INEC: Shame on the opposition
One of the earliest lessons I learned from my father, Ilogebe Ogbonnia, the Ikeoha, is that a habit of excuses is an existential catalyst for failure. Nowhere is this adage more evident than the attitude of Nigerian opposition parties toward the Independent National Election Commission (INEC). Perhaps it is no longer news that the INEC has been the common excuse for failures in the different elections in the Fourth Republic. But with the 2015 general elections around the corner, and even in midst of efforts in the National Assembly to amend electoral laws, recent events show that the opposition is already positioning a fore excuse for another failure.
This problem is rooted on the long-standing scape-goating of the different chairmen of the Nigerian electoral body and its officials. Even though such excuse is genuine, it masks an inner foolishness for the opposition not to have recognized that expecting a commission fully controlled by a partisan executive arm of the government to produce free and fair elections is no different from perceiving a stench as an aroma.
The case of Maurice Iwu, the chairman of Independent National Election Commission (INEC) in the controversial elections of 2007 is still fresh in our memory. In the eyes of the opposition, Professor Maurice Iwu was the problem and the problem was Professor Iwu. President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan obliged and swiftly replaced Iwu with Attahiru Jega, another radical professor, then generally hailed as the Election Messiah. Yet, after 2011 elections, we are back to square one. According to Muhammadu Buhari of CPC, the main opponent of President Jonathan in the 2011 elections,
What happened in this year's elections eclipsed all the other elections in the depth and scope of forgery and rigging. Initially there were high hopes that after 2003 and 2007 a semblance of electoral propriety would be witnessed. The new chairman of INEC, Professor Jega, was touted as competent and a man of integrity. He has proved neither. (As quoted in Vanguard Newspaper, December 28, 2011)
For the national chairman of the then frontline opposition party, Action Congress of Nigeria, Bisi Akande:
The intention of the INEC was to have it right, but what you see is total manipulation particularly by the security agencies and the lower level of INEC staff because the PDP induced people with plenty of money. They managed to use money to manipulate the INEC officials at the lower level of the commission and they used them to intimidate and to falsify the results of the election. (As quoted inDaily Sun, April 15, 2011)
To cap it all, after the 2014 Anambra governorship election, widely seen as the pretest of Nigeria's general elections of 2015, the opposition (including PDP in this case) also accused the INEC of colluding with security agents to rig the elections in favor of the state ruling APGA. The PDP candidate, Tony Nwonye, had this to say:
Since the history of elections, I have always known of a conspiracy by incumbents, but this one by Peter Obi is monumental. I have never seen an election where the security agent and the INEC collude to subdue other political parties. (As quoted in Daily Post, November 17, 2013)
This sweeping rebuke of INEC by the political elites is a rude awakening. The inmost gist is that the problem has gone nowhere despite the replacement of a distinguished professor with another. It apparently explains why a broad spectrum of observers has continued to ridicule the degree of the mass ignorance. A maverick senator, Arthur Nzeribe, jumpstarted the debate by arguing that the serial attempts to focus solely on the perceived individual abilities of the chairman rather than the nucleus of the problem was height of hypocrisy (This Day, January 26, 2009). An unbiased umpire, the Rev. Fr. Mathew Kukah followed by cautioning that the mere replacement of Maurice Iwu, the individual, would not always guarantee free and fair elections in the future-noting that, "the very fact that we say we are looking for a person of integrity does not mean that anybody that gets there would not become a crook" (As quoted in Sunday Guardian, March 29, 2009). And Professor Okon Uya, a former chairman of National Electoral Commission, would later place the matter exactly how and where it belongs: There is no gainsaying that a leader with deep sense of independence and fairness is desirable for the headship of the electoral commission, but the success of any election is far beyond the ability of a single individual (Daily Sun, February 28, 2011).
Unless it is enmeshed in sheer amnesia, these incisive viewpoints were sufficient to have provoked the opposition to think otherwise. After all, virtually all heads of Nigeria's electoral commission in history have been men with outstanding pedigrees before appointment. That is, even if the president is to appoint a given chairman that is most credible, who checkmates him or her to ensure that the real goals and objectives of the electoral commission are being fulfilled? Other than the national chairman, who are the other electoral officers at the national and zonal levels, in the states, local governments, wards, and in the polling booths? How credible, how efficient, and how independent are these electoral officers? Who are the contractors and other personnel vested with the responsibility of providing the logistics for the elections? How independent and neutral are the security agents and Judiciary in the process of these Nigerian elections? A review of the last Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) suggests that some of these questions might have been hovering in the minds of its members when they recommended among other things the following: a) the National Judicial Council should appoint the chairman b) the commission should include members of independent organizations, such as the Labor Union or the News-Media. While those considerations have their merits, the question remains: who are these individuals that would work hand in hand with the chairman-agents of the ruling party or the opposition? How will the so-called National Judicial Council be different from judges or other electoral agents who are always manipulated by the party in power? How many truly independent members of the Labor Union or the News-Media are there to recruit? How many independent NLC or pressmen are available and can abandon their jobs to man the over 120,000 polling booths? It is true that INEC eventually recruited members of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) as Ad-hoc staff in the 2011 elections, but how can such susceptible inexperienced staff (usually in their mid-twenties) not be easily intimidated and influenced by powerful party agents and money bags at the polling booths as were alleged in the pilot exercise of 2011? Another scheme used in the 2011 elections was the deployment of highly placed university professors as Resident Electoral Commissioners. But does the opposition expect these university dons to be so different from most failed politicians, who had also distinguished themselves in previous careers before turning to politics? How do they expect that the university recruits would not be wholly subservient to the ruling parties at the states where their universities are located?
