Mr Mike Igini is out. He is no more in charge of INEC in Akwa Ibom State. He made his mark in INEC and was generally known for his no nonsense posture in the handling of affairs in the commission.
For this, he had issues with people. During his last days in the commission, he started speaking on his travails while in Akwa Ibom State. He made some startling revelations before and during the events to mark his exit.
He interacted with journalists and also granted special interviews. In one of the interview sessions, he made shocking and mind-blowing statements in a telephone interview he granted Mr Celestine Mel, who permitted TNN to publish same.
Here are excerpts of the interview:
How was life before your appointment into INEC?
Before I joined INEC in 2010, I was an executive director in Centre for Values and Leadership – a civil society organization. I also ran my private practice as a practicing lawyer of many years post call. I was deeply involved in trying to create a new paradigm for Nigeria. On 8th of June 2010, I had a call from the Villa that President Goodluck Jonathan was appointing me into INEC as Resident Electoral Officer. I thought it was a joke. I declined the offer. At that time, I was getting ready to leave with my family for a vacation outside the country. INEC was the least of organizations that I could accept to be part of, principally because of INEC’s record of corruption, graft, compromise, etc.
The next day, many colleagues within the CSO space weighed in. Several CSO groups had deliberations on it. A meeting was also held at Femi Falana’s office in GRA lkeja, that I should accept the appointment; that members of CSOs needed to move from the side lines into the mainstream, to contribute towards shaping things up from inside and my work would add value. The present Ekiti State governor – Kayode Fayemi, was part of that meeting. The issue of the missed opportunity of 1999 was raised, wherein those who fought for democracy, took the back seat and allowed the same corrupt people who were hobnobbing with the military, to transmute into active politicians, who then took control of government and made a mess of the system. The consensus was that the offer was an opportunity for the CSOs to get involved in practical nation building.
Similarly, some South South elders also met and took a position. Rear Admiral Mike Akhigbe, former Chief of General Staff (now late) to the Abdulsalami Abubakar regime, who I had great respect for, called to persuade me to take up the offer in the service of our fatherland, at his Ajose Adeogun Street residence in Lagos. He said that it was in the best interest of the region to have someone like me, take up the offer. Recall, INEC was getting a lot of flacks for the tardy manner it handled the 2007 general election and (the then)President Jonathan who succeeded President Yar’Adua, was determined to continue the reforms that Yar’Adua started in the electoral management process. Three of us – Professor Attahiru Jega, Prof. Lai Olurode and myself were the only people with Civil society and that reflected throughout the period of Prof. Jega-led commission. We started the reforms in 2010 and we are glad that the current leadership of Prof Mahmud Yakubu has not only consolidated the reforms, but has expanded the frontiers. That is what we call progress and we hope and pray that we continue on that trajectory to deliver the 2023 elections and beyond. President Jonathan put his foot down that we must drive the system. That was it.
After considering everything, I accepted to get involved and went to Abuja to collect the letter of appointment from the Secretary to Government of the Federation (SGF) – Mr. Yayale Ahmed. On getting to his office, he left a message that if l came for the letter, I should wait for him. So I waited and shortly afterwards, he came from the Villa. I greeted him. He said l was the only one that was given appointment since 8th June 2010 but didn’t show up till 20th of July and that he suspected that l will decline because of my critical position about how government business is done. He advised me to accept the appointment and prove to Nigerians my sincerity that I will be different from others. He pulled my appointment letter from his folder and handed it over personally to me. He said that he admired my advocacy and strong stance on several national issues and that it was time for me to demonstrate all the things that I have been preaching and that the government put a lot of trust that we would deliver. That was how my INEC journey began. Very importantly, let me say here that I did not even face the Senate screening. I was not screened. I was seen as a fit-for-purpose and I accepted it as a new challenge. By the grace of God, I did not let those who appointed me down. I was posted to Cross River State.
Then what happened?
When I got to Cross River, I realized that politicians stole elections and stuffed ballot boxes. I told them, it would never happen under my watch. I told them that election result must reflect the will of the people. I stood my grounds and it paid off, against the wishes of the ruling party. During the 2011 Presidential election, CPC won in the Bogobiri area of Calabar. ACN won a state constituency too. It was the first time that any opposition party had a chance.
