The senate of the federal republic of Nigeria, Thursday, 24th of June this year for our lord, cleared Professor Attahiru Jega as the new chairman of theIndependent National Electoral Commission (INEC), thus replacing Professor Maurice Iwu. His nomination by President Jonathan Goodluck delivered a big bag of mixed feelings. Some say he has a good stead to deliver, while many more think he is not that pristine.
What first sent the jitters was what the president told the press before his appointment was made public; he
said he was setting for ‘a young man I did not even know’. Many interpreted the rather unguided presidential statement to mean the president was disclaiming responsibility in advance. Whatever the president means, INEC job is now a make or mar and he (the president) takes full responsibility for the failure of the team he has appointed to do it. It is a credit or damnation which he took upon himself by by-passing Uwais recommendation to leave the issue of appointing the INEC board including its chairman to the National Judicial Council.
For a fact, the task before Jega is no mean one. He has to rise to the occasion and deliver free and fair election promised the world by the President Goodluck Jonathan. And to do this all he needs is courage and integrity. It is true that adults hardly change but this is no occasion to repeat Iwu’s monkeyshines. For doing that will do an irreparable damage to the polity and democracy.
Iwu spent time bleating it down our neck that his hands were tied. Through and through, Iwu kept screaming at Nigerians rather find measures of doing his job well. Each successive election he conducted thus only got worse, the last being Ekiti rerun and Anambra State gubernatorial election where a paltry 300,000 voters could vote out of over 1.8 million registered voters. And what was more, there was clear absence of voter apathy as an overwhelming majority was disenfranchised, including the governor who became the main beneficiary of the charade.
What was shocking about what happened in Ekiti and particularly Anambra was not that there was neither voting nor counting but that Iwu and his INEC actually adjudged Anambra election as the best ever. If this is what Jega is set to repeat, then, we may replaced Iwu with Iwu and this will yield a greater tragedy.
Jega can actually be another Iwu unless he fights really hard to step out of shadow. For if the president says he does not know Jega, who then recommended him? Could it be Iwu himself whom the president wouldn’t have minded reappointing? This may appear speculative, but Jega must have been pushed by certain forces and Iwu’s input in such critical decision of appointing his successor cannot be said to be misplaced nor implausible. Nigerians must not be fully conscious of their past but also the forces that forge the present!
Come to think of it, Jega and Iwu worked at ASUU as National President and Deputy respectively. There, they became fast friends and have remained buddies ever since, a relationship Iwu generously maintained by appointing Jega the chief consultant to INEC throughout his fatal tenure. In order words, Jega has been part of the fiasco that was INEC under Iwu even though he operated from without, so to speak.
But what is more worrisome may not be cozy relationship existing between Jega and Iwu but the decrying of his appointment by Mohammed Iwais (CJN), the architect of the Iwais Report. Uwais said he was worried sick by the appointment of Jega, considering the position the latter took on most of the issues raised during the Electoral Reforms Committee deliberations of which the Jega was also a member. Such issues, frightfully and fatally, may include an infirm stand of INEC independence.
The Presidency was quick in coming to the defense of Jega when the Uwais remark came rather than pay attention to the wisdom conatnied therein, a retired Justice of Nigeria that came out of his retirement to attend to such pressing national assignment as electoral reform. Uwais backed down but his spoken words against Jega’s credentials as electoral umpire keeps its echoes.
So, Jega has some tainted past though not irredeemable. As the nation waits with bated breath for his programmes and action plan, the statement of a group, Transform Nigeria Movement (TNM) suffices in helping the man on whom the nation’s future democracy now precariously hangs, in setting properly the agenda for INEC. There must be irreducible minimums if the nation’s crawling democracy will ever get off the ground.
TNM had canvassed, among other things for the coming INEC and the board to: See comprehensive voter register as inevitable, which they noted is the most fundamental element grounding any democratic election. In fact, Jega should not try to update whatever register he inherited but start a fresh effort. The said group also canvassed the need to adopt biometric data capturing techniques, as part of arriving at a usable and authentic voter register for the 2011 and subsequent elections. This way, the issue of fictitious voter register where dead men and foreign names like Pa Ajasin, Tyson, Michael Jackson,Mohammed Ali and the like, are bonafide voters, would be valid to rest.
What obtains in Nigeria is so shameful and unacceptable. Imagine declaring somebody winner of an election conducted with such fraudulent register. The Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg, South Africa, Desmond Tutu, once said voting is so ecstatic and brings the feeling akin to falling in love. But he was referring to voting in South Africa where votes count. Jega must imitate and emulate such countries where votes and decency count.
One regrets to observe that, indeed, under Iwu there was neither voting nor counting in the real sense of it. Jega cannot afford to toe the same line and wreak further havoc on the already battered electoral system. He should consider seriously bringing in Option A4, which was based of course on OpenSecret Ballot System. Under this, voting is secretly done by the voter but in the full view of other voters. After voting, votes are counted and declared at every polling booth and signed and distributed to party officials.
INEC is also known to aid and abet disenfranchisement of voters by delaying distributions of electoral materials to some areas and sometimes denying some places materials outright. To take care of this, the TNM recommended TIME LINE strictly being put on commencement and ending of voting (again as obtain in Option A4), which once violated should render votes cast in the affected areas null.
The group had also wondered why INEC does not have Election Offences Prosecution Unit to liaise with law enforcement agencies to bring election offenders to book. (You know INEC always claims it is not their duty to prosecute, yet in all criminal matters such as that of election, the state needs key witnesses in courts. This role is statutorily that of INEC and has never been played). The new INEC board needs to take up the issue of prosecution by pushing to logical conclusion prosecution and jailing of electoral offender.
With integrity and courage on the part of Jega and his board, free and fair election is possible in Nigeria if it is possible in Ghana. In fact, Humphrey Nwosu achieved it even under the military and gave the nation June 12 presidential election as a watershed even though the gap-toothed general took pleasure in annulling.
To achieve this, Jega does not have to dwell in irrelevancies and inconsequentialities such as the malfeasances of politicians, which is expected, but focus on the fine details to beat them (the politicians) in their own game and consequently make every vote cast to count – and deliver a free and fair election.
Again part of the TNM recommendations, the new board should steer clear of the so-called ad-hoc staff . INEC under Iwu relied on faceless, jobless Nigerians for the job of polling agents and even that of retuning officers. This is unthinkable but it happened. TNM believes that primary and secondary school teachers in the county are enough manpower for polling agents. Whatever balance there is could also be sourced from the NYSC scheme.
The logic of using these categories of people is that none of them would easily risk their regular jobs for an unsubstantial bribe. And the substantial bribe to go round can also be so incalculable as to making it not worth it.
To write his name is history he has to implement most of such recommendations and more importantly, make a desperate attempt to step out of Iwu’s shadows. Jega fought IBB regime as ASUU president. It is a pedigree he is essentially bringing to his new assignment. But he has to realize that this is a different ballgame. After all, Iwu was once a radical and pro-masses but all that became history the moment he mounted the INEC saddle.
Jega is in but faced with a crossroad. The path he chooses will make all the difference. To choose right, he has to put on his thinking cap on how he can say executive arm be damned and still smile.
• Law Mefor, Author, Journalist, is Executive Director Center for Leadership and Social Research, Abuja.