By Fatoumata Oumar
Earlier in the year as Egypt prepared for presidential election, the country became the cynosure of both local and international election observers and commentators. People were more interested in the electoral process than the election itself. Reason is that any wrong step in the process would ultimately affect the election itself.
When it was established that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was seeking re-election, did not offer a level playing field for opposition candidates, election observers, more than a dozen of them, in February, barely one month to the actual election, declared that the election was not going to be credible. Although the election came and al-Sisi won by a landslide margin, it still remains in our subconscious that al-Sisi did not win credibly.
Presently, Nigeria’s election, which is barely a month away, is on the front burner, almost globally, because of the position Nigeria occupies in Africa.
Recently, Cameroon voted. From the day Paul Biya, who was 85 years old, declared intention to run for his seventh term in office, people lost hope of a change in government. Reason is that Paul Biya has the Cameroon electoral system under his armpit. Cameroon’s electoral system is so terribly defective that it could up to three weeks for the result of the election to be declared. In the end, Biya was re-elected amidst all hews and cries from the opposition.
As long as elections are important, the quality of the electoral system must not be taken for granted.
In February, Nigeria will be going to the polls. But the atmosphere, talking about the electoral system, is not as clear as one would have loved it to be. The refusal of President Muhammadu Buhari, to sign the Electoral Bill into law after rigorous efforts by the parliament particularly calls for concern. Getting the process right is a journey in progress and must be treated as such. In the time past, there were spirited efforts to make elections free, fair and credible in Nigeria. One of the major gains of the Umaru Musa Yar’Adua/Goodluck Ebele Jonathan administration (2007 to 2011) was setting the tone for the emergence of a truly independent electoral umpire in Nigeria.
By the efforts Nigeria exerted to reform the electoral system between 2007 and 2011, electoral transparency moved at least one step forward. But from 2015 to date, election transparency in Nigeria has moved at least two steps backwards; the following analysis is a clarification.
Yar’Adua wanted to reform the electoral process. His body language was unmistakably clear! In his inaugural speech on May 29th, 2007, Yar’Adua stunned his electors and noted that the electoral process which brought him to power was faulty and needed to be reformed. He promised to reform the process and make elections count in the country.
In the second paragraph of that historic speech, just after the protocol, Yar’Adua noted:
“We acknowledge that our elections had some shortcomings. Thankfully, we have well-established legal avenues of redress, and I urge anyone aggrieved to pursue them. I also believe that our experiences represent an opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Accordingly, I will set up a panel to examine the entire electoral process with a view to ensuring that we raise the quality and standard of our general elections, and thereby deepen our democracy”
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) regime which conducted the 2007 election was roundly condemned as partial and compromised. Both local and international election observers observed this and with Yar’Adua body language, it was time to make a difference.
Yar’Adua made good his promise. Only three months into his administration, on August, 28, 2007, he inaugurated a 22-man multi-stakeholder electoral reform panel headed by Retired Justice Muhammed Lawal Uwais.
That was also the period when Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) with interest in politics and electoral reforms thrived in Nigeria. Their number and influence grew astronomically. We had both international CSOs and NGOs working in Nigeria. The NGOs and CSO formed coalitions and pressed for electoral reforms. One of the recommendations of the panel and other interest groups was that to ensure a credible electoral system, the INEC must be independent; and that must start with getting a credible and independent person to chair the INEC.
From May 29th, 2007 to June 8th 2010 when the Kebbi State born Professor Attahiru Jega was appointed by former President Goodluck Jonathan to head the INEC, the issue of electoral reform remained topical and dominated the media and discussion space in Nigeria.
Insiders said Prof. Jega was recommended by coalitions of CSOs and handed down to the then President; and the government of the day wilfully transmitted Jega’s name to the National Assembly for confirmation.
That was how strong, influential and concerned civil liberty organisations were in Nigeria prelude to the 2011 general election. And truly, their efforts paid off. Jega conducted the 2011 election and it became popular as the most credible election ever conducted in Nigeria; both local and international election observers observed this. And Nigeria was happy that the journey of political greatness of Nigeria had begun.
Jega held his head high in INEC. He conducted the 2015 election and bowed out gracefully on June 30th, 2015. But since Jega’s retirement from the INEC, nobody has ever asked a single question about what is happening in the INEC, the ultimate electoral umpire. It seems as if nobody is interested any longer or as if all the CSOs and NGOs have simply vanished after the 2011 election.
First, when Jega was leaving, he handed over to someone, Amina Zakari, practically, the most qualified person within the organization but few weeks later, Zakari was replaced with Mahmood Yakubu. It is instructive to note that Yakubu did not emerge through the same process as Jega…and curiously, none of the activists who midwifed the emergence of Jega ever asked questions on how Yakubu was appointed. Everyone kept quiet. While that does not mean that Yakubu is not qualified for the job, it means that Yakubu emerged through a less popular process. It means that Yakubu did not go through the furnace; at least, the type of furnace which Jega went through. It may ultimately mean that Yakubu is not as responsible to the people as Jega was and the implications of that will not be lost on the electorates as elections come and go.
True to that, the performance of the present regime of the INEC has been controversial. Nigeria has had more than a fair share of inconclusive elections. And certain appearances and approaches of the INEC during Edo and Ondo, Ekiti, Osun gubernatorial elections have continued to raise question marks on the real status of this INEC.
Elections remain the most popular process of governance in democratic systems. Anywhere in the world, particularly in democracies, the nature of the electoral process always determines the quality of governance.
It is unfortunate that Nigeria may go to the polls from February 2019 with less clear electoral system. Nigeria should have gone past here if the present government had taken up the task of reforming the electoral system. And Nigeria is in a dire need to move ahead from here.
Fatoumata Oumar, Editor at Discover Africa News, sent this piece through firstname.lastname@example.org