The PDP power brokers in Cross River accused me of working for the opposition. I told them election would never be determined by their might, but by the might of the people through the ballot paper. Those who were used to rigging elections never liked me for the four years I spent there. But I was at peace with my conscience and the powerless electorate.
In 2012, I was sent to conduct a senatorial bye-election in Anambra State. The state was totally under the control of APGA, with Peter Obi as governor. Despite APGA being the ruling party, opposition party candidate of the opposition PDP won. I must add, the chairman of APGA commended the conduct of the election even when his party lost. The governor did not put pressure on INEC.
In 2014, I was in charge of the most vulnerable LGA in Osun State which literally determined the governorship election. Iyiola Omisore who is now the national secretary of the APC, was the candidate of the PDP. He lost the election to APC’s Rauf Aregbesola. Omisore accused me of working for the APC. My crime, as always, was that I allowed the will of the people to prevail. I was undaunted.
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It was the same in Edo in 2015. The Edo result was so unique that APC and PDP split the senate seats 1:2, House of Representatives 4:5, and State Assembly 23:3. That was the only state out of eleven (11) of both South South and South East that President Buhari scored 46 per cent, over and above the 25 per cent constitutional minimum requirement. When I got there, they told me that powerful people determine Edo elections. And that since PDP was the government at the centre, they will use what they called federal might. I told them that under my watch it’s only the might of the people through the ballot that will determine the 2015 election and that was what happened. It’s voters, and nobody else, that exercise power in a democracy.
There are several situations like that. The problem with politicians in Nigeria generally is that they believe everybody has a price. If nothing else, I have proven to them that not everybody has a price.
Of all the states that you have been as REC, which one was the most challenging and why?
Akwa Ibom has been my biggest headache. The headache is not caused by the good and beautiful people of Akwa Ibom State, but a few politicians who became what they are politically, by writing and falsifying polling results in their private homes. When I arrived the state, I set up a committee to identify the location of all polling units and discovered such polling units and we relocated 23 of them from private homes, which effectively neutralized their age-long rigging schemes. It was a dinosaur experience for them. The new change was too drastic and brought me in direct collision with some of the owners of the units. They woke up to a new reality that was too unusual. So, they went to town with stories that I had been compromised.
On 6th August 2018, I convened a meeting of political stakeholders in Ibom Hall, Uyo, and told those who promised to conduct and complete elections within three hours that it would not happen; that every vote would be cast by human beings and counted. I challenged those who accused me of pandering to the wishes of any political party to bring out any evidence or anyone I had related with remotely or by proxy, in the state or elsewhere, prior to that day, to shame me. Do you know that since I was posted to Akwa Ibom State, I have never stepped my foot into the home of any human being or anybody’s house for five years or taken a glass of water from anybody? I have never ever met in secret or in private with anybody directly or by proxy anywhere in the world on any matter related to election in Akwa Ibom. I challenge anybody who has met me before to speak out. That challenge has remained on the table for years now. I would be glad if anyone comes out to say it is not true. I have never received any money or gift, either in person or by proxy from anybody in Akwa Ibom State since I came. I mean, anybody. Not just the politician. Indeed, people who know me have quarrelled and are tired that I have never visited them. Truth is, I have never received any gift or money or inducement from anybody in my entire career in INEC. Indeed, I believe that the most powerless of people in the election value-chain are the EOs and RECs, who stay in their offices on Election Day to receive results that they cannot alter or determine. Yes I know that some RECs connive with politicians to release polling materials for them to rig and look the other way. I am not such a human being.
How come your tenure started since 2010 and ran till 2022 whereas the law says one can only do two renewable terms of five years each?
My first tenure in INEC ended in 2015, from 2010. In August 2017, I was re-appointed by President Mohammadu Buhari, two years in-between. I was the only one from the south-south to be so reconsidered for reappointment after so long. President Buhari did thorough background check on me before re-appointing. I guess he was convinced that I did a good job the first time. And I know in my heart that I gave the job my best. We have significantly reformed and automated INEC to the point that large-scale rigging is now impossible, no matter who comes after us. The present Electoral Act 2022 has solidified the role of INEC in election management and recognized the use of technology to conduct elections. That is a big plus. All that we have to do is full implementation.
Tell me more about the Akwa Ibom experience?
