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Judicial interventions in elections should be reviewed, says Lecky

Dr Mohammed Mustafa Lecky

Dr Muhammed Mustafa Lecky is the National Commissioner in charge of the south-south zone, comprising Cross River, Akwa Ibom and Delta states. But he had to oversee the Edo governorship election in September 2016 because the Commission did not have a full compliment of National Commissioners at that time. In an exclusive interview with INECNEWS, he speaks extensively on Edo elections and other critical issues. Excerpts:

How did you receive the news of your appointment?

I was surprised, but pleased to hear of my nomination as INEC National Commissioner. For me, it was completely unexpected, the reason being that I have always been in the health sector and I think, with all modesty, I am reasonably well known in that sector. I have been involved in almost all the major health sector policy initiatives in Nigeria since the late 1990s, leading or coordinating people working on all kinds of major programmes and I know a lot of Commissioners (of Health) and government health managers across this vast country because I had previously headed a World Bank Health System Fund Project that was implemented in every state of the country.

I had also served as the Executive Secretary/CEO at the NHIS (National Health Insurance Scheme). I actually started it formally, with the first time issuance of the NIHS Card to Nigerian beneficiaries to access health care in the history of Nigeria. Even though, I was not unavailable for a federal government appointment, I was always thinking that if anything would come my way, it would be in the health sector.

So, this appointment came as a complete departure and many people, when I was being screened at the National Assembly, were tweeting that this man should be made Minister of Health, that sort of thing. So this came as a surprise.

How would you describe your experience since your appointment?

It’s been an interesting experience, a bit of refreshing departure from what I have been accustomed to doing, even with my more recent civil society work on people’s rights and access to public services. I am a firm believer in the core principles of SERVICOM – people’s rights to be served right. It’s been quite exciting in the sense that I am now working with my colleagues to manage elections – which in itself is akin to rising to the challenges of responding to the citizens’ legitimate expectation for good governance. I am not a political scientist. But I believe the diverse background of members of the Electoral Management Body is actually its strength. I am fast acquiring and applying fresh perspectives. In that sense, it has been exciting because it is different from my comfort zone. I am able to learn quickly and get involved.

But that does not mean there have been no challenges. I’ve come to realize that the INEC job can be quite risky because of the behaviour of other actors in the political terrain, particularly during actual elections. I am also amazed as to how expensive our elections are – in some cases, it’s almost like preparing for a war, and this is sad for something that should be a plain civic exercise.

The Commission has conducted several re-run and by-elections and the Edo Governorship election was quite remarkable, which incidentally, you had to oversee as National Commissioner. What would you say was responsible for the success recorded in Edo?

Good. As you know, I superintend the South South zone and we’ve had a series of elections, some of them End-of-Tenure elections while some were re-run elections in the zone. I recall the Bayelsa gubernatorial election, which this commission conducted, and I went with three of my colleagues (National Commissioners) to supervise the election.

The Edo election had in its wake what may pass as avoidable hiccups…the whole drama surrounding whether to postpone or not to postpone. Once we got past that, the election was good and recorded a greater measure of success for a number of reasons: firstly, the election was concluded on first ballot (it was not inconclusive). Secondly, it was devoid of violence. This was largely because we were able to learn from the experiences derived from the elections we had conducted up to that point, particularly in the (South South) zone, and our stakeholder engagement architecture was fine-tuned.

I am beginning to see some kind of discernible characteristics around elections, depending on the zone in which it is holding. So, one can craft a theoretical framework around elections, depending on the zone. Given that context, we were able to be dynamic in our preparation and conduct of the election while still keeping with the dictates of the enabling electoral laws. For example, it was during the Bayelsa election, which I led my colleagues to supervise, that we decided on the use of simultaneous accreditation and voting methodology, which has now come to stay in all our subsequent elections…and now policy of INEC going forward.

We also learnt a lot of the challenges faced by security arrangement during our elections. In Bayelsa, we had all sorts of security issues. But we are able to engage better now with security agencies and pinpoint specific security requirements that would help us achieve better outcomes at elections. I would say the Edo election benefitted from these lessons.

In Edo, the security arrangements were a bit different from the previous ones. I will give you an example. During the ICCES (Inter-Consultative Committee on Election Security) meeting, the security people came up with a different kind of arrangement, whereby they were going to have a mobile Intervention Force that would be roving between the RACs areas. In other words, the mobile force will not be within the vicinity of the Polling Units, but rather in the perimeter, not too far away to intervene in the event of breakdown of law and order. If we had similar arrangements, perhaps the violent incidence in other elections would have been curtailed or avoided.

Although, some would argue that such security arrangement might not have been needed, but the fact that it was in place served as a sort of deterrence and also shows readiness. That may have also curtailed the absence of violence in Edo State, though, Edo is traditionally not known to be associated with election violence.

So, we are seeing more innovative responses coming from the security people, taking a cue from what had happened in past elections. Of course, old challenges still remain, where you have impunity among the political class, moving around with bodyguards and police escorts and using that to intimidate the process of collation, including attempts at vote-buying during elections.

Before the Edo governorship election results were announced, all the political parties made favourable comments about INEC. But immediately the results were announced, a couple of political parties began to sing a different tune. What does this portend for future elections in the country, in terms of politicians not wanting to accept defeat?

