In a bid to ensure that I don’t use the words self acclaimed to describe him any more, my number one fan without any prompting decided to make it up to me by sharing his experience as an INEC ad hoc staff in the just concluded 2015 elections. What you are about to read is undiluted and unadulterated (his words, not mine). Sit back, relax and enjoy…
It rained heavily that evening, checking the pasted list of members of INEC’s ad hoc staff on the wall and seeing I was to assume the role of a presiding officer (PO) of one of the polling units in South-Eastern Nigeria made my adrenaline pump as if I was not the one who voluntarily signed up for the job. A PO is expected to supervise and conduct elections together with his team mates in a designated polling unit. I came with my little back pack and joined the others to wait for our SPO (supervising presiding officer). Lots of sirens were blaring and some soldiers, police men, men from the department of state Service (DSS), Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC ) officers and even Prison wardens were all there.
Lots of stories were told here and there about how the 2011 elections was and how lots of money were shared, how people were beaten, how Corp members were chased and some killed, how some were arrested. I tried hard not to listen to these stories but the more I tried, the more I listened and the more I listened, the more fear grew in me and the more sceptical I became about my new ad hoc job, coupled with going against the advice that family, friends and loved ones had given me not to participate in the elections especially since the polity was over heated. To me, the experience was all I wanted not like I didn’t want d extra cash INEC was offering.
Myself and my polling team members went to the RAC (registered area centres) a place we where to sleep. Getting there, we slept on mats. We were about seven (7) individuals sharing two mats. Thankfully, there was light in the primary school as INEC provided a generator. I used my back pack as my pillow while I thought of how the next day was going to be.
At about 3am our SPO came with 2 mobile policemen carrying both sensitive and non sensitive INEC materials. After taking stock of what was given to me, I went to have a dry bath (just cleaned up sensitive areas) and I was fully kitted in my 7/7 kaki NYSC uniform. By 7.45am I was ready to move to my polling unit with my team; Assistant Presiding Officer 1, 2 and 3 (APO1, 2 and 3) including one unarmed policeman and an NSCDC officer. I took a deep breath and solemnly prayed for GOD’s guidance and protection.
A jeep came to pick us, amazingly it belonged to one of the political parties, the driver quickly removed all posters and emblems belonging to the party and that made me more comfortable not like I had an option as INEC or my SPO did not provide a means of transportation for me, my team and the election materials to go the polling unit or maybe it was a logistic issue like INEC always says. On getting there we met a handful of the community indigenes as it was a market square. We were welcomed by comments like ‘8.00 clock done reach o!’. One of the Party agents immediately showed us where we would stay. Myself and my team spontaneously swung into action, pasting all INEC’s signs, posters and list of registered voters on available wall spaces.
At 8.15am we were about to start when the first problem struck. The INEC smart card reader refused to work, I mean it refused to proceed to the point where it can even verify voters cards unlike other polling units where at least the card reader was reading the PVCs but not able to verify finger prints. I took a deep breath as I had planned for contingencies like this. Comments like ‘na so una wan take rig this election, una done start o!, hmmmm’ immediately filled the air. I addressed the crowd and told them exactly what had happened and that we were going to fix it, that they should be calm, that an INEC technical staff would be here in no time.
I put a call across to my SPO, she said she did not know what to do. I was dazed by that statement. Chieftains of parties started coming in and asking what the problem was, I briefed them. I then put a call across to the EO (electoral officer) who told me she was going to call my SPO. At intervals I was addressing the crowd, who were already getting very impatient. Some of them said I should go ahead with the manual registration and accredit them, I again told them INEC had insisted on the card readers ‘ no card reader, no elections’. My SPO stepped in and addressed the crowd in their local dialect.
Again transportation was an issue, there was no vehicle to convey us to INEC’s headquarters which was about 10-12 minutes drive from my polling unit. The community provided transportation for us to INEC’s office and I carried INEC’s bag containing the ballot papers as if they where my Dad’s property. On getting there, the number of armed Soldiers and Police men was overwhelming, you would think you just stepped into Central Bank of Nigeria.
We immediately got into the ICT department. The young men we met pressed one or two buttons and the card reader started working. I was accused of not being able to operate the machine, but I insisted that I did everything I was thought and my SPO confirmed it but surprisingly in the face of all the accusation, she nodded in agreement that I didn’t know how to operate the card reader. So I kept my mouth shut and thanked them.
Looking at my watch it was already 11.58am. We sped off and went back to my polling unit. We were about to start accreditation again, I briefed them again and told them that I would give the same window period for accreditation as it was supposed to be from 8.00am-1.00pm, so accreditation will be from 12.01pm-5.00pm, while I was saying all these, one particular man who had been complaining since he came shouted at me saying ‘Corper you too dey talk, make we start fast fast’. It was very difficult getting the crowd to be orderly, lots of shouting, they kept shouting at me, even the unarmed Police man and NSCDC officer could not control the very impatient and near angry crowd. Most of the young men and women were shouting ‘Corper do fast, Corper, you wan sleep here’. My APO 1 and 2 had done the job in 2011, so their experience helped a lot and hastened the process. We no longer had specific duties as INEC had designated, we did everything together to speed up the process. Party agents and observers watched every step of the process keenly.
