Mrs. Inyang Godwin Ikpem, Acting Head of Department Voter Education and Publicity INEC Cross River State in an exclusive interview with TNN Correspondent, SOLOMON UGO in Calabar refutes alleged compromise as she promised that the commission would pay adhoc Staff this week.
Elections have come and gone but reactions still trail elections in the State. What is your assessment of the elections in the state?
By my own assessment as an umpire or member of the commission, I think it was a free, fair and credible election in all ramification because the Resident Electoral Commissioner, Dr. Frankland O. Bryai gave a level playing ground for all the parties contesting elections in Cross River State. He was always meeting with all the stakeholders. There was never a time that he has not taken all of them along in the processes towards the elections. He never called a particular party for any meeting apart from general meetings with all parties in the state. He kept meeting with different stakeholders at different levels.
There are series of allegations from the main opposition APC alleging complicity by the commission in the state in favour of the PDP?
Nothing in that regard took place by the commission. We have not been lopsided in our resolve to give every party a level playing ground as an independent umpire. In fact, we have always carried everyone along by inviting all political parties to follow our processes. This we did by ensuring regular meeting with Inter Party Advisory Council (IPAC) in Cross River. They are from different political parties ranging from APC, PDP, SDP and many other parties in the state. In this case, every other party was part of IPAC. There is no way we would sideline any party. So in the real sense, we were not compromised at all.
Even when you were receiving election materials?
Yes! Right from when we were receiving materials from the central bank. We invited them and they were all present. Even the media were all present because we were open to all as part of our mandate in the state.
Talking about working together, APC alleges massive cancellation of votes were done in their strongholds. Were you still working together even with this allegation?
Cancellation of votes is when our electoral materials are destroyed willfully. When we get to a particular polling unit and the voters there refuse to adhere to the instructions or electoral guidelines as enshrined in the Electoral Act. This leads to cancellation of votes.
How do you ascertain who triggered votes destruction?
Well, all stakeholders in each polling unit should behave themselves to carefully guard against this. That is the essence of working with all stakeholders.
Was there violence in these areas?
Violence in terms of destroying electoral materials may be very common. What we do is that we are not really cancelling the votes but we record zero in such a polling unit. For instance, when people refuse to use the smart Card reader in the elections, it amount to sabotage. No matter the figure you get, it is still zero that would be recorded against all parties.
This means there was no incidence form as done in 2015?
Before now, INEC has been carrying out voter education that there would be no such incidence. What we do is that assuming you have the voters card, if the card reader fails to authenticate you but verifies that the card belongs to you, that is if your fingerprint is not captured, but your face is on our electronic register, a voter would be allowed to vote because there is a column that would be ticked by the Assistant Presiding Officer (APO) who is in charge of the voters register. A voter is expected to thumbprint.
The APC strongly believes that the action the commission in the state took by going on National TV to announce delisting of its candidates a day to the election speak volume of its allegation. Was the commission given any directive from the court in this regard?
Of course, it was a directive from the commission's headquarters. So, to the best of my knowledge, this directive led to that action taken by the state commission. It was specified that the delisting should be announced.
How does that validate Dr. Alex Egbona whom the commission has since issued a certificate of return having been initially delisted?
What we are doing is that we don't take laws into our own hands. We rely strictly on the judiciary. Remember when we got that information that the faction that produced Dr. Egbona and others was the recognized faction. At a point the commission decided to conduct the elections and rely on the courts for interpretation. Giving him the certificate of return means the court has validated the faction which produced him. Every other candidate in that camp would have been issued same if they had won; both the ones whose petitions were still pending prior to the election according to the judiciary.
You were in charge of voter education but the commission recorded over 11,000 voided votes. Does this infer that your office didn't carry out a comprehensive voter education in the state?
Voter Education was properly carried out. I can recall a number of times we took on campaigns on CRBC, HitFM and other radio stations to talk about how to thumbprint or vote properly. But what I would say is that this information, very few individuals would get it. Even at the grassroots, it has to do with the literacy level of voters. It is not true that voter education was not properly carried out.
Did you hold sensitization campaigns in rural areas in local languages as a way of arresting the literacy challenge?
That particular campaign was done by different Community Based Organizations (CBOs). We also collaborated with civil society organizations that have always been with the commission in past elections. They go to the local government areas and relate with rural communities. The electoral officers (Eos) there also do same in these areas. We also used town criers that used local dialects peculiar to an area to sensitize them. All the same, it is a gradual process. If you want to compare the number of voided votes in 2015 and 2019 elections, you would realize that there is a big difference which is reflected in the reduction in voided votes in 2019.
So far, the Cross River Election Petitions Tribunal says it has received 12 petitions in which INEC ought to be a respondent. Has the commission been served with any suit?
I am not in the legal department of the commission in the state. However, all petitions would be handled properly if the petitions are directed to the commission.
Complaints were in all quarters that politicians brought the slots for Adhoc Staff as the commission did not conduct a transparent recruitment?
It is not true because the recruitment was done right here in the commission's headquarters in Calabar. A mammoth crowd trooped in here for the recruitment process with all traits of transparency. The REC himself issued out forms and received them back immediately. It was properly handled and not from the politicians. People that came were issued forms. We had criteria for recruiting adhoc staff. These criteria include ex-corps members, federal civil servants and other federal establishment. Anyone who meets the criteria would be recruited.
Before now, state civil servants were also involved in conducting elections. Why did the commission bar them in 2019 even after most of them presented themselves for training?
Yes! At the venue which I was present, the REC emphasized that if you are a state civil servant you would not be considered going by earlier guidelines. He announced that to everyone that turned up at the commission's office. But as human beings, many stubborn people went for training in order to see the outcome of the process. They were not invited for the training because most of them can easily be called gate crashers
Most of the adhoc staff are still complaining that they have not been paid by the commission. What could be responsible for the delay?
The training allowance has been paid to all adhoc Staff. What is however left to be paid is honorarium for the elections proper. No one has been paid including the corps members. We are still working on it because we have to take our time in order not to pay those who didn't go out to the field. It doesn't just end with posting people to different venues. You might post people, maybe across the river. On getting there, people do not turn up. It doesn't mean elections should not hold in these areas. We include contingency plans for this as others were recruited. Throwing money without proper verification would be a waste to the commission. What we are doing now is sorting out actual participants in the election. We are collating those names from the Supervisory Presiding Officers (SPOS) that were with them.
How long would this verification take place?
The process is almost coming to an end. I think next week all adhoc staff should be paid.
But most of your adhoc staff were maimed during the elections. Do you have compensation for them?
Yes. The commission is taking necessary steps to address such incident. Any case reported to the REC is always taken with seriousness. Treating and giving out medical support and finances to the individuals to treat themselves.
Do you have such cases reported to the commission?
Yes. We had one that was reported where a staff was knocked down by a vehicle in Obudu or one of these local governments in Cross River North. The REC took it upon himself to ensure that medical treatment for the person is adequately handled.
It is expected that after every election, there would be Continuing Voter Registration. How prepared is the commission going forward to 2023?
We are always on ground. We still have our materials and still doing the needful to make sure that our people are properly educated about electoral processes. As it has always been, as soon as we finish elections like we have done in 2019, the commission doesn't rest. Very soon, we would start preparation for 2023 in order not to experience hitches. So, all hands would be on deck to ensure better preparation for the next election.