A few politicians in your state have taken lie-telling to a completely unimaginable hallmark of sophistication. Some are prolific name droppers of people in the villa to intimidate. I have never witnessed the scale of lies that have been told and sustained in Akwa Ibom. It is legendary. Sometimes I wonder how they manage to do it. Another angle is their willingness to go the extra mile to seek to buy and pay for anything they wish, no matter how criminal. Professor Peter Ogban was paid to falsify the result of the Akwa Ibom North West Senatorial District election in 2019. He capitulated. We prosecuted and sent him to serve three years in jail. Another Professor, lgnatius Uduk involved in the same Essien Udim, is standing trial for generating false figures for another candidate. Some of our staff that deviated from the highest principle of ethical standards over the 2019 elections have been dismissed. What I have witnessed here, I have never seen it before or imagined it could possibly happen. Not even in the dream. Politicians go round to meet people who remotely know me – classmates, family relations, etc. Any time they relay such information to me, I tell them that those who count the votes should never be more important than those who cast the votes. I have warned anybody connected or known by me to flee from politicians that think that money is everything. The position of an umpire is a public trust that must not be betrayed for pecuniary reasons. No. It has been my stance since all these years.
There were allegations flying around in 2019 that the APC brought money to bribe you. You refused the money. As a result, they thought that PDP had got to you before them and bribed you hence your refusal to take theirs. This suspicion led to their hostility towards you and all the sustained but failed campaign to force Abuja to remove you. Indeed, most APC members still believe that you were compromised in 2019 by the PDP. What did you collect money from PDP or APC?
Political parties are mental constructs. There is no physical thing as a political party which can move or give money. Rather, individuals who make up the party have approached several people who they believe wrongly, could have influence over me, to seek to reach me and offer inducement. In a particular instance, someone informed me that someone offered to fly me out of the country in a private jet to meet them, if I was not comfortable to deal in Nigeria. I turned every effort like that down. And I tell you what, politicians have not developed the nerves and the balls to approach me personally, to offer a bribe or discuss matters relating to compromising any election. They know the possible consequences of such a mistake. Many politicians have been duped of huge sums of money in the name of Mike Igini. And because some of these politicians are so desperate they become gullible; they would give their money to people. There was a case like that in which a politician gave money to someone and one of the security agencies brought to my notice. I told them I cannot listen to such stupidity. Money for Mike Igini to do what? Of course, I am told that before I got to Akwa Ibom, results were written in connivance with my predecessors who would collect money to look the other way and put people in power. The culture was so grand that they would never have imagined something different, until I came.
What do you think is the biggest challenge of INEC in Nigeria?
The greatest challenge to organizing credible elections in Nigeria is corruption. It is the greatest challenge of every facet of our nation’s life. My colleagues in the bar are not immune from the malaise either, and it makes things difficult. You see, as REC, I am responsible for supervising all INEC projects within Akwa Ibom. Whenever contractors who are assigned from Abuja come to execute projects, maybe, INEC office building or such other construction, they would ask to know what my gratification would be from the job. They tell me that some RECs extort them for jobs, As a result, they scale down the scope, change the design or quality of materials. When they come to Uyo, I demand for the approved Bill of Quantities (BoQ) and I ensure that the specifications in the BoQ are followed to the letter.
The craze for gratification has permeated everywhere, including the judiciary where people can literally procure judgements these days. Some unscrupulous elements within the system connive with politicians to circumvent and beat the rules. The civil society itself is haemorrhaging from corruption. That is the biggest challenge.
Similarly, the general absence of the rule of law poses danger to democracy. Doing the right thing in Nigeria can be dangerous. The civil society and the judiciary have been significantly compromised.
You mean you are the only odd man out?
I learnt from my father that the only thing money cannot buy is honor. You can get every other thing you need in life with money, but if you lose your honour, you have nothing left and you can’t buy it, no matter how much money you have. The challenge of wants vs needs was settled in my life long ago; long before I joined INEC. Most people fall into the money trap because they find it hard to separate between wants and needs. Before the rain, there was water in the coconut. I am a very contented man. And it did not start recently. When I was the SUG President in the University of Benin, there were efforts to bribe us by the military. When I was in the trenches in the struggle for validation of June 12, there were efforts to bribe us. None of those efforts paid off. Is it at this my age that I would start to collect illicit money? What would I use it for?
