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I did not share in the global jubilation that followed the nomination of Prof Attahiru Jega as Chairman Independent Electoral Commission INEC by President Goodluck Jonathan on June 8 2010.
The jubilation was justified on the antecedents of the political science professor. As the President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities ASUU in the early 90’s, he led a spirited fight against the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida. He went on to carve an image for himself as a celebrated intellectual committed to ethics and morality.
After the ‘election like event’ of 2007, the chief beneficiary of that massive electoral heist – President Yar’adua – in a moment of deep patriotic candour promised the nation that he would set a process in motion to reform the ‘flawed’ electoral system which produced him. He then set up the Justice Mohammed Uwais Electoral Reform Committee. Prof Jega was a member of that committee which submitted a report on 11 December 2008 with recommendations that included establishing commissions to deal with Electoral Offences, Constituency Delimitation and Political Parties Registration and Regulation. The committee also recommended proportional representation and that the INEC head should be appointed by the judiciary rather than the President.
The government that set up the committee could not implement these recommendations which I believe would have gone a long way to sanitise our electoral ills. Sandwiched by his failing health and the hawks in his government who argued that implementing the recommendations would amount to committing hara-kiri, Yar’adua could not extricate himself from the choke. By the time of his death, the recommendations were still pending. When, after one and a half years, the same government appointed him to head the ‘flawed’ and unreformed contraption, I had no good reason to join the jubilating party. To me, Jega had lost his sterling qualities of a principled academic and had joined the Nigerian rat race. I took a look at the ASUU that shot Jega to fame and the INEC he was going to head. The former was a congregation of egg heads advocating ideals of education while the latter was a corruption besotted bureaucracy that had bungled every election from 1999 to the date of his appointment.
His performance in the 2011 elections confirmed my worst fears. My senior colleague, the venerable Abdulkarim Albashir reminds me every time we meet of an observation I published at the end of that election; that Jega had taken us back to 1914 – North vs South. I do not hold Jega originally guilty for that debacle; it was the making of our thieving politicians. But it is incredible that his commission accepted results that were not only evidently padded but cooked up! Amazingly, this pattern of balkanising the country has continued to the present stage, even though INEC has evidently improved on its performance as acknowledged even by critics in its outings in Anambra, Ekiti and Osun.
Reacting to the proposal to create additional polling units in the country, the Southern Peoples Assembly came out with a belligerent and inflammatory statement last week. The statement pointedly identified Prof Jega and one Dr. Yakubu as “architects of this voodoo and arbitrary” creation and allocation of polling units. In their strident words: “the people of Southern Nigeria and indeed the Southern Nigerian Peoples Assembly view this invidious act as a script perfected for Professor Jega to implement, in continuation of the well known hegemonic agenda, by well known enemies of our hard won democracy. The people of Southern Nigeria are not only appalled but strongly reject Prof Jegas claims and averment, whatever may have motivated this very callous, insensitive, desperate, oppressive and inconsonant decision to give the North a clear political advantage over the South contrary to the reality on the ground.”
On the same day, a group that calls itself the Middle Belt Justice Forum For A Stable United Nigeria issued a statement dissociating itself from “a ploy by northerners and some feudal interests within the Independent National Electoral Commission to… foist a predetermined electoral outcome on the country in the 2015 General elections by allocating a lopsided number of polling units to the north to the south using population assumptions.” The group then went ahead to itemise many acts by the Fulani of the north enslave and decimate people of the Middle Belt. Also that same day, Prof. Jega addressed a press conference at which he listed six aims that informed INEC’s decision to embark on the exercise.
These he gave as “decongesting overcrowded polling units and dispersing voters as evenly as possible; locating polling units more effectively within commuting distances of voters, given that movement is usually restricted on Election Day; relocating the polling units in front of private houses, and such unsuitable places, to public buildings or where this is not possible, to public open spaces where tents can be provided; locating the polling units inside classrooms or such other suitable enclosures, in line with international best practices; splitting the polling units such that they have an average of 500 registered voters; and creating additional polling units to cater for the splitting of large polling units as well as new settlements not serviced by existing polling units.”
Contrary to the claims by the leaders of the Southern Peoples Assembly that Jega had “whimsically” created and allocated 30,000 new polling units, the INEC boss revealed that no such units had been created. All that has happened so far is that INEC has approved the framework and guidelines to facilitate the creation of these additional units. This has been done in collaboration with the Office of the Surveyor General of the Federation which has produced maps and scientific basis for the practical exercise ahead. Additionally, he explained in his own words that “Polling units constitute a mere structural arrangement to ease the access of voters to the ballot box. They have nothing to do with determining the preferences of voters in making their electoral choices. In fact, the places we are putting in place will bring polling units out to places where they can be accessed more easily – not only by voters, but by polling agents of political parties and election observers as well. This will enhance, rather than detract from the integrity of the exercise.”
The reaction by the Southern Peoples Assembly to the issue of new polling units represents a typically unfortunate proclivity of our elite to politicise, ethnicise, regionalise and see religon in everything we do. It is more unfortunate when such crusade is carried out by notable citizens like those who signed the statement by the assembly. They appear to have got their facts and even figures wrong. INEC says the number of voters after they carried out their Automated Finger-print Identification Software (AFIS) is 70,383,427. The Sothern Peoples Assembly says it is 57 million. Where did the Assembly gobble their figures from?
Personally, I have overcome my initial reservations about Jega. The man is doing his best under very difficult circumstances. He has come of age and he needs our cooperation and not ungrounded condemnation.