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INEC: Time to put up or give up

This often means anti-democratic impulses co-habiting with democratic temperaments in an uneasy relationship. It is in this tensed relationship that lies the promise of democratic consolidation or democratic reversal depending on which of the two contradictory impulses gains the upper hand.
The just conducted governorship election in Anambra State was a victory for anti-democratic tendencies. It is probably INEC’s worst outing since Professor Attahiru Jega took over as the umpire of the electoral body. I was one of the analysts of the election that day on a live AIT programme that lasted from 10AM to 2pm. AIT had reporters in the 21 Local Government Areas of the state and virtually every report that came in from the field painted a picture of  shoddy preparations, if not high-level connivance, to sabotage the process.
The saving grace in what happened on Saturday 16November 2013 is that despite its reputation as a ‘difficult state’, violence is rarely a major theme in matters of electoral competition in Anambra state. Rather the main gladiators, who are often well connected and with deep pockets (or with deep-pocketed godfathers), have a way of using court processes to cancel out one another, and in the process create a stalemate. That didn’t exactly happen on Saturday. Had Anambra been one of the states where electoral violence is strife, half the state would have been in conflagration by now.
What happened on Saturday mirrored very closely what happened in February 2010 during the Governorship election in that state. It was during that election that what some people regard as ‘hi-tech’ rigging was first introduced in the state, if not the country. In that election, only 17 per cent of the voters voted. Voter turnout was very high as in Saturday’s election, but just as in last Saturday’s exercise, thousands of voters were disenfranchised.  As I observed in my column for the Daily Independent shortly after the election that year:
“…the election perhaps handed a world record, albeit a notorious one, to Anambra state. According to the International IDEA Voter Turnout Website, (www.idea.int/vt) which contains the most comprehensive global collection of voter turnout statistics available for presidential and parliamentary elections since 1945, Mali has the world record for the lowest voter turnout (the number of registered voters who came out to vote). Mali’s average of 21.3% turnout in two elections since 1992 has now been worsted by the 17% ‘turnout’ in Anambra state.
“We will of course never know the actual voter turnout given the suspected high percentage of disenfranchisement (i.e. the number of voters who registered, turned out to vote but were unable to do so).
“It is germane to note that even in countries like USA where voter apathy has been a major source of concern (apart from the last Presidential election), turnout has always been over 40 per cent (the global average turnout is above 60 per cent). For instance 47% per cent of the voting age population participated in the 1996 presidential election in the US, which had a remarkably low turnout. Out of this turnout, President Clinton received 49% of the votes – or 23% of the eligible voters – far more than the percentage of registered voters, which voted in the Anambra election.”
While maintaining that a new form of rigging had been introduced in the State, I also wrote in the same piece that Governor Obi’s “projected public persona, accentuated by his simple dressing, funny voice, and reported tightfistedness, feeds into a narrative that he is not a traditional politician (he never wears the red cap or ‘agbada’ for instance), and by innuendo, more honest than other politicians.
“This public persona means that given the level of voter disenfranchisement at the election, only his emergence as the Governor from the exercise would have made the outcome acceptable because the general perception is that he is too morally-driven and too naïve to be involved in election manipulation.”
The above was written in February 2009 after the Governorship election. Professor Jega has since replaced Professor Maurice Iwu as the electoral umpire, and many commentators, including this writer, had, apparently prematurely, proclaimed a new dawn in our democracy project. Governor Peter Obi may have since lost some of the public perception of him as an ‘innocent and naïve man’, but like in 2010, his party was the beneficiary of that flawed process. True, other parties crying foul were not necessarily innocent because my feeling is that each of the parties tried to manipulate the process according to the opportunities available to it(or would have manipulated the process if given the chance). But this is not enough to make what happened right. The argument is not on who benefitted or who did not benefit from a very flawed process but the implications of that exercise for our democracy project, which has periodic elections as its soul.
It is obvious that INEC’s outing in the November 16 2013 gubernatorial election in Anambra state is probably its worst since Jega took over the electoral body.  INEC urgently needs to find a way of assuring Nigerians that it is up to this job after making the nation commit to it the highest amount of resources the country has ever devoted in its history to organizing elections. With confident assurances – ala Iwu style –  that everything was going to be alright and that INEC was on top of every possible logistic challenge, it beggars belief that INEC failed so woefully in this regard.
INEC also needs to convince Nigerians not only that is up to this game but also that it did its best to ensure the integrity of the process during the Saturday elections. For instance, while we know that opposition parties are adepts at grandstanding and being ‘refuseniks’, INEC needs to tell us what steps it took  to address the several petitions of bias against the Resident Electoral Commissioner for Anambra state, Professor Onukogu? The serious logistics challenges on Saturday were first and foremost a failure of the Resident Electoral Commissioner, because the buck stops with the REC at each state. The several accusations of bias against him made it easier for many to believe that the logistic problems encountered on Saturday were part of a rigging plan. Another important question for INEC is why it did not have the courage to name the INEC official who reportedly ‘messed things up’ in Idemili? In a country very infamous (or famous depending on where you stand in the debate) for parading suspects, including high ranking politicians, terrorists and bankers, when did it suddenly become part of our cultural ethos that someone who allegedly committed such a serious crime is shielded from the ‘name and shame’ that comes with parading suspects? By not mentioning the name of the suspect, or even placing the blame at the doorstep of the Resident Electoral Commissioner, INEC gave more room for rumour mongering and conspiracy theories, which all added to seriously compromise the integrity of that election. This was not helped by the fact that when Professor Jega appeared on TV to explain the situation, he looked rather subdued and diffident like a man who had completely lost control of an organization that he is supposed to control.
The Anambra State fiasco may turn out to be a blessing in disguise as the nation prepares for 2015. While the electoral empire alone, no matter  the integrity of its boss will not be enough to ensure free and fair elections in the country, the bungled exercise in the state offers an opportunity to ask whether Professor Jega is really capable of holding his own end of the bargain?. The low bar of expectations which Professor Iwu set for the Nigerian electorate may have helped the over-rating of Professor Jega’s abilities as an electoral umpire.  However  now that the Iwu era has receded into the far corners of our memories, a new benchmark must be set for Professor Jega, which he must meet before the crucial 2015 or simply throw in the towel.
Very crucial in the outcome of any election in the country is the body language of the President. Though I have been very critical of some of the policy options of President Jonathan, I always gave it to him that the apparent improvement in our elections under Jega (until recently) should be a credit to him more than to Jega because his body language, in my opinion, had not indicated that elections should be seen as a ‘do-or-die’ affair.  With the alleged ‘Obasanjonization’ of Jonathan, some are now asking whether this also portends a  forward march to our inglorious past of elections being seen as ‘do or die’ – as was the case under Obasanjo.

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