Prof Mohammad Kuna is the Special Adviser to Prof Mahmood Yakubu, Hon. Chairman, Independent National Electoral Commission. Having served the immediate past Chairman, Prof Attahiru Jega in the same capacity, Kuna spoke to INECNEWS extensively on his experience and steps the present Commission needs to take achieve success. Excerpts:
How did you receive the offer to serve, once again, as Special Adviser to the INEC Chairman, after an exhausting five-year experience?
Well, to be honest with you, I was totally surprised and shocked because by July 2015, all I had in Abuja was my computer bag. I had virtually packed everything long before July 2015, because I said I wasn’t coming back to Abuja. I was so worn out by the rigours of the job. I thought that I had done my bit, I had paid my dues, made my contribution, and therefore, it was time to move on. I needed to get back to the University to pick up the pieces of the life I once had.
Coming back to the Commission was not on my agenda at all. But when we met with the Chairman and he raised this matter, I began to consider the issue seriously. On the one hand, I didn’t want to come back. But on the other hand, I also thought that it would be a good opportunity to assist him (INEC Chairman) in whatever way I can, to consolidate some of the things that we spoke about. We talked about consolidating, sustaining and improving upon some of the things we had done between 2010 and 2015. And I thought that, well, this is an opportunity to do so and that since he had requested, then, it was something that I should consider seriously.
So many elections have been organised since the present Commission took over in November 2015. From all the lessons learnt so far, what measures do you think the Commission should be put in place to achieve success in the 2019 general elections?
I think it is very clear, from what we did between 2011 and 2015, that not many people know that there was a sharp contrast in the way the Commission handled the 2011 and 2015 general elections. The contrast was this: In 2011, the Commission was virtually rushed into conducting an election. There was no time; there were so many things to do. First, we needed to address the problems in the electoral legal framework. We needed a new Register of Voters, which required a fresh Voter Registration; we needed to do a whole lot of things in order to do the election. And all of these were done within a short time before the election in April 2011.
But for 2015, there was sufficient time to reflect on some of the things that were done in 2011, to assess weaknesses, isolate strengths and see what could be done in order to reinforce those strengths and mitigate some of the lapses we noticed as planning for the 2015 general elections commenced. And so, this soul searching, this critical examination of the 2011 election, prepared the ground for the 2015 general elections.
The critical difference between these two elections was that, we had more time to plan. There was more time to bring in new innovations, train staff, mobilize resources and do long time planning. Moving towards 2015, the Commission built on some of the things we had done in 2011.
I think we need to do three critical things in order to ensure the success of 2019 general elections. First of all, the Commission needs to develop a new Strategic Plan. That then gives us about two years to prepare for the 2019 general elections. The second thing is the Election Project Plan (EPP). This is also something that was done in 2015. We need to consider the election as a project that has a beginning and an end, because there are a series of activities that we need to start with, that will lead stage by stage up till the conduct of election. That is what the EPP is supposed to do. The EPP is supposed to itemise all the activities, department by department or process by process, what we need to do as far as logistics is concerned; in terms of staff management, staff recruitment and so on. What we need to do with regard to ad hoc staff; political parties and candidate management, voter registration and procurement of election materials. All of these need to specified, item by item in the EPP.
That, I am sure, will kick off once the Strategic Plan is completed because the EPP will depend on the broad policy initiative as identified by the Commission as its major goals to be achieved in this electoral cycle, which is 2015 to 2019.
Once the Commission signs off on the Strategic Plan, then the Election Project Committee can be constituted. Once that is done, we will have an EPP concluded within the first quarter of 2017.
The third thing is the Election Management System (EMS), which has also helped us tremendously in implementing the 2015 general elections, as well as monitoring and tracking all events that were enshrined in the EPP. The EPP is a plan, but the EMS is the vehicle to deliver that plan. What the EMS does is to take those activities that are identified by the EPP, plot them sequentially in terms of which activity comes first, which activity needs to be done later, who is going to do those activities, in terms of what particular individual or what particular department in the Commission; whether it is an activity to be done by the headquarters or by the states, and so on and so forth.
The EMS takes these activities already identified in the EPP, plot them and identifies who (person, office or Department) is responsible for which activity, then gives a timeline within which that task has to be completed. What we need is to plot a chart, step by step, when these activities will be done, how many days would be needed to do them, who is supposed to do these activities and within which period.
Once this is done, the Commission, that is Chairman and the 12 members (National Commissioners) will have a very broad idea of what is happening from the headquarters, down to the level of local governments, because activities/tasks have already been mapped out, responsibilities assigned and timelines for completion established. If any activity doesn’t take place, the Chair or any of the National Commissioners or any Director for that matter, can then ask why activity A that was supposed to have be carried out yesterday wasn’t done and who is responsible for that. And quickly, a flag will be raised so that the activity can be done. Or, if they are constantly monitoring, they will keep reminding people, for instance, that there are just two days for you to complete a set of activities, thereby giving the Commission the general tool to monitor all activities relating directly to the election.
