Jega’s Poisoned Chalice

Monday Columnist- Jideofor Adibe

It was the late Kwame Nkrumah who admonished his fellow Ghanaians to “seek ye first the political kingdom, and all things shall be added to you”. When Nkrumah made that statement during the struggle for Ghana’s independence, he meant that political independence would be a prerequisite for other improvements and development. Though a Marxist, Nkrumah turned the doctrinaire Marxian dictum of ‘economic determinism’ on its head by privileging politics over economics. Some have used that dictum to question Nkrumah’s Marxian credentials. In Marxism, the primacy of economics is taken as given.

Post-independence politics in Africa proved Nkrumah right. In the continent, political power is not only the major instrument of wealth accumulation, it also places one in a vantage position to decide, as the American political scientist Harold Lasswell, would  put it, the question of  “who gets what, when and how”, (and we may add  “and why”). Owing to the centrality of power in fragile and polarized states, the struggle for it is anarchic, with the constituent nationalities believing that winning power is a prerequisite for redressing their perceived injustice in the country while fearing that if another nationality is allowed to win it, that nationality will use it to privilege its own primordial groups or to punish and disadvantage the others.

It is within the above context of the centrality of power in African states, (which are usually polarized and distrustful of one another) that the role of an electoral umpire in Nigeria must be situated. It is also within this context that we can appreciate why being an INEC chairman in Nigeria is considered both a juicy position and a poisoned chalice. The allures include being feted by politicians and the press as well as contractors and fortune seekers. The poison in the chalice include the fact that we can close our eyes and state axiomatically that whoever is made an INEC chairman will end up with his (or her) reputation in tatters. In fact if the Almighty God were to send His most trusted angel to conduct elections in Nigeria, you will be sure that some politicians will drag the angel to court (joining God in the suit) on charges of bias, some may even try to lynch the angel for “electoral manipulation” while others may threaten to decamp from the camp of God to the other side on accusations that the angel “rigged them out” (God forgive me if this is heresy).

The point is that most of the current controversy over the neutrality or otherwise of INEC is systemic. There is very little anyone can do about it and even if Jega is replaced the systemic pressures resulting from the anarchic struggle for power in the country will eventually catch up with the new electoral umpire and he (or she) too will, sooner than later,  be accused of bias. In this sense, the call for Jega’s sack is misplaced. In fact sacking him at this time will create more problems than it will solve. His replacement will for instance need at least a few months to study the handover notes and decide on his own course, and this can lead to another shift on the voting date. True, inefficiencies on the part of the electoral umpire has contributed to the current crisis of confidence surrounding INEC.  However  if  one should apportion blame,  it will probably  be 80 percent systemic and only about 20 percent down to what the electoral empire has done or failed to do.

Just imagine what Jega must do to convince the various constituent units of the federation that he has not been compromised: Professor Attahiru Jega, is a Muslim from the North. He was appointed by Dr Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian Ijaw and presidential candidate of the PDP. Given that the two dominant parties – PDP and APC – mirror the dominant fault lines of region and religion, PDP and people from the south have apparently been on the lookout for any policy or sign that would suggest that Jega is biased towards the north  (where the APC is dominant).  You can imagine what will happen if Jega is ever ‘caught’ in the company of any of his friends who has a clear party leaning. On the other hand, APC apparently has also been on the lookout for any sign that Jega is being teleguided by the federal government, which appointed him to the position, and which also controls INEC. Given this difficult position, it is no wonder that both APC and PDP (as well as both the north and the south) have variously accused him of bias. For instance at the end of the 2011 elections, Buhari blamed ‘technical’ rigging on the part of INEC for his loss. After the recent governorship election in Anambra state, APC said it had lost confidence on INEC. Currently the Southern Assembly are accusing Jega of bias, and calling for his removal from office.

Beyond the inevitable crisis of confidence around INEC, there are several lessons to be learnt from the tensions that characterized the campaigns, which culminated in INEC shifting the date of the elections by six weeks:

One, there may be a need to re-examine the suitability of a two party dominant system for the country.  For a long time many Nigerians had prayed for a two party dominant system or two parties. The key argument has been that it will simplify the choice for voters and make the election truly competitive. However the tension that has characterized the campaigns reminds one of the tensions that characterized the Cold War era and its bipolar order. It seems there is something inherent in bipolarity (and two party dominant systems) – perhaps the idea of two parties of almost equal strength contending for power – that makes it tension-ridden.

With the north-south tension heightened since 2010 over the fallouts from the PDP’s zoning controversy and the two presidential candidates having their backgrounds in the two contending fault lines, the tensions have been palpable. For many people, the six-week shift is actually a relief.

I feel that a two party system will inevitably accentuate the north-south, Christian-Muslim dichotomy and when the two parties are truly competitive, our politics will become tension-filled, widening in the process the social distance among Nigerians.  I now feel that a truly multiparty arrangement – of roughly five to six relatively strong parties – as we had in the second Republic – will be preferable. I don’t see anything wrong in some of these parties being regionally based, with the possibility of forming a government of national unity (a coalition of two or more of the major parties) as we had in the First and Second Republics.

Two, there is a need for a serious conversation about the role of the power of incumbency in determining electoral outcomes in the country. This has become urgent   not just with the suspicion that the federal government probably had a hand in INEC’s decision to shift the election but also because this power of incumbency is actually  more vociferously abused by the state governors – whether APC or PDP. In fact I laughed when I saw some APC governors angrily accusing the federal government of being behind the six-week shift – not minding the fact that they too have the State Independent Electoral Commissions in their pockets and also determine who goes into the State House of Assembly, Federal House of Assembly and Senate. In fact, were the APC in control of federal government and the momentum against them – as it appeared to be against the PDP – I doubt if they would have acted differently. The discussion surrounding the six-week postponement therefore offers us a good opportunity to discuss the abuse of the power of incumbency, including how to curtail it at all levels as our democracy matures.

Three, beyond  politics we must also interrogate the apparent lack of preparedness by INEC – despite having four years to prepare and some state elections as test runs. The distribution of PVC was a mess and it would have been a disaster to go into the election with over 20 million Nigerian voters disenfranchised. That would probably have been a credible ground to challenge the electoral outcome in court.

Four, related to the above is whether INEC was really ready to conduct elections in the north-east – as it claimed. It was easy for INEC to say it was ready for it – apparently because of  fear of pressures from  the  APC, which has the zone as one of its strongholds. On ground however, I am not convinced  that INEC which  performed so shoddily in the last governorship election in Anambra state would have been up to it or that there would have been  enough election monitors in the dangerous parts of the state (foreign election observers already said they would not go to the north east).

Five, some people erroneously mistake the independence of INEC to mean that the body is or should be sovereign (an authority that is not answerable to any superior authority). INEC must work within structures and environment provided by government (a difficult thing in our type of society especially as the president is also a candidate). This means that  both the PDP and APC must  overcome their distrust (difficult as it may be) and find ways to soberly discuss and find solutions to the problems  that are currently threatening our elections – systemic pressures, INEC’s inefficiencies, the problem of insecurity in the north-east and how to ensure that the voters there are not disenfranchised.


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