I begin from acknowledging that it is the constitutional province of the President to nominate a chair and commissioners for INEC and, if they are confirmed by the National Assembly, to appoint them into office.
Few offices, if any, under the constitution have the significance of the office of the chair of INEC and the commissioners. It is the most consequential of the offices of independent institutions created by the constitution. Some of the recent nominations to INEC by this President have raised more than eyebrows; like the nomination of Lauretta Onochie. You will know that the constitution was amended so that INEC commissioners are not to have any partisan affiliations. At least two of the nominees by the President on that list were known to have partisan affiliations, including Ms. Onochie. I don’t want to spend adjectives on this.
Returning to the office of the Chair of the commission, well, since the onset of presidentialism 41 years ago in 1979, Nigeria has had nine chairmen of Federal Electoral Commission popularly known as FEDECO; National Electoral Commission; National Electoral Commission of Nigeria and INEC, as we have called our election management bodies in succession. They are Michael Ani; Victor Ovie-Whiskey; Eme Awa; Humphrey Nwosu; Ephraim Akpata; Abel Guobadia; Maurice Iwu; Attahiru Jega, and now Mahmood Yakubu. This is the first time that any President would seek to reappoint an INEC chairman. Most of the predecessors before this time, to be fair, never wanted to present themselves for reappointment. The job is all consuming and doesn’t give you room for a life. In my own estimation, anyone who does the job of INEC chair conscientiously for a full five years would not want to return for a second term. That is inherent in the nature of the brief.
Yakubu would be the first to get a second term, if cleared by the senate, but the announcement seem to have been greeted with mixed feelings. What do you think?
Those are the facts: this is the first time that any INEC chair would seek to be re-nominated and the first time that a President is re-nominating one under the presidential system that we have had since 1979. An INEC chair who wants a second term could use his or her first term to make the president feel good. That is not a good thing. Whether that has happened in this case is for people to determine. It is not for me to tell Nigerian citizens whether or not they should feel excited about this kind of appointment. The country has to determine for itself what value we place on independent constitutional institutions.
People often argue that the chairman of INEC should come from a zone different from that of the President, but in this case, they are both northerners, is there anything wrong with that and does it violate any law or convention?
So, you could say that they are from different geo-political zones. If you go back, President Shagari appointed Justice Ovie-Whiskey from then Bendel State (now Edo State) as Chairman of FEDECO in succession to Chief Michael Ani from Cross River. Both of them were from the South-South when Shagari was from Sokoto in the North-West. President Babangida appointed Professor Eme Awa and then Professor Humphrey Nwosu to the position at the then NEC, both from South-East while Babangida was from Niger State and the presidential candidates, Tofa and Abiola eventually were from Kano and Ogun states respectively. Ephraim Akpata, whom Abdulsalami tapped for the job, came from Edo State unlike Abdulsalami who came from Niger State. Obasanjo first appointed Dr. Abel Guobadia and then Maurice Iwu, respectively from Edo and Imo states
Both, like him, were from southern Nigeria. So, there is precedent for a president appointing people from his hemisphere of Nigeria to this position, like Buhari has done with Professor Yakubu. President Jonathan returned to the example of President Shagari, appointing Professor Jega who comes from Kebbi State in the North-West contrast to Jonathan’s Bayelsa State in the South-South.
The President has repeatedly been accused of nepotism, do you think this is another example of that, because some people would argue that Prof Yakubu merits another term?
I don’t think that there is any question that President Buhari’s appointments have been overwhelmingly nepotistic. Even his most ardent admirers are not likely to defend him against charges of nepotism. On that, he has not much changed since he was last in office between 1984 and 1985.
In the past five years, how would you assess Prof Yakubu’s performance, having consolidated on the use of the card reader, even though with the usual glitches, and introduced new initiatives?
The performance of INEC under the current leadership has been, at best, mixed in my opinion. I could do worse. In 2015, the country hailed advances in data management under the then INEC chair, Prof Jega. You could also see that in the leaps in improvement in electoral legitimacy. In 2007, about 86.35 per cent of all votes ended up in the election tribunals. In 2011, with barely 10 months to organise the elections, Jega’s INEC reduced the number of ballots that ended up in the tribunals to just under 52 per cent. In 2015, for the first time in our history, the presidential election did not end up in court and also for the first time in our history, we ended up with less than 50 per cent of all contests going before the tribunals. Indeed, only about 42 per cent of the contests ended up in court in 2015. In 2019, we were back up to about 51 per cent of all offices going before the courts, just about the same number of contests as in 2011. Unlike in 2011 when Jega’s INEC had 10 months to prepare, Yakubu’s INEC had four years to prepare for 2019. That was not a distinguished performance, to put it modestly.
I could go into more details here but that is not necessary to make my point.
From the time of Maurice Iwu till now, the occupiers of the office have been professors, do you think that is a deliberate move and has that helped in any way?
Maurice Iwu, in my view, had a disgraceful tenure as INEC chair. He set the commission, the electoral system and the country back a lot and I don’t want to waste energy discussing him. But, on the part of your question that I can answer, it has not been entirely a tyranny of professors in the position of chair of INEC. Chief Michael Ani was not a professor. Justice Victor Ovie-Whiskey and Justice Ephraim Akpata were judicial figures. Abel Guobadia was a diplomat. So, we have had a mix of figures and skill sets in that position. I guess what has made it look like a tyranny of professors was the innovation brought in by Prof Jega to have professors as high-profile collation officers in various levels of elections under his watch. Some of those professors have not really covered themselves in glory.
