NEW INEC, OLD HABITS: THE POOR PROSPECT OF 2011 ELECTIONS
"We have never witnessed anything like this before", said the village head of Kurfai in Toro Local Government Area of Bauchi State last Saturday, 22 August 2010, when the senatorial by-election was taking place. Explaining the disappointment of his fellow villagers to an INEC official sent to monitor the election in the area, the leader continued: "During previous elections officials used to come here with voting materials and all we had to contend with was the behaviour of youth who may occasionally clash but in the end it would be settled and election would take place. This time, as you can see, nothing has arrived." And though the election did not take place in the unit as the INEC monitor witnessed, later at the collation centre two young men arrived, a youth corper and an official of the local government, claiming that they were just returning from the same Kurfai where they suffered so much in their effort to conduct the election. When pressed by the INEC monitor, they changed the claim saying that they went to an entirely different place, Kufai, the home of the local government chairman.
At Nabordo, a supervisor entered the room of his friend who was hired at N100, 000.00 to intercept a ballot box from the village of Jimeri in Zaranda ward where the ruling party got only three votes. The young man and his team of hunters successfully intercepted the ballot box, tore all the ballot papers, returned them into the box and brought the ballot box to Nabordo where they hanged it on a tree at the town centre. When his friend saw the crisp N1000 notes in his room, the young man quickly gave an alibi: "Muhammad, what can you people give us? Life is so difficult. Look at my leaking room…"
Fifty kilometers away, a retired Colonel could not vote because the register of his unit was taken to another unit; so also a former secretary to the government whose voters register at Fadaman Mada was mischievously transferred to a place at behind the Emir’s Palace in a completely different ward at the centre of the city. When he arrived at the place after four hours of search, he found the voting taking place in the house of an elderly man, with PDP youths surrounding the voting desk such that people are intimidated either to avoid voting entirely or vote for the ruling party. Hardly was there any voter because it was impossible to know where the station is in the first place. The same thing happened to a senatorial candidate of another party.
At Magama Gumau, a stronghold of one of the candidates, thugs came with knives and machetes, dispersed the voters and snatched the ballot boxes and other materials. The same thing happened in many polling stations throughout the senatorial district.
The whole election was marred by the same old habits of snatching ballot boxes, thuggery, diversion of registers and voting cards, shortage of ballot papers, failure of election officials to turn up, use of colossal amounts to bribe officials and sponsor mayhem, etc. In the end, in Toro Local Government Area, for example, none of the opposition parties signed the return sheet of the local government area; in addition, out of the return sheets of the eleven wards, only three were duly signed and stamped by their INEC returning officers. In his speech, the PDP returning officer of the local government attested that it was the best election he has ever witnessed in his life!
At the end of the election, PDP had 273,764 votes while the ANPP and CPC, the two closest to it, had 57,661 and 56,294 respectively. And the world was told there was free and fair election. The commissioner of police, Danlami Yar’adua and the state governor, Isa Yuguda, both went on the air thanking the good people of Bauchi State for the conduct of a peaceful election.
I have received many discouraging text messages on the election day. I sampled the opinion of many people, including a posting I made on my facebook page two days ago about the prospects of a free and fair election in 2011 going by what happened in the recent by-election in Bauchi and Gombe States. The response was 100% depressing: since then, I am yet to meet anyone who believes in the possibility of a free and fair election in 2011.
Another common thing among the respondents is that people keep counting on Jega to deliver. A text message from a very influential person read thus: "It is just a pity. You need to hear stories coming out… I pity Jega. His reputation is on the line." The fear is not unfounded. But in reality, Jega and his team have little to do, little to offer, though he may have a lot at stake as the respondent said.
All that Jonathan did was to change some national officials of INEC and some resident electoral commissioners whose term has expired. Of course he brought in some very credible people, among the best crop that our nation can boast of. But the story ends there. Every other person in INEC is retained. That means other than the few changes at the top that we mentioned, our 2011 election in which we are investing so much hope will be manned by the same officials who rigged the universally discredited 2007 elections, even by the account of the ruling party. These people have not listened to the preaching of Jega. They do not know that there is any new INEC, yet. That is why the INEC staff in Bauchi behaved "business as usual" during last week’s by-election. One of them called one of the candidates and said, "Yallabai, PDP ta bamu abun shan ruwa, yana da kyau kaima ka kawo naka. Mu ma’aikatan kamar sittin ne (Sir, PDP has brought something for us, it’ll be good if you bring yours too. We are about 60 staff here)." I have followed this story and I am ready to give the GSM number, day and time for confirmation if necessary. The candidate refused to offer anything knowing that he cannot beat the PDP government in a race of money.
