Frequent change of electoral umpires won’t speak well of our democracy – Isiguzo

In this interview, National President, Nigerian Union of Journalists, Comrade Chris Isiguzo, says Nigeria’s electoral system can only get better because of the re-nomination by President Muhammadu Buhari of Prof Mahmood Yakubu as the Chairman Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) who he says has garnered sufficient experience in his first term that would positively impact on Nigeria’s electoral system. EMEKA NZE reports.  

What is your impression on the re-nomination of the INEC chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu by President Muhammadu Buhari for a second term?

The re-nomination of Prof Mahmood Yakubu as the chairman of the INEC did not come to me as a surprise. We must start to deepen our democracy; a situation where we continue to change electoral umpires does not speak well for growing democracy. It’s akin to what we have in the legislature where a legislator can stay in a legislative House as long as his people want him to remain there. There is no tenure limitation. So that is what should also happen to our electoral system. Those that are driving the process should be left to garner experience over time, and it is not good to continue to change electoral umpires at every election, at every interval,  it is not good for our democracy. By the time you have these people there, they must have learnt their lessons, noticed the imperfections in the system, they must have also devised strategies that would help in addressing those imperfections and that would help democracy to grow. Most of the problems we have in our country today is because of our inability to get the electoral system right because by the time a political actor, for example, a political office holder discovers and it is etched in his mind that power resides with the people and that they decide whether you stay or don’t stay, there would now be more commitment to serve the people. But when you are so free with the impression that you can always buy your way when you go for an election, there is no regard for the people, that’s the implication. So by the time we get the electoral system right where votes begin to count, one man, one vote, and not one man one million votes, then we would have started solving our problems and the process of addressing these major challenges plaguing our electoral system is to stop this turning over of electoral officers.  Now we have Prof Yakubu by the President’s benevolence who has been re-nominated, I hope the present National Assembly would consider that re-nomination. The implication is that he’s going to stay at least 10 years as INEC chairman and within the 10 years, he must have taken time to groom those people that would succeed him. So it is a lot easier. So what the President had done in that regard, we want to believe that that is the intention of that re-nomination. If that is, it’s a good one. Now some people-the opposition party- might be looking at it from a different perspective. Immediately he was re-nominated, the major opposition party came out to say, “You have made mistakes in the past,  now is the time to correct those mistakes”. Well they are coming from a different perspective, there is also nothing wrong with that. Yes he may have made mistakes, nobody is perfect, and we are all working towards perfection. This is the time for him to look at those areas where the electoral system has been flawed. By the time he’s sworn in, he is not coming as a green horn., he’s coming as an expert on electoral matters. So when he comes on board, some people will not start to bamboozle him with electoral terminologies. He knows it now, he can easily address it. So, from day one, there is nothing like trying to study the office, how it works.  He already knows how it works. So his re-nomination and the elections that are going to be conducted under him as chairman of INEC in the second term,  I can believe it’s going to be a lot better,  we are not going to have inconclusive elections. Those were not his making anyway and not the making of INEC, it’s the making of the system because the laws are very very clear. The Electoral Acts as amended, the constitution and all the electoral laws are very clear. Why do we then have inconclusive elections? When you have somebody that is leading in elections and the areas that are cancelled because of violence or inability of the area to conduct elections, the figure you get there outnumbers the figure which the projected winner has used to top his immediate opponent, you can’t declare the results. 

Don’t you consider that the credibility of Edo and Ondo governorship elections would have encouraged the President to re-nominate him? 

This man you are talking about conducted the general elections in the country and when we are talking about general elections,  we are talking elections involving the 29 states apart from the states that are part of the off season elections.  He conducted elections across the country, the Governorship, National Assembly, the State Assembly, the Abuja Area Councils elections. They were conducted under him and if you calculate the number of elections that took place under him, you know that they are far more than two and you are making reference to only two states. I don’t think that the decision to re-nominate him is the feat he achieved in Edo and Ondo but you will also agree with me that the last elections they conducted, from what we heard, appeared better, more credible; they improved on the lapses, the experience in past elections. So as they continue to conduct more elections, they continue to improve the system.  You will agree with me, how do you also rate the credibility of the ballot? In Edo state, after the elections how many people are in court challenging the process leading to that election and of course even after the election? When you conduct the election at the end of the election, every candidate that took part in the election, apart from the projected winner, moves to court, there is a problem. But in the instant case, even the first runner up is not in court challenging that election, the second runner up is not in court challenging that election. Somebody that is in court is somebody saying I was omitted. That is to say, to a very large extent, the election was adjudged by the participants themselves as credible. Then for you and I that are not direct participants, who are we to say it is not credible?  So he improved on it.  Ditto, what happened in Ondo state. Maybe, you have one or two persons that are in court but the number of litigants substantially reduced which also speaks volume of the credibility of that election. 

What’s your take on the perceived grouse of some Nigerians that the INEC chairman handed over to a fellow northerner when he stepped aside?

It is unfortunate that this country has degenerated to the point that we are talking about where one comes from. It is unfortunate that the issue of stateism, tribe, religion, are now taking preeminent position in our national discourse. It’s very very sad. But addressing the issue the way it has come, Prof Mahmood Yakubu comes from the North East and what he has done is to hand over to AVM Ahmed Tijani Mu’azu  retired who is also from the Northeast representing the northeast in INEC and that is the right thing to do. He  left and the body of National Commissioners  met, from what we read, and they unanimously chose the representative of the northeast in the commission to now act as chairman. For me, that is not a problem. He’s got a few days to be there and as soon as the re-nominated chairman is cleared by the Upper Chamber of the National Assembly, of course, he would be sworn in and AVM Muazu takes his normal position. So I don’t see any problem there.  

Amongst the people, the argument is that seniority was not observed in the handover. Did you see that also? 

You are the one talking about seniority. It happened at that material time, during the time of Maurice Iwu as INEC chairman, the most senior, Philip Umeadi, also hailed from the same Southeast as the chairman. It does not mean that he was chosen on the basis of being the most senior. People outside may have interpreted it that way. This thing has a way it works,  but the fact is that until a substantive person comes in., the person from that zone takes over. Do you recall when Jega was leaving?  He is from the Northwest, he handed over to Amina Zakari who is also from that zone. She was also chosen because she hails from the same zone with the outgoing chairman pending when a new chairman was substantively appointed. We should not dissipate energy discussing where the acting chairman comes from, he is not the substantive chairman. Where you are going to talk is in the event the next person is appointed and he also hails from the same place, then you can now begin to talk but as far as the situation prevails as it is, I don’t see that as a problem.

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