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OVERHAULING INEC

By NBF News

Last week's disengagement of Professor Maurice Iwu as chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) surely pleased a large number of Nigerians, both at home and in the Diaspora. Whether rightly or wrongly, Iwu had come to epitomize all that was objectionable about our electoral fortunes as a nation. The directive that he proceed on terminal leave, therefore, was met with loud applause.

Iwu's tenure ends on June 13, this year, but according to the law governing the appointment of an INEC chairman, the candidate could spend a maximum of two terms of five years each. Iwu was set to conclude the first term, and was eligible for re-appointment. In fact, some groups and forces actually lobbied that he be given a fresh term, before Acting President Goodluck Jonathan directed him to go on pre-disengagement leave, last week.

The change in INEC leadership offers the nation vital opportunity for a total overhaul of the organisation, and, indeed, our whole electoral processes. While Iwu may have wittingly or unwittingly made himself part of the problem, the ills besetting our electoral commission are surely legion, and transcend the personality of just one man.

As at the time of Iwu's exit, INEC was in such a shambolic state, that instead of 12 mandatory electoral commissioners, there were only two. And who was senior among the two was another issue of controversy. This shows that as a nation, we did not give INEC the proper attention it deserved in terms of organisation and internal cohesion.

It has been severally said that one of the ways the acting president, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, can pedestal himself positively in the history books within the short time at his disposal, is to embark on electoral reforms that will give the nation free, fair, credible polls. And this cannot happen unless INEC is properly positioned to carry out the daunting task. Reorganising the commission is, therefore, something that demands critical attention. From its composition, to funding, and to seamless day to day running, INEC needs to be put on proper footing.

Happily, the Justice Mohammed Uwais committee on electoral reforms has charted the way forward on a number of critical issues, including the appointment of an INEC boss. A large number of Nigerians have found the recommendations salutary, and all that is left is to back it with the force of law. The government till now prevaricates, not wholly accepting the recommendations. The Uwais committee has truly given us a roadmap to an INEC worthy of its calling, and it's time that the recommendations be given a dispassionate look once again.

Undoubtedly, the 2007 general elections gave Nigeria a bad name in the comity of nations. It was one of the worst the world has ever seen, and both local and international observers soundly and roundly condemned the exercise. The injury the elections inflicted on the nation both physically and psychologically needs to be healed, and one of the ways to do it is to have a totally different outing in 2011. A completely flawless exercise may be difficult, but we should at least strive to get near it. And one of the ways to do it is to have an INEC chairman with a large dose of integrity, who will be completely non-partisan, a stickler for truth and probity.

In the immediate past till now, helmsmen of our electoral bodies have always left office with one form of odium or the other. Michael Ani of Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) became a villain after the 1979 elections. Justice Ovie - Whisky went out in ignominy after the 1983 polls, same with Prof Humphrey Nwosu, who superintended the June 12, 1993 elections, annulled by the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida. Prof Eme Awa, who was Nwosu's predecessor, equally had a stormy tenure, though he conducted no general elections.

Professor Okon Uya, Chief Sumner Dagogo-Jack, Justice Ephraim Akpata, Dr Abel Guobadia, who all headed our electoral body at one time or the other, equally had their fair share of controversy, and were trailed out of office by one unsavoury tale or the other. All these show that we need a dispassionate appraisal of our electoral processes, as well as the quality of leadership of the electoral commission. We cannot get it wrong all the time.

The INEC chairman that will emerge surely has great challenges ahead. But the obstacles are not insurmountable, as long as the candidate fits the bill in terms of integrity, incorruptibility and the knack for doing things right. In fact, the new chairman must come with the passion and desire to prove that the job can be done, and done well. He must be somebody we can trust, and repose absolute confidence in.

Our politicians should also learn to play the game right. INEC can hardly live up to expectation if the active players of the political game subvert the rules overtly and covertly. They should clean up their acts, and complement INEC in our search for free, fair and credible polls. INEC needs an overhaul of its internal operations. There must be proper rules, laws, procedures that will lead to operational efficiency. The blueprint should be fashioned now, as a new helmsman is being appointed.

One of the flaws of Maurice Iwu was his penchant for sounding like a campaign manager for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). An INEC chairman must maintain a critical distance between himself and government, as well as the political parties. That is the only way to be the neutral, unbiased umpire he is expected to be.

Many staff of INEC as currently constituted have become heavily compromised. Such should be weeded out in a thorough house cleaning. It's time for a new beginning, and we must get it right this time.