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INEC on Yakubu’s watch and beyond

By Leo Sobechi (Assistant Politics Editor)
25 October 2020   |   3:49 am
By November 9, 2020, the tenure of Prof. Mahmood Yakubu as the chairman of Independent National Electoral Commission) would have run full circle to mark the first constitutional five-year term prescribed for the post.

INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu

By November 9, 2020, the tenure of Prof. Mahmood Yakubu as the chairman of Independent National Electoral Commission) would have run full circle to mark the first constitutional five-year term prescribed for the post.
Prof. Yakubu mounted the saddle four months after the exit of his predecessor, Prof. Attahiru Jega, who presided over the crucial 2015 generation election that ushered in Muhammadu Buhari as president.

Although cleared by the Senate after a rigorous screening exercise, Prof. Mahmood, whose appointment was ratified by the council of state, was inaugurated into office alongside five national commissioners, as chairman of the electoral commission on November 9, 2015.
The five commissioners, two of which tenures expire also on November 9, include Mrs. Amina Zakari (Northwest); Anthonia Okoosi-Simbine, (North Central); Mustafa Lecky (South/South); Soyebi Solomon (Southwest) and Baba Shettima Arfo (Northeast).

While Zakari and Soyebi are expected to bow out on November 9, after serving out their terms, it is not known yet how President Buhari would respond toYakubu’s fate, particularly against the background that Prof. Jega set what some commentators described as a precedent by quitting after just one term of five years.
Consequently, regardless of what becomes of the incumbent INEC chairman, whether he would be reappointed or succeeded by another, it is necessary to look back at the last five years of INEC under Prof. Yakubu as well as preview expectations of Nigerian electorate from the electoral management body in the task of delivering credible, transparent, free and fair polls.

Walking The Talk
At the senate confirmation hearing, Prof. Yakubu declared that never again would the outcomes of elections be determined at the headquarters of INEC, insisting that under his supervision, transparent and credible electoral process would define his mandate.
But barely after one month in office, the new Chairman got the trickiest test in the life of INEC in Nigeria. The off-season Kogi State gubernatorial poll held and midway into the election, the unthinkable and unexpected happened.
One of the frontline opposition candidates, the main rival to the incumbent, Captain Idris Wada, who was seeking a second term mandate, Prince Abubakar Audu of All Progressives Congress (APC), died. 
The demise of a candidate midway to the collation of results was unprecedented and therefore put enormous pressure on INEC regarding how best to carry through the process without entailing further costs or vitiating the expressed voting preferences of the electorate.

Being new in office, Prof. Yakubu vacillated, ostensibly to get wider stakeholder inputs, especially given that there was no precedence to rely on for direction on how to solve the puzzle. But, before resolving the puzzle of what becomes of the APC candidate’s earned ballots, it turned out that inconclusive poll, which became the defining metaphor of Mahmood’s era emerged.   

Although the declaration of the November 16, 2015 Kogi State governorship election inconclusive proved as the saving grace for the new INEC chairman, the adjective not only stuck, but also continued to feature in subsequent polls.
However, observers declared that INEC acted on the body language of the governing APC to stop the deputy governorship candidate, James Faleke, from inheriting Audu’s winning votes before the poll was declared inconclusive. It would be recalled that INEC adopted that position after the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Salami SAN, at a seminar suggested that the governing party could fall back on its governorship primary to replace Audu.
At the conclusion of the electoral exercise, which the new governing party won, some commentators began to associate INEC with bias towards the APC. The allegation was also sustained that the deep gorge within the governing party led to the sidelining of Audu’s running mate, Faleke, in the search for whom to inherit the already earned votes before the sudden death.
Not long after Kogi, another off-season governorship held in Bayelsa State. There again, the spectre of inconclusive election showed up, even as INEC rationalised the development on the outbreak of violence in Southern Ijaw local council out of the eight local councils in the state.
By January 2016 when the outcome of the Bayelsa poll was announced, however, the Prof. Yakubu’s administration in INEC had come up with an ingenious scheme to address the issue of induced violence by politicians to ensure a cancellation of results in their rivals’ strong holds.
Within the past five years, the initiative of simultaneous accreditation and voting has stuck as a legacy of Prof. Yakubu’s tenure as INEC chairman. In 2016 when he visited the headquarters of The Guardian in Lagos, the INEC chairman disclosed that he had conducted many elections, especially court-ordered bye-elections than any other chairman in the history of Nigeria’s democracy.
Rationalizing the idea of inconclusive polls, which had become a steady criticism of his style, Prof. Yakubu said his stance that wherever violence prevented his officials from performing their lawful functions, the best thing was to cancel the exercise. He added that declaring the election inconclusive comes into consideration when the number of cancelled ballots based on collected Permanent Voting Cards (PVCs) exceeded the number of votes separating the winner and the first runner up. 
From Kogi and Bayelsa, INEC under Prof. Yakubu has so far conducted other offseason governorship polls in Edo, Osun, Ekiti, Anambra, before the 2019 general election in addition to multifarious bye-elections into State and National Assembly seats.

Mixed Bag
SPEAKING at a programme to review the conduct of the 2019 general elections in Abuja in June 2019, Prof. Yakubu said INEC officials were the most improved public agency in Nigeria, stressing that elections the commission had been conducting sine 1999 show that INEC has continued to improve progressively.
The INEC chairman also disclosed that on his watch, the commission sent Electoral Officers (EOs) as observers in foreign elections so as to expose them to global best practices, even as he maintained that INEC “has significantly improved from where it used to be in 1999.”
His words: “Every organisation should be interested in its successive plan. The commission will not lose experienced hands soon. We try to build the capacity of our EOs by giving them the needed exposure.

