Nigerians waited with inflexible breath, making varied postulations on the future of our electoral umpire. But it has always been so. Each time it seems the tenure of the man who sits at the helm comes to an end, because we criticize more than proffer solutions, we scurry like soothsayers. For those who are keen on not only flipping pages of history, but also deeply studying records, the archives are filled with cobwebs, but let’s dust it a little.
When Chief Michael Ani conducted the 1979 general elections, and Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari emerged winner in the experimental presidential system of government, the pages of our robust newspapers circulated content not unfamiliar with what it is today, 41 years after. The opposition parties had lampooned the Federal Electoral Commission, FEDECO, alleging irregularities in favour of the National Party of Nigeria, NPN. In 1983, Justice Victor Ovie-Whisky was also not spared the cane as he was vehemently bruised and accused of manipulating the elections that returned Shagari to office for a second and final term.
Professor Eme Awa appeared on the scene to head the newly christened National Electoral Commission of Nigeria, NECON, under the General Ibrahim Babangida era. Charged with returning the country to a democratic rule, NECON began its mission by conducting local government election in 1987. But like its predecessor, FEDECO, there were reports of “wide spread irregularities” in the process. Professor Humphrey Nwosu superintended over the acclaimed June 12, 1993 elections, till date adjudged the “freest and fairest” because of the novel option A4 system. But at the end, he was thrown out by the military regime. Why? Professor Okon Edet Uya who stepped into his shoes didn’t conduct any election up until General Sani Abacha staged a palace coup and used Sumner Karibi Dagogo-Jack to toy with the five political parties that scrambled to adopt him as a presidential candidate.
Justice Ephraim Akpata was drafted to oversee the return to democracy by the General Abdulsalam Abubakar regime. He pioneered the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, and ushered in the civilian government of Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999. Akpata got his share of criticisms from within and without our shores despite his genuine efforts at building the blocks of the 4th Republic. He was accused by the opposition of tilting the pendulum in favour of the military government’s appeal for one of its own to emerge president. Allegation!
Dr. Abel Guobadia, an acclaimed Solid State Physics expert, succeeded Akpata after his death in 2000. He conducted the 2003 elections that returned Obasanjo for a second term but observers were unanimous that it was clothed in “widespread violence and other irregularities”. Professor Maurice Iwu who came onboard in 2005 had his image severely battered while the Commission under him, and all elections conducted, adjudged not satisfactory.
By the time professor Attahiru Jega was invited in 2010 by the Goodluck Jonathan government, Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief. However, after conducting two general elections that brought in two different presidents, there were allegations of connivance and secret meetings abroad with an opposition party. His toga of comradeship was almost shredded. The tale goes on and on…
It is enlightening that before these men of yesterday got appointed by various governments to head our electoral Commissions, our archives were replete with their accounts clothed in integrity, full of sound mind and slow to fury. They may not have been necessarily the best; however, all showed and were noticed because they had climbed the peak of their careers exaltedly. But at the expiration of their tenure, the cacophony that has trailed our electoral processes and nationhood from pre-independence; ethnicity, tribalism, religion, regionalism, favouritism, etcetera, was also their collective bane! And the allegations have stuck becoming a lapel of dishonour.
So when Professor Mahmood Yakubu, a first class political historian took over from Jega in 2015, it was not unexpected that his first tenure was greeted with mixed reactions – some were pleased, others displeased. Like his revered predecessors, he may not be a saint. But as a calm giant who sits atop Nigeria’s election umpire, he’s unquestionably a man with a date with destiny.
Being the first to be reappointed as chairman of the country’s electoral body since independence, professor Yakubu must deliberately exhibit understanding of the electoral system and prove to skeptics that the allegations trailing his first term were untrue or fabricated. He must prove through strategic communication and engagement that the president didn’t make a mistake allowing him to continue overseeing the Commission at this critical era of deep-seated suspicion between political parties and stakeholders. He must show through elections that he is repeating a class not because he failed exams, but to gain more experience to enable him to set positive records in future.
Unlike other developing economies like Ghana where electoral umpires have limitless tenure and thus accumulate sufficient expertise on the job, in Nigeria, the only way to make the system better, many have argued, is to elongate the tenure of the INEC chairmen, “allow them to grow on the job and overcome the nightmarish challenges of poll management on election days”. It is hoped that Yakubu would seize this rare opportunity to perfect the system by tightening all loose ends in our electoral system. Already he has scored high marks in his conduct of Edo and Ondo elections not to talk of his stance on the internal party squabbles of the All Progressives Congress, APC, in Rivers and Zamfara that gave effortless victory to the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, during the 2019 governorship election.
INEC under Yakubu should listen to calls for electronic voting, which is long overdue, to facilitate seamless voting by all Nigerians including those in the Diaspora who have always wanted to participate in the electoral process. The Commission should start election preparation early to defeat some unexpected issues like he admitted recently that “what we intend to do this time around is that things that we require for election shouldn’t wait until the election year”. Fine, but also know that the Commission has barely two years for the crucial 2023 general elections.
So when history beckons, historians like Yakubu must step out confident of their renewed strategies to build a reputation that illuminates the political landscape erasing cynicism, consuming negativity, and defeating parochialism so as to restore optimism in the electoral process for positive democratic evolution of Nigeria.
Swam is Secretary, Nigerian Institute of Public Relations, Kaduna and author of the book “How to be an Effective Spokesperson.”No tags for this post.