In a bid to facilitate public debate on the impact of COVID-19 on the upcoming Edo and Ondo Governorship elections, Yiaga Africa and Civil Society partners hosted a citizens townhall to harness citizen input into the INEC policy on elections in the context of COVID-19. The town hall aired on Channels TV highlighted stakeholders’ perspectives on the decision of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to go ahead with the elections despite the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic.
Recall that INEC released its Policy on Conducting Elections in the Context of the Covid-19 Pandemic in Nigeria. The purpose of the policy is ‘to enable officials and staff of the Commission to understand and respond adequately to the challenges of conducting elections in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and its health and financial implications, and to provide a guide for engagement with stakeholders during elections’. The policy will regulate the conduct of the upcoming governorship elections in Edo and Ondo and rescheduled bye-elections. INEC is consulting with relevant stakeholders to solicit feedback on the proposed policy.
The policy drew reactions from health, legal and logistical perspectives among stakeholders and the general public with apprehension on the possibility of conducting credible elections amidst the pandemic. During the citizens town held on Wednesday 3RD June, the National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee of INEC, Mr. Festus Okoye insisted that the commission cannot postpone the date slated for both polls. According to him, the commission is going ahead with the election to avert constitutional crisis. He said, the commission has a mandate to conduct election based on the constitutional provision of Nigeria or it will lose the right to conduct such election.
As part of the plans to protect citizens during the polls, INEC has also said it will enforce the use of facemasks at voting areas. However, Okechukwu Ibeanu, INEC national commissioner on logistics, disclosed that facemasks bearing insignia would not be allowed in the voting centres because it would constitute campaign materials.
Another major stakeholder in the Edo polls and incumbent Governor of Edo state, Godwin Obaseki declared readiness to provide adequate security to citizens before, during and after the election. While appearing during the townhall via video call, Obaseki said the security of lives and property of the people is one of the major priorities saying that the comprehensive security architecture in the state would cascade down to the communities where voting will take place.
The Governor said, “the important thing about what we are doing is we are being transparent, we are being upfront with the challenge and we are developing responses – isolation and treatment centres – to make sure we cope. But most importantly, we are emphasizing on public enlightenment to transmit the message of precautionary measures in containing the spread of the coronavirus”.
“Since we made the use of facemasks compulsory in Edo, we have made facemasks available for local government areas, religious organisations and different societies. We will still continue to ensure compliance because study shows that use of facemasks is an effective means of curtailing the spread of the virus,” he said.
Also reacting to the issue of the use of Facemasks during the meeting is the head of advocacy at the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) Henry Ewononu who raised concerns on possible disenfranchisement of citizens who cannot afford face masks.
He said, “I fear that the INEC policy that states it would only provide face masks to election officials while voters are to come along to the polling units with their own face-covering could lead to the disenfranchisement of citizens and low voter turnout,”
He, therefore, urged the commission to provide face masks for every voter on election day. In contrast, Adele Jinadu, a professor of Political Science, emphasized on the need for the society to share responsibility with INEC, saying the provision of face masks by INEC to every citizen on election day would not feasible.
On his own part, human rights activist and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Femi Falana predicted a low voter turnout in Edo and Ondo elections saying he does not expect more than 500,000 voters in each of the state.
As regards Face mask, he insisted that the country cannot allow the churches and NGOs to carry out the responsibilities of the government. He said, If INEC insist that every voter must wear a face mask then the commission must go beyond the guidelines to make it work as we cannot rely on churches and NGOs to provide masks.
“We are not talking of hundreds of million (naira) here,” Mr Falana added. “If INEC is going to make 500,000 (masks) at N200 (each), we are talking about hundreds of thousands (naira) not millions as INEC had said. “The elite needs to understand that there are some people who are going through excruciating poverty and these people cannot afford face masks of N200,” he said.
Other stakeholders including political parties and other CSO also raised concerns on conducting a credible election calling for adherence to all safety guidelines ahead of the elections.