Opinion: The imperatives of conducting free and fair polls in 2015

by Ado Umar Abubakar


Imagine the recent debacle in Rivers State involving the police, which followed hard on the heels of the “16-is-greater-than-19” election that produced Governor Jonah Jang of Plateau State as the chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum recognized by President Goodluck Jonathan

The standard of democratic practice in any nation can be measured to a large extent by the people’s ability to conduct elections that are generally considered by the majority to be free and fair. The ability of those in power to accept the results of the elections that are so adjudged by the people is also an indication of how firmly democracy has taken roots in the land.

Where these vital indicators are lacking, however, you find that the elections are marred with chaotic scenes and/or senseless violence, which are often followed by bickering and prolonged court tussles. In such a situation the polls are often considered by majority of the people as flawed and unacceptable.

No country under such circumstance earns the respect of the international community having fallen short of the standard required by Western nations, the self-proclaimed guardians of democracy. Such a country is never viewed as democratic and is likely to suffer one form of disrespect or the other; consider US President Barrack Obama’s refusal to visit some African countries including Kenya – his own ancestral home – recently!

Observers of our political scene in the past one decade believe that this, more or less, is also the case with Nigeria today. And there doesn’t seem to be any let-up or lesson learnt by the executive arm of government since the advent of the Fourth Republic in 1999 regarding the dictatorial measures taken against the people by those who wish to sit tight in power.

Imagine the recent debacle in Rivers State involving the police, which followed hard on the heels of the “16-is-greater-than-19” election that produced Governor Jonah Jang of Plateau State as the chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum recognized by President Goodluck Jonathan. In view of this, therefore, the question whether or not the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) can, or is willing to, conduct free and fair polls in 2015 has become worrisome to many people.

That issue has, for some time now, been agitating the minds of many patriotic Nigerians. People are worried not only because it is desirable and morally right to conduct credible elections, but because our persistent failure to do so in the past 14 years has unfortunately helped to diminish our image in the eyes of the world.

Whereas the 1999 general elections conducted by the military could be said to be fairly okay, because none of the contestants could influence their outcome, those of 2003 revealed the desperation of the politicians to remain in power by hook or by crook. In point of fact, the impunity with which the elections were rigged that year became the harbinger of the outrageous things that happened in 2007, dubbed as “do-or-die” elections, and in 2011, considered widely as the worst elections in the nation’s history. Thus, the massive rigging that took place during the three general elections conducted so far has made many people to believe that Nigeria is a country where votes do not count.

How then can we get out of this situation? Can INEC be trusted to conduct free and fair polls in 2015 as pledged by its chairman? What are the inhibiting factors that may hinder the commission from fulfilling this promise? How can INEC and its staff free themselves from pecuniary influence while discharging their duties?

No matter what the obstacles are, however, if other African countries such as Ghana and Senegal can conduct fairly credible elections why can’t we in Nigeria? Could it be because of corruption, avarice and the desire of average Nigerian elites to accumulate wealth for themselves and families rather than make life better for the ordinary citizen?

Or could it be because we are always fractious and demanding to pull apart as a result of primordial sentiments of ethnicity, sectionalism and such other parochial considerations? If it is because of the latter, we certainly aren’t the only country that is so afflicted and as such we should endeavor to do what is right for as long as we remain united.

The appointment of Prof. Attahiru Jega as INEC chairman lifted the spirits of Nigerians because of his pedigree as an upright and dogged fighter for the rights of his colleagues when he led the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). Even though it takes more than one man to conduct elections, we had expected that he would somehow make a difference in 2011.

Polling and collation staff and returning officers are obviously those who ensure the success or failure of elections. But most of these ad hoc election officials are mostly supportive of the ruling party, and those that are not are often vulnerable to corruption. And this has remained so because none of them was ever caught and punished to serve as a deterrent to others. In realization of this, Jega used university lecturers as returning officers but has it really helped us in any way? To the contrary, the worst rigging occurred and INEC itself appears to abet the illegalities through some of its actions or inactions.

For instance, it tends to pander to the executive in many ways including accepting to work with partisan election officials and state electoral commissioners. It also prefers to stagger the elections despite protests that doing so facilitates rigging. And last year it adamantly refused to provide vital information to an election tribunal needed critically to ascertain whether or not rigging took place in the 2011 presidential election.

In that year, Nigerians witnessed all sorts of rigging tactics by agents of powerful politicians who bribed polling staff and security agents for their ‘co-operation.’ These tactics included vote-buying, snatching and/or stuffing of ballot boxes (some time using women with flowing dresses at polling centers), invalidating ballot papers cast for opponents by defacing them with genuine indelible ink (obtained from partisan INEC staff), and, worst of all, securing (from INEC?) genuine ballot papers for the despicable act.

For the INEC to live up to expectation in 2015, it must overcome these obstacles by taking action in good time as the earlier the better. I suggest early training of the technical staff who sometimes cause delay because of incompetence, and the use of NYSC and university students as polling and collation staff.

Read this article from the Leadership Newspapers
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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