President Goodluck Jonathan has promised Nigerians free, fair and credible general elections by next year. I believe he means business. Furthermore, he has appointed as the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Prof. Attahiru Jega, a man associated with activism and integrity. Among the newly appointed Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs), there appears to be some persons who may also be branded activists. Can Jega and his team repeat Prof. Humphrey Nwosu’s feat and thereby assist Mr. President to deliver on his promise?
For some reasons, I do not envy Prof. Jega and the RECs who share his traits of activism and integrity. Owing to their antecedents, Nigerians expect a lot from them. The litmus test for any social critic is not how unrelenting his criticisms are but how he practises his precepts when given the opportunity of public service. No doubt, much difference exists between the ideal world of the critic and the real world of the target of criticism. History informed us of Plato’s failure to find his theorized “philosopher-king” when given the chance on the Island of Syracuse. A day before the first set of new RECs were sworn in by Mr. President, I met one of them, an activist, in Maitama Abuja and told him so.
Some previous Nigerian rulers were fond of giving political appointments to critics and activists. In most cases, such appointments were not informed by any genuine desire to tap from their knowledge or wisdom but to subject them to tight and compromising positions which disabled them from practising their preaching. Eventually, some of them were disgraced and rubbished in the eyes of the public. We all know what happened to Drs. Tai Solarin, Olu Onagoruwa and Stanley Macebuh who had stints as political appointees. Only a few of them, if any, left their political appointments unscathed. There are indications that President Jonathan is of a distinct streak and genuinely needs patriotic Nigerians who will join him to turn things around for good.
On the other hand, there are many self-acclaimed critics and activists who indulge in criticism and activism for the sake of gaining cheap popularity and attention. While doing this, they angle themselves for possible notice and eventual appointments by the rulers. One Nigerian lawyer from the South-South once confessed to a friend of mine that this solely informed his venture into human rights activism! Really, many of these people have reaped bountifully from this practice. Some fair-weather critics, like Uba Sani and Femi Fani-Kayode, upon securing political appointments, turn around to take on their former “comrades” and brand them enemies of the state.
Again, I do not envy the INEC leadership owing to its obligation to conduct free, fair and credible general elections in 2011 within a very short time. This task is very Herculean mindful of what it entails to prepare and do so in Nigeria. And the adoption of our usual fire-brigade approach towards this will surely be counter-productive. Prof. Jega and his team have a lot of challenges they must overcome in order to conduct free, fair and credible elections by next year. One of such is the need to clean the Augean stable left behind by Prof. Maurice Iwu.
As things stand now, the first step towards having a credible election is for INEC to discard the Voters Register prepared by Prof. Iwu. No matter the cost of producing a new Voters Register, it is all-important for INEC to give Nigerians a new one. We cannot have a credible election with a Voters Register that is replete with the names of dead Nigerians, foreigners and non-existent persons. To get a reliable new Voters Register incorporating all eligible Nigerian voters will take INEC quite some time. Enough time must be given for Nigerians to cross-check their names, correct cases of wrong entries and non-entries of names, etc in the Voters Register.
It seems necessary for INEC to stagger the entire 2011 general elections, guided by Nigeria’s geo-political zones. Hitherto, the electoral body’s failure to conduct credible elections has been blamed partly on the vast size of the country. Many Nigerians attribute the success of the recent Anambra governorship election in part to the fact that only one state was involved. Thus, staggered elections may be another step towards ensuring credible general elections in 2011.
There are provisions in the 1999 Constitution and Electoral Act 2006 which specify the time frame between elections and handover dates, the length of notice INEC is required to give prior to elections, etc. The National Assembly claims to have reduced these time frames via the on-going amendment of the 1999 Constitution and Electoral Act 2006. As this process of amendment is still on-going, the amended provisions are yet inapplicable. Instead, the laws now in force and regulating INEC and the electoral process are the relevant provisions of the extant 1999 Constitution and Electoral Act 2006. This poses a big challenge to INEC regarding time.
As I commenced writing this piece, I heard over AIT Television that a forum has advocated for the postponement of next year’s general elections to April 2011. Regardless of what persons opposed to this view may say I subscribe to the idea of postponing the elections. If we go ahead to conduct the elections as scheduled, I doubt if they would be credible. The foundations for credible 2011 elections cannot be firmly laid between now and January 2011. Prof. Jega has confessed that the time available to INEC to do a good job is rather inadequate, but the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, has a different view. I agree with Jega because “he who wears the shoe knows where it pinches”.
I sympathize with the new INEC leadership because there exist within INEC and throughout Nigeria persons who are irrevocably and unrepentantly sworn to electoral malpractices. This is a monstrous challenge to President Jonathan, Prof. Jega and well-meaning Nigerians who earnestly desire a breath of fresh electoral air. It is perhaps the greatest amongst all the hurdles to credible elections in the country. The average Nigerian politician openly and noisily theorizes on and canvasses for free and fair elections while secretly espousing and practising electoral malpractices. Unfortunately, there are many Nigerians with similar mentality in the employ of INEC who will always connive with such politicians. These two groups of Nigerians will do everything to frustrate Jega and his team, and they stand to gain from any hurriedly conducted election. INEC leadership needs time to plan, in order to take the wind out of the sails of the exponents of electoral malpractices.
Let me ask this question: is the May 29 handover date sacrosanct and immutable? Humbly speaking, I do not think so. In 1999, General Abdulsalam Abubakar altered the political calendar of Nigeria when he gave us a new handover date of May 29 – the so-called Democracy Day. He probably did so in good faith, out of a commitment to his undertaking made upon assumption of office, after Abacha’s death, not to exceed one year in office as Head of State before handing over to civilians. Amidst the euphoria to see the back of the khaki boys, Nigerians were not bothered about the new handover date. But for that singular decision, we would still have our conventional, historical handover date of 1st October.
I understand the government’s indisposition to postponing the election and handover dates. Such an action will surely be misinterpreted by some persons. However, in my humble view, their postponement appears necessary if we must have credible, free and fair elections next year. Thus, I suggest we defer the election and handover dates to April and 1st October 2011, respectively. It is better to do so and have credible polls than have railroaded elections that are fraught with recurring irregularities. Moreover, the period between April and October 2011 may afford r
easonable time for Elections Petition Tribunals to dispose of petitions arising from the elections.