Mid way into the accreditation process, the community indigenes bought gala and malt for myself and my team and they told us that if we needed anything, we should not hesitate to let them know. I was a little sceptical about such gestures but I was told by my APO 1 and 2 that it was the norm, it was their own way of saying thank you for agreeing to come conduct elections in their community. At the end of the process, we had 188 accredited voters. Having exhausted all available electorate for accreditation, it was a unanimous decision to begin voting at about 4.30pm. I briefed the crowd on the voting process and ‘no accreditation, no voting’, and that we were going to give preference to the old and disabled. I said ‘if your ballot paper was neither signed nor stamped, it will be rendered void and that they should make sure it’s signed if not nwanem you are on your own’. Little did I know I was going to have a serious problem erupting from my last statement.
Forming a queue for voting was a huge problem. The same man who shouted at me earlier started shouting at me again and complaining I was too slow. Already I was feeling too pressured and getting confused by the crowd, I then did something that surprised both me, the crowd and my team mates. I shouted ‘taaaa’ in a very loud and aggressive manner that the whole place became quite. You know that sort of short quiet immediately following so much noise we had when we were in primary and secondary school and a pupil will say ‘Holy spirit just passed’, that was how it was.
Immediately after the intense but very brief quiet, some boys just came to the front and shouted ‘Corper where you think say you dey? We go beat you for here o, we go just kill you’. Then I knew I had made a terrible mistake. I kept mute and I knew I needed to do something before I get more than I budgeted for. I staged a little drama; I went down on one knee and begged the crowd that they should be patient with me, that the card reader not working earlier was not my fault. Before I could finish talking part of the crowd started saying ‘Corper stand up, stand up’ I stood up and smiled to myself that my little play had worked and some calm was brought back again.
During the voting, some electorates were telling others ( old women and men) who to vote for and couples were insisting strongly that they must vote together. I remember telling a pastor (he was wearing a clerical collar) not to go to the voting stand with his wife and that he should leave his wife to vote alone, he said ‘do you want me to leave my wife for you’ and it got everyone laughing. It took the intervention of the security agency to curb this voting anomaly.
Mid way into the voting process, I knew we were going to stay there deep into the night. I asked the party agents to make arrangement for light. To my surprise indigenes started volunteering, one of them got a generator, they changed the bulb from a 60 watt to a 200 watt. I was surprised at the enthusiasm they had towards the whole electoral process. We got the lights on and voting continued.
Voting ended at about 7.48pm. We sorted the ballot papers into their appropriate ballot boxes then we started counting. While counting the votes, some ballots papers were not signed (about 6 of them). I told them that as I earlier said, these votes will be void. They said ‘corper we go kill you for here o, na your fault, na your fault’. I cancelled the vote and they became quiet. One of them, a short man, much shorter than I was, rushed to the front and said ‘you dey mad, this tag wey you wear, I wear am 4 years ago, you dey craze.’ Other people now told me not to be afraid. I just kept quiet, I had already learnt my lesson.
I explained to them that it was INEC’s rule and anybody can make a stamp and stamp a ballot paper that we did not issue. This can make cast votes exceed the number of accredited voters ultimately leading to a cancelled election. They kept calm. Deep down in me, I knew it was my fault it was probably due to the pressure but I could not take the risk of whether it was my fault or whether somebody brought a stamped ballot paper. We moved on.
We started counting the results together, each time I raised a party’s vote the crowd chorused ‘oneee, twoooo, threeee’ that was how we finished the elections . The party that won kept dancing and singing victory songs. I finished writing the results with each party agent signing and collecting their copies including the security agencies. One of the electorates said’ we are getting to the point when our vote will always count and this was a free, fair and credible election’. I smiled and felt a deep sense of pride inside me. The party that won gave me 3k and 2k to the rest of my team members, thanking us for conducting the elections credibly and that we should use the money for transportation.
We left the polling unit heavily escorted by the party agents at about 10.13pm to the INEC’s local government collation centre. Before I finished everything I had to do at INEC’s office, it was past 12 midnight. I had to sleep again on the floor, this time without a mat. I slept that night dreaming I was on my bed. As early as 6.am on Sunday morning, together with other Corp members we were walking and sharing our election ordeal. I got home at about 8.15am, took a long shower put my GOTV on and turned to Channels TV and it was obvious that the conduct of the elections had attracted lots of accolades from both foreign and domestic observers and the Nigerian populace at large.
Election violence was very minimal although one major problem was the card reader but the general success of the elections seemed to have overshadowed that aspect. I kept smiling to myself that I had indeed been part of what I call the most credible elections in modern Nigerian History. History will not forget the Democratic gallantry and bravery of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan for consolidating Nigeria’s democracy and the unwavering determination of Prof. Jega in giving Nigerians a credible election. These were my thoughts as I laid down on my bed and in no time I was fast asleep.
Article Credit: Pharm. Abanum Kesiena