From what you have seen about our elections, what are the immediate reforms you think INEC needs to carry out, especially before 2023, for our elections to be more credible?
I am not exactly big on election observation, to be perfectly honest with you. Increasingly, election observation, in my view, has a touristic, voyeuristic feel to it. So, I am not into it a lot. However, about the needed reforms, there have been two major reviews of Nigeria’s electoral system in the past 40 years. The Bolarinwa Babalakin Commission was set up by Major-General Buhari in 1984 and reported under General Babangida in 1986. Justice Babalakin is still alive. 22 years later, in 2008, the Uwais Electoral Reform Panel reported to President Umaru Yar’Adua. Both reports embody proposals for reform that have largely not been implemented or even seriously considered by the government.
So, it is not useful for me to waste energy on trying to reinvent the wheel. Any consideration of reforms in Nigeria’s electoral systems should begin from taking a close look at the proposals by Justices Babalakin and Uwais, both of whom, remarkably, are still alive.
And is there anything you think the commission should have done that it is shying away from?
There are lots of things, big and small, that INEC could do. I am glad that they have eventually determined that direct transmission of results from polling units straight to the central collation is necessary and possible with digital technology. Electoral demographics management is an issue still. You will see these numbers, for instance, of PVC collection that don’t make sense. In many states you have collection rates as high as 94 to 96 per cent. In reality, you don’t need to exert a lot of effort to understand that this is demographically impossible, with deaths, internal migration and inertia. INEC has failed to institute a system for managing this in a way that makes our participation numbers credible and in that failure you see lots of room for manipulation. There is also opacity from INEC in relation to how it manages to manufacture results from places where violence doesn’t allow other Nigerians to conduct any modicum of sensible existence. It is like our bandits and domestic terrorists like to declare a truce for INEC to manufacture election returns and then promptly return to their violent ways, or how is it that figures are declared for places where the winners then promptly get exiled to Abuja from where they say they are unable to return to their constituencies like days or weeks after they are supposed to have won all these thumping victories? I don’t get it, but maybe you do!
Have we been making commendable progress since the recent years?
You are a Nigerian. You tell me, are we? A lot of people look at the recent Edo elections and say we are. But Edo was arguably an outlier. Edo was an intra-All Progressives Congress civil war, where very senior members of the party determined that they were going to use that election to sort out certain senior members of the party, including the former party chairman who came from the state. It had little to do with the credibility of INEC’s methods of systems. I would not read too much into that.
There have been clamours for Nigeria to embrace electronic voting and INEC itself has taken a stand that it’s time we started using e-voting, what is your take on it, because some people argue that Nigeria is not yet ripe for it?
Attaining electronic voting is not an event; it is a process. There are all manner of digital tweaks that could be made to our processes of voting and election management. The introduction of PVCs and card readers was a natural adaptation, so also the recent introduction of result transmission from the polling units. There is not a reason why we cannot continue to adapt and refine our voting. The reality is that the problem with our elections in Nigeria is not the voting. It is usually in the demographic management, election security and in the collation. Those are not all equally amenable to easy digital solutions, sadly. The dysfunctions are all dependent for the most part on the human element.
Vote-buying has become a part of our electoral process, how did we get here – where the highest buyer gets the votes – and how do you think we can get out of it completely or is that impossible?
I have never administered cash on anyone’s behalf for electoral purposes, so I can’t answer you as such. Some people think it is an improvement on just manufacturing figures and suggest that buying and selling of votes is a way of attaching value to the voter. I am not so sanguine and the reason is not merely because it is a crime under the electoral act. It is also the fact that the money used to buy votes is almost invariably stolen or diverted from the public treasury.
Same with violence, which makes us to militarise our elections, what is the way out?
The abuse of state security assets for elections goes back as far as you can think in Nigeria’s post-colonial elections. The politicians have managed to create an axis for electoral heisting from within the soldiers and the police. Sunday Adewusi as the Inspector-General of Police made this an art from under the administration of Shehu Shagari. He made the “landslide” of 1983 possible and, in so doing, set us up for the coup of December 31, 1983. The thing about this violence is that increasingly, it also endangers the country. I should probably add that this is not just about axis of politicians and security outfits. It is also about the judiciary which increasingly produces rogue jurisprudence to justify outlandish outcomes and violations that should have no place in elections. Remember that Hope Uzodinma, whom the Supreme Court Justices found fit to vote among themselves to become the Governor of Imo State, came fourth in that election and had his own version of the results written up by one single senior police officer. That should make us all ashamed.
One big challenge about elections in Nigeria is voter apathy, and many reasons have been adduced for it. How do you think we can get more people to go out and vote?
You see, you ask Nigerians to pay money in order to vote on BBNaija and millions happily compete to do so. But pay them to go to vote and many will stay at home. What is the difference? The BBNaija ballot doesn’t impact on their lives but for those who choose to pay in order to vote in it, they believe their votes will be counted legitimately and will count. By contrast, most Nigerians choose to believe our votes will not count and will not be counted and will make no difference to the outcome. There are no shortcuts to fixing this, until we begin to give our citizens the sense that the votes of every Nigerian will and does matter.