Any honest answer to any of these endless questions will reveal that while the INEC and its various personnel might have role to play in the different electoral malpractices, it smacks of crass ignorance on part of the opposition to act as if one needs to be told that the outcomes of most national elections (particularly 2003, 2007, and 2011 polls) were fait accompli-far determined even before the electoral officials began their job. A former Chief Justice of Nigeria and the chairman of the 2008 Electoral Reform Committee (ERC), Mohammed Uwais had alluded to this irony when he remarked that the hoopla about free and fair elections without creating the enabling conditions was pure baloney (Nigerian Guardian, December 1, 2010). Common sense dictates that the emphasis ought to have been on creating a truly independent electoral commission before discussing elections. Yet, the opposition did nothing and still doing nothing serious toward producing a reliable electoral body.
To improve the system, particularly with the current debate on electoral reform in the legislature, the opposition parties should without further delay compel President Goodluck Jonathan to truly support changes to the electoral commission in two important ways:
First is to create a commission composed representatives from the ruling party and the opposition. A structure with members drawn from the ruling parties and representatives of truly qualified opposition parties at the different levels of government will strengthen the needed checks and balances within the commission itself. It has the potential to facilitate the enabling environment for effective leadership of the commission, ensure and sustain true independence throughout the width and breadth of the commission, and guarantee fairness to the parties involved. To abridge the inherent partisanship, the proposed structure can be augmented with a select few drawn from the civil society: the Nigerian Labor Congress, NYSC, Judiciary; and the security agents. In simple terms, the qualified political parties themselves should submit members with clear party affiliations to the new council. The central idea is that the different phases of the election from top leadership to other areas, including but not limited to handling and distribution of election materials, accreditation, supervision, voting, collation, tabulations and declarations (or cancellations) of results-from the national level to polling stations-must be guarded and managed by an election team with full view and representation of members of qualified parties. This approach can forestall the likelihood of situations where, in absence of opposition party agents, the INEC and its leadership connive with the ruling or favored party to manipulate electoral outcomes. The proposal parallels the position of the main opposition party in the 2007 election, the All Nigeria's Peoples Party (ANPP), where it's National Publicity Secretary, Emmanuel Enenkwu, canvassed for members of the different political parties to be included in the leadership of INEC (Champion Newspaper, August 24, 2007). The objective fact here is that true independence or neutrality is far beyond the mere appointment of a national chairman; it is more attainable in an environment that deters or checkmates the group or individual from acting otherwise. Also important, the council members or the observers of elections in the different poll stations should be recruited from the immediate communities where their antecedents are better-known.
Second, given that most individual elections in Nigeria are already being financed through looted funds from government treasury; similar to the McCain-Feingold in the United States of America, without the choice for individual contributions, Nigeria should adopt full public funding for inter-party elections. Thank God that this proposal will not be burdened by the number of parties as once imagined. The opposition is now gradually evolving to the desired two-party structure after finally realizing that multiplicity of parties was a pyrrhic victory in the first place. Even more, in absence of a two-party structure, to frustrate political merchants who would like to capitalize on the loopholes of the government funding, more stringent conditions should be set for registration as well as participation of parties in elections.
Alternatively or simultaneously, the opposition should ensure that that the proposed Cashless Policy is fully implemented and INEC strengthened to enforce extant laws on campaign finance. For instance, despite the fact that the 1999 Constitution and the Electoral Acts of 2002, 2006, and 2010 stipulated specific guidelines for campaign finance and attendant penalties, neither Presidents Goodluck Jonathan, Umaru Yar'Adua, nor President Olusegun Obasanjo before them could account for the tens of billions of naira sunk into their respective political campaigns.
