A moment for Jega to seize
Despite all the anxiety about 2015, the presidential election to be held that year may still turn out to be a good advertisement for the evolution of liberal democracy in Nigeria. The Armageddon may never happen. For good reasons, this prognosis may sound too optimistic (if not naive) to many students of Nigerian politics. Those who are less optimistic about the nation's electoral future readily point to the orientation of politicians and the character (or lack of character) of their parties.
The symptoms of political underdevelopment are manifest in the land. If you make a projection only on the basis of the activities of politicians you would certainly have a cause to worry about the future. In order for the expressed optimism not to amount daydreaming it has to be quickly added that the shape of things to come in 2015 depends heavily on the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), among other factors. That is why the commission under the leadership of Professor Attahiru Jega should see in this an opportunity to make a positive mark in history.
It is welcome that Jega is talking early in the day about the needed reforms in the commission. Indeed, it is quite helpful that he has admitted some rot in the organisation. For so long, critics of the commission have accused its officials and ad-hoc staff of being in league with roguish politicians to perpetrate electoral crimes. The details of this electoral malfeasance are often dramatised at election tribunals hearing petitions from aggrieved players in the game. The offences range from tampering with electoral materials to outright forgery.
The rules are manipulated. The activities of the bad eggs in the organisation have called into question the integrity of the whole process. According to Jega, the commission has silently removed some of the offenders from the organisation while some others have been prosecuted. Now, it may not be an effective approach to make this purgatory exercise a silent one all in the name of avoiding 'media hype'. The confidence of the voting public in the commission would be enhanced with the knowledge of such internal corrective measures. The measures would also amount to lessons to other electoral manipulators out there who are yet to be caught.
Besides, the significant step of cleansing INEC is still short of the letters and spirit of the recommendations embodied in the Uwais Report. The Committee on electoral reform headed by former Chief Justice Muhammadu Uwais recommended the establishment of an electoral offences commission. In fact, a draft bill was prepared to that effect. It is left for the executive and legislative arms of government to work towards giving effect to the proposal on electoral offences commission. Incidentally, Jega was a member of the Uwais Panel. Meanwhile, Jega's display of candour is certainly a departure from the era when an INEC chairman would rationalise the most glaring electoral absurdity and blame the aggrieved players and shamelessly exonerate the umpire.
Doubtless, optimism was evident in the tone and tenor of Jega's statement last Wednesday in Abuja during the public presentation of the Strategic Programme of Action of INEC from 2012 to 2016. Elements of this important strategy include provision of infrastructure for credible elections; reorganisation of the commission to fulfil its mandate; improvement in voter education; and registration and monitoring of political parties. To achieve these core objectives INEC would have to develop a productive relationship with other stakeholders in matters of credible elections. On the balance, Jega holds a lot of promise to give leadership to INEC in achieving this strategic goal. His record of performance and character give a basis for optimism.
There is a lot of rhetoric in the public sphere about institution building. Sometimes it is often forgotten that you need individuals with good character to build the cherished institutions. Institutions don't come into being by magic, after all. That is why when individuals in leadership positions show some promise they should be nudged to do better rather than insisting on the Shibboleth that 'we need strong institutions and not strong individuals'.
Individuals who are strong in character are needed to build strong institutions. That has been demonstrated by the history of INEC itself.
Beyond all the technical equipment, public confidence is the greatest asset INEC should strive to garner as much as possible. So, as political players ponder 2015, the challenge before Jega and his colleagues in the INEC leadership is to see the defined goals in the strategy as the building blocks of INEC as a strong and credible institution. Hence, while the deficit in the operations of INEC should not be ignored, the evident promise should not also be dismissed as insignificant.
On its part, INEC should take advantage of the support it would readily garner from the stakeholders who strike the same chord as the commission on the war against electoral crimes. It is also an advantage that INEC has become relatively more autonomous. The autonomy, of course, could still be enhanced. In the meantime, the fact that INEC is now financially autonomous is significant for the efficiency of its work as well as the independence of its action. These are noteworthy elements of moral infrastructure for the reform.
However, views are expectedly divergent on other issues such as staggered elections and the power to disqualify candidates.
Staggered elections might be good for INEC to mobilise its capacity optimally. But the commission may not need to saddle itself with the burden of disqualification of candidates with all the attendant implications of the exercise of such powers. What about the battle for turf it would generate between the parties and the commission? The nomination of candidates should remain the business of political parties based on their respective constitutions and rules. If there is a dispute the courts should help interpret the party's constitution.
For now, it is enough that INEC statutorily monitors the party congresses where vital decisions are taken and its views on the proceedings cannot be ignored. For instance, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had to make some of its national officers to quit their respective posts recently because of the valid questions raised about their elections. In any case, some of the contentious issues are legislative in nature. While INEC pursues these issues it should work harder on those areas in which stakeholders would readily give it the needed support. As a matter of strategy, the commission should not allow itself to be detained by avoidable controversies on issues that are not central to its operational capability.
All told, what is required in the circumstance is a critical engagement with INEC as it pursues its agreeable strategic goals. To be sure, lapses should be continuously pointed out for the purpose of improvement. In fact, Jega's INEC needs more of constructive criticisms at this time so that it can savour the due commendation if it delivers on credible elections in 2015. A lot of lessons have to be learnt from past operational errors of omission and commission. If a workable system were put in place as INEC aspires to do now, conduct of election would be a routine affair.
The tension that usually defines the work of the commission during election will be a thing of the past. The voting public would not accept any excuse for a fire-brigade exercise in 2015. The factor of planning and experience must be on display. The deployment of technology should ease the process and bolster its integrity. The public will watch out for the evidence of this in INEC's capacity building in future elections.
It is possible for INEC under Jega's leadership to deliver credible elections in 2015 with the support of other institutions and players in the political field. It is up to Jega to seize the moment.
Kayode writes in THIS DAY