The Next INEC Chairman

Other than his promise to bequeath credible elections to the country when he leaves office, Buhari also has a lot less at stake in the 2023 elections and may not be seeking radical changes at INEC.

The INEC Chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu
The INEC Chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu

Virtually every key institution in Nigeria has been dragged into the electoral process and may have even been corrupted by politicians.

The Nigeria Police, the Army and even the judiciary have at one time or another been used to determine the outcome of elections in very questionable circumstances.

And they have all faced the public wrath for their activities.

But maybe no institution faces public scrutiny over the credibility of elections in Nigeria like the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

Other than the powers wielded by the President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, there maybe no single individual whose actions or inactions determines the outcome of elections in Nigeria like the head of the electoral body.

And every time there is a vacancy in that position, the interest it generates is as intense as the political contest for the presidency.

Even Nigeria’s international partners care who heads the commission.

Some are not shy to say so.

Left to Goodluck Jonathan, he would have probably reappointed Prof. Maurice Iwu as the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission.

But United States Ambassador, Robin Sanders was vehemently opposed to Iwu’s continuation as the country’s electoral umpire and she made it known to the president.

The cries to have the judiciary appoint the chairman of the electoral body as recommended by the Uwais Committee are seasonal, whenever an incumbent president has his name on the ballot

According to Iwu, the US government made request he felt undermined Nigeria’s sovereignty and national security, like giving access to opening up the voters’ register to scrutiny.

But today, similar requests centered on biodata and the ability to identify citizens has led to limits on the class of visas Nigerians can apply for at the US Embassy.

But the hostility towards Iwu’s INEC was about so much more than his lack of transparency in writing the voters’ register.

For Jonathan, resisting Sanders was not an option.

With Umaru Yar’Adua still breathing and in Aso Rock, his claim to the presidency was tenuous.

Other than that, Iwu would have been a safe bet for Jonathan in an election barely one year away.

And so, a few months before his tenure of INEC chairman officially ended, Maurice Iwu was booted out of office.

It was no surprise really considering the poor reviews he got for the conduct of the 2007 general elections.

Yar’Adua, the eventual winner of the presidential election, himself admitted the elections were less than credible and in response, set up an electoral reform committee head by Mohammed Uwais, a former Chief Justice of Nigeria.

The cries to have the judiciary appoint the chairman of the electoral body as recommended by the Uwais Committee are seasonal, whenever an incumbent president has his name on the ballot.

That was what happened when President Muhammadu Buhari was seeking a second term in office in the 2019 general elections.

The reality is that such a move will only further drag top judges deeper into politics and politicise the judiciary, which is already suffering from pressure and a growing trust deficit because of cases related to elections and exposure to politicians.

Politically sensitive cases have already led to the premature exit from office of notable judicial officers like Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen and Appeal Court President Ayo Salami.

Electoral disputes in court have also ended up tarnishing the image of countless judicial officers.

Saddling the judiciary with the responsibility of appointing the chairman of INEC won’t necessarily guarantee impartiality on part of the appointee, it will only create a new power bloc politicians will lobby and maybe even raise the stakes in the contest to wield power between the executive, the judiciary and the legislature.

As far as the story goes, it was Jonathan’s National Security Adviser that recommended Attahiru Jega for appointment as INEC chairman.

Obviously, there was some level of trust between Jonathan and Jega in 2010.

Why and how that trust vanished five years later is hard to say.

Apparently though, it didn’t occur to Jonathan that Jega would end up presiding over two general elections.

Politically sensitive cases have already led to the premature exit from office of notable judicial officers like Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen and Appeal Court President Ayo Salami

As it turned out, his appointed head for INEC became the hero of the 2015 general elections, facing down threats from the military who forced the postponement of the election, from militants who planned his abduction and from Godsday Orubebe, to announce to the world that the incumbent had lost the presidential election.

At that moment, Attahiru Jega, the chairman of INEC was the most powerful man in Nigeria; more powerful than the president.

For that exact reason, it was always going to be a tall order for Jega to have gotten reappointed by Buhari.

He had become part of the story, if not the story of the 2015 presidential election.

And as the Jonathan government saw, Jega, not Buhari was their main challenger in the presidential election.

And that may be the real success of Mahmood Yakubu, who succeeded Jega as the country’s chief electoral officer.

There is no denying it however that the electoral commission, particularly Amina Zakari a commissioner, faced an unprecedented level of scrutiny and pressure during the 2019 general election.

In the end though, the story of the election wasn’t about INEC or Yakubu.

It was more about the commission’s server.

That gave an idea of what was to come.

Since then other elections have taken place, and as much as is humanly possible in a fractious environment of Nigerian politics, Yakubu has achieved the impossible and remained in the background during electoral contests.

So, it was in the governorship election in Edo and more recently in Ondo.

As non-contestants and election managers, INEC’s invincibility during elections has now been replaced by vote buying.

The commission can do very little about that.

Politicians will always seek means to pollute the voting process.

But Yakubu is doing a lot about transparency in the collation and announcement of results right from the polling unit.

In both Edo and Ondo, INEC deployed viewing portals were results at each level of the process were uploaded live, making difficult, if not near impossible to successfully alter results.

As non-contestants and election managers, INEC’s invincibility during elections has now been replaced by vote buying

The portals could very well be the future of Nigerian elections.

In the outcome of the Edo election where the portal first came to light, congratulatory messages were sent not to Mahmood Yakubu, but to INEC.

That says a lot about how the commission is being managed and the changes that are taking place within.

The general elections coming up in 2023 mean different things to different people.

For, INEC, it is about innovation, technology, constant improvement and electoral reform.

For a large part of the population, 2023 about whether rotating the presidency between the geopolitical zones of the country will become a permanent fixture of Nigerian politics or will die a natural death.

But for millions of other, and the international community, 2023 presidential election, more than ever before will be about the will of the people, free, fair and credible elections.

The question is who will be able to deliver on all those promises?

By the end of this month, the tenure of Mahmood Yakubu will come to an end.

Since the return to democracy in 1999, no chairman of the commission has succeeded in getting re-appointed.

In that regard, the odds are against the present chairman.

Nine out of 10 times though, Buhari has reappointed the heads of government agencies instead of replacing them when their tenures end.

Other than his promise to bequeath credible elections to the country when he leaves office, Buhari also has a lot less at stake in the 2023 elections and may not be seeking radical changes at INEC.

That only increases the chances that Yakubu will have the opportunity to build an electoral body where one day, no one will remember the name of its chairman.

The only names that will count will be those of electoral contestants.

Written by Shuaib Shuaib

Shuaibu, a former Editor of the LEADERSHIP Newspapers, is based in Abuja.

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