By SKC Ogbonnia
The desperate attempts by President Donald Trump to overturn a free and fair U.S. presidential election of 2020 ought to create every sense of urgency for Nigeria to explore a bi-partisan body for the conduct of elections.
Trump’s behavior was delusional and does not represent any good example of a democratic mien, but it can serve as a blessing in disguise, especially for nations prone to dictatorship and electoral controversies. That is precisely where Nigeria comes in.
Nigeria has seen its fair share of dictators donning a democratic toga, as well as electoral controversies. Instances abound, but the most relative is the tendency of the Nigerian leaders to pervert the laws that govern the country’s electoral body, the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC.
As the name suggests, the INEC was envisioned as an independent organization in line with item F,14(2c) of the Third Schedule of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended). This section states that any of its members must “be nonpartisan and a person of unquestionable integrity.” The Constitution also vests the appointment of principal INEC officials with the president of the country. Unfortunately, most of the appointees have been neither nonpartisan nor independent.
A prevailing example is the case of Lorretta Onochie, who has been nominated as a National Commissioner for the INEC. Not only is she a rabid promoter of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, and currently the Senior Special Assistant on Social Media to President Muhammadu Buhari, Onochie is also a virally controversial figure and super spreader of toxic fictions. In short, her every rhetoric is emblematic of an extremist rabble-rouser who clowns around the country spewing offensive fallacies as federal decrees.
The objective motive behind Onochie’s nomination, therefore, is nothing but trumpish—deliberately designed to wreak havoc and stoke controversies.
But the dictatorial intrigue within the INEC did not start with Muhammadu Buhari and the ruling APC. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo and the Peoples’ Democratic Party were no different or even worse while they were in power.
Such partisan grip of the INEC has been the major reason Nigerian elections are hardly mentioned in the same breath with the term “free and fair.” However, instead of placing the blame squarely where it belongs, the INEC Chairman is typically the scapegoat.
For instance, as the country geared for the 2011 election, the debate centered on Maurice Iwu, a renowned Professor of Pharmacognosy, who served as the INEC boss in the controversial elections of 2007. To many Nigerians, Mr. Iwu was the problem, and the problem was Mr. Iwu.
It was generally believed that a mere change in leadership of the INEC was the sole panacea for a free and fair election in the country. Accordingly, President Goodluck Jonathan appointed a new chairman in Professor Attahiru Jega, another astute intellectual, a move widely hailed. Yet, after the 2011 general elections, despite the fact that its conduct showed significant improvement, the opposition groups claimed that the ruling party colluded with the INEC to falsify electoral results.
In the words of Muhammadu Buhari, the main opposition candidate in the 2011 elections, the magnitude of malpractices in the 2007 elections “eclipsed all the other elections in the depth and scope of forgery and rigging. Initially, there were high hopes that after 2003 and 2007 a semblance of electoral propriety would be witnessed. The new chairman of INEC, Professor Jega, was touted as competent and a man of integrity. He has proved neither.”
Upon gaining power in 2015, President Buhari quickly ousted Jega and brought in an equally distinguished professor, Mahmud Yakubu, who would go on to oversee the 2019 elections. But the situation only seemed to worsen. In short, a post-2019 election survey by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) found that, while 61% of the electorate perceived the 2015 elections headed by Jega as fair, only 37% would say so for the 2019 exercises conducted under Yakubu.
In rejecting the results of the 2019 presidential elections, Atiku Abubakar, the runner-up candidate, remarked as follows: “the electoral fraud perpetrated by the Buhari administration this past Saturday cannot produce a government of the people for the simple reason that it does not reflect the will of the Nigerian people.” An influential pro-opposition pundit, Femi Aribisala, was more direct: “INEC is supposed to be an impartial umpire in elections in Nigeria. However, it is now obvious that Mahmood Yakubu’s INEC operated essentially as an arm of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).”
A salient factor that has not received adequate attention in the contextual analysis of INEC is that, besides its Chairman, the other principal officers who represent the electoral body from the national to the ward levels are typically the sympathizers or card-carrying members of the ruling party. To that end, even where the INEC was able to produce a semblance of a free and fair election, the opposition usually hides behind the partisan shade of the commission to occasion a flood of conspiracies to wash away the credibility of the election. This distrust only goes to undermine the sanctity of the elections and deepen the depth of the disrepute commonly associated with the country’s democracy.
To improve the system, Nigeria should explore a bi-partisan electoral commission. A bi-partisan structure, with members presented by the different political parties, will strengthen the needed checks and balances within the commission itself. This approach should extend to the recruitment of electoral officers from the national down to the ward levels and polling booths.
A bi-partisan structure can restore confidence and ensure trust throughout the width and breadth of the commission. This proposal parallels the position of the main opposition party in the 2007 election, the All Nigeria’s Peoples Party (ANPP), where Emmanuel Eneukwu, its National Publicity Secretary at the time, canvassed for a review of the electoral laws to include members of the different political parties in the leadership of National Election Commission.
The bi-partisan electoral model is the core of the American system, which remains a paragon of democracy, Trump’s shenanigans notwithstanding. Members to both the federal and state election commissions are drawn from the country’s two major political parties. The apparent political equipoise profoundly promotes internal checks and balances within the system. Thus, even if any trumpish character in any of the states must nominate someone with questionable integrity to an electoral commission, the opposition party would reject or counter such nomination accordingly.
The partisan balance within the U.S. electoral system, more than any other factor, accounts for the widely celebrated vitality of the American institutions. It also accounts for why and how Donald Trump could not succeed in his asinine scheme to compel some state electoral bodies, including those controlled by his party, to overturn the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Perhaps Nigeria has explored various strategies over the years to checkmate partisan maneuvers within the INEC. The electoral body has recruited members of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and university professors to assist in recent exercises. There were equally past efforts, for example, the 2008 Electoral Reform Committee (ERC), which proposed, among other things, that a neutral body, particularly the National Judicial Council, should appoint all the INEC officials, including its chairman. The ERC also called for the members of INEC to include representatives of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the News Media, etc.
The idea of a neutral electoral body is superficially attractive. But recruiting people from a cadre of pliant Nigerian institutions and expecting them to be impartial is no different from perceiving a stench as an aroma. Not surprisingly, the university recruits are always accused of partiality or being wholly subservient to the parties in power either at the states or the federal level.
Unlike other institutions, the political party has the potential to provoke steadfast allegiance from the people—far more than tribe, religion, and even more than blood relationships, especially in Nigeria, where prebendal politics dictates the content and character of socio-economic wellbeing. True independence or neutrality of INEC is more attainable in an environment where two or more independent parties can checkmate each other from acting contrary to the stated objectives.
A pertinent backdrop is that the American society is by no means closer to sainthood than its Nigerian counterpart. America’s saving grace is merely the presence of a system that can compel the leaders and the people to act in line with the law of the land.
Dr. SKC Ogbonnia writes from Houston, Texas, USA.