Just yesterday, I was discussing with my colleagues concerning the much vaunted ‘independence’ of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. We were all to observe that in Nigeria and indeed in some countries in Africa, nearly every organization with the word ‘independent’ as part of its nomenclature is sometimes just a name that represents a wish rather than a reflection of its core values. As a matter of fact, the organization is ordinarily a horse with reins and spurs in the hands of the man or woman who controls the instruments of state.
Take for example the man who is head of the INEC. On paper, the relevant laws of Nigeria say that he does not hold office at the pleasure of Mr. President. He is supposed to be immune and secure from the vagaries of politics and from the anxieties that come from pleasing or displeasing an employer who is also a candidate seeking election. It is in this aspiration for freedom for the officials to work to guarantee free, fair and credible elections that the framers of the laws have theoretically guaranteed the independence of the election body via a fund that cannot be tampered with either by the President or the National Assembly.
But feelers coming from Nigeria suggest that already, the INEC chairman is embattled. One of the political parties has alleged that Professor Attahiru Jega will be given the boot soon. The papers are agog with stories saying that already, a list from among the resident electoral commissioners to replace Jega has been drawn up. There are other allegations. One is that Jega has been less than efficient and transparent with his handling of the Permanent Voter Cards for the elections. In less than 25 days to the general elections, about 30 percent of those eligible to vote have not been issued their cards, raising crucial issues of disenfranchisement in places that are not in a war. In a press statement recently at the offices of INEC in Benin City on Friday 30th February 2015 resident electoral commissioner Mike Igini said that the INEC is contending with four factors – registered voters who may have died, those who are migrating from places where they are registered to vote for fear of post election violence and those who have voter apathy - with respect to the collection of the PVCs. Two categories – those who are alive and well without voter apathy and those who are alive and well with voter apathy constitute the greatest constraint to the INEC ability to distribute the voter cards. Part of the plan by INEC to ensure that the cards reach voters is that in some states village heads have collected the cards en-masse to distribute to their subjects even though this goes against the generally laid down rule that the cards are not to be collected by proxy.
There are also issues with the card reader itself, the instrument with which INEC officials would carry out an accreditation of eligible voters. It has variously been described as ‘a regime changer’, and that if it works at the federal level, that it has the capacity to transform how elections would be carried out at the state and local government levels. But already, at the New Benin Market Benin City arrests have been made of certain individuals who represent certain political parties and who have already started developing software to clone PVCs of eligible voters. Even though the INEC REC for Edo State was categorical in his dismissal of those efforts, skeptics are consistent with their skepticism that the card readers are a waste of everyone’s bloody time – yes, the card readers have a battery life of 14 hours and could capture and confirm information on a card in less than 60 seconds. But the greatest fear that could militate against the use of the card reader is the X-factor in Nigeria – Nigerian politicians have been known to snatch and stuff ballot boxes in past elections. Therefore at this time, there is no guarantee that if they successfully clone the VIN – voter identification numbers - that they wouldn’t threaten INEC officials and snatch the card reader, and use it to sex up the figures.
That apart, the Chairman has been consistent with gestures of anxiety concerning security for the elections. There was an inter-agency consultative meeting on the 23rd of February 2015 between INEC officials and a team from the Office of the National Security Adviser (NSA), the military and para-military organisations on the level of their preparedness for the General Elections of March 28 and April 11. The meeting was the first since the elections earlier slated for February 14 were postponed for six weeks because of alleged security concerns. In that meeting, the INEC chairman again reiterated his earlier anxiety of insecurity citing the disguised hesitation of the military to guarantee security for the elections.
Relevant sections of the Constitution of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) stipulate that the INEC chairman’s tenure is 5 years and should come to end by June, 2015 – a good four months away from the elections in March and April. Speculations, and further speculations make the embattled chairman more embattled than ever – if the government decides to follow the law and proceed to send him on retirement as required by the law, it would lead to a crisis of confidence and lend credence to opposition fears that the government of Goodluck Jonathan is uncomfortable with the plan by INEC to go ahead and use the card reader as ‘a regime changer’ in a Nigeria where votes have never really counted, and where politicians occupying public offices are never recalled if they are inefficient.
But there are ways to work around these problems. First, a massive enlightenment (not ‘education’ as is being canvassed by certain quarters) programme like the one INEC is doing with CLOs in Benin City is what could help with voter apathy. There’s nothing anyone could do about a registered voter who has crossed the river to the other side or those who have voted with their feet. Consequently, INEC voter enlightenment department ordinarily should have relied on the media and its allied agencies to enlighten voters. But in places like Benin City and indeed across the country, there is usually no power supply, and the social, economic and business life of voters is not only left in the dark but the electoral process as well. The impact that the CLO boots that INEC is relying on to be on ground with reaching the grassroots and enlightening voters on the need to collect their PVCs, can only be guaranteed if all other institutions related to governance and the social capacity of the voter are also guaranteed.
Because Jega’s tenure which will come to an end three or four months after the elections presents us with peculiar difficulties, we canvass for an extension of the Chairman’s tenure. We cannot use the crisis of confidence in Jega’s capacity to distribute PVCs or the shortness of his remaining time as INEC chairman to plunge our country into needless anarchy. With respect to our INEC chairman, we can borrow a leaf from our brother country Ghana where their INEC chairman, Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, a political scientist has been Ghana INEC chairman since 1993. Afari-Gyan helped draft the Fourth Ghana Republican Constitution for Ghana. He has conducted successful elections for Ghana in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008. Jega can do same if we let him.
Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku is communications manager with Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice, ANEEJ, Benin City. 08096651570