Nigeria's Top Election Official Speaks on Effective Election Management

Publication Date: 
18 Dec 2013

Professor Attahiru Muhammadu Jega has served as Chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) since June 2010. During his tenure, he oversaw the 2011 presidential and legislative elections, which received high praise from national and international observers.

In this Q&A, he answers some questions about implementing successful elections, his plans for 2015 and the INEC’s efforts to increase gender equality.

How did you get into election management?

As a political science professor, I have written articles and co-edited a book on Nigerian elections. In 2008/2009, I served on the Electoral Reform Committee chaired by the retired Chief Justice of Nigeria, the Honorable Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais.

In practical terms, I first became involved in election management with my appointment as Chairman of the INEC in June 2010.

You are working to pass affirmative action law to increase women’s political representation by 35 percent. Please tell us about this effort.

As part of the on-going reform process in the Commission, the existing Gender Desk has been upgraded into a full-fledged Gender Unit, complete with the appropriate level of staffing. The Unit has been tasked with the responsibility of driving INEC’s gender mainstreaming initiatives. Chief among them is effective advocacy and collaboration with gender focused civil society organizations and relevant government agencies – with a view to getting the National Assembly to pass the Affirmative Action Law in the National Assembly.

The Unit is also working closely with registered political parties to secure their support in increasing women’s participation and ensuring strict compliance once the Affirmative Action Law becomes operational. The Commission is considering a draft Gender Policy framework to add impetus to these activities.

What is the status of women’s political representation in Nigeria?

The status of women’s political representation has improved slightly since the return to democratic rule in 1999. But it can and should be better. For example, the number of elected women in the Senate has increased from three in 1999 to seven in 2011. Similarly, women’s representation has increased in the House of Representatives from 12 in 1999 to 26 in 2011.

In state legislatures, women’s representation increased from 12 in 1999 to 62 in 2011. Considering that there are 109, 360 and 990 members of the Senate, the House of Representatives and the States Houses of Assembly, respectively, a lot of work still needs to be done to bring about a remarkable improvement in the representation of women in elective offices.

The 2011 national elections in Nigeria were regarded as very successful. What changes did you implement ahead of the polls?

The conduct of elections that are free, fair, peaceful and credible in an environment such as Nigeria – in view of its size, large population, varying terrain and ethno-religious diversity, is a very difficult undertaking. However, the level of encouragement, support and assistance INEC received from all stakeholders in Nigeria, abroad and through development partners motivated it to do its best in spite of the very difficult circumstances.

We first compiled a credible voter register. In approximately three weeks (January 16 to February 8, 2011), in spite of formidable challenges, a total of 73.5 million eligible voters were registered, with their biometric data captured electronically. INEC has since established a national set of databases in each of the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, and at the national level, with Disaster Recovery Centres.

Second, in preparing for the 2011 general elections, we identified items that undermined the credibility of past elections and tried to address them. We also tried to creatively and pragmatically introduce new measures and procedures to bring about additional transparency and credibility to the electoral process. Specific issues and concerns addressed include: how to prevent multiple voting, snatching and stuffing of ballot boxes; how to detect/prevent use of fake ballot papers; how to detect/prevent fraudulent declaration of fake results; how to ensure secure, timely distribution of election materials, as well as a secure voting environment; and how to increase transparency and accountability in voting and results collection procedures by minimizing the role of INEC staff in collation and announcement of results.

New measures introduced included additional security features and unique serial numbering of ballot boxes; additional security features, serial numbering and color coding of ballot papers; and the introduction of a new voting procedure: the Re-Modified Open Ballot System.

We also phased in a decentralized system of distribution of electoral materials and encouraged greater coordination of security agencies through the formation of the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Elections Security. INEC used its resources to select collation and returning officers of high integrity, as well as employ National Youth Service Corps members as presiding officers. We also turned to audio-visual recording and live media coverage to remain transparent and timely.

It is gratifying that our modest reforms to make the 2011 elections credible were acknowledged. But we cannot rest on our oars; there is a lot more to be done to make 2015 elections better than those in 2011.

What are some of the main reforms you are implementing ahead of the 2015 elections?

The post-2011 elections review process, which we conducted, has enabled us to design and implement additional reforms that would ensure our 2015 elections are even better. These include re-structuring INEC for greater efficiency and effectiveness, as well as the design and implementation of a strategic plan to guide INEC’s work in 2015 and beyond.

To improve voter education and public enlightenment, we have developed a new communications policy/strategy and established a Citizens Contact Center, through which we will receive requests for information or queries and respond in a timely manner.

We also established regular consultative meetings with political parties and other stakeholders to exchange information and ideas, reinforcing trust and confidence ahead of elections. We introduced a new election management system and election project plan to guide the meticulous conduct of activities for elections.

In addition, given the volatile nature of Nigerian politics and elections, we are in the process of deploying an Election Risk Management System, to gather information about risk factors, analyze them and introduce appropriate measures to either contain or mitigate the risk factors. In summary, we have introduced many reforms to ensure the success and credibility of the 2015 elections.

What are some of the challenges you are encountering as you prepare for the 2015 elections?

Challenges are wide-ranging. Many are associated with the recruitment, training and deployment of ad hoc or temporary Election Day officials; procurement, storage, distribution and retrieval of sensitive election materials; deployment of security personnel to avoid the incidence of pre-election, Election Day and post-election violence; and continuous refinement and improvement of the electoral process.

These challenges are gradually being addressed through the reforms implemented by the INEC.

What advice do you have for other heads of election commissions who wish to make the electoral process credible in their country?

My first advice is for them is to engage their respective country’s legislature to secure the appropriate legal framework guiding the electoral process.

Then, they must ensure compliance with provisions of the law. The commission must also strive to be – as much as possible – non-partisan and impartial. They should not underestimate the importance of regular engagement with all relevant stakeholders (political parties, civil society, security agencies and the general public) and involve them in the electoral process.

An election commission must be open and transparent at all times, demonstrating a willingness and commitment to embrace best practices from sister election management bodies, even as it must ensure strict adaptation of the best practices to its local realities and conditions.