Addressing the Weakest Link in the Electoral Process – Collation, By Jibrin Ibrahim

The consensus among election observers and scholars is that the weakest link in the integrity of Nigerian elections is the collation process. Since 2011, much of the concern over electoral fraud has centred around the interrogation of the collation process, especially the most basic level. Nigeria had a total of 157,000 polling units and voting points in the 2019 general elections and the results of these votes cast are aggregated in the 8809 electoral wards that we have in the country. At the point of voting, everybody knows exactly what the results of their vote is but as the material move out to the wards, there is much less transparency in the process and many people believe that the votes are not accurately added up at the ward level and the numbers from the wards are the basic figures from which all subsequent results are built. Ward level results are also not published so it becomes almost impossible for voters and third parties to see whether their own vote was entered correctly at the ward level.

These concerns led the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) to present a detailed new report yesterday on this most vulnerable part of Nigeria’s election process – the collation of election results at the ward level. They presented what they call an independent and objective assessment of the process by which the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) aggregates and tabulates polling unit level results. The report draws from their own experience as a major player in the observation of the 2019 elections. Civil society observers, they say, saw a collation process that was chaotic, open to manipulation and, in some locations, badly disrupted and opaque. It is clear therefore that if ward-level collation challenges are not addressed, the chaos will continue to embolden election spoilers, weaken public trust in INEC and undermine the credibility of election results.

The reality is that ward-level collation disruptions and manipulations give opportunistic political parties and individual candidates opportunities to dispute the outcome and legitimacy of elections, especially in Nigeria’s most politically contentious wards. Such disputes frequently exacerbate local political tensions, empower local political thugs and even help fuel long-running communal conflicts.

For the 2019 elections, CDD, in partnership with Premium Times and the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC) and trained and deployed over 8,809 INEC-accredited ward-level observers to polling units and ward collation centres in every state and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) during the Presidential and National Assembly elections held on 23 February 2019. The observers used “Zabe SR” – an application specifically designed for election observation to record data on the operational status and conditions at individual polling units in real time and provided qualitative descriptions of the voting process and incidents affecting the collation exercise.

The key challenges they found at ward-level collation were as follows. Some INEC ad hoc staff did not do their work correctly. In some cases, they appeared genuinely incompetent, sometimes even in basic arithmetic; while others appeared to have been compromised and might have deliberately produced wrong results. Secondly, some of the observers were denied access to the collation centres and could not do their assigned work. In response to the concern, some of the INEC staff at the workshop explained that many of the collation centres were small and could to contain the large number of party agents that turned up in addition to the multiple civil society observers that came. The third challenge was logistics and many cases vehicles to transport ad hoc staff from their polling units to ward collation centres were not available. Another serious challenge was the disruption of collation in some centres by politicians, thugs and party agent making it difficult to work properly. Finally, in some instances, some of the INEC ad hoc staff were intimidated by security officials.

Five states – Lagos, Osun, Kaduna, Rivers and Sokoto experienced significant problems with the ward-level collation. Together, these states accounted for 46% of incidents of concern noted by CDD observers. The situation was especially bad in Rivers State where political interests were using both political thugs and security personnel to fight out de facto proxy wars over electoral outcomes. This led to the disruption of collation in many centres.

There was a lively debate over the transparency of the elections. The CDD report criticised INEC for being less transparent than in 2015 arguing that detailed polling unit and ward level results have still not been published on the INEC website. INEC officials that polling unit results have never ever been published since the Forth Republic commenced. This, they argued, might not be unrelated to the fact that there are 157,000 results sheets for each of the elections written by hand and that it would take a very long time to type them out for posting. They said they are working on it and more details of election results would be posted soon.

There was also a hot debate on spreading the blame on electoral malpractices on all stakeholders, not just INEC. Attention was drawn to situations in which politicians have forced ad hoc INEC staff, sometimes with a gun pointed at their head, to sign and announce fake results. INEC by law cannot intervene when retuning officers have announced election results and in many cases the judiciary has validated such results. The famous case of a former governor who used thuggery to force the announcement of such a result is well known especially as INEC refused to issue a certificate but was eventually forced to do so. INEC also argued that on logistics, they paid NURTW for vehicles which were not delivered thus disrupting the process.

In its recommendations, CDD called for a concerted effort by INEC and other election stakeholders to work resolutely towards improving the quality of collation, especially at the ward level. They also called on INEC to work towards publishing result details at all levels so as to create more trust and confidence in election outcomes. INEC should also ensure that they investigate and prosecute its personnel alleged to have been involved in misconduct during the elections. CDD also called on Nigeria’s security agencies to hold its personnel, and their commanding officers, accountable for unprofessional or illegal conduct while deployed on election duties. Security agencies should also notify the public the units that will be undertaking election security duties in each local government area of each state to ensure that individual units can be held accountable for their conduct on election day.

The workshop also made a strong appeal on political party leaders to commit to holding their party agents and other members accountable for their election day actions, particularly those present at collation centres. They should discourage the use of political thugs and formalise penalties for party members involved in mobilising and financing them. Publishing the names and locations of party agents would be a welcome first step in this regard. Finally, INEC should explore possibilities of improving the transparency of the collation process through the use of technology.

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