“If you look at what happened to our elections since 1999, you will know that INEC is the most improved public service in Nigeria. We have offices at the grass roots but we can do more. We involved the EOs in foreign elections observation, including various trips to Kenya, Liberia and America.”
As his tenure lasted, the INEC chairman contributed his ideas to the incremental refurbishment of the country’s electoral system. He expressed optimism that full electronic voting would feature in future polls, adding that card reader and PVC and card reader technology have helped greatly to improve the credibility and fidelity of elections in Nigeria.
Prof. Yakubu reignited public perception that his administration tends towards the governing political party when in the build up to the 2019 general elections he challenged the constitutional authority of the National Assembly to set the sequence of elections.
Some critics accused Prof. Yakubu’s INEC of helping Nigeria’s presidency to scuttle the amendment of the 2010 Electoral Act by the 8th National Assembly, which had stipulated for electronic transmission of results from the polling units to avert manipulation of the outcome of balloting. 
Speaking in Abuja, barely one week after the Edo State governorship and one week to a similar exercise in Ondo State, the INEC chairman disclosed that commission had begun preparations for migration to full electronic voting enabling legal provisions.
In a bid to put credibility to his assertions, Prof. Yakubu disclosed that already the commission had invited some 40 Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) manufacturers for a practical demonstration on the operational systems. He sustained the impression that things are looking up as far as electoral management is concerned in Nigeria, remarking that based on the use of election technology, it has become easy for INEC to upload real-time, election results for public consumption. 
But, despite the contagious optimism of better days by the INEC chairman, critics pick holes in his five years’ tenure, recalling how the first two gubernatorial polls in Kogi and Bayelsa depleted public confidence in the commission.
It is also held against Prof. Yakubu that in 2019 election, his regime pulled back gains recorded during the preceding administration of Prof. Attahiru Jega, particularly in the use of Smart Card Readers in the biometric accreditation of voters from the success rates of 54 per cent under Prof Jega to 19 per cent.
While the widening apathy towards elections by voters was blamed on the declining public confidence under the present dispensation, the INEC chairman is accused of reneging on his promise on Central Server transmission of results before 2019 elections.

Reports by reputable election monitors, including African Union (AU), European Union (EU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) blamed incompetence for INEC’s inability to foresee shortcomings that led to the postponement of the 2019 general elections six hours to commencement of voting.

Verdict Of History, Future Agenda
AS the constitutional five year-term available for Prof. Mahmood Yakubu as INEC chairman runs its full course, the questions on the minds of watchers of Nigeria’s electoral system is whether the chairman would be reappointed for another term and what becomes of the reformation process of the electoral management system.
President Buhari recently declared his resolve to leave a legacy of transparent and credible elections by the time he rounds off his second term in 2023. Just as the nomination of Ms. Lauretta Onochie for the position of INEC national commissioner sparked controversies, many Nigerians are eager to know what becomes of the chairmanship post.
A lot of commentators have expressed misgivings about the nomination of Onochie, saying that apart from being a certified member of the governing party, INEC job is not like every other assignment that experience could be carried over from elsewhere.
The nomination of Onochie has also triggered conservations on whether the President would get the right caliber of person to step into Prof. Yakubu’s shoes if he is not reappointed or the incumbent decides like Jega, to limit his tenure to one term.

It is not going to be a hard decision for the President, especially given that he has a precedent in the appointment of Prof. Jega by former President Jonathan at a time public trust of the electoral umpire was at about its lowest ebb. If President Buhari decides to select the next INEC chairman from within the commission, he would be banking on international best practices of focusing on persons with cognate experience.
The President would be mindful of the fact that apart from rebuilding public confidence in the electoral process, whoever becomes INEC chairman from November 9 as well as national commissioners, should be the ones to prepare the country for the 2023 election.
But whichever way or strategy the President decides to base his decision, it would amount to dismantling the little gains already recorded to appoint a retired Judge or politically exposed judicial consultants to politicians as was mooted some time ago.
A chieftain of Afenifere, Akin Odumakin, noted that although Prof. Yakubu did his best under Nigeria’s toxic environment, whoever takes over from him “must be ready to improve on the system and earn more confidence from the electorate.” Odumakin stressed that going forward; the position of INEC chairman is to lead the process and involve different levels of the political spectrum.
Whatever happens and given the crucial nature of elections to the survival of democracy, the constitutional stipulations as regards engagement of electoral umpire should be adhered to.

The 1999 constitution stipulates that the chairman should not be less than 40 years, while the commissioners should not be less than 35, but integrity, capacity and incorruptibility among other sterling qualities should be factored in.
Deep knowledge of the challenges of election in addition to experience in and the conduct or management of elections should be part of the essential qualifications of the INEC chairman. Since election management involves a very complex and massive field operations, the President should focus his search on those that have been interrogating issues affecting the country’s electoral process that have enviable track records.
However, the recent postponement of by-elections that would have taken place in 11 states by INEC could give room for a caretaker chairman as happened prior to the appointment of Prof. Yakubu. But being an institution, the commission as the chairman said, has over the years amassed capable hands, especially Resident Electoral Commissioners, to carry on with the business of conducting elections.