Another major issue I think that we need to address is to reconfigure the polling units, in order to provide opportunities for people to vote in 2019. This is because many new urban areas have sprouted and some do not have polling units. Hundreds of thousands of citizens registered far away from their homes or places of work when cities were smaller than they currently are. It will be chaotic to allow the situation like this without establishing new polling units or reconfiguring the existing ones. So, we need to address that matter. We need to decide which areas are new and fix polling units for them in order for people to have access to electoral services in order to exercise their franchise.
The fifth major issue is the recruitment and training of staff. There are several plans on the ground that the Commission is examining, so we need to start the recruitment and training early so that we are not pressed for time as we move towards the election.
The sixth issue that I think is critical, is to roll out of the plan for Continuous Voter Registration (CVR), because since 2015, probably hundreds of thousands of Nigerians have turned 18 and above; some have not had the chance of registering even when they were 18 in 2011 when the registration was done. So, we need to effectively rollout the plan for CVR and ensure that it is done in an orderly way. A credible voter register is the foundation for credible elections.
The seventh issue is for the Commission to continue its engagement with relevant stakeholders. We need to intensify discussions with political parties, civil society organizations, security agencies and the media. We need to put the entire Commission and the country on notice that election is about to take place. We need to, if you like, put the whole country and the whole Commission into an election mode. We need to generate sufficient interest in this election and we can’t do that without getting involved with civil society organizations, the media, political parties and so on.
Finally, I think it is also important that we consider expanding this plan, in terms of the rollout of technology beyond what we currently have. I know that already, the Commission is looking at ways of expanding its technology and ensuring that, first, it consolidates what is already existing, and then expanding it, especially in the areas of collation and transmission of results, and possibly in terms electronic voting, although this may not be feasible for the 2019 general elections. However, it may be considered for the 2023 general elections.
You were in the Commission’s team that monitored the last Presidential election in the United States. What lessons do you think Nigerians could learn from the exercise?
I think the first major lesson, in my opinion, is attitudinal – and this goes directly to the personality of the politicians. This U.S. election has been one of the most rancorous in the country’s history. The kind of rhetoric and the whipping up of sentiments, some racial, some totally abusive in certain instances from both sides, haven’t been seen in the U.S. for a long time.
However, even with this rancorous election, one of the major things I said about attitude is for our politicians to see that, despite the fact that the battle and the contest had been tough and very rancorous, there was a whole degree of civility in term of acceptance of the outcome of the election.
And this is the whole matter that people have been arguing. Elections and the managers of elections must ensure that there is procedural certainty in the conduct of elections, that is, every step, every preparation, every obligation, everything that should be put in place.
That’s why, as far as the attitude is concerned, because the politicians in the U.S. know the procedures are certain, but there was no attempt to twist the procedures in any way, people would believe the outcome. So, the politicians believed the outcome. They congratulated each other. Of course, riots have come after the elections, as we have seen across the United States, but in all the protests and all the commentaries, I did not hear anybody attack the procedure. I didn’t hear anybody say there has been rigging. Yes, some people may not like the results, but nobody has attacked the procedure. I think this is what we need to examine in our political culture. Our politicians need to learn from this.
The second issue, closely related to the question of attitude, is the issue of trust. The entire (U.S.) system is based on trust. There were no Police officers at the polling stations across the places that I visited. There were no security personnel. In some places, there were no party agents. But people trust the system and the election officials. They came, vote and leave, given that everybody would do what is right.
What has been adding to the cost of elections in our country is the high degree of mistrust in the political and electoral systems. We just don’t trust each other. There is a high sense of everybody is out there to cheat, and people don’t give others the benefit of the doubt. There is no way en election management body can organise an election in 120,000 polling units without one or two mishaps taking place. We are all humans; mistakes can be made, election materials may not come on time, vehicles carrying election materials can break down on the way. Even new machines that come straight from the factory can be deemed dead on arrival. But in our country, due to this issue of trust, a small mistake is interpreted as a deliberate effort to do something untoward. But what we have seen here (U.S.) is that people see a mistake and see it purely as such and that is why you don’t find them questioning the procedure, even when they don’t like the results.
Finally, Prof, what do you do in your free time? Do you jog, swim or engage in any recreational activity?
There’s little free time, let me honest with you. I bought a pair of sneakers and said I would just start walking and jogging around where I live. Eight months after, I have not even worn them; talk less of taking a walk. It is worrying. What I do, sometimes, is to take the staircase instead of the elevator, three or four times a day, deceiving myself that, that might be a form of exercise. I am conscious of the need to take some leisure time, but it’s tough.