Last week, the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders’ Forum, SMBLF, demanded the removal of Professor Mahmood Yakubu as chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. Giving reasons for their demand, the joint secretary of the forum, Mr. Yinka Odumakin noted that President Muhammadu Buhari had violated a fundamental convention whereby sitting presidents appointed INEC chairmen from outside their own geopolitical zones.
He explained that Yakubu’s case was made worse by the touted overarching presence of a federal commissioner, Hajiya Amina Zakari, who, before Yakubu, was acting chairman of the commission. Yakubu’s other sin, according to Odumakin, is his failure to release the report of the investigation into allegations of under-aged voting during the last local government elections in Kano state.
It is important to acknowledge that, as critical stakeholders in the Nigeria project, members of the forum are entitled to weigh in on INEC, even to demand a reordering of the system that determines a winner, including the umpire. Such liberty is the more imperative at a time like this when, as many believe, the outcome of the 2019 national elections, promises to mark a defining moment in Nigeria’s quest not just to entrench democracy but to ensure the very survival of the country.
As elders and patriots, members of the forum would have subjected their demand, to sack the INEC boss, to the highest level of circumspection before going public. I believe with elections in Ekiti and Osun states around the corner and with the general elections only eight months away, any disruption of the system, to the extent of removing INEC chairman, can only be justified by the discovery in him of provable character flaws, violation of the Electoral Act or indisputable evidence of partisanship.
That being the case, in considering their demand, we should address our minds to the following: Is Professor Yakubu qualified to hold the position? Although he hails from the north as the president, are there precedents to justify his appointment? On balance, does the performance of INEC so far lend credence to suspicion of bias or evidence of a grand plan to rig the elections? If such evidence exists, would his replacement provide sure-fire guarantee that rigging can be foreclosed? Talking about rigging, is INEC the cause, promoter or just a willing instrument, a symptom or indeed a victim? Should Yakubu or any other federal appointee for that matter, suffer loss of his/her job on account of the actions and/or inactions of the president?
I raise these posers not necessarily to defend Professor Yakubu but to remind us that we have walked this road several times over, often times burning our fingers in the process. By extension, the point needs to be made that, in spite of the crisis of confidence bedeviling our polity, with the benefit of hindsight, we must guard against falling into the dilemma of throwing the baby with the bath water or, worse still, jumping from frying pan to fire! We need not look too far into the past to understand the point that is being made here.
Placed side by side with his predecessors, Professor Yakubu is eminently qualified to hold the post. An alumnus of the University of Sokoto where he bagged a first class in history and Oxford University where he bagged a Masters degree as well as a doctorate in philosophy, Yakubu, who hails from Bauchi state, has a solid academic background, an impressive record of service and in-depth knowledge of Nigerian history.
The fact that he (North-east) comes from the same latitudinal divide (North) as President Buhari (North-west) cannot and should not disqualify him from the INEC chairmanship just as the fact that the late Dr. Abel Guobadia (South-south) came from the same latitudinal divide (South) as former President Olusegun Obasanjo (South-west) did not disqualify him from conducting the 2003 elections.
On the fear of possible partisanship, going by the elections already conducted by INEC under Yakubu’s leadership, it is safe to say that there is no evidence or incidence, so far, to support the view that INEC is poised to truncate the will of the people. It did not disappoint in Anambra where the candidate of the All Progressive Grand Alliance, APGA, Dr. Willie Obiano, defeated all other candidates including the president’s party/candidate. That election was widely commended by various individuals and interest groups, among them, the former APGA chairman, Chief Victor Umeh, now a senator.
That is not to suggest that INEC is without some shortcomings. Professor Yakubu’s detailed statement on the Kano under-aged voters’ episode can be found on the portal of Sahara Reporters captioned: ALLEGED KANO UNDER-AGED VOTERS, INEC IS NOT CULPABLE, but it appears that not all stakeholders are privy to the detailed and very candid explanation which actually leaves the Kano state Government with some questions to answer. The matter is not helped by the ‘threat’ by the Kano State Governor, Alhaji Abdullahi Ganduje, to deliver five million votes to President Buhari in the 2019 elections. The implication of this is the need for rigorous and continuous stakeholder engagement so that some of these nagging doubts are not allowed to fester.
Thus, rather than dismiss the demand of SMBLF, INEC should consider it as a wake-up call to address the various misgivings, restore confidence in the system and establish the environment for pervasive stakeholder buy-in without which 2019 could turn into the nightmare Nigeria dreaded.
However, it will be a disservice to the nation to push the entire moral responsibility for the conduct of free and fair elections to INEC. It is everybody’s call. SMBLF, as guardians of the people’s conscience, should join hands with similar groups in other zones of the North, to extract commitment from politicians to place the will of the people above narrow interest. Politicians, not INEC, are the ones that arm thugs to snatch ballot boxes and wreak mayhem on their opponents; they induce INEC officials with all kinds of material and other juicy entrapments; they engineer declaration of false results; they deny civil servants their legitimate salaries and starve their families only to give them mucus-ravaged loaves of bread at polling stations (what dehumanisation!); they, not INEC, scuttle the conduct of free and fair elections in Nigeria and abort the will of the people.
Professor Yakubu and his team can take consolation in the statement credited to former President Obasanjo that, even if Jesus Christ was to conduct elections in the country, Nigerians would still dispute the results. By the way, Yakubu’s immediate predecessors, Professors Maurice Iwu and Attahiru Jega, suffered the same fate. There is nothing to suggest that the INEC chairman, being a scapegoat, will fare any better. That is the price he has to pay, to serve his fatherland.
Agu writes from Abuja