic process, and it is not a new thing for an aggrieved party that lost an election to seek redress in court. Our job as a Commission is to provide a level playing field and conduct a credible election. But we cannot stop an aggrieved candidate who lost an election from challenging the result in court. We will continue to do our best as an election management body, and we look forward to the time when politicians will imbibe the spirit of sportsmanship and accept election results.”

A political analyst and senior lecturer in the Political Science department, University of Ibadan, Dr Idowu Johnson, noted that given the outcry that followed the 2023 presidential election, Nigerians are in earnest to see a positive change in the disposition of INEC in the February 3 elections.

“We have to recall that the 2023 presidential election was not accepted by many. With the emergence of the APC presidential flag bearer, the PDP are not happy and also the LP. Some are even saying that INEC manipulated the elections to favour APC to emerge as the winner. This is the time for INEC to prove its critiques wrong and redeem its image.”

He urged the electoral body to improve its modus Operandi to ensure that technology is used to transmit results without any glitch.

“INEC promised an improved technology and we can recollect that in the 2023 presidential election, IREV was not used even though it was promised, this created mistrust in the outcome of the election. For the by-election, it is expected that they will do better.

“The economic situation of the country presently must also be put into consideration. People are hungry and angry and with this kind of grievance, a lot of things can also happen in the coming by-election, particularly through political violence. Therefore, INEC must ensure to be transparent and accountable.”

Johnson urged INEC to ensure election materials get to the dedicated polling units when due to avoid voter apathy and unnecessary delays in the collation of results.

For the LP national publicity secretary, Abayomi Arabambi, he urged the electoral body to ensure an independent stand, stressing that the electoral umpire must ensure that the votes of the people count.

“Everybody knows in Nigeria that we will stand for truth, equity and justice, we believe that all Nigerians must have a taste of the goodness of their fatherland and that is what our party is going to do differently.

Speaking on the chances of LP to emerge victorious, Arabambi said “I want to categorically state that we are emerging as the best bride, besides the fact that LP has the best candidates across the board, there is a yearning for a change and new hope among Nigerians and this can be attested to in the 2023 presidential and governorship election.

“We are going back to the trenches now to prepare for the 2027 general elections and we are hoping to have a candidate from the South, though not Peter Obi. We can still consider candidates from the southwest and the southeast.”

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