By Ibrahim Ola Balogun
We have decided to forgo our frustrations and irritations over the rescheduling of the Feb 14th and 28th elections. However, we need to make it crystal clear that we have become superstitious people. So, should some accidents befall Jega? Should he be hit on the head by a stray bullet; should he be suspended, sacked or forced to embark on a terminal leave? Should unknown kidnappers abduct him, should he hang himself in his house? Should he suddenly develop cardiovascular or cerebrovascular diseases? Should he be infected with parasitic or ischemic heart disease? Should he have malignant neoplasms or respiratory tract infections and not be able to survive it; should he be struck by a bolt of lightning; should he sleep and fail to wake up, then we are certainly going to blame some people? Mr President, we mean it, should anything happen to Jega, we know those that would be held responsible.
That was a post on my Facebook page on March 4th 2015, few weeks to the General Election. Was it because I had a feeling that Professor Attahiru Jega would play a great role in making the election a success?
Yes, the knowledge of Jega’s antecedents in ASUU and as Vice Chancellor of Bayero University, Kano along with his body language were that of a person who was ready to stick out his neck to give Nigeria an opportunity to vote for the candidates of their choice.
This is a man who has, on many instances, put on a capability to control his emotions while putting his life at risk in the pursuit of mutual good like he did in his days as the President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
Jega engaged in a dogged fight with the military administration of General Ibrahim Babangida on behalf of university lecturers, refusing to allow neither his religious or ethnic affiliation nor sentiment to affect his struggle with Babangida in demanding improved welfare for lecturers and also advocating higher roles for lecturers in the national development.
Jega was the man who was appointed as INEC chairman at a time when the electoral body appeared to have lost all shades of respect in Nigeria. He quickly settled down and gave the nation the semblance of credible election in 2011. Many now understand why his appointment as the INEC chairman was seen as a welcome development in some quarters.
Although, his first attempt on the job in 2011 was not without some hiccups, it was generally seen as a remarkable improvement from the charade, which Professor Maurice Iwu supervised.
It is the same Jega that was placed on integrity, patriotism and morality tests when he stood firm in announcing Jonathan, a Christian from the South as the winner of 2011 election, regardless of the political and religious undercurrents that popped up Buhari; a Muslim and the candidate of the North where Jega comes from.
These were the reasons why many Nigerians gave their words in his support when he was being threatened and blackmailed by the PDP and its supporters through rent-a-crowd rallies across some states in the south of the country, prelude to 2015 polls.
Jega was the only man who earned the commendation of a great writer and author, Chinua Achebe in his book: There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. Achebe, who condemned almost all the politicians and those who held leadership positions in Nigeria wrote: ‘Another crucial ingredient in sustaining a democracy is the ability to stage free and fair elections.
The last general election in Nigeria was not perfect, but it was an improvement over past travesties that were passed off as elections in Nigeria. The Chairman of the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) Professor Attahiru Muhammadu Jega and his team should be allowed to build upon the gains of that exercise for the good of the nation.
That being said, singing the praises of Jega and his team on successes witnessed in the 2015 general election would not be fully diagnosed without considering some of his legacies that gave Nigerians opportunity to vote for candidates of their choice.
The mockery called 2007 general election
Immediately Jega was appointed in June 2010, one of the major steps taken by the new INEC chairman was to discard the voters register used by the Maurice Iwu-led INEC for the 2007 election that was criticized as being below acceptable democratic standards. He went ahead to create a new Biometric voter register from the scratch- a crucial step for building credibility for the commission.
In actual fact, a major beneficiary of the mockery called 2007 general election, former President Umar Yar’Adua, confirmed that the election that brought him with his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan into power was actually marred with irregularities.
The commission thereby rolled out its personnel with the direct data capture machines between January and February 2011. Today, the commission can now boast of a decent biometric voter record that was not in existence before 2007.
The same Professor Jega invented another major national service for the NYSC Corp members. His thoroughness led him to discover that Corp members, imbued with the spirit of youthfulness, have abundant time that is adverse to corruption and electoral malpractices.
Consequently, despite the initial tragedy of the Bauchi Massacre in 2011, the corp members did a near perfect job. This thus instilled confidence in the voters who now believe in the neutrality and trustworthiness of electoral officers. And by the virtue of this innovation, Nigerians now have more faith in the system.
The acquired notorierity of INEC led former President Olusegun Obasanjo to say that even Jesus Christ, the revered prophet of the Christian religion would find it difficult to conduct a free and fair election in Nigeria. But Jega in 2015 put a lie to the statement considered as a blasphemy by many Nigerians.
