Within a span of two weeks, this will be my third write up on the immediate past Chairman of Nigeria’s Independent Electoral Commission, Prof. Attahiru Muhammadu Jega.
The second article carried a heading: Jega, Bowing out at the Loudest Ovation and without apprehension of sounding immodest and barring any fear of accusation of seeking cheap recognition or allegation of being sponsored, I make bold of writing the third and the last in the series: The INEC Chair that Came, Saw and Conquered.
Should anyone ask me: why all these efforts? I will gladly reply that Jega gave me a voice and the opportunity to have a choice as a Nigeria. He restored my hope in my country and made my vote count.
No doubt, the geographical space called Nigeria is abundantly blessed, not only with natural resources but also with huge magnitude of unique human resources.
Nonetheless, in its chequered history of hiring umpires that will deliver free, fair and credible elections that meet international standards, it had made successive efforts and dissipated a lot of energy to no avail, to a level where an average citizen felt Nigeria may never conduct a successful election.
Since independence, except the Professor Jega-led INEC, the electoral umpire, with varying kinds of electoral chiefs had fallen short of expectation in virtually all previous occasions.
From the chairman that stated openly few days before the election that his commission could not promise a free and fair poll to the man who was at the centre of the infamous two-thirds (12) of the 19 states controversy, Nigerians simply resigned to fate.
This country once witnessed an exceedingly brilliant chairman who successfully presided over the much-admired freest and fairest presidential election ever conducted in Nigeria since independence but simply refused to release the results and fell short of declaring the winner.
From a chairman that would be remembered for living behind a legacy of ICT-powered elections to the very unpopular INEC boss, who supervised a weak electoral body that practically turned the other way while election riggers were let loose in controversial elections; to a man who was applauded by millions of Nigerians and foreign observers for a job well done, the journey can only be intriguing.
Fate has, therefore, been very fair to Jega, the only INEC chairman (so far) that truly came, saw and triumphed.
Jega was indeed faced with the similar misfortunes that befell many previous brilliant and well intentioned chairmen who were either sacked prematurely, muscled into submission by autocratic regimes or prevented by the very leader that appointed them from completing their assignments and making history.
On the contrary, the timing, the circumstance, the foreign intervention as well as resilience and responsiveness of Nigerians and above all, God (fate) gave the needed impetus for victory to Jega amidst postponements, attempted kidnappings, blackmailing and Orubebetising amongst others.
The history of electoral commission as chaired by indigenes dates back to the First Republic. Eyo Ita Esua, a Nigerian teacher and trade unionist was at the helm of the Tafawa Balewa’s Federal Electoral Commission.
Esua organised the December 1964 election that was mired in controversy such that two members of the agency openly disagreed with the chairman and subsequently resigned their appointments.
In the face of severe pressure from influential members of the ruling class to sway the outcome in their favour, Esua simply lost control when he said few days to the election that his commission could not guarantee a free and fair poll. The crisis that followed the election supervised by him was linked to the reasons the First Republic was torpedoed by the military.
When the military eventually vacated the seat for the civilians in November 1976, General Olusegun Obasanjo established a 24-man Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) chaired by Michael Ani; a civil servant.
When he declared Alhaji Shehu Shagari the winner of the August 1979 presidential election, his victory was disputed because it was based on Ani’s interpretation of the ambiguous electoral decree which said, “A candidate must obtain one-quarter of votes cast in at least two-thirds of the states of the federation.”
The infamous two-thirds of the 19 states legal controversy that followed the declaration was one of the icings on the cake of Nigeria’s electoral history. The celebrated mathematician, Professor Chike Obi had to be imported to court to prove the case! Awolowo eventually lost out in court, due to a ‘superior’ debate.
Officials of FEDECO, led by Justice Victor Ovie-Whiskey were accused of indulging in electoral malpractices just as Ovie-Whiskey himself was accused by Nigerians of taking N1 million bribe and dancing to the tune of the ruling NPN.
In a rib-tickling response, he posited that if he ever saw N1m, he would have fainted. Sequel to the controversy prompted by widespread electoral irregularities during the 1983 general elections, his tenure only lasted for a year.
Eme Awa, a professor of political science at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka that was appointed in 1987 by the former military president, Ibrahim Babangida had to quit the job after an alleged disagreement with the ‘Maradona’.
When FEDECO was rechristened the National Electoral Commission, Prof. Humphrey Nwosu appeared on the stage. Just like Jega that came later, there was a general belief then, that his entry would yield positive results for the nation.
This exceedingly brilliant NEC boss came up with the idea of adopting the Option A4 or Open Ballot System in an attempt to find a permanent solution to the recurring electoral crisis propelled by multiple thumb-printing, illegal stuffing of ballot boxes and other irregularities.
If you agreed that June 12 is the freest and fairest presidential election ever witnessed in Nigeria, then Nwosu supervised the best election in the history of the country. Despite his devotion and strength of character to leave an enduring legacy for the future generations, the annulment of the June 12 by Babangida presented a big dent on his nearly flawless performance.
Consequently, the crisis resulting from the annulment of June 12 election denied Okon Uya the opportunity to perform as the electoral body chairman when appointed by Babangida after the annulment.
After the palace coup that eased out Earnest Shonekan, General Sani Abacha re-constituted the National Electoral Commission and appointed Chief Summer Dagogo-Jack as the chairman in 1994. Regrettably, his job was terminated by the sudden death of his boss in 1998.
This lead to the emergence of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the late Justice Ephraim Akpata was appointed by General Abdulsalami Abubakar in 1998, Akpata conducted the election that brought in Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as president.
As the first chairman of INEC, he designed the commission to suit the aspirations of Nigerians for a credible democratic process. Akpata successfully supervised the re-introduction of democracy in Nigeria in line with certain principles that were aimed at banishing ethnic politics from Nigeria.
Next was Dr. Abel Guobadia, the first chairman of the electoral commission since independence to complete his tenure. He was also appointed by the Olusegun Obasanjo Administration as Chief Electoral Officer in 2000.
Guobadia retired from this position in May 2005 after conducting 2003 general elections, which many Nigerians still believe, was largely mired in controversy. He will, however, be remembered for leaving behind a legacy of ICT-powered elections in Nigeria.
Guobadia was he who introduced the nation’s first electronic voter register and established its ICT department, which is today the largest in INEC. He will go down in history as a courageous and principled public servant who did everything possible within his power to ensure that the due process prevailed.
Perhaps, the gloomiest moment of the commission was the era of Professor Maurice Iwu who became the INEC chairman after Guobadia’s retirement in 2005. As INEC boss, Iwu supervised a very weak electoral arbiter that practically turned the other way while election riggers were let loose in the 2007 controversial elections.
Notwithstanding the success of the February 2010 governorship election in Anambra State, the charade called 2007 election remained deeply etched in the memory of Nigerians. It was at this critical point in the history of electoral umpire in Nigeria that Prof. Attahiru Jega got appointed as the INEC chairman by President Goodluck Jonathan on June 8, 2010.
Without any iota of doubt, Professor Jega remains the best electoral boss Nigeria ever produced. And as the newly appointed Dr Amina Zakari steps into the big shoes of her predecessor, she must realize that all eyes are on her and the least Nigerians, as well as the entire world, expect of her is to maintain and possibly surpass the enviable record and laudable achievements of Jega who came, saw and conquered.
Ibrahim Ola Balogun is a Policy Analyst and Social Commentator