Nigerians seem to be in constant search for public heroes – competent little messiahs who will not hesitate to put their conscience above their life or subordinate self to the common good despite temptations and inconveniences of doing so. Our constant search for heroes could itself be a subconscious rejection of our present crop of leaders and their desiderata for our predicaments. Whether this search is predicated on forlorn hope or merely an apologia for our inertia is another thing. What seems a constant in our recent history however is that virtually every publicly anointed messiah had turned out an ordinary mortal lacking any form of Midas touch. Our hopes have consequently always been betrayed.
Will Professor Attahiru Jega turn out to be any different? Is the problem with our choice of anointed heroes or with our expectations?
Since his nomination to replace Professor Maurice Iwu as chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), most commentators have eulogised the choice, saying it was an indication that President Jonathan truly wants to give the country a credible election as he promised. Professor Jega’s appointment and the commentaries that followed raise a number of important issues:
One, those placing their faith on Professor Jega as the new ‘Messiah’ point to his ‘intimidating academic credentials’, and his activist record as President of ASUU in the 1990s. The problem however is that ‘intimidating academic credentials’ have never been sufficient to a hero make out of any of our past electoral umpires. It could in fact be argued that all the previous chairmen of INEC and its precursors – starting from Eyo Esua (1960-1966) to Maurice Iwu (2005-2010) had paraded ‘intimidating academic credentials’. Yet the elections they conducted were mired in controversies. True, Jega is a professor of political science. But so too were Eme Awa (1987-1989) and Humphrey Nwosu (1989-1993).
Similarly having a respected activist background has never been a guarantee of success in policy-making roles. Professor Iwu, who by a common agreement was a failure in the post, was also an activist: he was reportedly the secretary of ASUU at UNN and at one point the body’s national Vice Chairman. In fact two of the most successful labour leaders in the last 50 years – Frank Chiluba of Zambia and Lech Walesa of Poland- were unable to replicate their successes as labour leaders when they became the president of their countries.
The above is not to take anything away from the impressive personal credentials of Professor Jega but to draw attention to the fact that his professional accomplishments and personal attributes have to interact with a number of environmental variables to determine whether he will make a success of his job or not.
Two, some dissenters to the eulogies that followed Jega’s nomination point out that he had a chummy relationship with Professor Maurice Iwu, the umpire that many Nigerians love to hate. It was for instance alleged that when Jega was President of ASUU, Iwu was his deputy and that when Iwu became INEC chairman; Jega became a consultant to the electoral body. The alleged chummy relationship, even if true, is however insufficient to tell us how Jega would perform as INEC chairman, as Iwu would have contested and won the post of ASUU Vice Chairman in his own right, not as a joint ticket with Jega. Also implying that Jega did wrong by accepting a consultancy position from Iwu would be stretching logic to its elastic limit – unless of course it can be proved he was not qualified for any job he did, or that his appointment did not follow due process or that he was paid more than his peers doing similar jobs. Similarly implying he was complicit in the failings of INEC because he was an external consultant to the body is to turn reason on its head. Since when have external consultants started taking blames for the failures or successes of organisations they consult for? How many external consultants are blamed or praised for the failings or successes of government agencies and even international bodies like UN, World Bank and the IMF?
What is often left out in the commentaries that followed Jega’s appointment is the impact of system dynamics – the ability of a system to change someone, not just for the worse, but also sometimes for the better. We have seen otherwise good men with the best intention who became negatively transformed by the system just as we have also seen dodgy characters who got radicalised by the system. A good example of the latter is Dr Chris Ngige when he was Governor of Anambra state.
Three, commentators have also criticised the nomination of Jega for not following the recommendations of the Uwais Report on electoral reform, especially on the removal of the power to appoint INEC chairman from the President. I believe the tendency to see the recommendations of the Uwais panel as the magic elixir that will fix the problems with our elections is exaggerated. For instance while removing the power to appoint the chairman of INEC from the president could make a difference in countries where the institutions are strong, it is not certain it will have the same effect in our type of societies. Can an independently appointed INEC chairman really disobey a strong-willed President in the mould of Obasanjo who got his way with even non-PDP governors despite not appointing them (at least in theory)? Besides, how does the removal of the power of the President to appoint the chairman cushion the umpire from other sources of pressure such as politicians, traditional rulers and one’s ethnic or religious groups?
Four, Jega is unlikely to ‘succeed’ – if by this we mean conducting an election that will be acceptable to the generality of Nigerians – for the simple fact that the odds are stacked against him. In an environment of excruciating poverty and where political office is the quickest avenue for material accumulation, the quest for political offices is understandably anarchical, a do-or-die affair. Unfortunately as INEC chairman, Jega’s remit will be to conduct elections, not to fight illiteracy, poverty or change the attractiveness of political offices that are partly responsible for elections’ endemically contentious nature. Also does Jega have the remit to deal with some of the deliberate chaos unleashed by politicians to maximise the chances of their purveyors being ‘settled’? Does Jega have enough time to fix the sham that is the current voters’ register?
Five, there is an erroneous belief that if we fix elections, then the ‘dividends of democracy’ will be felt in our pockets. The truth is that the link between democracy and economic progress is at best controversial. It is for instance thought that ‘enlightened autocracies’ are better able to marshal the resources necessary to promote economic development than are democracies, and that certain levels of economic development and literacy are necessary for democracy to take hold and flourish in a country. This should of course not be misconstrued as an argument for ‘enlightened autocracy’ because despite the propensity of democracy in our type of society to unleash fissiparous tendencies, it offers the best hope of long-run material well being predicated on individual freedom. As Albert Einstein would say: “Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labour in freedom.”