AFTER five years in the saddle as Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Attahiru Jega bows out today. Not a few would regard his tenure as remarkable; indeed it was, as the outcome of the 2015 general election was largely a true reflection of the will of the electorate.
For the first time in our electoral annals, a ruling party – the Peoples Democratic Party – was ousted from power by the opposition All Progressives Congress. Truly, in the pantheon of public service heroes, Jega has an assured place.
The radical swop in the country’s political evolution from this year’s polls came on the heels of previous parodies. Votes were simply allocated to candidates in the 1999, 2003 and 2007 elections, with that of 2007 grabbing the notorious distinction of the biggest electoral fraud globally, from international election observers.
Jega first captured public imagination in the early 1990s during the military regime of the dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, when he was the president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities. The union fought that fiendish regime to a standstill as Jega resisted all overtures to compromise the struggle. Besides, his membership of the Justice Muhammadu Uwais Electoral Reform Committee that produced a well acclaimed report further opened his eyes to the challenges bedevilling Nigeria’s electoral process.
It was from this milieu that Jega emerged on June 30, 2010 as INEC chairman. A calm and calculating left-of-the-centre intellectual, Jega is also a professor of political science and former vice-chancellor of Bayero University, Kano, who came to that office with a rich pedigree in public service. He was mindful of his reputation at all times.
Although he conducted the 2011 general election, which lacked a patina of credibility in some respects, its rough edges, rather than weigh him down, provided him a vista for reforms, which climaxed in the use of the Permanent Voter Card and Card Reader machines in the March–April 2015 polls. These innovations were hitherto alien to our electoral process. As a game-changer, the card reader improved the integrity of the last elections, with its mechanism to authenticate a voter and match his/her fingerprints with the code on the chip of a card.
However, despite the watershed these two electoral devices inaugurated in Nigeria’s electoral contest, the 2015 general election still had the ills of those before it in terms of poor general preparations. This was evident in the shambolic distribution of PVCs, which began barely three months to the commencement of elections.
INEC offered no reason for that shoddiness. A task it had four years to perform ought not to have been mired in such tackiness. The aberration was almost exploited by anti-democratic elements to sabotage the entire election as they relied on insecurity in the North-East region to demand an adjustment in the election timetable. Thus, the presidential and National Assembly elections earlier billed for February 14 were shifted to March 28, and those of governorship and state assembly to April 11.
“The period of the extension has offered us an opportunity to further perfect the electoral process for the delivery of free, fair, credible and peaceful elections to the satisfaction of the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerians,” Jega had said.
As the D-Day came, it was still the same old tune: logistics nightmare emblazoned in lack of vehicles to convey polling officials to their units; late arrival of electoral materials; shortage of materials and poorly-trained ad hoc staff. In some areas, accreditation of voters could not begin by 1 pm, whereas the official time for voting to start was 1.30 pm.
But for the generators volunteered by some public-spirited voters, to illuminate polling centres in some cases where voting went far into the night, the situation would have been irredeemable for the electoral body. In fact, the shortage of materials forced INEC to postpone the House of Representatives election in the entire Jigawa State and two federal constituencies of Ethiope-East and Ethiope-West, in Delta State.
Now, with Jega gone, with almost all the electoral commissioners, leaving INEC heavily denuded of its statutory personnel, rejuvenating the body is a duty the Muhammadu Buhari government should not take lightly. As a matter of fact, we should not be blinkered by INEC’s outing in 2015; there is still room for improvement. If anything, the last election should serve as a stepping stone to a slew of electoral reforms and institutional consolidation required before the 2019 general election.
Indeed, strengthening our democracy will come to naught if electoral reforms are not deepened. This is why the use of card reader and PVCs should be included in the Electoral Act. Such irreducible minimum guarantee of integrity will put chronic election riggers, who fought tenaciously against the adoption of these devices, in check.
Who succeeds Jega is a critical matter. To avoid the problems of the past when some INEC chairs and State Resident Electoral Commissioners could not rise above partisanship in doing their jobs, or were paid agents of the ruling political party, a broad-based approach that recommends their appointments to public scrutiny has become imperative. Integrity or character of the appointees is of essence here.
For making Nigeria to join the rest of the democratic world by ensuring that the 2015 polls were credible, Attahiru Jega deserves our gratitude.