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OBIJIOFOR: JEGA: A SIGN OF WHAT IS TO COME?

By NBF News
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THE ongoing voters' registration across the country has turned into a nightmare of sorts for everyone. In the first few days of the registration, everything that ought not to go wrong has done so, practically. Officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) reported late to the registration centres. In some instances, voters who stood in the sun for hours waiting vainly for INEC officials did not know whether they were at the right registration centre. INEC officials and some National Youth Service Corps members who were deployed to assist in the registration of voters arrived with little or no idea about how they should proceed. In some centres, INEC officials arrived with no registration material. To cap the absurdity of voters' experiences, even the direct data capture (DDC) machines, touted as the ultimate solution to registration fraud, developed major faults and an attitude of their own.

To the astonishment of everyone, the DDC machines developed an attitude of their own. The machines decided arbitrarily what calibre of voters should be registered and the category of voters to be ignored. So far, the DDC machines have proved to be intractable. Former president Olusegun Obasanjo was peeved by the failure of the machines to recognise his fingerprints and his status. Senate president David Mark suffered a similar fate. In general, across the country voters went away with tales of sad experiences.

Efficient registration of voters will showcase INEC's ability to conduct hassle-free elections in Nigeria. Results trickling in from many centres show that INEC has failed voters in this first assignment. If the registration of voters succeeds largely without major hitches, INEC boss Attahiru Jega would have lived up to his reputation as a forthright man committed to the success of the general elections. However, if the registration of voters turns out to be one big disaster, Jega's rating in the court of public opinion is likely to drop sharply. Nigerians do not forgive easily public officials who fumble a major national assignment.

Jega has no reason to fail. Ever since his appointment as the chairperson of INEC last year, the organisation has received immense goodwill from the public and the government, in spite of the appalling image that was bequeathed to INEC by Maurice Iwu, the despised former electoral chief whose tenure was marked by baffling election results that were mostly overturned by the courts and the election petition tribunals. Under Jega's leadership, INEC has received inestimable financial and human resources. It is now payback time. Everyone expects INEC to live up to public expectations. Unfortunately, the clumsy performance by INEC officials in the first week of the voter registration has left many people wondering whether Jega and his much publicised larger-than-life capacity to conduct free and fair elections were not overstated.

Not many people across the country can stand up and claim that INEC has performed superbly in the way it conducted voter registration across the country in the past one week.  Perhaps we expected too much from Jega and his assistants. Perhaps we have no valid grounds on which our hopes should be anchored. No matter how poorly or impressively he performs in the coming days and weeks, Jega's achievements should be measured on the platform of the long-standing notion that individuals and organisations to whom much is given must also acquit themselves honourably. If Jega fails in this preliminary assignment, we should probably lower our expectations about INEC's ability to conduct free and fair elections in 2011.    It is perhaps fair to say that, across the nation, voter registration kicked off last Saturday amid rancour and animosity over the extension of school holidays. Four days to the commencement of that assignment, primary and secondary schools in the private and public sectors were directed by the Federal Ministry of Education to extend their holidays by four weeks in order to enable INEC to use the premises of the schools and their facilities for voter registration. The directive was issued unexpectedly.

The insensitive nature of the order from the Federal Ministry of Education struck at the heart of quality education. The decision showed little regard for the continuity of primary and secondary education. No one in INEC and the Federal Ministry of Education seemed to care about the impact of extended school holidays on the academic calendar, as well as its consequences on the quality of education.

INEC and the Federal Ministry of Education should have engaged stakeholders in primary and secondary education in order to explore and map out alternative venues for voter registration. Consultation between the Federal Ministry of Education and school administrators could have provided opportunities for the government to understand how the extension of school holidays would impact adversely on schools, students, parents and the school calendar.

Decisions about extension of school holidays should not be taken thoughtlessly because the consequences extend beyond parents and students. For example, private and public schools are administered and managed differently. The Federal Ministry of Education ought to have reflected and recognised fundamental differences in the manner that private and public schools are managed. Private schools are administered first and foremost as private enterprises. Their modus operandi differs from the fundamental objectives that determine how public schools operate. This is why the decision by the ministry to keep private and public schools closed when they ought to be in session is inappropriate.

The idea that voter registration could not take place successfully without the use of primary and secondary school premises is not only asinine but also illogical. The conversion of primary and secondary school premises into voter registration centres does not guarantee that the registration of voters will be successful. Even if INEC was bent on the use of school premises for voter registration, that could still be done but strictly during official school holidays and on weekends.

Following sustained protests by private school owners, public school administrators and stakeholders, as well as teachers' unions, INEC and the Federal Ministry of Education were compelled to explain the decision to extend school holidays. Jega said the decision to extend school holidays was informed by concern over the security of students. According to him: '… if there are such massive movements of people into the school environment during the registration, many people will be coming into the school environment and that can cause a security risk for our pupils… Obviously, in each school where these activities are going to take place, there is possible disruption of school activities, because thousands of people will be going into these schools to be registered and we felt that it is important that in order to avoid these disruptions, it is better that the schools are closed down during the period.'

Jega tried but failed to explain convincingly why the government made an impetuous decision to extend school holidays only a few days to the commencement of a new school term. He said: 'People are asking why is it that it is now that we are making the request. It became very clear against our initial thought that… the way people are responding, we need to take extra measures in order to secure the students and in order to also ensure that there is no breach in terms of security of our men and equipment as we conduct the registration.' Jega's justifications for the extension of school holidays, as well as his rationalisation of the sudden announcement were lousy, unimpressive and showed total disregard for the impact the extended holidays would have on all stakeholders.

In his poor defence of the closure of schools, Jega carefully avoided any explanations as to why INEC did not consider alternative venues for voter registration or why the exercise could not take place during the normal school holidays. The decision to extend school holidays so that school premises could be used for voter registration was flawed on two fronts. The decision was taken in an ad hoc manner, without sufficient prior notice given to parents, teachers and school administrators. Second, the hasty nature of the decision meant there was little or no regard for how the use of school premises would severely disrupt teaching and learning in primary and secondary schools.

Jega must take responsibility for poor planning by INEC which is the primary reason why school holidays had to be extended at short notice. More fundamentally, Nigeria does not need to close primary and secondary schools just to conduct voter registration. Other countries in Africa that have fewer resources than Nigeria have previously conducted successful registration of voters without closing their schools. Why can't we do better than these countries?