By Steve Ayorinde
Barely a week to the rescheduled presidential election, the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Attahiru Jega, must be the most important man in Nigeria today.
But I do not envy him at this critical moment.
As the clock ticks from today, exactly a day to the day that campaigns will end for the presidential candidates, the countdown is not just for the election, which, without doubt, is fast approaching as the most keenly contested ever in Nigeria. It is as much a countdown on the fate of this former President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
The biggest issue that has become more recurrent since the postponement of the election on February 7 has been INEC’s preparation, with more particular emphasis on Jega’s insistence on using the card reader technology to accredit people with the Permanent Voters Card (PVC) on Election Day. Several paid adverts and sponsored articles have come out in the past four weeks challenging INEC’s readiness and fault its claims on the credibility of the card readers. All these anti-INEC campaigns have directly emanated from the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and groups apparently working for its interest.
If there was any doubt that the anti-INEC sentiments oozing out of PDP are indeed symptomatic of a greater desire to ease Jega out of his role as the electoral umpire, some important events have since revealed the real intention of those who are vehemently opposed to Jega’s procedure for these general elections.
The first was last week’s meeting of the PDP governors in Lagos, in which they were unanimous in voicing their reservations about the adequacy of PVC collection and the reliability of card reader machines. They started with the plausible argument that if the elections had held last month with barely 65 per cent of registered voters collecting their PVCs and the card readers not yet tested in the full glare of the public, it would have been greatly flawed. But they soon descended to the controversial and outlandish when they argued that Jega’s insistence to proceed with the election could only be a ploy to rig PDP out.
The PDP governors say they are neither satisfied with the more than 80 percent PVC collection rate nor with the pass mark given to the mock election in selected states across the country to test the card readers. What would suffice, if the election must hold at all, they say, is for both the PVCs and card readers to be jettisoned so that anybody with temporary voter’s card (TVCs) should be allowed to exercise his/her right.
Beyond the fact that a fortune had gone into the production and procurement of both the PVCs and card readers and that all the political parties originally endorsed the use of those technologies as a veritable way to curb electoral malpractices, there are inherent holes in the return-to-the-TVCs argument. One, the collection rate for the TVCs during the 2011 and subsequent governorship elections in Edo, Bayelsa, Ekiti and Osun States was nowhere near 100 per cent and, in any case, barely half of those who collected their TVCs voted in the previous elections. To argue, therefore, that because there are still several millions of PVCs to be collected, INEC should be forced to return to the use of TVCs, is being clever by half. It won’t guarantee huge turn-out; rather it can only give room for the type of manipulations that INEC seeks to avoid. If there have been errors in the registration and issuance of PVCs, the only way to correct it is to ensure fool-proof accreditation through the card readers.
Furthermore, what is the guarantee that many people without PVCs still have their TVCs or are still interested in collecting the PVCs if they know that as a result of temporary displacement, transfer from jobs, or relocation, they are not going to be able to vote anyway? The excuse of the PDP governors doesn’t look like they are eager to help INEC reason through an acceptable resolution. It looks more like a fait accompli to force a replacement of the electoral umpire a few days to D-Day.
An attempt to give a bite to the governors’ position apparently was Monday’s protest by certain people under the aegis of Concerned Nigerians in conjunction with a faction of Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) on the street of Lagos. Ostensibly, it was an exercise to express their support for President Goodluck Jonathan’s re-election bid. But it turned out to be a campaign for Jega’s removal, as well as fear-mongering and a violent parade that witnessed the destruction of the opposition’s billboards and campaign materials.
Calling for the sack of INEC’s chairman barely 10 days to the election by this people does not necessarily seem like the president’s friends do not want the election to hold, but more like they would rather prefer it holds under the watchful eyes of a man who can promise that the ruling party will not lose.
Will Jega buck under the pressure to have him replaced or at least get his body language to assure the president that his interest is protected?
From the outcome of the meeting with the president and security chiefs in Abuja on Tuesday, it is apparent that Jega is determined to stand his ground. He has reportedly affirmed his readiness to conduct the elections on March 28 and April 11 and insists that the card readers remain the best options to guide against rigging.
It is curious that a government that has promoted the idea of fighting corruption through digital technology and a cashless society, which requires even the market women to embrace the use of ATM cards, is standing against the use of technology that it funded to curb electoral malpractices.
For sure, Jega is in the eye of the storm. The clock ticks for him as it does for Nigeria. Will he be forced out of his seat as being widely speculated or will he break the jinx to become the first Nigerian electoral umpire to conduct two elections? Since Eyo Ita Esua conducted the first post-independent election in 1964, none of Jega’s 10 indigenous predecessors has had the privilege of conducting two elections. And being the first Northerner to hold this position, Jega will be making history not only as the first to conduct two elections but as one who introduced the game changer that finally put a halt to election rigging in Nigeria.