INEC’s policy on non-provision of face masks/coverings to voters could mar the forthcoming gubernatorial elections in Edo and Ondo states, key election monitors have said.
The call was made in a town hall meeting on Wednesday, hosted by YIAGA Africa, a local election observer group, through its Watching The Vote (WTV) platform.
The meeting focused on legal issues surrounding INEC decision to host elections despite the global emergency, COVID-19, and its new policy published last week on how it would conduct the polls.
The event was moderated by Seun Akinbalole, a journalist with ChannelsTV, and had in attendance the governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki and Femi Falana, a lawyer.
Festus Okoye, INEC’s national commissioner for information and voter education, Lanre Arogundade, director, International Press Centre were also present.
The INEC had last week released its election policy on conducting the governorship elections in Edo and Ondo states for September 19 and October 10 in the context of the pandemic.
As part of its policies, in a document titled Voter’s Code of Conduct for Elections during the COVID-19 Pandemic, INEC said wearing of face masks at the polling units was mandatory- noting that voters should make provisions for their own face masks.
The policy, however, drew debates among participants.
The federal government recommends the use of face masks to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control(NAFDAC) earlier said the use of non-medical masks “do not prevent one from contracting COVID-19 but, they have been found to contribute to reducing the spread of infections when used widely with other preventive measures.”
Henry Ewononu, head of advocacy at the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA), said INEC’s decision of providing face masks to only elections officials “could result to low voter turn out and disenfranchisement of citizens who cannot afford the face masks.”
He, therefore, urged the commission to provide face masks for every voter on election day.
“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 said.
Also, Mr Arogunbade urged that face masks should be provided by INEC to avoid politicians taking advantage of it as a means to induce voters by providing them with the masks.
Citing section 100 of the electoral act, he said “state apparatus including the media should shall not be used as an advantage and disadvantage of a political party.”
He also faulted the INEC election policy “for not making provisions for journalists. We know what the media go through on election day.”
Mr Arogunbade added: “In a state where you have an incumbent running and wants to provide face masks, that could actually compromise the entire process.”
But a professor of political science, Adele Jinadu, said the provision of face masks by INEC to every citizen on election day would not feasible.
According to him, the responsibility of conducting elections is a shared task of both INEC and the citizens. “The society at large has a responsibility to play not only INEC,” he said.
Meanwhile, the INEC chairman, Electoral Operations and Logistics Committee (EOLC), Okechukwu Ibeanu, explained the challenges INEC may face in providing face masks to the electorate.
He said such would be unsustainable as the commission cannot provide face masks for over 3 million registered voters.
He said it will cost the commission about N640 million to provide face masks to all registered voters for the elections.
He then urged not-for-profit organisations to assist in the provision of face masks to persons, especially in the rural areas.
Mr Ibeanu had warned voters on Wednesday, during a virtual meeting with the media against wearing face masks with the logos of their political parties, to polling units.
Meanwhile, Mr Falana said the country cannot allow the churches and NGOs to carry out the responsibilities of the government.
“If INEC insist that every voter must wear a face mask; that part of guideline issued by INEC is pursuant to section 160 of the constitution. But we must now go beyond the guidelines to make it work because we cannot rely on churches and NGOs (to provide masks)..
The civil right activist also predicted a low voter turnout in the two elections.
“I do not expect more than 500,000 voters in each of the state, it is not possible under the current suitation,” he said.
“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 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.
At the meeting, Mr Obaseki, who is standing for reelection in Edo, said his government had already made provisions for face masks for citizens of the state.