Even though he had conducted 178 small-scale elections, the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, still has his biggest test coming.
Exactly three days and one year to the 2019 presidential election – the fifth since Nigeria transited to democratic rule in 1999 – we sat down to interview Yakubu in his office in Abuja.
The interview was held amidst what seemed like a triple-wave controversy.
First, a video of what apparently was underage voting in the local government election in Kano was making the rounds and INEC was under fire to prosecute the culprits for abusing its register.
Second, the ongoing voter registration appeared to be heading for a crisis with widespread complaints of shortage of registration materials and poor access to centres.
And third, the National Assembly had laid INEC’s 2019 election timetable on the chopping block, ready to swing the axe.
It was under these circumstances that we got an exhaustive interview with Yakubu, the first since he assumed office three years ago.
His composure hardly betrays the raging storm. “I have no illusions about my assignment,” he said. “I’m fully conscious of the responsibility that this commission has to the public and we’re determined, through patient hard work, not to let Nigerians down. Not a single genuine public concern, including the areas you have mentioned, will be taken for granted.”
Then, he calls for his tea.
Anyone meeting the INEC Chairman for the first time might be forgiven to think he’s a lawyer. He hardly finishes a sentence about the duties and responsibilities of INEC, for example, without citing some specific provision of the Electoral Act that supports his view.
If History and Philosophy are cousins of Law, then it is not entirely surprising that Yakubu a doctorate degree holder from the University of Oxford, and also for years the only First Class graduate of History from Northern Nigeria, has a legal turn of mind.
Yet, for a job that has vanquished many distinguished academics in the past, Yakubu’s academic qualifications do not make his assignment less daunting.
His predecessor, Professor Attahiru Jega, who presided over the first election in Nigeria’s history in which an incumbent lost, has also raised the stakes.
When we raised the question about the weight of expectations, he pushed back his chair and took a deep breath: “We’re aware of the standards set,” he said. “If what we have done so far is a measure of the level and quality of our readiness – 178 elections in three years, with only three cancelled by the courts – then I’ll leave the public to judge. We’re leaving nothing to chance.”
There are new statutory obligations that have not made Yakubu’s job easier. In the past, for example, voter registration was carried out largely before elections. Now, the law stipulates continuous voter registration. Yet funding is barely above the level that it was when the commission was still conducting occasional registration.
INEC’s slow response to the public outcry over shortages in early February was not unconnected to the funding nightmare.
Yet, Yakubu understands that managing an INEC that delivers credible election will require more than throwing money at problems.
As he rocked the chair by his conference table and adjusted his grey cap slightly, he said, “We understand that we must be strategic. So, we’re also spending time to build capacity amongst staff. We’re collaborating with our partners across board and we’ve also had the privilege of seeing best practices elsewhere. We’ll bring all that to bear on our own system.”
In the 31 questions asked during the one-hour interview, Yakubu declined to answer one: Does he think that the Presidency leaned on the security services to postpone the 2015 elections?
He may have declined to give an answer, but even his silence spoke volumes.
The interview is another must read!