Friday, 6 August 2010

Give Jega What He Wants Now

After attending an interactive session with Prof. Attahiru Jega midweek, one could easily see why the man is in a big dilemma. The question of the election Czar's personal integrity is not in doubt at all. Everything has been said about that by Nigerians, to the extent that the university don cum chairman of the INEC says he has no words to describe how he was humbled by the national outpouring. One only hopes that Jega will leave this new office with his integrity intact.

There is no gainsaying the fact that organising successful elections in Nigeria is one of the most sensitive jobs in the country. I cannot think of a more difficult task even though one has at the back of one's mind such jobs as heading the whole country a la Goodluck Jonathan's calling or keeping an eye on national security like Gen Aliyu Mohammed Gusau is doing. Heading the Independent National Electoral Commission just as the general elections loom closer is like being in the grip of a cyclone. And this is because of our experience since 2003.

The elections that brought about the civilian government of Olusegun Obasanjo were adjudged to be free and fair. In retrospect, that was due to the fact that those elections were not midwifed by Obasanjo himself. Fast-forward to four years later when the nation went for another general election, this time under the firm control of the president. Obasanjo, a man of redoubtable character, was not prepared to conduct free and fair polls - the type that brought him to office. He saw quite early in the day that such an election would not guarantee his continuity in office, the people having discovered the big mistake they had made in voting for him in the first place. There was a smell of revolution in the air; the president was bound for failure. So he did everything necessary to "win", of course, through hook or crook.

The rest is history. By 2007, a culture of ramming candidates down the throats of Nigerians had been established. The Peoples Democratic Party had become the behemoth that it turned to be, a winner of all seasons. Seeking office under its platform was a sure-fire way of winning hence the impunity of winning, winning and winning. Candidates were imposed, and they were declared as the winners in elections that never took place.

Of course, all that was done with the active connivance of the INEC. The commission, under the leadership of another university don, Prof. Maurice Iwu, was an appendage of the presidency. Iwu was answerable to both the president and the ruling party, effectively compromising the critical middle name of the electoral body, i.e., "independent". His chairmanship practically made INEC "dependent" on the powers that be. The president called the shots at the federal level, while the governors did the same at the state level.

A fortnight ago, we heard the appalling revelations by former Governor Donald Duke of how he and his colleagues connived with INEC to rig elections in 2003 and 2007. Duke said the governors worked together with the so-called resident electoral commissioners (RECs) to wreck havoc on the unsuspecting electorate. Ballot boxes were stuffed with extra ballots that gave the PDP an overall edge nationwide. Although Duke said all the other political parties participated in the unholy game, we know who out-rigged everybody else.

How can Jega avoid falling into a similar chasm? Answer: he should be given what he requested, and then he could be watched. In Duke's story, which was not new anyway but quite tantalising because it came from the horse's mouth, we were reminded that most times the RECs did not have adequate resources when they arrived in their states of posting. They ran cap-in-hand to the state governors, begging for accommodation, means of transportation and money. The governors, wily and forged in the art of deception and subterfuge, obliged them, using the huge security vote at their disposal. On election day, you knew who the REC (and the police commissioner, who also had a hungry belly) would want to please.

Prof. Jega has already warned his RECs to avoid the governors like a plague. He warned that any one of them caught hobnobbing with corrupt persons to undermine the commission's integrity will be dealt with in accordance with the laws of the land. I hope they will listen. But he has not yet given them the kind of money that would discourage them from falling into the old traps that did their predecessors in. Reason: he has not yet got the money himself. During his chat with media executives this week (and also during his Thursday appearance before the House of Representatives Committee on Electoral Matters), he reiterated the need to get the funds needed for the voters' registration exercise. The bill: N74 billion, to be paid in full by August 11. This whopping amount will be used to buy the direct data capturing machines for use in the 120,000 polling units across the country. The general elections cannot be conducted using the 2006 register, which carried funny names such as Nelson Mandela and Michael Jackson. There must be a register which contains clear names, addresses and photographs.

The National Assembly and the presidency appear to be ready to give INEC the money. They have publicly and in private promised to give it maximum cooperation. The question is when the money will be released. Time is money. Someone does not seem to be bothered that this all-important resource is still yet to come. Why the prevarication? I used to think that money is not Nigeria's problem but how to spend it. We should not expect Jega to deliver free and fair polls on the score of his personal integrity alone. Tie his hands with lack of funds, and he is a goner. No doubt, that is not what Nigerians want. So much hype has been made around the need to break with the ugly past. The government should, therefore, make the money available as quickly as possible. As the chairman of the House Committee on Electoral Matters, Musa Sarkin Adar, hinted, the money will be given on the condition that the commission will not fail the nation.

Jega has sworn to uphold the highest ethics in discharging this historic task. "I will not take bribe from anybody," he told us during the chat. "Neither will any national commissioner (in INEC)". Personally, I know he wouldn't. I cannot, however, swear on his colleagues, though I know that without an environment such as the one Obasanjo and Iwu provided, it would be stupid of any INEC senior staffer to be corrupt. But would Jega resign in protest if he finds himself not succeeding due to conditions beyond his control? This question was also posed to him. Yes, he might, was the answer, which was said in a different way: "I will not cross the river until I have come to it." May he not reach such a river, because with the kind of commitment he is displaying, one only prays for credible polls in this country. Amen.

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Published in LEADERSHIP, on 31 July 2010