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The Trial of Professor Attahiru Jega

INEC Chairman Pro. Attahiru Jega

By Sheddy Ozoene

Professor Chinua Achebe, the famous author of Things Fall Apart will probably not be happy in his grave today.  In twice rejecting the award of national honours in 2004 and 2011, the Nigerian literary icon said he was protesting against the handling of governance issues in the country, especially in his native Anambra state.  Before he died last March in Boston, United States, however, he was happy that things were looking up once again.  He had singled out President Goodluck Jonathan’s electoral reform for commendation, saying that the conduct of the 2011 general election was a clear indication that sanity was gradually returning to the nation’s electoral process.  For this, he gave credit to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) led by Professor, Attahiru Jega.  In the book, There was a Country, he had written “…the last general election in Nigeria was not perfect, but overall it was an improvement over past travesties that were passed off as election in Nigeria”.

INEC Chairman Pro. Attahiru Jega

INEC Chairman Pro. Attahiru Jega

The appointment of Professor Attahiru Jega as Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), in June 2010, had understandably raised expectations that the much-desired credibility would return to the nation’s electoral system.  Coming after the general elections of 2007 which even the winner, President Umaru Yar’adua acknowledged were flawed, the Nigeria polity was yearning for fresh ideas.  Nigerians had good reasons therefore, to place their hope on the former President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), who famously engaged the military governments of the 1990s in running battles.  With impressive academic and civil society credentials, Jega seemed to appeal to all sections of the polity.  He was the best man to deliver on the promises of electoral reform which President Jonathan had promised, or so we all thought.

Jega may not have disappointed, especially with the 2011 general elections which were his first test case.  The election was generally free and fair and even the worst critics of the Jonathan administration acknowledged that it was an important step in the electoral reform process.  However, subsequent elections have raised questions about the man, his capability and his conduct as the nation’s chief electoral umpire.  His reputation and integrity are increasingly becoming doubtful and more importantly, projections are already being made that the all-important 2015 national elections may end up a sham.

If the conduct of the recent governorship elections in Ondo and Edo states were criticized for their observable lapses, they pale into insignificance when compared to the charade that is playing out in Anambra state.  After months of preparations, the November 16 governorship polls in Professor Chinua Achebe’s home state have indeed become a metaphor for INEC’s growing official ineptitude.  Not only were the elections which Jega boasted would be the best ever in the country declared inconclusive, the INEC last Monday ordered supplementary election in 208 polling units in the state with a combined registered voter strength of 113,113.  After collating results from the 21 Local Governments Areas, the returning officer, Professor James Epoke could not announce the overall winner because of widespread irregularities in some parts of the state.

Though the Anambra drama is still unfolding, Jega has come under severe fire from many Nigerians on the shoddy handling of the polls with many already casting doubts on his competence and level of preparedness for next year’s governorship poll in Ekiti as well as the 2015 general elections inch close. Jega had admitted that his staff engaged in unprofessional conduct and sabotaged the gubernatorial election, especially in Idemilii Local Government Area where electoral materials were willfully withheld or delivered late, while in some cases INEC officials and materials were totally absent at some polling units. The supplementary election therefore becomes necessary because the total number of votes cancelled is much more than the difference between the candidate with the highest number of votes and the runner up. The other areas involved in the supplementary election include parts of Onitsha South, Ihiala, Ayamelum, Oyi, Orumba North, Aguata, Idemili South and Awka North.

In spite of the ample time for preparations, Jega’s INEC did not make adequate logistics provision for security officers while in many instances, his staff were openly hostile to observers who complained of brazen acts of electoral fraud. The complaints were so serious that groups like the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP) and the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, have called on him to resign immediately, and for the Anambra governorship election to be cancelled entirely. The CNPP said the INEC chairman betrayed the Anambra electorate and Nigerians in general by conducting a sham election with serious implications for 2015.  Similarly, the Executive Director, Civil Societies Legislative and Advocacy Centre, Auwual Musa-Rafsanjani described the Anambra election as a bad advertisement for INEC’s preparation for the 2015 general elections. The Nigeria Civil Society Election Situation Room, in its final report on the election, described INEC as incompetent, stressing that its handling of the Anambra contest provided worries for the much bigger 2015 elections.  The position is shared by the Transition Monitoring Group, a coalition of over 400 civic organisations that have been involved in election monitoring in Nigeria since 1998.

Jega should have known better than to defend such acts of his staff –like late arrival or non-arrival of staff and voting materials, late distribution of materials, inadequate training of electoral staff and late commencement of accreditation — that led to the bungling of the polls, in a state that has little or no transportation challenges.   As a member of the Justice Uwais Committee on Electoral Reform, Jega had variously made a case against persons that commit electoral offences, yet he was not bold enough to identify the staff he alleged were involved in such offences in Anambra.  It is a paradox that the several failings of Jega’s INEC bother on issues that were clearly identified in previous elections and documented by monitors and observers, yet they have repeated themselves in the governorship polls in Edo, Ondo and now Anambra.

Was Jega that palpably inept or was he negligent of his responsibility in the election that even he had declared was a litmus test for him?  The irony of the Anambra polls is that all the political parties except the presumed winner, the All Progressives Grand Alliance, are complaining bitterly about the conduct.  The most vocal of them, the All Progressives Congress demanded a total cancellation of the election, citing massive disenfranchisement of voters throughout the state.  Not only has the whole drama become a reflection of INEC’s failure to respond to challenges in a timely and effective way, the larger implication of Anambra’s bungled elections is that there is a growing perception that the gains recorded in the 2011 elections have been eroded.  With the widespread disenfranchisement of citizens due to their names missing from the voter registers and other shortcomings by INEC, the inevitable low voter turn-out has invariably undermined public confidence in the electoral process.

Within his two years as head of the Commission, a lot have happened to seriously dent Jega’s high reputation. The statements from certain quarters that he may have been compromised to deliberately sabotage the process, may be taking the argument too far, but it will suffice to say that he has disappointed most Nigerians.  The image he creates today is far from the credibility we envisaged in our electoral system two years ago; definitely a far cry from the optimism that the usually critical Professor Achebe expressed.  Two questions readily come to mind: for how long can we tolerate the systemic organisational failures as witnessed in the conduct of recent elections by INEC? Can Nigeria still trust the fate of 2015 general elections in the hands of such a man whose integrity and capacity to conduct acceptable elections has taken such a beating?

Ozoene, former newspaper editor, contributed this piece from Abuja.

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