Usually, there are many parties to every contest. In a football contest you have the teams, the referee and his linesmen, the spectators- supporters and opponents – and then the managers of the stadium and finally those who control the crowd and provide safety for all. This is largely the same for all other sports. In educational pursuits which can sometimes turn into a contest when we want to determine winners and losers for prizes, honours or for access to limited space, you have the students, the teachers, the examiners and those who set standards. But in these situations there are always the most critical parties, those who really can make or unmake. Similarly, in political contests, there are many parties- the political parties, the electorates (voters), the electoral umpire, the security agencies and the government in power. The question is which party determines the election?
It depends. In normal circumstances, every party has significant impact. The political parties and their conduct may make or mar an election. Indeed, in our experience as a nation, the political parties have largely determined the outcomes of many of the political contests. When they buy votes, snatch ballot boxes, steal or destroy ballot papers, instigate violence at polling booths and collating centres including burning down electoral centres, they often determine the election. When the security agencies decide to jump into the fray, intimidating and rough handling opposition party members or preventing voters from voting their choice, then they help to determine the outcome of the elections. When the electoral umpire decides to be partial, then they will naturally determine the outcomes of elections.
At every election when the government in power is determined to see free, fair and violence-free elections, they take actions to get every party in the contest to behave well and act according to the rules of engagement. That does not always guarantee that all parties will behave well, including the government itself. That was why despite all the advertised desire of President Babangida’s government to bequeath a good election, it went ahead to sabotage the same election which has been variously described as the best election in Nigeria. But if one particular party behaves well, it can check or dampen the impact of the misbehaviour of other party or parties. But if that same party decides to misbehave, it is not certain that the other parties can sufficiently contain its impact. That party is the electoral umpire which in Nigeria is called the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Indeed in many elections the electoral umpire holds the ace. Their ability to determine the election is influenced by the discretion they can exercise. In sophisticated and automated systems where voting and/or results collation are done electronically their ability to do harm is minimized. But in less developed and analogue systems where collation of results from the polling booths to the national collation centre is done manually, the capacity of the umpire to do harm is grossly accentuated. And this is exactly where Nigeria is currently located. That this umpire has the capacity and perhaps the looming propensity to work along this dangerous path is indicated by a couple of baffling false steps. The primary dissonance is a tendency to work at cross purposes with its major parties in the contest- the political parties. INEC is showing strong headedness, not willing to listen to the political parties except perhaps to only one- the one in power. If INEC desires to superintendent over a peaceful, free and fair election, it cannot feel unconcerned with the concerns of the 91 parties that make up the CUPP.
The first concern is Amina Zakari. Whether she has a blood or water relationship with Mr President should not be the only issue. What is important in a democracy is that if a significant segment of the electorate opposes any decision, then they must be listened to. This was what happened when she was made the acting Chairman, when Prof Attahiru Jega finished his term. Perhaps the President was minded to send her name for confirmation as substantive chairman but when he listened to the voice of a significant segment of the stakeholders, he decided against it, and rather appointed Prof Mahmoud Yakubu. I think, INEC, if it is truly independent, must listen to the stakeholders and avoid any thing that can tarnish the outcome of the elections. They should learn from the President or are they? Already the leading opposition parties have drawn international attention to their objections and the stubbornness of INEC. The parties are not asking that she be removed as a national commissioner but just that she be reassigned. To me that is not too much sacrifice. It is essentially complying with good corporate governance practices because there is perceived conflict of interest. In many advanced nations, she would naturally recuse herself even if nobody raised any objection. That is where honour means much.
The second concern is that INEC is re-writing the guidelines for conducting the elections without taking the parties into confidence. They have just been presented with a fiat accompli. And now the parties are protesting. Was this not avoidable? In 2015, accreditation was completed and the number of accredited voters announced before voting started. That way, voters and party agents watched out for over-voting and that helped in some way to deliver a good election. But now INEC says accreditation will go on simultaneously with voting. There are certainly pros and cons for either procedure. But why would INEC not sell these to the parties before firming up the guidelines. To me this is breeding unnecessary controversies and contradictions which are souring the relationship between the parties to the contest even before the contest begins. Thus, from the look of things, INEC will determine the 2019 elections and must be prepared to bear the consequences. But with the most recent rumblings in the polity the government in power may beat INEC to it!
Mazi Sam I. Ohuabunwa OFR, FPSN