To make matters worse, the youth corpers who INEC intends to use to man the elections are as vulnerable and corrupt as other Nigerians, from what happened last week in Bauchi and Gombe. First, it is not their environment, so the chaps could easily be intimidated. That is what happened at Magama Gumau after the election materials were snatched by thugs. The INEC head in the local government refused to send them back after sanity was restored claiming that they are afraid. (This is the same INEC official that intimidated the INEC monitor that traveled to Kurfai when she insisted on visiting the village on learning that election is not holding there. Midway, he stopped and said there are thugs in the village, that they better return. The woman refused to be intimidated. Bravo!) On my facebook, the State Chairman of the Muslim Students’ Society told us how he prevailed on a youth corper who finally agreed and left the N15, 000.00 bribe with the PDP polling agent there.
Even speaking in terms of number, it is difficult to see how corp members will be sufficient to man our national elections. In the end the by-election in Bauchi was mainly manned by government officials alone or in conjunction with the corpers. The government claimed that the officials were assisting the corpers! How do we expect the situation to change in the next five months?
Jega can also do nothing on election day on the behaviour of state governors. These people have recruited an army of thugs, at least the people of Bauchi and Gombe can testify to this. Not surprising anyway, these thugs are protected by the Police. The leader of these thugs, a personal assistant to a governor, is often seen escorted by two pick-up loads of security personnel. A day before the by-elections, recruited youths were gathered at former Reinsurance House, behind Zaranda Hotel in Bauchi to collect the advanced payments for the mayhem they would wreck at polling units the following day. To be fair to Jega, these matters are outside his jurisdiction. What will he do to the police commissioner or to the thugs or the party that hires them? Jonathan is the right person to call to order the law enforcement agents and the governors, majority of whom are PDP. He can easily inquire which governors are keeping thugs and he will be told within a minute by the Inspector General of Police. Let him summon them and direct them to disband them. Simple. A word to the IGP is enough. Why is the President not doing so? I do not see fairness when a commissioner of police in an election suppresses other parties from hiring thugs but give full protection to the thugs of the ruling party.
There is also the use of colossal amounts of money to buy the police, security personnel, election officials, agents and voters on the election day, an offence under the Electoral Act. A banker friend of mine told me that he knew about the Saturday election only when he inquired about the reason behind the huge withdrawals of money from the accounts of various local governments in the Bauchi branch of his bank on Friday. What can Jega do if governments themselves are not ready to abide by the law and we have 36 of such lawless governments in this country? The N1000 notes are now widely circulating in Bauchi. In Gombe, an architect who went to monitor the election from Abuja told me that over N100 million was spent in each local government on this expenditure. Where is the Electoral Law? Is it the responsibility of Jega or that of our law enforcement agents to prevent these violations?
I think it is for these facts that the respondent said he pities Jega because in the end Jega, as the head of INEC, will be compelled by the doctrine of vicarious liability to shoulder the responsibility for the inequity of his subordinates and by extension the irresponsibility of government personnel. He will thus be compelled, as was with his predecessor, Professor Iwu, to defend the elections as free and fair, unless he resigns a day after the election and declares it otherwise. Nigerians who witness the atrocities committed at the elections would challenge Jega’s judgement and Jega would naturally defend himself and his organization until he resorts to the common logic of referring the opposition to the courts or to calling them bad losers or frustrated individuals. Nigerians would flush Jega down the drain into the soak-away in which Iwu now resides. There, his credibility would become history. Perhaps, realizing the weakness of his position, Jega has been urging Nigerians to protect their votes on election day as the most effective measure against rigging.
Honestly, this is my assessment of the prospects of free and fair elections in 2011. The prospects are very poor, unless three things happen. One, as I said in The Task of Jonathan, the President must listen and act appropriately in hounding his party, governors, security personnel and corrupt INEC officials. Two, Jega must see that election materials are duly procured and distributed to states and down to polling units appropriately. He must read the riot act to INEC personnel. Three, in answer to the call by Jega for people to protect their votes, voters must be allowed to carry things like machetes and knives for self-defense and as a deterrence against thugs and irresponsible officials. The last may sound crazy. But think about it: How do you protect yourself against the mayhem of thugs hired by irresponsible governors? Anyone who thinks votes can be protected against thugs with bare hands is indeed the crazy one.
Finally, I will reemphasize that unless the three are done, Nigerians and the world at large should stop dreaming of conducting an election that will be acclaimed as free and fair. And I will advise Jega to start weighing his options. The electoral body may today dismiss my warnings as the ranting of an irritating cynic. In five months, however, I will stand vindicated if nothing is done. The conduct of INEC in Bauchi and Gombe last week did not leave any room for optimism.