Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Should Attahiru Jega Get A Pat On The Back?

By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
Professor Attahiru Jega, the Chairman of the Independent Electoral National Commission (INEC) lost my trust when he insisted on going ahead to conduct the 2015 elections on February 14, 2015, even when it was very clear to every sincere human being that the commission was not ready for the elections.

*Prof Attahiru Jega

Millions of the Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs) ordered by INEC had at that time not even been supplied, let alone distributed to prospective voters. And this meant that about 34% percent of registered voters in Nigeria stood the risk of being disenfranchised. Yet, Jega was out there telling the world that he was ready for the elections, and that he was only being compelled to postpone them by the information transmitted to him by the security chiefs that within the next six weeks, they would be too preoccupied with the fight to finally flush out the Boko Haram fighters from the North-East, and so would not be able to provide adequate security for the polls.

Not even the card readers which have proved to be a major spoiler in the just concluded presidential and national assembly elections were ready for use by February 14. INEC’s lack of preparedness was writ large everywhere yet in his every speech, Jega was assuring Nigerians that he was set for the elections. But as we have all seen now, despite the whole six weeks extension INEC eventually got, the shoddy manner of last Saturday’s polls is a clear demonstration that had the elections held on February 14 as Jega had stubbornly insisted with the active, enthusiastic support of the All Progressive Congress (APC), it would have been a monumental disaster.    
Unfortunately, while informed Nigerians were dumbfounded that Jega was eager and willing to put the credibility of the commission and the 2015 elections at grave risk by his continued strong assurances in the face of glaring unpreparedness for the February polls, the APC was characteristically spitting fire at those who dared to challenge Jega or try to prove to him that he was clearly unprepared. The party continued to urge him to go on with the polls. And one was left wondering what an opposition political party (which should be insisting that all registered voters should be given the opportunity to vote) stood to gain from mass disenfranchisement of people! Sadly, while Jega’s PVC distribution was efficiently carried out in the North, including the areas ravaged by the dreaded insurgency (several areas enjoyed over 90% distribution), many areas in the South were, reportedly, yet to achieve even 40% distribution. That was the Jega wonder!

*Jonathan
As I write now on Sunday evening, the results of the polls are yet to be declared, but no matter the eventual outcome, Prof Jega must be willing to admit that he worked very hard to fuel the strong suspicion that free and fair electoral contest was, perhaps, not his ultimate target in the just concluded polls. He may indeed achieve his cherished target (whatever it is) but at the end of the day, he would, like some electoral umpires before him, consign himself to the wrong spot in our history books as a man who was incapable of appreciating the sacred nature of the task placed in his hands and so squandered the opportunity.   

The use of card readers created needless wrangling in the buildup to the elections. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) alleged that there were plans to use the largely untested card readers to disenfranchise its supporters. There were fears that the card readers could cause undue delays where they are even working and deny some voters accreditation. When President Jonathan spoke to journalists in Otuoke in Bayelsa State after voting, a reporter asked him if he was aware that the card readers were malfunctioning only in PDP states and all the areas where the president enjoyed overwhelming support. But President Jonathan impressed even his worst haters with his answer to this question. He assured the reporter that he would like to believe that it was a national problem and not restricted to the PDP states or where he has numerous supporters.

The fact that Jega’s card readers could not recognize even the president and his wife after several trials should be a big embarrassment to the INEC chairman, assuming he thinks that it matters. If this could happen to the president whose voting INEC knew would be watched by the global community, one has no reason to disbelieve the more astounding stories emerging from polling units in several areas in the South where this was, reportedly, prevalent. The local and Western media chose to play down on or completely ignore this phenomenal embarrassment to Nigeria due to entirely self-serving reasons which they have been unable to hide since the campaigns kicked off, but at that very moment when this embarrassing drama played out in Otuoke, whatever Jega stood for as a credible INEC chairman was grossly diminished. And that is, if he is able to appreciate that.

*US Secretary of State, Kerry and Gen. Buhari 
It was reported that Jega later softened his hard-line posture and advised that where the card readers were not working, INEC staff should resort to manual accreditation of voters. Now, when was this information given, and what effort was made to ensure that it was disseminated to all polling booths, because while the voting was on, some eligible voters interviewed by television reporters claimed that they were not allowed to vote because the card readers failed to recognize them. Like someone said, it is difficult to imagine what an Olusegun Obasanjo would have done as Nigerian president if card readers in his polling unit had failed to recognize him (forget all his after-power attempt to package himself as a democrat and noble statesman). But that’s a story for another day.

On Sunday evening, Jega was on television playing down the malfunctioning of the card readers, the insufferably late arrival of materials which may have caused many frustrated voters to abandon the exercise and go home. There were reports about the non-availability of the “incidence forms” for people not recognized by Jega’s card readers. Well, he is free to claim success in the face of crushing failure, especially, in a country blessed with a media that is either too lazy or pitiably confused about its supposed role in society to ask probing questions. Jega should, therefore, go home to celebrate his victory against democracy.

In a normal society, card readers should be a welcome development to strengthen our voting process by eliminating sundry manipulations, especially, through multiple voting. But some Nigerians had thought that INEC should have tried it out on very small elections (like some of the governorship elections that are held alone) instead of experimenting with such very sensitive, nationwide elections, especially, one in which it has worked hard to inspire very strong doubts about its impartiality. By going the way he went last Saturday, Jega was only brazenly abusing the free democratic atmosphere created by the current administration which is presently flourishing in the country. Now, could he have dared to tread such an untoward path under an Obasanjo regime, or even under a government headed by his most active supporters in his present assignment, the APC? And with all the money Jega claimed was sufficiently made available to him, why was the election distinguished by gross logistic problems like, insufficient materials, poor or even non-existent transport arrangements for staff and movement of materials and glaring evidence of inadequate or no training for the ad hoc staff? And what was the measure put in place by Jega to check voting by underage citizens which was, reportedly, widespread in the North? What has been his reaction since the embarrassing pictures of these "babies" casting their votes at various polling units began to circulate on the internet?

On a final note: there were people who were scared by the fear-mongering and threats of violence that flourished in some parts of the country and had to flee to their villages. Why was it difficult for INEC which took the pains and deployed special efforts to ensure that Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) duly voted at their camps to also make arrangements for these people to vote anywhere they were in the country? Should they be blamed for temporarily relocating to save their lives when in times past some super-patriotic and nationalistic-minded people who had chosen to stay back in their stations were brutally killed or maimed and their belongings destroyed after elections like last Saturday’s, just because they were from a particular part of the country, not minding that that may have even voted for the person on whose behalf the killers had poured into the streets to wreak havoc?

In future elections, INEC should acquire the appropriate technology with every person’s data stored in it, and accessible everywhere in the country, so that whoever for whatever reason was not able to be at the location where he had registered for the election should still be able to vote, and their votes added for the polling unit where they had registered.  This may eventually commence the process of making it possible for Nigerians in the diaspora to vote in elections as they have desired for many years now.   
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*Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye is a columnist with Daily Independent. (scruples2@hotmail.com)

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