The fire this time

Its statutory mandate demands, among others, that the Independent National Electoral Commission(INEC) registers eligible voters, registers political parties, does oversight on the political parties, carries out voter education, promotes knowledge of sound democratic processes and conducts elections.

To effectively carry out these lofty but challenging activities, INEC requires offices in all the 774 Local Government Areas and 8,809 Wards/Registration Area Centres across the country, the 36 States of the Federation and the FCT, Zonal Stores, The Electoral Institute and headquarters for its command, control and co-ordination. These offices enable INEC to access its legion of stakeholders, to train its personnel(both permanent and ad hoc) and to monitor political parties. These offices also serve as logistics hubs and reservoirs of sensitive and non-sensitive materials which are deployed to Polling Units on Election Day and are then retrieved in the aftermath of elections or what is called in INEC speak or lingo as “reverse logistics”.

These offices make INEC a huge presence across the country. They also make the Commission ubiquitous. Whereas INEC’s ubiquity helps it to carry out its duties, almost seamlessly, it also has its drawback: its presence makes its offices soft targets for criminals, aggrieved Nigerians and non state actors who have axes to grind with the State or system or who profess one cause or the other.
In the past four years alone, not less than forty State and Local Government Area offices of INEC have been razed by criminals and non state actors. In the lead up to the off season Anambra State governorship election of 6th November 2021, non state actors went on a bombing binge of INEC’s offices in the South South and South East. These bombings and other acts of mayhem resulted in loss of lives, loss of not less than eight Toyota Hilux vehicles, hundreds of generating sets, properties and sensitive and non sensitive election materials. These bombings were only halted when the President, Muhammadu Buhari, ordered security agencies to respond to the perpetrators in “the language they would understand”.
Though INEC enjoyed a reprieve in the aftermath of the presidential directive, we are witnessing a resurgence of the willful burning of its offices. In the small hours of Thursday, 10th November 2022, INEC’s offices in Abeokuta South in Ògun State and Ede South in Osun State, were attacked by arsonists. While in the case of Abeokuta South the office was completely destroyed and nothing could be salvaged, the Ede South office was saved by the prompt and valiant intervention of the Fire Service.

It is heartwarming that the INEC Chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, quickly convened a meeting of the Interagency Consultative Committee on Election Security(ICCES) in the aftermath of these attacks. It is also apt that Professor Yakubu used the meeting, which held the next, Friday, to demand that ICCES should “move swiftly to apprehend perpetrators, prosecute them as required by the law and reinforce security around election officials and electoral infrastructure around the country.”

If the unvarnished truth is to be told, the impunity with which these dastardly acts are being carried out has a nexus or correlation with the fact that since they began, no one has been apprehended, paraded in the glare of the media, prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law. This explains why aggrieved persons take advantage of INEC’s vulnerability to vent their pent up and misplaced anger and frustrations. Once an example is made of these perpetrators, it will serve as a deterrence and send a strong signal to other would-be perpetrators.

For us to appreciate the import of these bombings, we need to look at what transpired at the Abeokuta South office. In that attack alone, the prototype office was completely destroyed. In addition, other sensitive and non sensitive materials were destroyed. They include: 904 ballot boxes, 29 voting cubicles, 8 electric power generators, 57 election bags, 30 megaphones, 65,699 uncollected Permanent Voter Cards(PVCs) and other assorted items such as stamps and stamp pads, furniture etc. In this one attack, INEC can easily replace these materials without doing violence to its budget. In fact, it immediately relocated to its old office at Oke-Ilewo. But the issue is that even this old office cannot be as expansive as the prototype office that was razed. Given the building and the quantum of equipment destroyed, we must be talking about hundreds of millions of Naira lost in one fell swoop. Assuming such wanton bombings were to continue and to be extended to other offices, where will INEC get the money to promptly replace them at a time when revenue accruing to government is dwindling and it is finding recourse in precious foreign reserves to shore up a tottering Naira? And since these offices serve as crucial hubs for logistics, training and stores for the conduct of elections, the implication is that if such attacks continue unabated, they will undermine the Commission’s capacity to conduct elections. The larger implication, arising from the aforementioned, therefore, is that these attacks are a threat to the conduct of the 2023 General Elections. And a threat to the elections must be construed as a threat to the democracy project itself. This position is reinforced by what happened during the conduct of the Anambra off cycle governorship election. The incessant attacks by non state actors, which preceded it, frightened many of the ad hoc staff from performing their electoral duties. Many abandoned their duties at the eleventh hour. This should not be allowed to repeat itself given its adverse consequences to the process.
One is relieved that ICCES, immediately after its meeting, deployed Joint Security and Safety Teams to all INEC offices across the country. It is also savory and encouraging that the President, who is keen on leaving a legacy of credible elections, views these attacks in the light of the existential threat that they constitute. He is said to have given the security agencies a marching order to deal decisively with any individual or groups who attempt to disrupt the peace and the success of the 2023 General Elections.
But beyond intensifying surveillance around INEC offices, the security agencies must immediately apprehend the perpetrators of these recent attacks and determine their motives/agenda(s). Is it a coincidence that these attacks took place the same day? Is it a coincidence that they used the same modus operandi? Why the choice of the South West by the attackers?
Additionally, INEC must win the hearts and minds of Nigerians. It must urgently engage with its stakeholders, especially traditional rulers, leaders of faith-based organizations, youths and women. It should use these engagements, at the State and Local Government levels, to impress on Nigerians that these facilities, which criminals destroy with recklessness, belong to them since they are procured with their tax or resources. They should be persuaded to be obligated to take ownership and to protect them. And they should be encouraged do so by reporting to the authorities criminals they suspect are a threat to these facilities. Thankfully, this task has been made less daunting for the Commission by virtue of the stellar and transparent elections it has conducted in recent times.

Mr Dazang, a former INEC staff member, writes from Abuja via [email protected]