Nigeria 2023: Electoral umpire faces questions over collaboration with partisan transport unions

By Ben Ezeamalu

Posted on Tuesday, 21 February 2023 11:00
Ballot boxes and other electoral material are seen at a polling station of Gombi, Adamawa State, Nigeria on February 15, 2019. (Photo by Luis TATO / AFP)

With days to Nigeria's presidential election, the electoral body, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)'s collaboration with transport unions in moving electoral materials to polling units in the south-west has continued to receive heated pushbacks.

Since 2015, INEC has relied on the transport unions, particularly the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), to transport the materials and personnel on the morning of the election.

Disagreements and in-fighting within the union’s leadership in the south-west led to the governors of Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Ondo, and Osun states banning their activities. In its place, they established the Parks Management Committee (PMC) or Parks Management System (PMS), presenting a conundrum for the electoral umpire, particularly as the NURTW continues to protest their proscription in the region.

The PMCs and PMSs in the states are, in most cases, run by loyalists of the ruling parties. In Lagos, for instance, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu appointed Musiliu Akinsanya (popularly known as MC Oluomo), a staunch supporter of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and its presidential candidate, Bola Tinubu, to head the PMC.

On Monday, a federal court in Lagos temporarily stopped INEC from using the services of Akinsanya, the PMC, or its members to distribute election materials and personnel in the state.

Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, Labour Party’s governorship candidate in Lagos, hailed the ruling, describing it as “a victory for a free and credible election”.

“The Electoral Act is very clear that INEC cannot partner or work with anybody that has political affiliation,” Rhodes-Vivour, whose party filed the suit, tells The Africa Report.

The INEC partnership

The relationship between the INEC and the transport unions – the NURTW and the National Association of Road Transport Owners (NARTO) – began with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in January 2015.

There is no need for a government institution to keep 100 vehicles grounded that day and INEC is hiring 100 vehicles

Ahead of the 2019 general election, the commission reviewed the MoU, which enabled it to use over 100,000 vehicles belonging to the unions’ members to deploy officials and materials across 774 local government areas, 8,809 electoral wards, and 119,973 polling units in the country.

However, opposition to the partnership appeared to hit a crescendo in the run up to the 25 February presidential polls with the suit filed by the Labour Party and five others. Analysts say the commission ought to have explored other means of transporting its personnel and materials for the election especially in the south-west where the transport unions have been overtly partisan.

Akinbode Oluwafemi, the executive director of Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa, says in other countries government vehicles from ministries, departments and agencies are pooled together for use on election day.

“Election is a key activity so the entire government infrastructure are usually looked into and then volunteered for such operation,” Oluwafemi tells The Africa Report.

“There is no need for a government institution to keep 100 vehicles grounded that day and INEC is hiring 100 vehicles. I don’t think that makes any sense at all.”

INEC’s defiance

INEC has repeatedly defended its decision to partner with the transport unions, dismissing evidence of partisanship of their members.

For instance, at the flag-off rally of the APC governorship candidate in 2019, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, an ensuing violence led to the stabbing of Akinsanya, who had led his group to the event. In 2022, Oluomo organised and led a ‘five million man’ solidarity walk in support of Tinubu and his running mate, Kashim Shettima, in Lagos.

Last December, the electoral body met with the road transport unions, this time alongside the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria, and signed another MoU. Mahmood Yakubu, the INEC chairman, said the commission would require over 100,000 vehicles and 4,200 boats to transport about 1.4 million personnel to the 176,846 polling units in the country.

Olusegun Agbaje, the INEC Resident Electoral Commissioner in Lagos, said law enforcement agents as well as party agents would accompany the vehicles during the deployment. He added that the commission would electronically track the vehicles.

“I don’t see how this can compromise the election. The party agents will be there to witness the distribution of the materials,” Agbaje said during a meeting with representatives of security agencies on 7 February.

“They will be on the entourage to see that there is no stoppage on the way until they get to local government where they are going to offload the materials.”

Agbaje did not say whether the party agents would also supervise the transportation of electoral materials and officials from the local governments to the polling units. He did not respond to The Africa Report‘s request for comments.

Over the past few years, the activities of the NURTW in the south-west, particularly their penchant for violence, had been a source of concern for the state governments. Last year, the Lagos State government banned their activities and established PMC with Akinsanya at the helm of affairs. Ondo had also done the same. Osun inaugurated its own PMC last month.

Ogun and Oyo had banned the NURTW since 2020 and replaced them with PMS.

Agbaje said the proscription of the NURTW in Lagos left INEC only with the option of dealing with park managers and NARTO.

“The law has already banned NURTW from operating in the state so we cannot violate the law by patronising them. It will be working against the law if we have to be working with the banned associations.”

‘Stain on integrity’

Earlier this month, the NURTW ignored its proscription in the south-west and went ahead to nominate to INEC its officers that would supervise the movement of electoral materials and personnel in the region.

Hassan Soweto, an activist, says INEC collaborating with groups with known partisan interests could lead to questions over its impartiality in the polls.

“It raises doubts and can lead to people losing confidence in the system when in the process of conducting an election, the election management body contracts entities for purpose of facilitating movement of voting materials, whereas those entities are seen to have political affiliations,” Soweto tells The Africa Report. 

“It doesn’t mean, in some cases, that anything will actually happen or that there will be a violation of the Constitution but optics are important when you are conducting a national event like this.

“For the electoral body to establish its independence that step is a stain on the integrity of the election even before the elections are conducted.”

Rhodes-Vivour questioned the basis of the collaboration between INEC and the PMC, likening it to “asking WAEC [a high school exam] students to carry the questions for their exams and move it to places.

“We were very shocked that this was even an idea in the first place, but what we realised is that a lot of nonsense happens in Lagos and good people just sit by and let it go on and we decided that will not be the case this time.”

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