In a bid to salvage and shore the commission’s credibility, Jega resorted to the use of very senior staff of universities as Collation and Returning Officers a step regarded as another commendable innovation. This substantially addressed fraudulent issues usually associated with declaration of election results.
One persistent problem of the commission since the days of Eyo Ita Esua’s Federal Electoral Commission in the First Republic was the issue of multiple voting and ballot stuffing. Consequently, they remained a major cause of headache for every chairman of the commission as they struggle to curb the foremost threats to free, fair, and credible election. Jega simply solved these by somewhat cumbersome two-prong voting stages.
The first stage is voters’ accreditation which must be completed before the actual voting stage that follows much later. Since only accredited voters can vote and no accredited voter can do it twice, this system made multiple voting tough. It worked during the 2011 elections to a greater degree and was improved upon in 2015.
It is on record that one of the reasons for voters’ apathy in the previous elections was as a result of delay in the kick off time for the exercise. Many supposed voters lost interest while waiting on queues for several hours without electoral officials showing up, especially in the countryside and riverine areas.
This was addressed through the introduction of Registration Area Centres (RACs); usually in public schools, where overnight camping facilities were provided for officials who would be out to work on Election Day. This ingenuity was also adjudged as laudable. The RACs are located close to the polling booths. This made it very easy for officials to pass the night, charge their equipment, get to their respective polling booths early and allow elections kick off on time.
Physically confirm they existed
With the allegation of polling booths located in uninhabited forest, empty riverine and unliveable deserts, INEC under Jega’s watch visited every polling booth in the country to physically confirm they existed and ascertain their exact locations before the 2011 elections. This provided the commission with a reliable guide and compendium of polling unit locations nationwide.
Though, the commission was widely criticized for the shutdown and heavy security on election days, it is obvious that restriction of movements during election hours did contribute to the successes witnessed in the 2011 and 2015 elections. It forestalled some forms of violence and fraud. Gone are those days when touts and ‘Eru ikus’ (Agents of death) freely shoot or harass voters at polling units without hindrances, except in few isolated cases particularly in the East and Niger Delta states.
In a bid to further curb electoral irregularities, Jega’s INEC has deployed smart card readers to verify the authenticity of the permanent voters’ card at polling units. The smart card reader does not just authenticate the card, it also authenticate the legitimacy of the smart card holder.
Most Nigerians agreed that the introduction of card readers into the exercise added value to the exercise. Many attested to its timeliness, effectiveness, efficiency and that it was result oriented. The innovation got a pass mark not because it was perfect but because it presented a giant step forward in the election process in the country.
Standardising and working with a hybrid collation strategy was another major initiative that Nigerians are now used to. This process involved a manual procedure where all results must be displayed at the polling units and collation centers once votes are counted and results declared.
Displayed as they were announced
For instance, through the electronic procedure in the presidential election, collation at the state and federal levels were subjected to accuracy checks by using an excel spreadsheet application to eliminate computation errors. So, all results were projected on a screen and publicly displayed as they were announced.
E-copies of the results were also transmitted electronically from the state collation centers to the presidential returning officer, using a secure email address to prevent tampering with the manual copies while in transit.
However, it must be asserted that, INEC under Jega was not perfect and
there existed several rooms for improvements and normalization in order to meet up with the standards obtainable in other advanced democracies around the world. Some of the shortcomings of Jega led INEC should be looked into and be avoided to take the commission to the next level.
INEC needs to avoid completely or reduce to the barest minimum, a situation where voters have to revert to the manual authentication because of failure of biometric authentication (card readers). Nigerians are highly mobile, so transferring voters’ data to the new areas should be looked into. This, among other shortcomings understandably, has been addressed by the amended electoral bill which the third assembly refused to pass into law. Hence, our law makers need to be proactive in the business of law making.
Without doubt, the disenfranchisement of eligible voters occasioned by the delay in PVC production and distribution is another big dent; so the INEC will not need to wait till 2019 before it embarks on the issuance of new PVCs and gets other related logistics addressed. It was obvious too that some of the personnel that handled the 2015 election were not well trained, it took the effort of Nigerians to assist some of them with information that were generally available in the media.
As Attahiru Jega bowed out on Tuesday, whoever takes over from the best electoral body chairman Nigeria ever produced must know it is expedient for him or her to push the frontier further.
Ola Balogun is a Policy Analyst and Social Commentator