By NBF News

It might be too soon to pronounce either a favourable or unfavourable verdict on the overall performance of INEC as the impartial umpire of Nigeria's most complex elections ever. The true test of the process, as an expression of grassroots political sentiment, is still to come. The elections of members of state Houses of Assembly and state Governors will take place at the end of this week. These should have come before the Federal polls if the process was chronologically scheduled. The National Assembly deliberately reversed the order of elections to suit its members purposes when they amended the Electoral Act. This is an example of how legitimacy can unseat natural justice. There is nothing that the public can do to change it. No political institution has the power to force a public referendum on the issue. In spite of this it cannot be denied that Professor Attahiru Jega has overseen an unprecedentedly transparent and refreshingly credible process.

The ongoing development of the methodology of electioneering illustrated by the conduct of both of the exercises that have taken place so far suggests that Prof. Jega's INEC will end the journey on a high note. The forthcoming polls will arguably be the most challenging in the series. The number of candidates to be elected is far more than that of the previous polls. The issues and sentiments that are deployed in state elections are often volatile because they are locally focused. For these and other reasons INEC will have to exercise increased vigilance over the process and undertake much more collaboration with local participants in the conduct of its duties. This will test the durability and relevance of the process to its limit and it is only when the exercise has been concluded that the full impact of the Jega-led transformation of the electoral process in Nigeria can be adequately judged.

Nonetheless the conduct of last week's Presidential election must be commended for its impeccable adherence to the formal processes of competition. These processes have resulted in an incontrovertible triumph for Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. Only those who are driven by personal disappointment over the failure of their candidates would argue that the outcome does not represent the true shape of the electoral will of the nation. The challengers themselves must be aware of the veracity of the final result. The refusal of Gen. Buhari to concede defeat as soon as it was clear what the voting trend was does no justice to his claims of integrity and fairness. His search for evidence to justify his claim of endemic irregularities cannot be justified.

It is hardly likely that the exercise could have gone off quite as smoothly as it did, in spite of pockets of violence and some reports of attempts to violate the regulations, if widespread rigging had been attempted. Prof. Jega's use of the NYSC members as the core of the INEC team on the ground was innovative and credible. His deployment of highly respected neutral academics as the bulk of the chairmen of collating teams was commendable. If Prof. Jega's methods were influenced by any of Dr. Jonathan's wishes it seems to have been the President's consistent call for a free and fair contest. In the process of delivering the results Prof. Jega's assertion that as the returning officer he should be seen to be impartial to a fault caused reporting of the results to become boring. The TV screens were filled with silence as he calculated results in full public view even though they had been reported accurately in the print media several hours earlier.

In spite of the tedium when the official result was eventually declared it clearly represented the general expectations of most Nigerians and this has set the bar for future exercises. It is not INEC's duty to either pronounce guidelines for political alliances or to encourage political consensus. It is its central task however to ensure that the atmosphere exists within which the true political wishes of the majority of the public can be expressed through the ballot. In some areas of Nigeria during these recent contests it has become obvious that the non-partisan impulses of the electorate are on the ascendancy. In certain states while the PDP has been rejected thoroughly at the National Assembly polls the support for the party's candidate Dr. Jonathan in the presidential election was equally strong.

This suggests that when the Jonathan Presidency is eventually consolidated, following state elections and the inauguration of his new term in office, the impulse towards reconciliation of public views will be of paramount importance in setting the tone of the political future. INEC should work diligently to study how its machinery performed in these polls in order to create a process that will overcome and prevent violations of public contest in the future.  However, as the aftermath of the Presidential polls is already indicating, the most important factor for survival of the democratic process might not be INEC's conduct of the elections but rather the conduct of the electorate. The governing authorities need to be ready to anticipate and contain public disenchantment manifested by those who have lost. This is an equally important factor that must be taken into consideration in the management of Nigeria's democratic space in the future since it is clear that there is a fundamental regional political divide in the nation.

It is not INEC's duty to prevent the devastation that this division in the polity can cause, but it is certainly its responsibility to recognise it and advise the government on the likely consequences of its presence. The tensions that can create both positive movement and negative stasis in Nigeria's polity will always be emphasised at periods of electoral contest. Since INEC is the impartial umpire of these contests it must be able to interpret public impulses as elements of its own activity. Prof. Jega's clear desire to be regarded as an impartial technocrat carrying out his electoral tasks was underlined by his actions after he made the official declaration. The first official to be given the signed results sheet was the representative of the Inspector General of Police.

Collaboration between the security agencies and INEC was widely reported to be benevolent and largely devoid of the usual display of impunity and authoritarian brutality that Nigeria's security forces have been accused of in the past. This was one of the most positive developments noted in the conduct of the electoral process and as the journey forward continues with the state elections this weekend many Nigerians are cautiously trusting INEC's stewardship of the process. INEC could be asked to take a stronger role in the conduct of even Local Government elections in the future if the Nigerian public's assessment of Prof. Jega's conduct of the entire process of this electoral journey is a positive one. This will be of significant political consequence.

The journey so far has been a hopeful one but Goodluck's triumph is only a stop along the way. The true destination of stability and progress can only be reached if the state elections prove acceptable to the grassroots populace. If this helps to douse the violence perpetuated by disenchanted sections of the local populace in those areas where Goodluck's victory has been rejected Prof. Jega's journey will have come to a happy end.