2023: Why a damaged INEC cannot deliver credible transition

Classical believers in democracy hold that its basic fundaments rest upon three ideal pillars: equality among all people, liberty and respect for law and justice. Karl Popper says democracy is thus preferred over other forms of government because of its propensity as the only type in which governments can be changed without bloodshed.

Unfortunately, between 1999 and 2007 and again between 2015 and 2019, the experiences of Nigerians with democracy have defied such ‘Popperian faith’ that it can bring about political transition and leadership turnover without violence to citizens and violence to the Law.

What is, however, most disturbing is how election, the minimal pillar of democracy, is seen by many Nigerians to have suffered more grievous decay  between 2015 and now, making the conduct of 2023 elections one that must be handled by call for an Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) leadership that is above board.

After the electoral fiascos of 2003 and 2007, a revival of faith in democracy began to grow, particularly after the 2011 elections, 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 set about introducing 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 Voter 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.

Moreover, despite the supportive Executive ambiance of the Jonathan regime, Prof. Jega never held meetings with the Executive arm on the eve of elections. The Electoral Commission under him never accepted elections conducted under obvious voter suppression, particularly those recorded with viral videos circulated all over the world. INEC under his leadership though recorded some inchoate elections but never made inconclusive election results an art for collusion with preferred electoral competitors.

The commission under Jega stamped its regulatory authority on elections and ensured minimal deviations from International Election norms and standards, 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 been perceived to have undergone continuous decline and  seeming 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 in ministerial, ambassadorial and other federal positions. The development 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 Muhammadu Buhari regime, the promotion of democratic practices was going to suffer significant setbacks.

By appointing a relative to potentially arbiter elections between his political foes, the Buhari regime sent out the clear signal that it was unwilling to brook vertical accountability, a major bastion of democracy. Under significant public outcry against this anomaly, and having seriously dented the credibility of INEC, while also foreseeing how such incongruous actions with international election norms and standards can harm any elections conducted by INEC under such famished credibility, Mrs Zakari was replaced by Professor Mahmoud Yakubu.

Upon his appointment, many Nigerians speculated that Prof. Yakubu was a cosmetic replacement to veneer the actions of frustrating any vertical accountability of the Executive arm of governance under the Buhari regime that were intended to be accomplished using Mrs. Zakari, albeit indirectly. The latter 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 was 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 overnight while INEC leadership remained aloof.

Further, in 2019, despite long periods of preparation, the logistics of delivering election materials for the general election was so shambolic that INEC had to concede a late postponement. Despite the postponement, there was evidence that in several states, it was alleged that politicians had pre-knowledge of the design of the result sheets and went ahead to print them for their use.

In addition, the Electronic Smart Card Readers were not used in many places across the country, yet INEC leadership allowed results to be returned from such places. The use of card reader that recorded impressive performance of 54 per cent in the 2015 election surprisingly dropped to less than 20 per cent in the 2019 election and has further dipped in recent elections to 16 per cent in the Nasarawa bye election.

Fortunately, these inglorious five years of recession and regression in electoral credibility at INEC under Prof. Yakubu is expected to end in November this year. Given the background set out above where the current leadership of INEC is largely seen as a collaborator in disabling vertical accountability of the Executive arm, political actors, voters and other stakeholders fear the danger retaining the current crop of INEC officials will pose to democracy.

To prolong and sustain such decay in democratic practices by another re-appointment or extension of the current leadership is to expose election conduct to danger.  Therefore, the earlier a more credible leadership is sought, the better for the country.

Credible lovers of democracy must insist that the right thing be done to restore the credibility of INEC. Given the loss of public confidence in the current INEC, 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 next 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 the serving National Commissioners, if any of them possesses such qualities, which I doubt. Therefore, the president must urgently look outside the commission for men and women with cognate experience and integrity.

Given the time left between the expected transition of the current INEC national leadership and the time that will be 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, which may be an advantage given the small window for transition occasioned by the late appointment of  the outgoing leadership for INEC due largely to  the reluctance of the Executive arm to bring in a neutral INEC chairman early in 2015 who was not related to him.

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 and worse still re-appointing a non-performer , reinforcing the prevailing vexed issues that northerners are treating other Nigerians as if they don’t matter in the running of affairs of Nigeria?

More importantly, political actors who have greater stake in ensuring a level playing field beyond Buhari must bring their influence to bear on the president to appoint credible people who can command public confidence to ensure that future elections will not defy Karl Popper’s hope that democracy offers the best chance of leadership transitions without bloodshed.

 

Dr. Adamu writes from Kaduna.

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