By Dare Babarinsa
Today, Saturday 23, February, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, would have an opportunity to redeem himself. On Saturday last week, while we were preparing to cast our votes in the presidential election, we were confronted with the news that Yakubu had announced a postponement. Though we have had postponements before, this was the first time it was happening on an election day. We could only vent our angers on the indifferent and irreverent face of our television screen. This Saturday, he must be ready for the assignment. Nigerians are ready for him.
Nigeria is a vast and complex country from the Sahel-Savanah of the North to the swamp of potopoto Delta. On Election Day, INEC and its agents are expected to reach all the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja and the 774 local governments. They would travel by air, train, Lorries, boats, donkeys, camels and on foot. For us in Ekiti State, the electoral materials would arrive often by air to the Akure Airport in neighbouring Ondo State where the essential materials would be kept with the branch of the Central Bank. By Friday, the materials would be brought by road to Ado, the capital of Ekiti State from where it would be distributed to the 16 local governments. Materials brought from Ado-Ekiti for the Ekiti West local government would be taken to Aramoko, the local government headquarters from where it would find its ways to Erio, Okemesi, Ido Ile, Erinjinyan, Ikogosi, Ajindo and other settlements.
On Election Day, by 8 a.m., grim-face party agents would have arrived at the polling centre. They would soon be joined by security men, often unarmed female cops and freckle-faced National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, members. Most likely, the youth corps members would be witnessing the ritual of democracy for the first time in their lives. They may never have voted before and they pay serious attention to the process.
I think it was Professor Maurice Iwu, the chairman of INEC between 2005 and 2010 who introduced the participation of corps members as electoral officers. Iwu, who was appointed by President Olusegun Obasanjo, conducted the 2007 general elections. He was succeeded by Professor Attahiru Muhammadu Jega who held the fort until 2015 when President Muhammadu Buhari appointed Professor Yakubu. It was Jega who presided over the bloody general election of 2011 during which 10 youth corps members were captures by criminals and killed in Bauchi State. Though some people were arrested after this horrifying crime, no one has been prosecuted or convicted of the crime till today. The criminals are still among us and some of them may be at the poll on Saturday to help us decide who would be our next President. I am not sure also whether the families of the dead corps members have been compensated as promised by then President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, himself a former youth corps members who did his NYSC in Iragbiji, Osun State.
I had voted in every Nigerian election since 1983 except those ones held during the fraudulent General Sani Abacha transition period. In 1983, I voted in Akure when Governor Adekunle Ajasin of the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, was facing a serious challenge from the candidate of the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, Chief Akin Omoboriowo, his former deputy. Chief Afe, the Resident Commissioner of the then Federal Electoral Commission, FEDECO, was easily overwhelmed by politicians who were bent on manipulating the result of the governorship election of August 13, 1983. On August 16, when eventually the FEDECO announced Chief Omoboriowo as the winner of the election, the state exploded into violence during which time many people were killed including the popular publisher, Chief Olaiya Fagbamigbe, who was then a member of the House of Representatives.
Chief Ajasin won at the election tribunal, headed by Justice Olakunle Orojo, which ruled that he won the highest number of “lawful votes.” Chief G.O.K Ajayi, the great lawyer who argued Ajasin’s petition, built his case polling-booth by polling-booth up to the ward level, then the local government level and the state level. With that, he was able to knock out the defence who could not prove how they arrived at the figures awarded to Omoboriowo. Eventually Ajasin was sworn-in for the second term and ruled until the Second Republic came into a sorry end with the General Muhammadu Buhari coup of December 31, 1983. That 1983 election was the theme of my book, House of War.
Since the Second Republic, FEDECO and its successor organisations, had been trying to ensure the integrity of the vote cast at each polling unit. Professor Humphrey Nwosu, the political scientist who succeeded Professor Eme Awa in 1989 as the chairman of FEDECO, was the one who brought us Option A4. This option was to practicalise the pre-colonial African village democracy. Therefore on June 12, 1993, I joined the queue at my polling unit in Ire-Akari Estate, Isolo, Lagos, to vote for my preferred presidential candidate. There were only two candidates; Chief Moshood Abiola of the Social Democratic Party, SDP and Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention, NRC. Both parties were created by the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. So we queued openly in two lines. You are to join the queue in front of the picture of your preferred candidate and the electoral officer would count the number of people and record the votes according to the queue. There was no voter’s card, no electoral register. Everyone was qualified and election took place all at the same time across Nigeria. The only snag was that it was not a secret ballot. Woe betide you if your landlord or your employer should find you on the wrong queue!
The votes were counted and Abiola of the SDP was the winner, but the dictator voided his victory and the country was thrown into turmoil. Nwosu disappeared from the radar to be succeeded briefly by Professor Okon Uya who handed over to Chief Sumner Dagogo-Jack, the yes-sir-ing chairman during the regime of General Sani Abacha. Dagogo-Jack was the unsmiling magician who was bent on helping Abacha to transmute into an “elected President.”
Whatever progress we have made since the Abacha era is due to the courage, talent and patriotism of those who have manned the fort at INEC since 1999. General Abudulsalami Abubakar, who came to power in 1998 following the sudden death of General Abacha, invited the highly respected Justice Ephraim Akpata to take over from the lachrymose Dagogo-Jack. Akpata, who conducted the 1999 general elections, died suddenly in 2000 and the new President Obasanjo appointed Mr Abel Guobadia to succeed Akpata. It was Guobadia who presided over the 2003 election when the PDP took over the South-West except Lagos State.
The Akpata era and what Yakubu is facing is a world apart. Akpata, in 1999, had only three political parties to contend with and only two presidential candidates. Today there are almost 100 parties and more than 70 presidential candidates. This is a sure recipe for chaos. If care is not taken, the way our politicians are approaching the issue of political parties, we may soon have a situation where we may have 500 names on the ballot for President. As it stands today, it is a headache of kingly proportion and Yakubu is the man bearing it on our behalf. The next National Assembly would need to work on the Electoral Act so that we don’t have more than 10 political parties at a time. The current bedlam has to stop.
Yakubu demonstrated great courage last Saturday to put a stop to the process even at the last minute. It was an expensive flop, but it would have been foolhardy, even reckless and irresponsible to go ahead when you know you are not ready. However, it is not just courage we need on Saturday and subsequent election days, but competence. No excuse will do for failure would be too expensive for our country. Yakubu has taken on a thankless job, but it is a job that must be done with courage, capacity and competence.
• The Guardian