Yes, as a build-up to the election, everybody felt that everything was well organized. But when the election was concluded, there were discordant tunes. But this is not new. Now, maybe we need some sort of serious re-orientation among the political class. Nobody wants to lose. People don’t understand that in an election, there must be a winner and a loser. But that idea doesn’t sink in. Everybody wants to be that winner, yet, everybody cannot be that winner. So, how do we get that to sink in? I was thinking and hoping that what happened in the general elections of 2015 at the Presidential level was a good signpost as to how people should respond to elections after the declaration of results because at that time, the former President conceded his defeat, didn’t pursue the matter beyond that, didn’t challenge the matter in court, didn’t whip up sentiments over the issue. But people are not taking a cue from that well celebrated development in our political process.

I think it also shows the way people perceive power, particularly the perceived rewards that come with it. They (politicians) invest heavily and they want to reap and recoup. And because of that, it is inconceivable for them to go to bed accepting that they lost an election. And this is precisely the reason why we are having a lot of judicial interventions in our electoral process, which we should find a way to stop. Judicial intervention is taking over the electoral process, in deciding election results. If we can find a way to arrest unnecessary and this growing spate of judicial interventions, I think that will also curtail those who don’t want to concede defeat.

What would you like to see changed in the Electoral Act? How do you think the National Assembly can help to strengthen INEC as we approach the 2019 general elections?

There are a number of things the National Assembly can do. They (legislators) make the laws. I think they need to remake the INEC Law in terms of both the Constitution and the Electoral Act 2010 or 2015.

Some of the things that come readily to mind for me, is that we need to curtail the frequency of having to reset an election that had been concluded. It erodes the credibility of INEC and affects the way people look at us. It also affects our own institutional confidence as if we are unable to do these things right. The confidence within us is impacted; credibility from outsiders is also impacted. So, we need to find a way to curtail the way an election can easily be reset or re-ordered by the court. That is one major thing I can think of. We have had far too many elections since this Commission came into existence.

We also need to find a way to monitor the political parties, particularly political party finances. Too much money is involved and I think INEC should be strengthened to do that. Let’s have greater disclosure on the part of political parties’ funding sources and the amounts involved.

The judicial intervention in our election should be reviewed. The National Assembly should go through the Electoral Act and see the areas that can strengthen INEC to conclude elections and the matter will not go beyond that.

This issue of having to conduct so many elections to replace somebody who has passed on or somebody who was disqualified needs to be looked at. I think the political party that won an election should be able to nominate a replacement to serve out the unexpired tenure of a deceased elected representative. This is being done in neighbouring Niger Republic and even in the United States, which we seem to be copying.

I also think we should move rapidly with e-Voting; the time is now. I am a proponent of more technology in our elections. But this must also be accompanied with massive education of the electorate. E-Voting can eliminate fraud, ensure accuracy and transparency and build confidence in the electoral process.

If you were asked to advise the political parties and their supporters on the right attitude towards the electoral process, what will your advice be?

I will find a way or even get a psychologist involved, to let them know there must always be a winner in an election. Election is not a do or die affair. There are so many deaths surrounding our elections in Nigeria; one death is far too many. No one should have to die for an election. It could be INEC officials or non-INEC officials. But no election is worth the life of a human being. So, if you can preach that and it is well taken, I think it will go a long way in bringing sanity into the process. There must be respect for the Rule of Law. I will advise them about the penalties that are associated with the breach of electoral provisions. They should be aware that these things (breaches) have grave consequences and if they are triggered, they could visit untold hardship on the individuals behind some of the violence.

I would also advise political parties to try and establish a research arm whereby they can assess the data provided by INEC and understand the voting patterns. They can now use that analysis for political mobilization of their supporters, maybe more women, more college people or more youths. Right now the level of participation is unacceptably low, indicating that the Political Parties are not doing enough voters mobilization.

Politicians feel they don’t need to do much, but when the election timetable is out, that is when they start. I feel they can do far more. They really need to study the process and see how they can be more scientific in their approach to our electoral process. They need to invest in and utilize election demographics for a robust electoral process and results.

What do you do at your free time? Do you engage in sports?

I like exercising. I have a mini-gym at my residence. I also do quite a bit of walking mostly at night with my dog and we do on the average of 4-5 km. This helps me to sleep better and to have better handle on my glycemic index.

Are there some things you used to do before your appointment but can no longer do now?

Yes, there are things I was doing before that I am no longer doing. First, I ordinarily don’t go out much, but it doesn’t mean I have few friends. My not going out often does not have anything to do with increased insecurity, but more because of its perception. In any case, you must know people and interact with them, and they come from diverse background. Some of them are politicians and you’ve known them all your life; some were your schoolmates, townsmates, etc. And in my case, I hold a very important royal traditional title, which also places certain responsibilities on me. But all of a sudden, you don’t want to be seen with some of the people you’ve known in the past because by the time you wake up in the morning, there’s an item in the social media and your picture with the person with a purported conversation which never took place is splashed all over the media and Nigerians will take these fake news as the gospel truth and you are cast in bad light. You are then forced to be denying that it never happened in the face of screaming photoshopped picture of you and some notable politician or government officials. You’ll never win the argument…because people expect the worse from public servants, which is very unfortunate, but it is the reality. I am a chief proponent for a Code of Conduct for INEC National Commissioners for our guidance and defense.