Of course, there has been some musings here and there on the issue of excessive use of money and its source, with aggrieved parties occasionally hollering, but none of the political parties or individuals has registered any solid official complaint-either because of their own culpability or the simple truth that INEC is not designed to implement the relevant campaign lawsab initio. Not even the Nigeria's promising news media, known for free and sensational journalism, could charge their searchlights when it comes to campaign finance. No one was or is authoritatively asking: How did President Goodluck Jonathan and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar source the funds to openly 'settle' the delegates who voted for them in the epic 2011 PDP presidential primary election? What is the source of money Jonathan used to prosecute his cross-country campaign while his opponents were stalled to their regional enclaves? Conversely, how in the world did an ex-police commissioner, Nuhu Ribadu, suddenly land the money to offset his campaign bills? Just wait
To make matters worse, the very commission entrusted with monitoring electoral finance is notoriously nonchalant with this important responsibility. In fact, the current Chairman of INEC, Attahiru Jega, had to confess that even though the Electoral Act empowers it to monitor sources and nature of funding, the 'INEC does not even have a desk that handles campaign financing' (As quoted in Vanguard Newspaper, May 8, 2011). While this utter negligence was enough to have provoked a guided mass action, the Nigerian opposition seems to have coolly joined the chorus. The following proclamation by Nuhu Ribadu, the presidential candidate of Action Congress of Nigeria, and a former corruption czar, is an exclamation point: 'I won't bother myself with the integrity of politicians that will fund my campaign. I will take corrupt politician's money for my campaign as far as the money is not put in my pocket' (As quoted in Vanguard Newspaper, March 20, 2011). The most annoying aspect is that some of Ribadu's major donors were ex-governors who were indicted for looting state treasury under the watchful eyes of the same Ribadu. Besides, the very thought of the opposition competing to outdo a ruling party with looted funds is not only height of hypocrisy but also of infamy.
The opposition apologists are expected to roar back here with another excuse. They will cling on the reigning Nigerian political value system which readily insinuates that the opposition leaders have to find any means necessary to gain power first before demonstrating the perceived sense of prudence. But such thinking ought to be quashed once and for all: A simple scan of history in the Fourth Republic profoundly reveals that the success of the opposition in different elections across the country has never been because of superior financial power over ruling parties. This should in no way be misconstrued as saying that money has no role to play. None of that! In fact, money is as important to politics as water is to fish, but there are better ways of raising money than queuing at the domains of rogue politicians. And make no mistake about this: The Nigerian masses may be down but they are definitely not out. We have not yet forgotten that corrupt military brigade that funded President Olusegun Obasanjo's elections enjoyed immunity while he was in power. The masses still remember that President Umaru Yar'Adua's disinclination to investigate clear cases of corruption by his predecessor and some ex-governors is attributed to the source of funds used in ushering him (Yar'Adua) to power. Ditto President Goodluck Jonathan. But given that opposition leaders also accept looted funds from government treasury, how and why should the masses then view them as credible alternatives? The answer is that the whole world is tired of what is going on. We are very tired and afraid that the power struggles is to replace existing leaders with others whose visions would not be different from those of their predecessors.
Perhaps the opposition could drop one final mundane excuse: President Jonathan would not yield to pragmatic changes to INEC. Although recent events may prove otherwise, but should the president dare toe that path, the opposition should courageously boycott the 2015 elections, and the masses will and should follow. This approach is so potent because, apart from the fact that Jonathan would not like to end as an Abacha monocrat; continuing to engage in elections with predetermined results is a mindless waste of national resources. Further, unless you have not been following, Goodluck Jonathan is very accommodating-probably the kindest president ever. He is kind to the good-and probably kinder to the bad. But while the latter have already capitalized to accomplish their sole objective of milking the country dry, and without qualms; the former (particularly the opposition) is caught moping-continuing to fail to take advantage of the unique kindness to provide a viable alternative to the masses.
Very daringly, his humble look notwithstanding, President Goodluck Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan is no man's fool. This man who went to school without shoes knows very well that even as he truly means well for the ordinary people, and should; the leadership crisis is tipping the critical threshold for revolution, and the political logic of resisting change no longer favors him. Jonathan can remember vividly that blind leadership made it possible for mere clandestine organizations to dethrone the military power. The man can also recall that stern opposition with unity of purpose rubbished Obasanjo's third term ambition as well as his legacy. More poignantly, the president is quite aware that any effort in Nigeria similar to Arab Spring will not only doom him for life but will also gain worldwide support. Thusly, the brother is wise enough to grasp that a change through civil opposition is by far a safer alternative. The problem is the failure of the opposition to read the mood of both the president and the people they are hoping to lead. This problem is squarely a lack of a dynamic opposition party-one that is visionary, focused, capable of differentiating itself from the ruling party, capable of providing the desired checks and balances toward effective national leadership; and ready, willing, and able to replace the party in power.