2023: Imperatives of a strong INEC
Between 1999 to 2007 and again between 2015 and 2019, the experiences of Nigerians with democracy has defied the faith that it can bring about political transition and leadership turnover without violence to citizens and violence to the Law. What is disturbing is how elections, the minimal pillar of democracy has suffered more grievous decay since 2015 and how 2023 may further dent democracy in Nigeria if there is no drastic change in the leadership of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
After the electoral fiascos of 2003 and 2007, a revival of faith in Democracy was growing in Nigeria after the 2011 election, when Professor Attahiru Jega, a member of the Uwais Electoral Reform Committee, was appointed by President Goodluck Jonathan to head INEC. Jega took up some of the key recommendations of the Reform Committee and introduced several remarkable changes. Backed by a supportive executive leadership under the Jonathan regime, which liberally promoted an ambience supportive of democratic practices, the Electoral Commission under Jega introduced innovations such as an electronic biometric Voter Register, a Smartcard enabled Permanent Voters Card (PVC) generated from the biometric Voter Register, electronic Smart Card Readers for verifying voters as they present their PVC at polling units, customized ballot papers making each ballot paper unique to specified polling units and useless for electoral fraudsters and ballot snatchers who will usually steal such ballot papers and use them in preferred locations.
The Commission under Jega stamped its regulatory authority on elections and ensured minimal deviations from international election norms and standards, generating not only credibility for the electoral process but fidelity in the outcome on the part of many Nigerians and the image of the country improved significantly within the international community. It was therefore not surprising that the outcome of the two general elections conducted under his leadership of the Commission in a single term were widely accepted as generally credible without seeking a second term that he deserved. Unfortunately, since the exit of the Jega leadership, the fidelity of election outcome and the credibility of the electoral process have undergone continuous decline and decay.
First, the integrity of leadership of the Commission was tarnished from outset with the appointment of a relative of the leader of the executive branch, Mrs. Amina Zakari. Despite forceful denials of such relationship, the subsequent appointments of her siblings and other close relatives of hers to Ministerial, Ambassadorial and other Federal appointments confirmed rather than dispel the unethical conflicts of interest that motivated her appointment. The mistrust it created, regarding the intentions of the executive arm to disrupt vertical and horizontal accountability in the Nigerian democracy was huge. It dented the credibility of the executive arm regarding the promotion of democracy and made it clear that under the Buhari regime, the promotion of democratic practices was going to suffer significant setbacks.
Under significant public outcry against this anomaly, Mrs Zakari was replaced by Professor Mahmoud Yakubu. Suspicion grew stronger as one election after the other revealed more evidence of democratic decay. First, in Kogi, the Commission declared the gubernatorial election of 2015 inconclusive and subsequently conducted a supplementary election by which time a new candidate brought to replace the deceased candidate. Then again in the gubernatorial election that followed in Edo State in 2016, INEC could not stamp its regulatory authority and control on the electoral process, besides the postponement of the election that was forced upon the Commission by political actors, the election result collation was brazenly taken out of INEC’s control and manipulated over-night.
Again in Osun, there was overwhelming evidence of voter suppression and results manipulation. Further, in 2019 despite long periods of preparation, INEC had to concede a late postponement; yet there was evidence that in several states, politicians had pre-knowledge of the design of the result sheets and went ahead to print them for their uses, while some had result sheets delivered to them before the elections.
Statistics after the Edo election are not yet out but what is shocking is that under Prof. Mahmoud Yakubu, polling results are accepted where card reader finger authentication were not carried out, contrary to provisions in the guidelines published for the election.
The Commission, which had instituted several new guidelines and implemented them in places such as Ekiti State prior to the General Election as the Constitution and extant Electoral Act had empowered it to do, rather found shelter in the excuse that, the executive arm had not signed an amendment to enable electronic transmission. In other words, it cherry-picked what it wanted to implement as it suits its electoral collaborators.
Given the background set out above, where the leadership of INEC is seen as a collaborator in disabling vertical accountability of the executive arm, political actors, voters and other stakeholders, who truly believe in both the classical and contemporary notions of democracy, that it is able to deliver normative values such as equality among all people, liberty and respect for law and justice, or at a minimum, the ability to sustain and maintain a system in which rulers are selected by competitive elections, can see the danger of continuing the current trend of democratic decay.
Thus, what kind of individuals if appointed to the leadership of INEC can command the public confidence and will restore hope and trust in the electoral process in Nigerian once more? The nation needs an individual that Nigerians can easily approve of possessing the competence, integrity, courage and the kind of profile that will inspire public confidence of the people. The INEC Chairman in particular and National Commissioners in general should possess certain qualities that will inspire interest of the Nigerian people.
The Chairman could be appointed from among serving National Commissioners, or State Resident Electoral Commissioners with cognate experience and integrity or appointed from outside the Commission.
Given the time left to prepare for the 2023 General Election, it may be wiser to choose from among experienced hands within the Commission that have distinguished themselves with credibility for reason of cognate experience and knowledge of the task. How does the president want to be remembered on matters of credible election? If president Jonathan could appoint a northerner as the Chair of INEC from the north west that opposed him from being an Acting President, who also knew he would seek a second term and conducted a credible election that brought the president into office, why even entertain the idea of yet another northerner, thereby reinforcing the prevailing vexed issues that we northerners are treating other Nigerians as if they don’t matter in the running of Nigeria affairs?
Nigerians have had the opportunity so far to assess different INEC electoral Commissioners who have served the Commission in different electoral cycles and by now can distinguish those who have credibility, exemplary character, competence in electoral management and can balance fairness to political actors with the need to maintain the accepted norms and standards for election management.
Dr. Adamu wrote from Kaduna.