JEGA IN EYE OF THE STORM
Barely six months to the 2011 general election, the storm is gradually gathering around the chairman, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof Attahiru Jega. The former Vice chancellor seems to have stirred the hornet's nest and for him, it appears his party with the people is over. His offence: The whopping N74 billion he requested for the voter's register.
In Jega, the saying that uneasy lies the head that wears a crown easily finds expression. Despite his intimidating reputation and goodwill earned over the years, he has to watch it because the INEC seat is a 'consuming fire'. Many of Jega's associates should be praying that the celebrated activist would still be able to hold his head high by the time he leaves office. The experience of the immediate past INEC boss and former deputy to Jega in his days at ASUU, Prof Maurice Iwu should be a point of reference here.
Analysts are patiently waiting to see how Jega would survive the hot seat with his image intact. The first test is the issue of voter's registration. The Continuous Voter Registration exercise is to provide opportunity for those Nigerians who for one reason or the other could not register during the last nationwide registration exercise including those who have turned
18 years of age, the returnees, among others.
Penultimate week, the INEC boss had told the Senate Committee on Electoral Matters that his commission needed N74 billion for the review of the voter's register warning that failure to release the funds before August 11 might put the polls in jeopardy. At an interactive session with the Senator Isiaka Adeleke-led committee, he said he had since discovered an error in the earlier N72 billion declared by the commission for the conduct of the voter's registration. He had explained that INEC was operating under very tight frame adding that the way the commission was thinking was that if the funding requirements were made available latest by August 11, it would be able to initiate a procurement process.
But for many, the amount the former President of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is asking for is on the high side. The thinking in several quarters is that the electoral body does not need such a huge amount to accomplish the task at hand.
According to records gathered online, a sample of the costs of registering a voter in some democratic countries across the world shows that Jega's demand is indeed high. Available statistics shows that the world's five largest democracies including India, United States, Brazil, Pakistan and Indonesia have a global average of $4 per registered voter, a figure which makes the Nigerian average of N1,292.3 ($8.6), as per the INEC budget, the most costly.
According to Jega's budget, while N74 billion will be spent on the voter's register, an additional N10 billion has been earmarked as hazard and sundry allowances for INEC staff who will be involved in the exercise.
Among critical observers, for a nation with an estimated voting population of 65 million, Jega's budget of $8.6 per voter, which is expected to be approved by the National Assembly before or on August 11 is the highest per capita cost for registering a voter anywhere in the world.
Since Jega's demand came to the public domain, several questions continue to agitate the minds of critical observers. Some of them include: What does Jega need N74 billion for? Is he not merely going to start where his predecessor stopped? Did he actually take time to compute what he actually requires to accomplish the voter's registration? Is he about to toe the path of dishonour characteristic of politicians and some of the elite in Nigeria?
Leading those who think the proposition by Jega is too high is the deputy senate president, Ike Ekweremadu.
Even before the Senate takes a position on the budget, he believes that the N74 billion that INEC is requesting is on the high side adding that the amount would have to be slashed.
The deputy senate president told journalists that the amount was too much considering the economic situation of the country. ''For the purpose of the election I think it is reasonable, but for a country such as ours where we have so much poverty, it is on the high side, he (Prof. Jega) has to adjust it to be more
realistic,'' Ekweremadu noted.
To reduce the amount, the deputy senate president suggested ''two polling booths per Data Capturing Machine, (DCM,),'' rather than one DCM per polling booth as proposed by INEC. Also, the Citizens Popular Party (CPP) has queried the appropriateness of Attahiru Jega's budget to conduct a fresh voter registration in the country.
In a statement by its National Chairman, Maxi Okwu, he said, 'We are constrained to raise a query on the appropriateness of Jega's awesome bill to the nation to conduct a fresh voter registration'.
He regretted that, sums ranging from N55 billion, N72 billion and now N74 billion have been bandied about adding that it is exclusive of another N10 billion to cover costs for running the January 2011 elections proper.
'The popular view at the moment is that the substratum for any credible election is an authentic voter's register. This is particularly more so when all are agreed that the current voter's register produced by the Iwu INEC is not worth the paper or CD-Rom on which it is contained. We may recall that billions of scarce national resources went into this exercise which is now only fit for the dust bin', he said.
Okwu observed that between Guobadia and Iwu, the nation deployed enormous resources which it can ill afford on the elusive voters without commensurate results saying that on each occasion, the cheer leaders shouted everyone down that INEC's request must be satisfied without question. 'We urge the National Assembly to go through INEC's N84 billion request with a fine tooth-comb. We also believe that the matter deserves a snappy public hearing. We are firmly of the view that the credible voter's register, and genuine elections of our dreams, could still be achieved at less than half the cost being proposed by Jega' he stated.
He reasoned that with the new Electoral Act 2010, the argument that there is no time no longer holds water as registration now ends in November. Reacting to the controversy, the National President of Arewa Youth Consultative Forum (AYCF), Shetima Yerima said that in any election, one begins to see whether it would succeed or not from the voter's register.
According to him, 'if we fail on the voter's register, you can be rest assured that nothing would come out of it'.
He said it is a clear indication of what to expect because once the nation misses it from the beginning, nothing else would work. 'I expect that if there is sincerity and political will to put things right, the voter's register would be seen as one of the challenges because in 2007 election, we had such names like Mike Tyson, Mandela, Saddam Hussein etc in our register. One person could use one vote to vote 10 times or different names to vote 100 times. So, the problem with the voter's register is already telling you that we are beginning to lose the credibility of the coming election'.
But for some people, nothing is too costly to organize a credible election in Nigeria. For those in this school of thought, the INEC boss should be given all he wants to ensure that 2011 general election meets the expectation of not only Nigerians but the international community.
In her reaction, President, Campaign for Democracy (CD), Dr Joe Okei-Odumakin said Jega must have done his research well before arriving at the price advising that 'we should not go for something cheap that would not yield any positive result at the end of the day'. She said something tangible should be done in time to avert past experience recommending that, 'Jega must make sure that he removes all the stumbling blocks that would remind Nigerians of Professor Maurice Iwu'.
Also reacting, Oyo State Attorney General, Adebayo Shittu criticized the position of the deputy Senate President for saying that the voter's registration budget by Jega was outrageous. He said that before Ekweremadu can make such conclusions, he must be able to show alternative invoices indicating that the registration materials could be cheaper to produce.