I woke up last Sunday morning and could not believe the BBC online news story that flashed on my computer screen. The headline read: “Nigeria postpones presidential vote over security”. I quickly accessed Nigerian newspapers on the web and found they carried similar headlines. That was the first indication I had that something extraordinary had happened.
Political leaders never learn in Nigeria. Even more so, the senior management of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), or whatever name this beleaguered election umpire was previously known by, never learns from history. The history of disputed elections in this country shows that the national electoral commission has contributed significantly – overtly and covertly – to the mismanagement of elections that took the country so close to the edge of disintegration.
Last Saturday, INEC boss, Attahiru Jega, added his name to the list of infamous election officials, who attempted to frustrate the popular wish of the people to freely elect their leaders. This statement is not fiction. It is based on facts.
In defence of his action, Jega argued that INEC relied on the Electoral Act, which states that “where a date has been appointed for the election and there is reason to believe that there is serious breach of peace to occur, the commission may postpone the election and it shall appoint another date for the election provided that the reasons are cogent and verifiable.” Sure enough but could Jega also say honestly that the reasons he tendered for postponing the elections were “cogent and verifiable”? In my judgment, the reasons are neither convincing nor certifiable.
Nigeria has been overwhelmed by insecurity for more than five years. Within the same period, INEC conducted gubernatorial elections in parts of the country, as well as elections into some legislative houses. While national elections could be said to be different from state-based elections, there is no guarantee that security forces will give INEC and Jega fail-safe assurance that the Boko Haram terrorists will be obliterated in six weeks.
The bigger question remains: If the state of insecurity remains as it is today after the six-week delay, what would Jega do? Will he postpone the elections further or will he call the bluff of security officials and conduct the elections? This shows that the decision to postpone the start of the elections is without basis and indeed indefensible. Hanging on to insecurity as justification for postponing the elections is insupportable, illogical, and unsound. Jega’s image is in tatters. His integrity and independence have been questioned and shredded. He is being ridiculed in national and online media.
Another question: Why did Jega wait till one week to the start of the elections before he realised that insecurity had become a major obstacle that would prevent free and fair conduct of the elections? Was Jega acting on someone else’s script, even though he claims to have acted alone?
In his woolly attempt to justify his decision to postpone the elections, Jega said in an arrogant tone that there would be no cost implications for rescheduling the elections, arguing that most of the election materials were ready for use. By that argument, Jega portrayed himself to be a cold, callous, and ignorant man who had no idea about the true repercussions of his decision on economic activities nationwide, including the social and cost implications on ordinary citizens who registered for elections in their hometowns and would now have to postpone their scheduled plans to travel to their various destinations next weekend.
One immediate consequence of this ill-informed decision to adjourn the elections is that political candidates and their parties will never believe the outcomes of the elections will ever be fair, free, and peaceful, whenever the elections are conducted. They will justifiably point to the sudden postponement as a well executed plan to rig the election in favour of one party or another, even if that allegation turns out to be a hare-brained claim. In the end, you have to say it is a fair allegation for anyone to make, given the suddenness of the decision to adjourn the elections, and in particular the weak reasons offered by Jega.
Jega said last weekend that he hoped that the six-week delay would give security forces sufficient time to manufacture a conducive environment required for the elections to take place. What a naive argument! The man seems to be ignorant of the fact that the security forces have been fighting to restore peace, order and security in the northern parts of the country since the emergence of Boko Haram. The outcome has been rather disappointing. Boko Haram terrorists continue to use hit-and-run tactics to beat our security forces.
How could Jega expect the security forces that have been overstretched in the unending war with Boko Haram to make a significant impact and overturn the enemy within six weeks — a feat that was never achieved in the past five years? In essence, Jega is telling a bemused and angry nation that he expects military authorities to achieve in six weeks what they could not accomplish in five years. It is a silly expectation. It will not happen because it is not militarily, logistically, physically, and psychologically possible to dismantle Boko Haram in six weeks.
There are two clear reasons why Jega’s decision to postpone the elections carry the ugly stench of suspicion of foul play. The first is that he had been receiving security reports from military authorities with regard to the feasibility of conducting the elections in the existing atmosphere of insecurity. It was therefore patently untrue for Jega to pretend that he only learned about the adverse security situation within the past one week. The second reason why no one should believe Jega’s self-righteous excuses for postponing the elections is that he did not bother to consult with the broader community, political party leaders and civil society about the dangerous security report he received. He did not seek the views of the Nigerian people about whether the elections should be delayed or continued. He used the powers conferred on him by the Electoral Act to behave like a dictator.
Even though the Electoral Act grants INEC the authority to postpone or set election dates, Jega has the obligation to consult with political parties to furnish them with security reports and to seek their views on whether the elections should proceed as planned or be postponed. INEC cannot conduct the elections alone without the cooperation of political parties and civil society. Because Jega failed to consult with the parties and civil society, it has become acutely difficult for him to convince anyone that he took the decision to postpone the elections in the best interests of peace, security, and wellbeing of the citizens. Democracy involves consultations with citizens, political parties and all segments of society.
Jega’s failure to consult with political parties and citizens is not what representative democracy is all about. Now that he has shifted the election dates, Jega has also shifted the blame to the citizens, saying in essence, “You see, it’s not my fault. I can’t fix the security situation. Military authorities have to do it. They have to provide a conducive and appropriate environment that will allow INEC to conduct the elections. That security situation has to change within six weeks or we will never conduct these elections again”.
This is the absurdity of Jega’s argument. It is simply inexcusable. Broad consultation with the wider community is a very important part of conducting fair, free and peaceful elections. National elections can only succeed if the citizens collaborate. Citizen or community collaboration is, therefore, an integral part of a successful election. These elections are not just about Jega and INEC. Yes, they might be umpires but the elections are also about the nation working as a team to make the elections successful.
Jega is playing a smart game but only by half. He calculated that flying the security kite would sound plausible and would attract the support of Nigerians. However, his thesis failed the first test of logic. There is even a stronger reason Jega should be asked to take his security kite and fly it into a nearby lagoon. Insecurity did not start last week in Nigeria.
Boko Haram terrorists have been operating impudently across the northern parts of the country for more than five years. During that time and up till now, the government at federal and state levels did not fold. Business activities were not suspended. Sports and cultural events were hosted across the land. INEC also conducted local elections as well as gubernatorial elections in some states in the north, southeast, and western parts of the country. If these activities were not stopped because of the fear of Boko Haram, why should the elections?
I would argue quite forcefully that Jega knew for a long time that insecurity across the country could disrupt the elections. He withheld that information from the Nigerian people. Insecurity is the dishonourable last card with which Jega hoped to scuttle the general elections in such a way that his preferred political party would have extra time to make an impact on voters.
Now that he has played his last card in total disregard for the economic and social consequences, Nigerians should respond in peaceful ways to Jega’s cheeky action. For many years, former INEC chairperson, Maurice Iwu, told the nation he acted as an independent umpire in the way he mismanaged previous elections. Today, Jega is singing a similar but rambling melody.
Experience has taught us that when the INEC chairperson tells us that he has no favoured political candidates and that he is independent of the election process, you will find it is a blatant lie. Nigerians are no kindergarten kids, you know.
Jega should pause to ponder this question: When will the security situation improve satisfactorily to allow him to conduct the general elections? How he answers this question will expose the fallacy in his excuse that his hands were tied by the adverse security situation in the northeastern parts of the country.