What is your worst experience as you quit INEC?
What has befallen some of the winners of the primary elections that we monitored, gives me course for concern. The political parties turn on their members with impunity and the system allows it to stand. Do you imagine? Someone spent money to buy nomination forms for election, campaigned and won the election, with INEC in attendance and monitoring as prescribed by the Electoral Act 2022. And then, their party in Abuja turns around to forward names of people who did not take part in the process at all, to INEC as the candidates? And the winners are the ones still spending money in courts to prove they won while those who did not take part are sleeping easy at home? That is what injustice looks like. It is painful to watch.
You have bullet proof cars that you use in Uyo. How did you get the cars?
Those who make such allegations must have been part of those who plotted to assassinate me and so, could tell a bullet proof car from other cars. I inherited a Toyota Prado SUV from my predecessor as the official car. I have been using the car all the last five years. The pilot car is a Toyota Hilux. If this is the allegation, it means they have been profiling my car for sinister reasons. Thank God, for saving me. In 2019, they plotted to assassinate me and bomb the state head office of INEC. It was caught on tape by the security agencies who responded in kind to neutralize the threat.
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You mean they planned to kill you?
Yes, they plotted to kill me. The audio recording is there, crisp and clear. It is the intelligence agencies that revealed it. It is blood-chilling and I will share it with you to listen yourself. They agreed to finance the operation with N25 million and made advance payment of N15 million before it blew open. The plan was to cause maximum violence that would have dazed me so much that the election would either be stolen or I would be dead. It shows you the extent to which politicians go to win election, not minding the role of the electorate and the sacrifices some of us put into struggling for the democracy we enjoy today.
This happened In Akwa Ibom?
You can hear it for yourself. Insisting on rules can be very dangerous. But thank God, we did not budge.
In the same 2019, we got intelligence that political participants spent millions to print fake result sheets and flew them into Akwa Ibom in a chartered jet. Do you imagine the cost? As soon as I got wind of the plot, I went to the Central Bank of Nigeria – Uyo, where we stored all the sensitive materials, to personally sign and endorse all the original result sheets for the election. It took me five hours to endorse every sheet used in the 2,980 Polling Units in Akwa Ibom. Can you imagine that? But we did it to neutralize the grand scheme and protect the sanctity of the ballot. And it worked. We beat them to their game and stopped them.
Do you have fears that the gains made by INEC can be reversed if for instance, a corrupt REC takes over from you?
With the integration of technology in the electoral process, it would be difficult to roll back the gains. Too much technology is involved already.
It has been alleged in some quarters, especially on social media, that you have been pencilled down to be appointed as consultant on electoral matters to Governor Udom Emmanuel, after your exit from INEC. Is this true?
There are some things that are stupid to contemplate. What can a former INEC REC do as consultant on electoral matters? Consult what and for what purpose? I am aware that former INEC operatives took up consultancy with state governments on how to rig elections. It shows the level of depravity and foolishness in the system. The only thing that such a person may be needed for, is to device means and methods for rigging. Nothing more. If I did not allow the rigging of election as REC, how then would I be a good consultant on rigging? People forget that the introduction of BVAS has removed the propensity to rig drastically. Now, elections are decided at polling units by voters, not collation centres, certainly not INEC office. So, what would Mike Igini do as consultant to Governor Udom? What are you consulting? That is a stupid thing to contemplate. The National Organizing Secretary of APC was the first to make that allegation in a TV show. I have perfected my plans to sue her for damages. I will definitely sue her.
Let’s talk about your best moments in INEC?
My best and happiest moment was when I delivered ballot materials to all the polling units in Akwa Ibom State in 2019. Many chiefs and traditional rulers came to the office to thank me. Some of them said that their subjects had never seen what a ballot paper looked like before then. Since 1999. It was a sobering moment for me. I was happy to break that culture of electoral crimes. I ensured that polling units where results and materials were stolen by thugs were cancelled. It shook the country.
Nigerians need to protect the construct called democracy because it is fragile. Eternal vigilance is the price for freedom. We may not get it right all the time, but we are not also getting it wrong all the time. I hope they will extend the cooperation they gave me, to my successor. I hope too that the politicians will know that the umpire is neutral. I have nothing personal against anybody. I was just doing my job, to the best of my ability.