Was the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) working hand in gloves with the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) to wrong-foot the leading opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) on the issue of the deadline for organising primaries?
INEC had won the admiration and support of many Nigerians when it stood its ground that it was not going to extend the June 3 deadline earlier set for the conclusion of straw polls within the 18 recognised political parties preparatory to the 2023 general elections.
Disclosing the Commission’s resolve, INEC national commissioner and chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Mr. Festus Okoye, penultimate week declared that the June 3 date remained sacrosanct, even as he enjoined political parties to be guided by the timeline, as well as provisions of the 2022 Electoral Act.
In the statement he released to that effect, Okoye stated: “Nominations for Presidential and National Assembly elections shall be submitted through the INEC web portal from 10th to 17th June 2022, while Governorship and State Houses of Assembly nominations shall be submitted between 1st and 15th July 2022.”
It would also be recalled that INEC released the timetable and schedule of activities for next year’s general election on February 26, stressing that parties were “to conduct their primaries for the nomination of candidates from 4th April to 3rd June 2022.”
Okoye disclosed that all the 18 political parties had been served the required notices indicating the dates for their conventions, congresses, and primaries for the purpose of nominating candidates for various elective offices as specified in the Constitution and the Electoral Act.
“Some of the parties,” he added, “have already commenced the process for which the Commission has deployed staff to monitor the exercise as required by law in compliance with section 82(1) of the Electoral Act 2022.”
INEC assured that it would “continue to work with political parties to ensure fidelity to the Constitution, the Electoral Act, and the timelines for all the activities contained in the Timetable and Schedule of Activities for the 2023 General Election.”
However, to the chagrin of stakeholders, barely 12 hours to the commencement of the PDP Presidential primary at the Moshood Abiola Stadium, Abuja, INEC announced an extension of time for six days, remarking that it was doing so in response to the pleas from the Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC).
IPAC had, at the meeting, which was held in INEC’s headquarters asked for a week extension to enable parties finalise activities related to the nomination of candidates. IPAC national chairman, Yabagi Yusuf Sani, told INEC that parties were determined to join hands with it to achieve a friction-free general election in 2023.
However, while clarifying the commission’s stance on the adjustment, Okoye maintained that the timetable and schedule of activities for the conduct of the 2023 general election remain intact.
While insisting that the political parties originally wanted 37-60 days extension of the timeline for primaries and the nomination of candidates, Okoye said that was not possible, but that based on the timetable and schedule of activities, the parties pleaded to use the six-day period between 4th and 9th June to conclude outstanding primaries and prepare to upload the list of candidates and their affidavits on the INEC candidates nomination portal.
He said there were no specific activities during the period, which made INEC grant the six-day extension, explaining that the “idea is simply to give parties time to compile the list and personal particulars of their nominated candidates before uploading same to the INEC candidates nomination portal from June 10 to 17, 2022.
“The Commission has decided to allow the request of the political parties since the six-day period does not conflict with the next scheduled activity which is the submission of the list of nominated candidates or any of the subsequent timelines which remain sacrosanct.”
But, prominent rights activist and senior lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), told The Guardian that INEC raised suspicions, because it came shortly after the governing party shifted the dates for the screening of its presidential aspirants.
He contended that the electoral commission has some explaining to justify the fact that it acted barely 24 hours after the APC postponed the screening exercise for the Presidential aspirants, noting that INEC should convince Nigerians that it was capable of independent actions and decisions.
Former Sokoto State governor, Dr. Attahiru Bafarawa, said INEC has made Nigeria’s democracy unexciting, stressing that with the commission’s disposition it could be said that politics has become a game without an umpire.
The former governor said most times INEC gives the impression that it was waiting to be reminded of how to do its job, adding that until the electoral body begins to take its constitutional assignment serious, political parties would continue to see it as being available for outside influence.
But, former chairman of Ikeja branch of Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Monday Ubani, said INEC has not done anything to warrant accusations of bias, contending that it was debatable if the shift in date was to benefit only the governing party.
“It is within the powers of INEC to alter the timetable. They have said it is not only APC that would benefit from the date shift. The shift in date within the Electoral Act is allowed. They should just try to remain impartial,” Ubani stated.
He urged Nigerians to give INEC the benefit of doubt, stressing that it is not necessary to pass quick judgment about their bias towards any political party, just as he expressed confidence that the commission would deliver on its promises of credible 2023 elections.
Despite Ubani’s optimism, the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) thumbed down INEC for shifting grounds from its earlier position not to adjust the deadline.
Taking a swipe at the electoral commission, the TMG regretted that INEC disappointed Nigerians by its about-face, stressing that the adjustment from the June 3 deadline raises doubts about the commission’s impartiality.
In a statement from its chairman, Alhaji Auwal Musa Rafsajani, the election monitoring body said the mix up came at such a time when the Nigerian electorate was beginning to repose confidence in INEC after its successful outings in Anambra Edo and Ondo states’ gubernatorial poll.
He regretted that the shift in deadline seems to have been made to accommodate APC’s tardy preparations, bemoaning that while other political parties made efforts to conduct their primaries, APC continued to wallow in uncertainties.
Also, in an interview with The Guardian, founder of Mindshift Advocacy for Development, Pastor David Joko Okupe, said INEC remains independent in name, noting, “I don’t think personally that the independent Electoral Commission is actually independent.”
Okupe said it would not be surprising to see INEC behaving like most of its state’s counterparts, where if the governor is not from the governing party, it is almost inadvertently controlled from somewhere. Reacting to the commission’s actions, he reiterated: “I don’t think we have an independent electoral body. There are always some strings being pulled somewhere.”
Yet, while the commission received bashing from Nigerians, the chairman of, the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Senator Michael Opeyemi Bamidele, declared that APC did not exert any form of pressure on INEC to extend the deadline.
Bamidele, who represents Ekiti Central in the Ninth Senate, told journalists that the decision to extend the deadline came from INEC and not President Muhammadu Buhari as was being insinuated.
He disclosed that the APC decided to reschedule its Presidential primary because of the extension of the deadline, adding that INEC justified its decision on the pressure mounted on it by all political parties for an extension of time within which they can conduct their primaries.
INEC has always taken decisions that elicited fears of bias or complicity with the governing party. For instance, midway through the 2019 general elections, the Commission had to alter the election timelines due to what it called logistic challenges.
But, despite the cogent excuses, the opposition PDP alleged that the commission took the decision in concert with APC to over-stretch the opposition, which had already deployed logistics and personnel, especially agents for the poll.
However, having been exposed to the presidential primary of its main rival, the PDP, it is left to be seen how far the extra time could go in helping the governing party to resolve its moral concerns over zoning and evaluation of various candidates to put up against former Vice President Atiku Abubakar.
There were suggestions in some quarters that the APC stalwarts, particularly the President of the Senate, Dr. Ahmad Lawan and Jigawa State governor, Abubakar Badaru, were drafted into the Presidential race belatedly in anticipation of Atiku’s emergence from the Northeast geopolitical zone of the country.
As feelers within the governing party indicate a resolve to zone its presidential ticket to the South, as well as adopting the consensus option, how far INEC’s gesture will go to advance its electoral fortunes would be seen in the next days when APC holds its much-awaited Presidential primary.