Elections for state assemblies and governors, which were originally scheduled for this Saturday, have been postponed by the Independent National Electoral Commission to March 18.

The commission decided to reconfigure the Bimodal Voter Accreditation machines at its management meeting in Abuja, which was called on Wednesday after the Court of Appeal gave it permission to do so.

The meeting, which started at 7pm and ended at 10pm, was presided over by its National Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu.

Festus Okoye, INEC’s National Commissioner and Chairman of the Information and Voter Education Committee, said in a statement on Wednesday night that the organization was unable to hold the governorship election on February 25 as originally planned because it needed time to reconfigure BIVAS voting machines, which were used for the presidential election.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Court of Appeal had given INEC permission to modify the BIVAS system used for the presidential election.

Allowing the objections of the Labour Party and its presidential candidate, Peter Obi, would, according to the appellate court panel, “tie the hands of the respondent, INEC.”

Following the declaration of Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress as the winner, Obi went to the appellate court and won an order prohibiting the commission from changing the configuration of the BVAS used for the election.

In its decision on Friday, the court issued an order allowing Obi and Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party to examine the sensitive materials used to conduct the election.

The electoral body, however, argued that the BVAS machines needed to be reconfigured for the governorship and state assembly elections, so it asked the court to modify its order prohibiting it from tampering with the BVAS machines in an application.

The LP standard bearer and a retinue of party heavyweights were present for the proceedings on Wednesday. The panel, presided over by Justice Joseph Ikyegh, dismissed Obi and his party’s objections and determined that the backup files on the server could not have been lost.

Delivering the lead ruling, Justice Haruna Tsammani said restraining INEC  would affect next Saturday’s governorship election.

Additionally, he reprimanded the applicants for repeatedly asking to scan and copy the electoral materials INEC is in possession of, claiming that this constituted an abuse of the legal system.

Tsammani cited an affidavit INEC had submitted to the court in which it made the assurance that the accreditation information contained in the BVAS could not be altered or lost.

The lawyer added that neither Obi nor LP submitted a counter-affidavit to refute INEC’s claims in its affidavit.

Gov poll

Tsammani said, “constraining or restricting the respondent (INEC) from the use of the BVAS machines for any other purpose, and particularly considering the governorship and Houses of Assembly elections coming up on the 11th of March 2013.”

Justice James Abundaga, who delivered the lead ruling in the motion by INEC for the variation of the Presidential Election Tribunal’s earlier orders, struck it out for being unmeritorious.

Abundaga said the apprehension expressed in the motion by INEC was unnecessary because the tribunal never granted any order for any applicant to access the electoral body’s database scientifically.

He said, “We made the orders of 3rd March 2023 which are sought to be varied by this application. The court did not in any of those orders authorise the applicants to access the database of the applicant (INEC).

“Therefore, the fear that the orders we made, if not varied, will expose the voters’ identities and who they cast their votes for is not genuine.

“We made the orders, very conscious of the court’s power to do so pursuant to the Electoral Act, particularly Section 74 of the Act to enable the respondent herein (Obi and LP) to have simple access to electoral materials to institute and maintain their petition if they ever wish to file any.

“We take judicial notice that similar applications to access electoral materials for the purpose of instituting petitions were made by other applicants.

“The respondents are hereby reminded, in case of any misapprehension by any of them, that the court did not authorise the applicants therein, in any of those orders granted, the permission to electronically open the applicant’s database.”

Before the court gave INEC the go-ahead on BVAS reconfiguration, the commission had yet to start distributing election materials in many states.

The commission had told the court on Tuesday that reconfiguration of BVAS would take two or three days.

But in the statement on Wednesday night, INEC recalled that on March 3, Presidential Election Petition Tribunal gave an ex-parte order for some political parties to inspect materials used for the presidential election, including the forensic inspection of over 176,000 BVAS used in the election.

INEC added that it approached the tribunal to reconsider the order, given that the BVAS systems were to be deployed for the Governorship and State Assembly elections and that the lack of a clearly defined timeframe for the inspection could disrupt the commission’s ability to conduct the outstanding elections.

“For instance, the BVAS can only be activated on the specific date and time of an election. Having been used for the Presidential and National Assembly elections on 25th February 2023, it is necessary to reconfigure the BVAS for activation on the date of the Governorship and State Assembly elections,” it added.

INEC further said while the ruling of the tribunal made it possible for it to commence the preparation of the BVAS for the governorship and state assembly elections, “it has come far too late for the reconfiguration to be concluded. Consequently, the Commission has taken the difficult but necessary decision to reschedule the Governorship and State Assembly elections which will now take place on Saturday 18th March 2023. By this decision, campaigns will continue until midnight of Thursday 16th March 2023 i.e. 24.”

Justifying its decision, the electoral umpire said the postponement was necessary “to ensure that there is adequate time to back up the data stored on the over 176,000 BVAS machines from the Presidential and National Assembly elections held on 25th February 2023 and then to reconfigure them for the Governorship and State Assembly elections. This has been the practice for all elections, including the period when the Commission was using the Smart Card Readers.”

It however said it was not against litigants inspecting election materials, adding that it would continue to grant all litigants access to the materials they required to pursue their cases in court.

“We wish to reassure all political parties and candidates that the data from the Presidential and National Assembly elections will be backed up and available in INEC cloud facilities, including the INEC Results Viewing Portal (IReV). Political parties can apply for Certified True Copies of the backend data of the BVAS.”

The PUNCH reports that unlike what happened during the presidential election when the distribution of sensitive materials started in many states on Wednesday, February 22, the exercise had yet to start in many states as of 6pm on Wednesday (yesterday).

States’ Resident Electoral Commissioners, who spoke to our correspondents, said the distribution of the materials ought to have started on Wednesday morning, but it was delayed because they were awaiting directives from INEC headquarters and the outcome of the commission’s suit on BVAS reconfiguration.