INEC and the challenges of Free and Fair Elections

prof. Attahiru Jega, INEc Chairman

prof. Attahiru Jega, INEc Chairman

The declaration by the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Attahiru Jega, that the era of ballot box snatching in Nigerian elections, is over because such practices will render the votes of erring political parties invalid is worrisome and raises more questions than answers. Electoral malpractices have become a recurring decimal in Nigeria and have incrementally worsened since the return to democracy in 1999. Something is fundamentally wrong. But Jega’s logic is also fundamentally flawed. The task of conducting a free and fair election in Nigeria is daunting enough. However, disenfranchising voters as an antidote against rigging is unacceptable; it is clearly a case of the cure becoming the disease. After the Anambra gubernatorial election fiasco, Jega should buckle up and restore confidence in INEC for it to conduct a free, fair and acceptable election in 2015. Nigerians expect and deserve nothing less!

Speaking at the closing of a retreat organised for Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) and other top management INEC staff in Kaduna, Jega explained that: “When you register in poll booth ‘A’, your registration number is one; everybody that registered there will carry number one, which means that polling unit is ‘A1’. If your polling unit is ‘B’, you have ‘B1/1-500’. If your voting card is registered under ‘B’ unit and it finds its way into ‘A’ unit box, that vote automatically becomes invalid.” With this new system and other initiatives put in place by the Commission, 2015 will witness a hitch-free election, even though I cannot assure you of absolute perfection as we are learning day by day.”

This kind of misguided euphoria is a damning reflection of wilful ignorance and the levity with which INEC views the challenges of electoral misconduct. What Jega is actually saying is that in areas where a political party is certain to lose, all they need do is snatch the ballot boxes and disqualify the votes of their opponents. The logic is simple; a salesman, who cannot sell his goods on their intrinsic merits, should knock out his competitors. Needless reminding Jega that under liberal democracy, an election is not a one-day event; rather it is a process. If elections are well conducted, malpractices, including ballot box stuffing and snatching or kidnapping of returning officers would be avoided. The Anambra election was supposed to be the litmus test and dress rehearsal for 2015. Sadly the poll not only undermined the optimism of a hitch-free general election next year, it casts a huge pall of illusion on the future of Nigerian democracy.

With national elections due in 2015, the decks are being cleared for action amidst fierce rivalries for nominations both within the ruling PDP and the main opposition APC. It is a time of uncertainty, realignment and anxious looks towards the future. Although the APC claims support across the south-west, most of the north and the Middle Belt, the election will be decided by political organization and who controls INEC. The PDP might be bereft of ideas, but even from a diminished PDP, the incumbent President holds the political ring with massive powers of patronage from state resources, especially oil blocks. The PDP victory in the gubernatorial elections in Anambra showed how crassly elections can be rigged. The entire exercise was dogged by irregularities, and INEC’s credibility as an institution was seriously compromised. Anambra certainly, did not portend positive signals for future elections.

By admitting that the Anambra election was sabotaged by his own staff, Jega merely stated the obvious and passed the buck over his own failure of leadership. The point at issue is the failure of the electoral institution more than the constraints of the actual conduct of election itself. It translates into a colossal waste of resources, put at the disposal of INEC through the various electoral reforms. In effect, what happened in Anambra was a shameful example; of how an institution can single handedly derail the course of a nation. It was an indictment of the country’s leadership, and in particular, INEC; that 15 years into the fourth republic, something as basic as free elections cannot take place in Nigeria.

The bigger issue is that if election could not be conducted in a single state despite the concentration of resources, both human and financial, it portends serious implication for nation-wide electoral exercise. The problem lies squarely on the laps of the umpire, INEC. Jega has expressed INEC’s readiness to be an unbiased umpire in the 2015 elections and to also ensure that everybody plays by the rules. But his lamentation that INEC alone cannot deliver free and fair elections without the collaboration of other agencies and stakeholders “like the security and the Presidency” raises questions about its integrity.

Having accepted responsibility for the Anambra fiasco, INEC has a duty to correct the identified and hidden anomalies; and sanction those responsible as appropriate. Confidence building is critical to its success. Jega should recognize that he is saddled with the task of managing the process of recruiting leaders for Nigeria at a time when leadership has emerged more than ever, as the obstacle to Nigeria’s emancipation. Elections being the avenues through which worthy leaders are recruited cannot be seen to be handled by a body whose integrity is suspect. The failure to pull through the Anambra election is demoralizing; and it accentuated in no small measure, INEC’s incapacity to conduct next year’s elections.

Already, Jega has infuriated Nigerians with the staggering N92.9 billion ($580.65 million) election budget. Nigerians are demanding concrete explanations as to the specific areas of the elections on which this outlandish amount will be spent, especially at a time when, despite official denials, indices presage the country is broke. INEC needs to improve on its cost management. The argument that the cost per voter would drop from $8.8 in 2011 to $7.9 in 2015 is indeed baffling and illogical; given the excruciating poverty ravaging the country. One cannot but wonder the value-addition of expending $7.9 on a voter, whereas over 60% of the population lives on less than $1 a day! Worse still, there are no guarantees that the election results would ultimately and fully reflect the genuine desire of the Nigerian people. If the 2015 elections will be this expensive, INEC must be prepared to accept responsibility for any shortfall in the exercise, particularly in terms of legitimacy.

Finally, INEC must ensure that the complexity of Nigeria’s diversity should not be allowed to truncate the electoral process. The threat not to accept nomination of candidates from parties that have no recognized structure in the states is somewhat confusing. With this threat, INEC appears to indict itself for registering parties that didn’t meet the requirements. Having recognized structures in the states is one of the requirements political parties seeking registration must satisfy. If parties were registered without fulfilling this condition, then, INEC, and not the parties is to blame. INEC should not abuse its powers; otherwise, democracy will be the worse for it. Since Jega assumed office in July 2010, there has been relative calm and decency of conduct in INEC. His first assignment of conducting the 2011 elections was rated high compared to previous elections that were roundly condemned by domestic and international observers. Jega’s personal reputation for integrity has also contributed to the general perception that the electoral umpire is in good hands. He dare not betray this trust.

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