By Tonnie Iredia
From 1987-1993, I served as Director of Public Affairs at the defunct National Electoral Commission having been so deployed from my regular beat at the NTA News to help the commission manage electoral information. What I saw in that beat which culminated in the annulment of the obviously hitch-free June 12 1993 Presidential elections particularly the way I was forcefully stopped from further displaying results on the public score board, adversely affected my disposition towards public events in Nigeria. Each time I conceive of an article on an election in the country, what is readily in my sub-consciousness is to never sharply criticize any election personnel knowing full well that such persons are virtually on a suicide mission for the sake of the fatherland. I have since found from the series of elections in the country in the last couple of years that the state of hopelessness of our elections has not changed; what seems to have changed is the methodology of the riggers. These days, the riggers are making strenuous efforts to blur the otherwise huge difference between elections conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and local government elections organized by state warriors.
From as far back as 1986, when the Justice Babalakin Commission of Inquiry traced all the plethora of election chicanery in Nigeria to the political class, we have always known that politicians and not officials of the electoral body are the actors to watch if we want improved elections. We have also always empathized with INEC each time their officials are overwhelmed and made to act wrongly by politicians or their agents or indeed operatives of security agencies. INEC has often boldly chastised such unpatriotic actors. In 2017 for instance, an INEC report on elections revealed the following concerning the rerun elections in Rivers state. i) There were too many security agencies involved in the process outside the framework of the Interagency Consultative Committee on Elections Security; ii) It was not clear whether many of them were acting as part of their various organisations or as groups and individuals serving political interests; iii) There were cases of hostage taking, hijacking of materials and physical attacks on INEC officials by security operatives. Stories about the conduct of security agencies during the recent 2019 general elections are not dissimilar to what the 2017 report unravelled.
If that is how the work of INEC has always been distorted, is it not ssurprising that, when elections are marred by controversies, there are always a number top officials of the commission who often publicly defend what is clearly an indefensible conduct? Here, we recall the disposition of Olusegun Agbaje, the Osun state resident electoral commissioner, who attempted to down-play the open irregularities in the rerun governorship election in the state a few months ago. As if he was eager to validate the conduct of the contest, Agbaje affirmed on his honour, during the presentation of certificates to acclaimed winners of the election, that everything went well adding that should the Judiciary find his electoral body culpable of not discharging its responsibility faithfully and diligently, he would personally “take full responsibility for any such laxity, publicly apologise to all Nigerians and thereafter resign his appointment with the commission.” In my quiet moments, I took time to reflect on Agbaje’s comments when he made them and again last week when the relevant tribunal patently indicted INEC for poor performance with respect to the same election. So, is Agbaje still in office or has he called it quits as he promised the other day; if not where is he?
Perhaps Agbaje is still holding-on because the judicial process is yet to end. No one is sure if the verdict of the tribunal will or will not be overturned on appeal but that is not our concern today; rather we are concerned about things which the tribunal claimed to have found. According to the tribunal, “a substantial number of the Certified True Copies of the Forms EC8A either had figures on them altered or had figures entered on them in columns 1-8 thereof; the alteration in figures and fresh filling of the columns were not on the pink copies of the forms EC8A distributed to the parties polling agents on the day of the election which were tendered before this Honourable Tribunal. This shows clearly that the forms which were in INEC’s custody were altered after the election ended – a conclusion which was foisted on the tribunal by the failure of INEC to controvert the findings before closing her case. Now, is this the same INEC, the resident commissioner was vouching for during the presentation of certificates to the acclaimed winners? If so, Agbaje and all INEC staff need to take seriously, the admonition of the tribunal that the electoral body “should realise that it holds an office of public trust and should at all times strive to maintain the sanctity of the electoral process.” This seems to explain why former Governor Rauf Aregbesola wants INEC and not APC punished for the malpractices in the Osun election.
Of course not all electoral hitches are the handiwork of INEC officials. Like in every institution, the commission may have its bad eggs, but there are certainly some INEC personnel with proven integrity. Only last week, several media organization were virtually falling on each other to present awards to Mutiu Agboke, the Oyo state resident electoral commissioner, for his transparent integrity which they claim added ample value to the hitch-free election in the state. We hear he openly cried out just before the 2019 elections, that some politicians were boldly offering to pay huge sums of money to purchase PVCs through his office. The man stood his grounds against the malpractice. In like manner, several Nigerians including this writer have found cause to commend the irrepressible Mike Igini, resident electoral commissioner for Akwa Ibom state for his unfailing diligence and commitment to Nigeria’s political progress. At the same time, we have also had cause to wonder if some INEC officials were not surreptitiously brought into the commission for a different agenda. Indeed, we have always been concerned about electoral officials who are easily intimidated to the extent that they are ever unable to withstand pressure.
It has remained hard for me to forget the one I witnessed in Benin in 2016, during the Edo state governorship election. INEC chairman Prof Mahmood Yakubu had held a press conference in Benin on the eve of the election where he gave details of how he intended to make it the best election ever. A few hours later, somebody announced the postponement of the election which Yakubu disowned as a rumour because he hadn’t been briefed at the time the media confronted him with the rather strange news. But the then resident commissioner in the state who was unaware of his chairman’s rebuttal attempted to give reasons to cover-up the illegal usurpation of INEC’s powers. Why?